Draft Coverage is Silly

I have seen a lot of media coverage recently about the Cleveland Browns and their draft strategy paired with their acquisition of Robert Griffin III. Most of it is a lot of media coverage without a lot of activity in the NFL world, but I have read a lot of articles that are fairly critical of their actions and what they have been saying. What I am going to do is try to understand why they would do the things that they have done. They may be making a mistake and I might be wrong about their strategy, but I want to try and defend their actions. It should also be noted that I am in no way a Browns fan. Lets dive into it.

They Got RG3:

This one is slightly difficult to defend mainly due to the price, but given the landscape of the NFL; RG3 didn’t have many places where he could use his skill sets. Under a certain system, RG3 has shown a very high upside. I think a lot of his success depends on a couple things:

  1. How willing they are to run a read-option type offense. I think the best way to get the most out of RG3 is to go back to his “comfort zone.” Hue Jackson has shown the ability to adapt to his situation and ran a lot of these concepts with the Bengals so I don’t foresee this being too much of an issue.
  2. How much defenses have caught up to the read-option. I don’t buy too much into this. Although there are teams that haven’t thrived recently with these offensive concepts (49ers), there are teams who have thrived with it (Panthers).

They said they were going to draft another quarterback:

This is really what I wanted to talk about. The Browns are getting a lot of grief for saying they will take the best prospect even if thats a quarterback. This is where I think the news is over-reported and reporters want to report on what is said rather than what it might mean. So now we get into some game theory. Basically it is a school of mathematical models that try to understand the interaction the value payoffs of interactions of rational decision-makers. So this is where I want to be critical about people getting upset with the Browns for saying they will take the “best prospect” even if that means taking a quarterback. This goes beyond the Browns when it comes to the draft, some of the media over-reporting, and general over-reaction; but they are the pet project for this post.

So lets assume the Browns tell the media or fans what they are going to do so that we all know and everyone can decide before the draft if its the right decision. You know who else hears what the Brown’s plans are? The other 31 teams in the NFL. So lets play the game of fans and the media getting what they want. The Browns have two choices in the draft: draft, trade. Why would they commit to taking a player if there are a bevy of other teams potentially looking at the same player?

If we play the scenario game of them wanting to trade back, this is where things make more sense. If they say they aren’t going to take one of the quarterbacks in the draft then why would any team trade with them? This website does a great job of breaking down the relative value of draft positions. The potential trade franchise can wait to deal with the San Diego Chargers at the three spot and potentially gain back a 7th rounder versus dealing with the Browns. If the team thinks the Chargers aren’t in the market yet (although Rivers is getting old), they can try to deal with the Cowboys at the four spot which is basically the equivalent of that team gaining a late 5th round pick by not dealing with the Browns. If the Browns say they aren’t going to take a quarterback after picking up RG3, a potential trade partner just gained a draft pick if they decide to deal with someone else. Since the NFL is a competitive league, why would the Browns basically give a team bargaining power? Its also important to note that they are being non-committal about the actual pick. They are just saying the “best player” which still keeps bargaining power if a team wants to trade up for another asset. Quarterbacks are also notoriously the most sought after asset in the NFL so saying you will potentially take one makes teams desperate to trade up.

Being transparent about your strategy

This one is a little less definitive and measurable, but its basically stating that any statement followed by some sort of action to that statement gives other players an idea of how you will react in scenarios. For some people learning poker for the first time, the idea of bluffing or varying betting strategies so their opponent can’t guess their hand is confusing. This line of thought is no different for this scenario. Whats important to note is that you can vary your betting strategy with positive outcome, but you can never show your hand and expect a positive outcome if there is still betting to be done.

Why does some of the media care so much?

I honestly do not understand why the media spends so much time covering things like “who are you going to draft?” and “how are you going to beat team X’s defense?” If I were one of the teams I would just constantly troll the media. As fans and outsiders looking in I hope teams are at least this smart about their actions. If I were them I would constantly try to confuse my opposition towards my actions. Or try to understand the payout structure of various options. Here’s to hoping the new brain trust at the Browns know what they are doing. Also, this article is more about understanding the actions of teams leading up to the draft. It would actually be interesting if there was a log of teams that tried to trade up and their trade offers. If this could be married up with the press releases of the team, it would make for an interesting dataset.

