Monday, April 27, 2020

Measuring NFL Draft Success

The 2020 NFL Draft has just concluded and already you can find draft grades for each team, despite no player having actually played a single professional game. This is just silly. The only way to know how a team did in the draft is to wait several years and see how players develop, comparing their on-field performance to their draft position. But that is not easy in football, as there is no single statistic that can be assigned to football players to determine their contributions. The best that I have seen is Approximate Value (AV) on Pro Football Reference, and if you read that link, you will realize that approximate is the key word. Still, that doesn't mean we can't have a bit of fun with the number and compare draft performances over the past decade.

I downloaded 11 years worth of draft information, from 2009-19, a total of exactly 2,800 players. The 2009 cut-off is arbitrary, mostly because I like having exactly 2,800 players on the list. With the way NFL teams change GMs and coaches these days, going any further back doesn't make much sense anyway.

From the list, I compiled the Weighted Career Approximate Value (CAV) for each team's draft picks, as well as the Weighted Draft Approximate Value (DAV), which is the weighted AV accrued for the team that drafted that player. Of course, teams trade draft picks all the time, and there are compensatory selections, so teams have a different number of draftees over this period. To determine each teams Draft Score, I divided the sum of the CAV or DAV by the number of picks.

And the winner is.....New Orleans! Yes, the 2010 Super Bowl champion Saints have had the most success in selecting college football players, despite having the lowest number of picks with just 65 over 11 years (Seattle and Cincinnati have chosen 104 players in that time). Those 65 Saints draftees have accumulated 943 CAV for a Career Draft Score (CDS) of 14.51 per player. The Texans are second at 13.56 (87 picks), with the Seahawks third at 13.46. Down at the bottom are the San Francisco 49ers, fresh off a Super Bowl appearance. Their 103 picks have combined for just 993 AV. a 9.64 CDS. Expect this number to increase as the 49ers build off their success with recent draftees. The two New York teams are just above the 49ers, with the Jets 74 picks giving them a 9.97 CDS and the Giants 79 draftees 10.3.

However, CAV represents the total value of the player for his career, not for the team that drafted him. You may be good at identifying college talent, but it doesn't matter if you trade that pick after a couple of years and he goes on to star with another team. So DAV is perhaps more reflective of a GM's prowess. Looking at that number, the Saints are still on top, with 715 DAV points for a Retained Draft Score (RDS) of exactly 11. But Atlanta jumps to second spot (from 15th in CAV) with a 10.83 RDS for 76 picks. If I included 2008, when Matt Ryan was chosen, they take over the lead by a substantial margin as their RDS rises to 12.76. Meanwhile, the Raiders (92 picks, 6.83 RDS) and the Browns (98, 7.27) fall to the bottom of this list.

The final statistic in this post is what I call Draft Retention Percentage (DRP), which shows how much of a player's CAV belongs to the team that drafted him. The leader in this category is the Vikings, who have enjoyed 90.6% of their draftees CAV. Unfortunately for them, they are 29th in CAV, so they are not good on draft day, but they do keep those players around, which bumps them up to 19th in the DAV rankings. In other words, they draft poorly and keep those players around. Cleveland is last in this ranking as well, meaning they draft poorly and give up on players quickly, which makes more sense if you think about it. Buffalo, who ranks 12th in CAV but 27th in DAV, is just above them, suggesting that the Bills do reasonably well on draft day but allow their better players to move on too early. In a related note, I hope Sammy Watkins is enjoying his Super Bowl ring.

The upshot of this analysis is that it takes a lot more than good drafting to build a winner in the NFL. Football careers are very short when compared to other sports and you really need the majority of your players to reach their peak at the same time. Tough to do when drafting about seven players a year; clearly free agency and the occasional trade are critical to success. But as the Browns and Raiders show, you cannot win with poor drafting. The 49ers were horrible for years and that is why they are at the bottom of the CAV list, but in another decade, they might be near the top if their recent picks continue to succeed.

