March 23, 2012

NFL Draft Series: The Guide To Understanding The Value Of A Draft Pick

     As a fan, it's very hard to grasp how valuable a draft pick really is.  So when Brandon Marshall gets traded for two 3rd round picks and Tim Tebow + 7th rounder = 4th rounder + 6th rounder, it's hard to know how happy each team should be.

     Because I like understanding things, I did a little research and came up with this chart translating draft pick numbers into player-based numbers.


     What does a draft pick actually stand for?  For this chart, I defined a draft pick as the rights to some player for 4 years for the price of his rookie contract.  Any contract restructuring, extensions, and the like are considered separate transactions.

     The AV column is based on pro-football-reference.com's Approximate Value statistic, which attempts to quantify how good a player was in a given year.  The column itself is the total career AV (sort of) for the average player in each round of the 2008 NFL Draft (4 seasons have passed since then).  For context, a single year with an AV of 7 is a solid starter like Cedric Benson, an AV of 4 is a key backup or semi-starter like Devin Aromashodu, and an AV of 1 is a decent return man or backup like Julian Edelman.

     The Salary column is roughly the value, in millions, of the 4-year contract paid to the average player in each round of the 2011 NFL draft.  For context, the average NFL player would receive about 8.7 million dollars over 4 years.

     The AV/Mill denotes the contributions of each player per million dollars they receive.  Strangely enough, the worst picks in this regard are the expensive ones at the beginning of the first round.  Again, because I like providing context, the average NFL player would have an AV of about 14.5 over 4 years, and therefore an AV/Mill value of 1.67.

     Let's use these numbers to evaluate the Brandon Marshall trade.  Brandon Marshall has 3 more years on his contract worth $27.5 million, during which his AV should be around 27.  The two draft picks are worth $5.5 million and a 21.8 combined AV over 4 years.  While the Dolphins lost some production through the trade, they did gain a lot of cap room, so as long as they use that room wisely, it was a good trade.

     How about the Tebow trade?  Tebow plus the 7th round pick are worth $16.38 million over 3 and 4 years, respectively.  The two picks received by the Broncos are worth a combined $4.6 million over 4 years and a combined AV of 11.6.  The 7th rounder is worth an AV of 5.2, leaving a gap of 6.4 for Tebow to fill.  However, with the extra salary, he'll have to get somewhere around 15 or 20 to justify the trade.  Last year, Tebow's AV was 8; as a 3-game starter in 2010, he earned an AV of 3.

     I hope this helped you a little bit, because as I wrote it, I felt like it was confusing.

March 21, 2012

My Blog Got Traded To Wordpress, But Then...

...Wordpress found out they would have to pay me five million dollars if the trade was completed.  And they said, "Wait a minute.  Who are you?  I've never heard of this blog in my life!  We're not paying five million dollars for you!"  And so I'm still here.

"Nice analogy, guy."  (possibly sarcastic)

March 19, 2012

A Thought On Peyton Manning's Decision

     I don't know why, but I just thought about this while writing the previous post.  Peyton Manning's decision to sign with the Denver Broncos has been compared to LeBron James' "Decision" to sign with the Miami Heat, based on the amount of press coverage both players received as free agents.  However, Peyton made the most un-LeBron choice he could have.  LeBron's decision to join a team with two other superstar players has been criticized as cowardly, while Peyton's decision to sign with a bad Broncos team will surely be painted as Manning accepting the ultimate challenge.

     But you could easily look at it the other way, though few people refuse to do so.  Peyton took the easy way out.  There's almost no pressure on him.  If the Broncos win consistently, Peyton will be given all the credit.  If they lose, it will be blamed on a poor supporting cast.  LeBron, on the other hand, chose to man up, pick the team that gave him the best chance to win, and accept the burden that came with it.  If he wins a championship, the credit will go to Dwyane Wade.  When he doesn't win the championship, as we saw last year, he gets all the blame.  LeBron is in a no-win situation, but I respect the fact that he made the best decision for his basketball career and was willing to take all the heat (no pun intended) that came with it.