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3 thoughts on “Draft Coverage is Silly

  1. Interesting. Have you done any research on how NFL team’s are using data scientists? Here’s a baseball example: MLB team’s all know that they can gain advantage on competition if they can figure out how to keep their pitcher’s elbows healthier for longer. In a multi-billion dollar industry, teams have dedicated teams of data scientists and even medical researchers.
    http://www.npr.org/2016/03/31/472541597/injuries-increase-as-pitchers-throw-harder-faster-and-younger
    It would seem to me that analyzing football is more complex than baseball. For example, every play in baseball can be seen as a set piece at the start. Pitcher/catcher select pitch, fielders shift based on batter/pitch selection/base runners, then the main interaction is between the pitcher an batter with the pitch. Once the ball is released, there is a pretty much predefined probability of what will happen next assuming the batter has faced the pitcher for enough pitches (30, 100, 300? with varying confidence). If the batter hits the ball there is a similarly predefined probability of what will happen next. In this case (with the exception of base running, for example), the players do not much interfere with the other players actions so a much cleaner probability tree can be constructed. So one might argue that baseball has a more discrete nature.
    Football on the other hand would seem to be a more continuous problem. Especially, in your read-option example. The quarterback comes to the line and immediately starts adjusting strategy to what he sees as time progresses and, for him, the situation changes up to the point he releases the ball to pass or tucks it in and runs (then he converts to a run strategy that has its own decision processes). Another major difference is that at every instance there are interactions between players that are not really mirrored in baseball to nearly the same degree – nudging the receiver, holding, faking, etc. Basically, causing the opposing player to do something other than what they intended.
    So how does all of this tie back to the use of science in football? When I watch John Gruden go one-on-one with college quarterbacks looking over films, it is clear that John sees the patterns of actions and processes how this relates to results but it is pattern recognition rather than algorithm built up from natural aptitude and years of observational experience? I wonder if the NFL is putting as much science behind keeping quarterbacks healthy as baseball is doing for pitchers. Because it seems that if they did they would have a higher probability of winning, Do you think the Patriots figured this out better than anyone else in recent years?

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    • In general football lags behind baseball and basketball in hiring analytical minds. I have a few acquaintances that do contract work for NFL teams, but full-time employment is about half (or less than half) the salary compared to the open market. I think the Browns are the first franchise to go all-in with their front office mindset. We talked about the discrete/continuous stuff before. I think the real value of football analysis lies in the continuous aspect of the sport that is not captured (but will be with the RFID chips in the shoulder pads). Most football statistics try to discretize a continuous process. Its good for an approximation, but overall falls short in many cases. I think the analytics revolution will happen in Football in the next 5 years.

      Its pretty crazy to think about where the current mindset is in football. Its almost universally accepted that acquiring more picks is more valuable than having a high pick. Its like rolling a loaded die. 1 – All-star, 2 – High Contributor, 3 – Contributor, 4 – Low Contributor, 5 – Backup, 6 – Out of league. History has shown that the probability of getting a 1 on the first pick versus the 40th pick is relatively stable. So the question becomes do you want to roll the die once, twice, or three times to get a 1? You always want to roll the die as many times as you can.

      There are definitely exceptions, but in general nobody really understands who has “it” and it is currently a difficult thing to measure prior to the draft. You still see franchises trading away a mother-load of assets to other teams. It will be interesting to model “ability” and “drive” once the NFL gets smarter and there is little to no gains made anymore by trading back in the draft, but until trades are value-neutral teams are getting away with just basic analytical capabilities. To your point the Patriots, Ravens and Seahawks stand out as teams that haven’t reached, traded back, or moved players for draft assets when they could in recent years and it has mostly worked out favorably.

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  2. Pingback: Draft Picks – An Undervalued Asset | About That Stat Life

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