It can be fun to watch drafts as they unfold, but ultimately the analysis on draft day is mostly useless (JaMarcus Russell is a prime example). Transitioning from a college program to the pros is not easy and that is why you need to let the players play before figuring out who won and lost at the draft. Looking back to 2009, the team that outwitted the competition in that draft was the Jets. Yes, hard to believe, but their 3 picks (Mark Sanchez, Shonn Greene, and Matt Slauson) combined for 97 CAV, an average of 32.33. Of course, only 60 of that accrued to the Jets. The real winner that year was the Packers, whose eight picks, including first rounders B.J. Raji and Clay Matthews, have combined for 23.88 DAV. No coincidence that Green Bay won the Super Bowl just two years later. On the other end of the spectrum, Dallas had 12 picks that year and they combined for a horrid 17 CAV and 12 DAV. This demonstrates that maybe you need a real general manager to succeed in the league.

Finally, you can also determine which players were the biggest surprises and busts. In 2009, the two who far exceeded their draft position were New England's Julian Edelman (232nd overall, 3rd in CAV, and completely ignored in this draft grade article) and Green Bay's T.J. Lang (picked 109th with 61 CAV). The top pick that year was Matthew Stafford, whose 95 CAV is also the best from that draft class, so the Lions got that one right. The biggest bust was Aaron Maybin, chosen 11th overall by Buffalo, with whom he played just 27 games (with no sacks), then moving on to the Jets and Toronto before retiring in 2014. And just to show that there is more than football, Maybin has gone on to become an artist and a teacher.

There is so much more analysis that can be done on drafts, not just in the NFL but all Big 4 sports. However, this post is already too long, so I'll leave it at that for now. But with the COVID-19 crisis likely to keep me out of stadiums for the foreseeable future, expect more posts like these over the next few months.

Until then, stay safe everyone!



Sunday, April 12, 2020

The End of Sports as We Knew It?

It has been a month since the sports world shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic. Looking back, going to games in Hartford the weekend prior was not the smartest thing I've ever done. Despite my poor judgement, my family has been spared so far, which is even more surprising given that we are living in the epicenter of the epicenter in Queens. I did follow the story when it was first reported from Wuhan, and it is now obvious that it was not entirely accurate, as the Chinese government was hiding the true size of the problem. Remember the articles that said you should worry more about the regular flu? Even then, I thought I had better take precautions on the train, which I did by wearing gloves, even on warm days. No mask however. So yes, I am an idiot and lucky to have avoided infection. Or I got it and my whole family is asymptomatic.

When the Ivy League cancelled its tournament on March 10th, I realized that sports was done for a while, and it just took two days for the other leagues to follow suit. I actually don't miss sports that much as I am not a big TV watcher (having a toddler around really cuts down your TV time). I do miss travel of course, but am not complaining. I know that we are the fortunate ones in all of this, being able to work from home and having our little one around all the time and watching her grow. She has learned the word pandemic, but has yet to grasp its meaning.

We have been isolating ourselves since March 14, about a week before the official "shelter in place" order came down from Governor Cuomo. As I write this, we are 30 days inside, other than an occasional shopping trip or walk around the block (worrisome even with homemade masks). It is surreal to be in New York City, just a couple of miles from Elmhurst and a few blocks from Mount Sinai, two hospitals that are bearing the brunt of the virus in the city. We see none of this other than on the news, but ambulance sirens are nearly constant.

The numbers beggar belief. Over 20,000 dead in the U.S., with 40% from New York State alone. Over 100,000 worldwide and still climbing. And those numbers are undercounted because hundreds are dying at home without being tested. Many blame Trump and New York's mayor, Bill De Blasio, and certainly their reactions were far too slow, inconsistent and bumbling. But blame is pointless; there will never be accountability for the pandemic. Even now, when there is obvious evidence of the seriousness of the virus, selfish morons flout the social distancing rules here in NYC (and some will get sick and further stress our medical system unnecessarily). How many would have willingly sheltered at home on March 1, the date of the first reported case in NYC, if they had been so instructed? I knew the virus was spreading locally and I still drove to Hartford to watch two games. I did my best to avoid people while inside the arena, but even then, my behaviour was foolhardy. That's my fault. Even after that, I went to work in New Jersey for four days, changing my hours to avoid the worst of the rush hour trains but taking no other precautions. My company did not ask us to work from home until March 13, the day after the NHL went on hiatus and a state of emergency was declared in New York City.