Can Peyton Manning Win With The Broncos?

     When I heard this morning that Peyton Manning was signing with the Broncos, my initial reaction was confusion.  Why would he sign with a team that already has the most polarizing quarterback in the league, plays in high altitude and cold weather, and was lucky to go 8-8 last year?  I realize he has his own priorities and I'm not going to criticize them, but to me it felt like a weird choice.  And now for some reason, people think Denver has suddenly turned into a contender for the AFC championship.  I know Peyton is good, but I think we're underestimating how bad that Broncos team really is.

     As in many cases when sports topics bother me, I decided to crunch some numbers.  My first issue was whether or not Peyton would still be a great quarterback after sitting out a year with an injury.  So I looked through a bunch of quarterbacks' numbers to find people who sat out a full season because of injuries.  I ended up finding only three:  Steve Beuerlein, Phil Simms, and Joe Montana.  Beuerlein's injury happened near the end of his career, and he never threw 150 passes in a season again.  Phil Simms did have some high-volume throwing seasons after his injury, but the missed season was very early in his career. 

     The only relevant case is Joe Montana's.  In 1990, his 12th NFL season, he suffered an elbow injury in the NFC Championship game, and sat out the 1991 season before playing one game in 1992 and getting sent to Kansas City for the '93 season.  Manning, after 13 NFL seasons, did not play in a game during the 2011 season and is also on a new team.  So how did Montana fare in his first season with the Chiefs?  His QB rating dipped from 89.0 in 1990 to 87.4 in 1993.  This means it's safe to assume that Manning will be his 2010 self this year for the Broncos.

     But will it make his team good enough to win the Super Bowl?  As the ESPN special on QBR told me, the traditional QB rating correlates pretty well with winning percentage.  (Though not as much "QBR" does, but it's so convoluted that they haven't gotten around to giving Montana any QBR numbers yet.  Way to disappoint, ESPN.)  Using a standard regression on 2011 team wins and QB rating, we find that raising the team QB rating by 5.1 points is equal to 1 win.

     You could compute the Broncos' expected record for 2012 a couple of ways.  Let's use the Broncos' 8 wins from 2011, and assume Peyton's QB rating will be the same as it was for 2010 (91.9).  The Broncos' QB rating in 2011 was 73.5, which means Peyton will raise it by 18.4 points.  This translates to 3.6 added wins, so the Broncos become a 12-4 team.

     Now, because I'm a pessimist, let me point out that given the number of points they scored and allowed (a better indicator of skill in my opinion), the 2011 Broncos should have only won 5.8 games.  Let's assume Peyton's 2012 QB rating will dip by the same percentage as Montana's 1993 rating, giving him a 90.2.  That's an increase of 16.7 over the Orton/Tebow combo of 2011, which means 3.3 added wins.  This puts the 2012 Broncos at 9-7, only one win better than last year.

     You can believe whichever method you want, though I think 9-7 sounds a lot more reasonable.  Just for fun, let's see how this formula would have worked for San Francisco, Arizona, Miami, Houston, Tennessee, and the Jets.

San Francisco:  The Optimist Method gives a 13-3 record, while the Pessimist Method gives a 12-4 record.

Arizona:  12-4 and 10-6.

Miami:  7-9 and 10-6.  (Matt Moore was a lot better last year than you'd think he would be.)

Houston:  10-6 both ways.

Tennessee:  10-6 and 9-7.

New York:  11-5 both ways.

March 14, 2012

NFL Draft Series: Trading Players For Draft Picks

     I laugh every time an NFL team trades a legitimate starter for draft picks.  Because it's never for good picks.  It's always 3rd, 4th, or 5th round picks.  I understand that the front offices think they can turn a late pick into a good player, but the truth is they usually don't.  I can't figure out why anyone would make these trades. 

