Cowboys FanPost Of The Week: Rethinking The Draft Value Chart

For this week's FanPost of the Week column, I have but one nominee. This is not because there aren't other deserving candidates, but because I thought that the post in question provided an excellent jumping off place for a discussion about the Cowboys' first round draft strategy. More specifically, it addresses the question of whether its better to stay put at the ninth pick, trade up to get a top player or trade back and acquire more picks.

But I get ahead of myself. This weeks FPOTW was authored by the fantastically named PhilipKDick. As you know, for fun, I like to shorten the names of my fave FanPosters: Fan in Thick and Thin is dubbed "Thick"; ChiaCrack becomes "Crack". With this week's poster, I'll have to tread lightly; I think "Phil" is the wisest choice. At any rate, Phil enters FanPost Valhalla with his consideration of the famous "draft value chart" developed by the Cowboys in the early 1990s. As Phil points out, the chart was engineered at Jimmy Johnson's behest by then-Cowboys minority owner Mike McCoy as a way to negotiate draft-day trades more quickly and logically.  As members of the Dallas coaching staff were given head coaching jobs elsewhere, they took the chart with them and it rapidly became a league-wide gold standard. Now, every amateur draft site has a copy posted; every amateur draftnik worth his salt refers to it repeatedly during draft weekend.

Phil wants all of us chart aficionados to tap the breaks a little. He refers us to a book titled "Scorecasting: The Hidden Influences Behind How Sports Are Played And Games Are Won," in which the authors, two behavioral economists, argue persuasively that NFL teams significantly overvalue the the talent disparity from round to round in general and top of the draft in particular: 

Using stats that reflect performance (roster, starts, Pro Bowls), they found that higher picks are better than lower picks, 1st rounders better than 2nd rounders, etc... But they aren't that much better. For instance the chart suggests that the 1st pick of the 1st round is worth FIVE times more than the 1st pick of the 2nd round. But in actuality that 1st pick is not even twice as good as the 33rd. Same goes for players at the same position. The first picked player is only better than the fourth player by a mere 6 percent.

Phil also takes on the standard practice of exchanging current picks for future picks. The standard rate of exchange in such trades is that a second rounder this year equals a first rounder next year; teams that make such trades thus consistently get significant value. Of course, the organization has to have a level of cohesion that allows for long-term thinking. In other words, they have to be able to approach each draft as only one opportunity to accumulate draft value over the course of five to ten years. To do this, the coaching staff--and the head coach in particular-- has to feel secure that they still be there several years down the road. Its no accident that the two organizations that take the greatest advantage of this type of exchange, the Patriots and Eagles, have the league's two longest-tenured head coaches.

Looking at this landscape, Phil suggests that "clever" teams exploit the overvaluation of higher draft picks and:

-Trade down and get multiple picks.

-Trade current picks for future picks.

Can Dallas be a consistently "clever" drafting team? I think the Cowboys have a strong scouting staff. Director of College & Pro Scouting Tom Ciskowski and his guys put together a good board every year. The problem has been that Dallas seems to go into every draft with a new strategy, seemingly formed in reaction to what didn't go well the previous year. 2009: trade back and acquire depth! 2010: that failed, let's spend picks to get the guys with the highest grades! Jerry Jones tends to over-react to the most recent input--which is the epitome of short-term thinking. Thus the kind of players targeted and the way their skills are valued has changed from year to year, as has the Cowboys' strategy in the late rounds (which flip-flops from small school guys with athletic upside to big-conference guys with less athletic ability)

It remains to be seen what kind of impact Jason Garrett will make in the Cowboys' war-room. In some ways, his ability to evaluate talent is less important to me (I trust Ciskowsi and his guys) than whether or not his steadying presence give the organization the ability to adopt the kind of long-term thinking that allows them to see the draft as...wait for it: a "process." Can they trade pick # 40 for a first rounder next year? Trade down with that pick and acquire an extra third? Trade that 2011 third rounder for a second rounder in 2012?

Dallas invented the draft value chart and revolutionized the draft. I want to see that kind of innovative thinking in the Cowboys war-room again. Phil suggests that a good place to start would be to tear up that danged chart and start churning picks.

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