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Data Shows Drafting Football Players is about Chance

When professional football teams pick players during the draft, uncertainty could be a greater factor than skill.

The NFL draft gives professional football coaches a chance to pluck a promising but unformed talent—a young Tom Brady or Peyton Manning perhaps—from college football. But how do coaches spot the next big star? The answer, according to a new data-driven study of draft picks, is that they rely on a whole lot of luck.

New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady was taken in the sixth (and next-to-last) round (number 199 overall) in the 2000 NFL draft. He has led the Patriots to three Super Bowl titles and is the highest-paid player in the NFL. Credit: Keith Allison

Cade Massey, an assistant professor of organizational behavior at Yale University, analyzed thousands of draft picks to see if some teams are consistently better at picking good players, and therefore more skillful at draft picks. The answer? “It’s all about chance,” says Massey.

Massey presented his findings last week at the 2011 MIT Sports Analytics Conference, an event that focused on the growing use of analytics in sports. Nowadays sports franchises crunch numbers not only to evaluate players’ performance, but also to better manage ticket sales, handle labor relations, cope with player injuries, and even to make coaching decisions.

Prior to the draft, teams spend ample time researching new players and determining who might best fit their team’s needs. While Massey says this preparation is, of course, not meaningless, coaches and other team personnel involved in the draft put too much value on it. “The data shows that chance, or uncertainty, plays a bigger role than skill in drafting players,” says Massey.

Massey’s study looked at how many games drafted players started during their first five years in the league, and how much a player was paid when he became a free agent in his sixth or seventh year in the league. Using 17 years worth of data, Massey determined that no team is especially good at picking good players consistently—not even the New England Patriots, a team that is credited with sophisticated drafting methods and consistently smart draft choices. While each pick is not necessarily a “roll of the dice,” says Massey, people underestimate the role uncertainty plays. Massey says teams should adapt their strategies, although it isn’t clear exactly how. “It does not mean you cannot do anything, it just means you should think differently.”

Massey plans to take his analysis a step further and look at the differences within a given draft year; and to use a more sophisticated economic model to measure a player’s value and adjust for different player positions. He plans to publish a paper on his work in the next four to five weeks, prior to the 2011 NFL draft. “I am saying something more extreme than anything that has been said before, and I think it will eventually change some teams’ behavior,” he says.