Hindsight is wonderful, and once the first case was reported in the city, we all should have immediately stopped going to work and stocked up on food. Health officials knew that we had to start changing our behaviour immediately, but the message was never delivered. For another 12 days, New Yorkers continued as if nothing was wrong, commuting to work on crowded trains, going to bars and restaurants, hockey and basketball games, Broadway plays and movies and gyms. Many have paid for this delay with their lives (the MTA has lost over 50 workers so far), most of them from poorer communities comprised of immigrants. It is no surprise that the poor are suffering the most. Poverty leads to bad health, which leads to death when COVID-19 attacks. When have the poor ever ended up ahead? Other than in mortality statistics.

Fortunately, the measures seem to be working here as COVID-19 deaths have levelled off at between 700-800 per day in the state. Think about that for a minute. Another sobering fact: New York has 440 deaths per million people, more than any nation (Spain tops that list at 350). In NYC, that number is over 600. Of course, those numbers will only grow.

Eventually, however, the daily count will soon start to drop (there were "only" 313 reported deaths in NYC on Saturday after several days around 500) and we will slowly emerge from our houses and apartments like bears after hibernation. After a few weeks or months, another wave of infections is likely, particularly if testing is not widely available. The virus is at different stages in different places and asymptomatic people will start traveling, so even an area that is relatively free of the virus will see it re-introduced, and the outbreak will begin anew. This pattern will continue until a vaccine is developed or we achieve herd immunity (which would result in many more dead). The Spanish Flu pandemic that started in January 1918 did not end until December 1920. It is fair to say that this is just getting started.

I wonder if we will remember the lessons learned this time. Humanity's biggest conceit is found in the phrase "Man Versus Nature," which implies that we are somehow not a part of the natural world. In reality, we are just another species, subject to the whims of the planet, whether in the form of natural disaster, a rapidly spreading contagion, or our own foolishness in destroying the climate. After this, I would hope for more humility from leaders and a much faster response regardless of political leanings. The first step would be electing politicians who care more about the people they serve than themselves. Interesting side note: the dem in pandemic comes from "demos", Greek for "the people" and the same dem found in democracy. It seems like the emergence of one has led to the decline of the other.

This blog is about sports travel, so I will add a final bit on the future of sports, as crass as that may seem. The NHL and NBA are hoping to salvage their seasons in neutral sites with no fans, but I can't see that occurring (update: I was wrong on this; both finished their season successfully). In Japan, sumo held its March tournament in Osaka behind closed doors, but the sumo world is incredibly insular, making it easier to keep everyone quarantined. All participants (there are about 700 in all, plus 150 officials and support staff) were "tested" every day by a temperature check (meaningless when many carriers show no symptoms) and when one top-level wrestler had a fever, he was prevented from competing until he recovered, which took three days (he did not have coronavirus). As well, the bouts takes place at the same venue every day, allowing for it to be kept clean. The number of games in hockey and baseball would require multiple venues and some travel; I can't imagine the NBA and NHL would put the players' safety above their need for TV revenue. Maybe by June we will know more, but as a full playoff would be impossible by then, any champion would have an asterisk.

MLB might be able to play a shortened season in spring training stadiums in Phoenix and Florida, ensuring that players remain in quarantine at hotels and keeping stadiums and locker rooms disinfected. Still, 40 man rosters would be a necessity to cover injuries and poor performance. With no minor leagues to be sent to, a player who is cut would have to re-enter the real world. That should be enough motivation to play well.

I doubt that regular sports will happen until the NFL season begins in September, and even then, I am not confident fans will be admitted. So much depends on the next couple of months and whether this first wave can be contained enough that future waves are kept in check. For many fans who have underlying conditions, going to a game could be akin to Russian roulette. One panelist on a recent conference call predicted the autumn of 2021 before sports returns to normal. I hope that he is wrong, and I will attend a game sometime this year and have something to write about. Either way, it will be a long time before we get back to normal, whatever that means now.

In the meantime, stay safe and follow the rules. Protect yourself and protect others, not least the medical professionals who are doing their best in an impossible situation. Don't be a covidiot. I hope to see all my readers healthy whenever I am able to post my next stadium visit.