     For example, the Dolphins just traded Brandon Marshall to the Bears for two 3rd-round picks.  For the Bears, it's a fantastic trade; they finally get a respectable target for Jay Cutler to throw to.  But what exactly are the Dolphins getting here?  Could it be an addition-by-subtraction thing?  Has Marshall been annoying everyone in the locker room?  Even if that's the case, I'm pretty sure he's worth more than a couple of mid-round players.

     Here's how I like to think of draft picks:  Instead of thinking about the great potential of whatever arbitrary player that pick could give you, imagine it as a player who was picked from that round in an earlier draft.  More specifically, the average player from that round.  Using the approximate value statistic found at pro-football-reference.com, I came up with a roughly average player from each round in the 2004 Draft.  Here's what it looks like:

1st Round:  Kellen Winslow Jr.
2nd Round:  Tatum Bell
3rd Round:  Anthony Hargrove
4th Round:  Reggie Torbor
5th Round:  Dave Ball
6th Round:  Jim Sorgi
7th Round:  Darrell McClover

And from the 2005 Draft:

1st Round:  Cedric Benson
2nd Round:  Kelvin Hayden
3rd Round:  Trai Essex
4th Round:  Sean Considine
5th Round:  Dan Orlovsky
6th Round:  Cedric Houston
7th Round:  Noah Herron

So instead of Brandon Marshall for two 3rd round picks, think Brandon Marshall in his prime for a young Anthony Hargrove and a young Trai Essex.  A top-ten receiver for two guys who can start but probably shouldn't.  There must be other factors involved, because these trades don't make any sense.  I'll explore things like contract length and salary in future posts.

March 7, 2012

The Colts Made The Wrong Decision With Peyton Manning

     Today, the Indianapolis Colts released Peyton Manning, their star quarterback who started 208 games in 14 years with the team.  In that span he made 11 Pro Bowls, threw almost 400 touchdowns, appeared in 2 Super Bowls, and won one championship.  There were a lot of reasons to let him go, though.  He hasn't played in over a year because of neck issues.  The Colts went 2-14 last season without him, earning the team the right to draft one of the best quarterback prospects ever.  And were the Colts to keep him on the team, he would have been owed around $35 million over the next year.

     And still, I think the Colts would have been better off with him for the next few years, and would have benefited in the short term and the long term.

Short Term:  As you may know, I am a big believer in the field of statistics.  And one of the main principles of statistics is looking at large sample sizes, because numbers can vary for no reason.  The awful 2011 Colts team was very similar to the 2010 Colts team that went 10-6, and in the seven years before that, they had won at least 12 games every year.  This roster is not as horrible as it looks.  Even if Peyton is not fully healed, he should at least be able to bring them into playoff contention.  Without Peyton, you throw Andrew Luck into the fire with an entirely new set of coaches and a group of receivers designed for Peyton's playing style.  Luck may get them into playoff contention, but their chances would be better with Peyton and his bum neck and his humongous salary.  (Speaking of which, they couldn't have restructured that somehow?  I don't believe that.)

Long Term:  I believe that if any team with an established veteran quarterback drafts another quarterback in the first round, the team should keep both of them for at least two years.  It gives the new guy a chance to observe how a great quarterback plays and prepares.  I realized it hasn't happened many times (Aaron Rodgers, Chad Pennington, and Philip Rivers were the only ones since 2000), but it seems to work well every time.  The results of first-rounders who start right away are more mixed (Sam Bradford, David Carr, Matt Ryan, Joe Flacco, etc.).  I think the Colts should have followed the Rodgers blueprint, and that starts with keeping the same team and coaches they had in 2011.  That would have given Peyton a couple more tries at reaching the Super Bowl, Andrew Luck a chance to learn from a legend, and the Colts a chance to rebuild in a few years around a young, well-prepared quarterback.  Now they just have a mismatched team with a question mark under center.