I’ve heard a lot of chatter about the “USC receiver curse” in recent years. how highly-regarded receivers from the school have struggled at the NFL level. With Nelson Agholor being talked about as though he was struggling to adapt, and JuJu Smith-Schuster potentially a high draft selection next year, I decided to do a little research to see if this idea had any merit.
At the end of part 3, I said I’d attempt to address why teams don’t examine their processes more closely, why they don’t try to refine or improve them. I think the answer comes down to how decisions are made in the NFL.
I think the NFL has a corporate culture that incentivizes not making waves and not going off the beaten path.
I’ve made notes throughout the first few parts of this mega-post regarding players who fell in the draft despite their obvious talent, notes that said I would address in part 3.
Well, I apologize. Part 3 ran over 4500 words, so I broke it into two parts as well. This will be a four-part post.
In both previous sections, I highlighted players and factors that I think speak to why the NFL struggles to master the draft. I wanted to delve into those factors in detail, and perhaps more importantly, attempt to answer the question of why this continues to happen. Here’s how I see it, in short: Teams worry about the wrong things and have too many incentives against changing.
I was quite excited for what the Cleveland Browns might do in this year’s draft. I watched a lot more baseball in the 1990s and 2000s, and was well aware of (and paid close attention to) Billy Beane’s work with the Oakland A’s. (I also haven’t forgotten how old-school scouts derided it as nerd nonsense by people who had never played the game and didn’t understand the arcane complexities of their sport. That’ll come up later.)
As someone who believes the NFL, both on a league-wide and on the individual team level, is in many ways run by backward, ossified processes that seem to have all the scientific rigor of bloodletting or the Ptolemaic system, I was intrigued by the thought of a team applying real analysis and big data to their front-office processes. This draft was the first chance to see the new front office in action.
So it turns out I have a lot more to say about this year’s NFL Draft than I thought I did. In my first draft of this article, this was my opening paragraph:
When enough is said before the draft– and I’ve been saying a lot, at least on Twitter if not on the blog– there’s not much to say afterward. Just a collection of observations from me, some about certain teams or their executives, others about general trends:
Well, once I started writing, I couldn’t stop. By the time I got somewhere north of six thousand words, I decided I was going to need to break up my draft posting into multiple entries, to cover the several major topics I intended to cover.
Part 2 will be a deeper look at the Cleveland Browns draft and the idea of analytics in football. Part 3 will be some thoughts on the NFL’s processes as a whole. For part 1, here are some observations I made about a handful of teams’ drafts.
Owners of professional sports teams have a lot of responsibility when it comes to the success of their franchise. They are the ones putting up massive sums of money in an attempt to generate profit, but they also control the direction of personnel hirings. Much can be said about terrible owners in other sports, such as James Dolan of the Knicks, who can’t seem to get over his love affair with Isaiah Thomas. However, Dolan at least supports his team and his city and wants the best for them. Recent events have revealed an NFL owner who does not display this courtesy, in addition to ineptitude.
With the Saints struggling to the finish line in a dismal 2015, and the impending end of the Drew Brees era, I thought about going back and looking at how the team got to this point, what went wrong, and what they could have done differently (and can do differently in the future).
I decided some weeks ago to choose their performance in the draft to examine for this purpose, but only now have had the time to collect the necessary data for this article. Even though Mickey Loomis has been GM of the team since 2002, I decided to start with the arrival of Sean Payton and Drew Brees in 2006, because of Payton’s strong input on the personnel side of the ball. I then decided to review the drafts from that point on through 2014.
The reason I’m not reviewing 2015 is largely because, after the 2014 draft was such an obvious disaster, the team fired longtime Director of College Scouting Rick Reprish, and most of the college scouting department. So far, the improvement has been immediately obvious, with Stephone Anthony and Hau’oli Kikaha already being impact players in the linebacker crew, and Delvin Breaux, Damian Swann, Tyeler Davison, and Bobby Richardson all have contributed to one degree or another, with Breaux and Richardson starting. We haven’t even talked about a number of their other picks yet– Andrus Peat projects to be a long-term starting offensive tackle, and several players who have gone on IR figure to contribute in the future, too. This is easily the best Saints rookie class since the much-ballyhooed class of 2006 (three of which remain on the team today).
In hindsight, comparing the 2015 class to the ones before it makes it pretty clear this move was long overdue. Let’s take a look at the previous classes and see how the team did.