Last March, I wrote a post in which I looked with great admiration at the work of Cade Massey, a professor who studies the psychology of decision-making in uncertain environments. As one of his test cases, Massey turned to the NFL draft, wondering whether some teams are better than other teams at picking players. In the process of answering this question, Massey ran some sophisticated statistical models that were "saying is that there are...literally zero differences across teams in player-picking ability." As a result, he concluded, all discrepancies in draft success are a result of not of skill, but of luck. Allow me to repeat this crucial point: on a skill-based to chance-based continuum, his numbers show, the ability to draft players falls at the far end of the chance-based side of the spectrum.
This is not to say that some teams don't draft better than others. Yet, this is not because they are more skilled, Massey argues, but because they do a better job managing chance. A rational being, he notes, will go about the decision-making process differently when solving math problems (pure skill) than when entering the lottery (pure luck). He proposes that there is a "logic of change," a distinct set of proscriptions for operating in an environment with high uncertainty, and that successful teams follow this logic.
One of the key tenets of this logic is that smart teams maximize their number of chances. If the draft functions like a lottery, rational players buy more tickets. Indeed, there is a strong correlation between draft success and the teams that consistently acquire more draft picks. At this juncture, its important to note that Massey's not saying that a seventh-rounder is as likely to succeed as the first pick in the draft, so teams should trade away their first round picks for 41 seventh-rounders. Quite the opposite: there is a clear correlation between draft position and the success of the pick. Rather, the draft is a coin flip relative to the historical success of each pick. So, trading back means trading to a position that, historically, has produced fewer successful players. So, any franchise trading back must weigh the benefits of extra coin flips versus the costs of moving to a less successful draft spot.
So there are two factors at play here: 1) earlier picks have proven historically to be better than later picks; 2) the more picks a team has, the better its chances of finding a good player. If we take these together, we can see that the optimal strategy is to accumulate as many first and second day picks as possible. Indeed, the better drafting organizations tend to massage the draft in order to acquire maximum value by trading down and getting multiple picks (more opportunities to hit the lottery) or trading current picks for those in future drafts (a free upgrade to a better-quality ticket in the next lottery).
Which teams have been the most adept at deploying either (or both) of these strategies of late? In compiling the following chart, I looked at the last five drafts (2008-'12), noting how many picks each team made in each of the first three rounds as well as how many total picks each team had over that five year period. A couple of contextual notes to help situate this data: 1) Teams averaged 39.69 total picks over the five year period in question; 2) Due to penalties, supplementary drafts and compensatory picks, there were a total of 159 first rounders, 159 second rounders and 170 third rounders from 2008-'12.
A few numbers jump out immediately. The Eagles lead the pack with 51 total picks, which is a whopping 24 more than the Jets and Saints had in the same period! New England made five first-round picks, yet managed to accumulate eleven second-rounders and eight third-rounders (second only to the Chiefs and Bengals, who had nine). And these two teams have operated this way for a while now. The Patriots had ten picks in 2006 and a whopping 12 each in 2009 and 2010; the Eagles piled up 11 choices in 2005, ten in 2008 and 13 in 2010. In different ways, both organizations have maximized their chances at a winning lottery ticket. What else do they have in common? From 199-2012, both had the same head coach. Continuity, see?
Many the Patriots' picks were acquired by trading a current pick for one from the next draft. This bears a closer look. In 2007, they had only one selection in the first three rounds, because they embarked on a series of trades, both down and for future picks. A couple of examples should suffice. In 2007, they traded the 91st pick to Oakland or a seventh rounder and a third in 2008. They took the Raiders third-rounder, 69th overall, and traded it for pick 160 and a second-rounder in 2009 (47th overall), which they used to trade up for defensive tackle Ron Brace, at the 40th pick. In 2009, New England traded their first round pick, number 26, to Baltimore for the three Ravens selections: 41, 73 and 83. The Pats used these to, in order, select CB Darius Butler, trade for Jacksonville's 2010 second rounder (used to acquire TE Rob Gronkowski) and WR Brandon Tate. And there are many, many more examples of maneuvers such as these.
Of course, a team can only make such long-range decisions when the coaching staff and GM have job security. Teams like the Pats are willing to trade the known present for an unknown future not only because they perceive that value is not accrued just in one draft, but over the course of multiple drafts, but because the decision-makers have confidence that they'll be around to reap the rewards of those future drafts. With that confidence, they can take advantage of the panicking coaches and GMs who are feel that they need to mortgage the future to make a splash right now.
The takeaway here is that continuity contributes mightily to long-term drafting success; the teams with a long view are willing to sacrifice talent now if its going to lead to more talent later. In the Jones family, the Cowboys have a hereditary GM who should have the utmost job security; its incumbent upon them to find the right coach so that, like the cleverest franchises, they can take advantage of teams that are destined to cycle perpetually through front office and coaching staffs and, as a result, will certainly be entrenched in the "now."
Under the Garrett regime, the team appears to be drafting more wisely, as they replenish the talent and build a deeper roster. If they are to transcend mere roster building to establish a lasting program, it would behoove the Cowboys to heed Massey's claims and, by extension, adopt the talent-acquisition long view, sacrificing present need for increased future gain.