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Three things we can learn from preseason NFL rankings

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Early NFL rankings are all over the place, which is key to the lessons.

Washington Redskins v Dallas Cowboys
The perceptions of this trio reveals much.
Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Despite our interest in them, preseason rankings of NFL teams and personnel are pretty much strictly for entertainment purposes only. We’ve recently seen top-10 lists of quarterbacks, running backs, and wide receivers from ESPN that include Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott, and Amari Cooper of the Dallas Cowboys, with more likely on the way. If you go back and look at past ones, you probably would get a chuckle from how far off they were once the season played out. However, there are still some things we can learn from these. And they are actually kinda big.

NFL executives and coaches are not that good at talent evaluation

Just look at the ESPN articles. The perceptions of the players are all over the place. Take Elliott for example. He wound up in third place on the list, but one offensive coach didn’t even have him in the top ten of running backs.

Yet there is a full season of video on all these players, plus an ever-growing variety of analytics digging into effectiveness on third and two when running outside to the left with sunshine and temperature between 64 and 69 degrees while up by three points in the second quarter in the first week of November. How can football professionals all look at the same data and come up with such varying conclusions?

This should be no surprise to anyone, of course. Quarterbacks in the draft are ample proof that talent evaluation is wildly imprecise. Tom Brady famously went in the sixth round. Aaron Rodgers slid to 24th overall. Nine players were taken before Patrick Mahomes. The Cowboys have two great examples in recent history, fourth-rounder Prescott and UDFA Tony Romo.

And if the list of quarterbacks who should have been taken higher is long, the ones who were overdrafted is probably worse.

Now apply that to every position. There are draft bargains and busts at all positions, and no team is immune. We often praise the Cowboys for their recent drafting, but that is really based on a handful of truly outstanding picks. They also spent a first-rounder on Taco Charlton and had the entire 2019 draft, where the only proven value they got in the entire class (apologies to Tony Pollard who is still proving himself) was through trading their first-rounder for Cooper.

You can apply that to basically every team in the league. Some are better and others worse, but no team is consistently great at drafting. (A few seem to manage yearly ineptitude, which just proves that failing is easier than success.)

Given that all teams have scouting departments that are in some cases quite large, analytics staffs are growing, and there is video of every play except possibly some small school prospects, how can teams draft so badly?

Maybe the problem is that scouting, just like coaching, is far more art than science. After all, there is great disagreement about which stats are relevant and which tell us little. Intangibles like work ethic, teamwork, personal discipline, and the likelihood of off-field issues may be just as important as how well developed a lineman’s footwork is, but much harder to determine. And there is certainly some evidence that scouts and coaches can be just as swayed by the old eye test as fans. They may have a better idea what they are looking for, but that doesn’t mean they still see it correctly. Filters and prejudices affect them, and the more the game changes, the more they run the risk of getting behind the times. After all, there are still coaches that believe their offense should be built around the running game, despite the anguished protests of almost the entire analytics community.

I’m not making the argument that us armchair GMs and coaches could do better than the real ones. I’m saying that the paid professionals are often not nearly as good as they should be. There are many possible reasons, but one that has to be huge is the “old boy network” aspect of the sport. We keep seeing the same names move from job to job rather than be replaced by fresh new faces with fresh new ideas. The NFL is much more conservative than colleges or even high schools, and it applies across the board.

The rankings are too isolated

Football is the ultimate team sport. Eleven men have to execute their assignments for a play to work, either way. No other sport is so dependent on the performance of the other players around you.

That is the problem with these position-by-position rankings. Each player has a very different group surrounding him. Quarterbacks have to have protection from their line and rely on the receivers. Running backs need that line to open up holes. Wide receivers obviously can’t catch a ball that isn’t delivered withing their catch radius. And the offensive line has to function as a unit, not as individuals. You can make similar observations about the defense, which also has to be able to read run or pass together to not get severely burned.

Rarely, there will be a truly transcendent player like Barry Sanders, stuck on a team with little help around him but still able to lift them at times to victory largely on his own talent. Andrew Luck was a bit like that, as the Indianapolis Colts never seemed to give him the support he needed, leading to his premature retirement.

But for the most part, the best players usually wind up on the better teams in one of those chicken and egg things. It’s why you so often see multiple Pro Bowl players from one franchise selected. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts, and that makes the individual parts look even better. It is certainly arguable that the trio of Dallas players mentioned at the start of this article benefited from being on the field together.

Some players that probably deserve to be ranked higher are not going to make these lists just because they are in a less favorable situation. And that extends to the final lesson for the day.

Coaching matters

The right play calls and an ability to mold things to utilize the talent mix on a team are invaluable, and getting it wrong absolutely hurts the performance of the players. Almost everyone agrees that Bill Belichick is the best coach in the league, with an unmatched ability to find a way to get more out of a roster than just about anyone else. Conversely, some very good players have been wasted to a degree, sometimes a large one, by coaches who insisted on making the player fit the system rather than the other way around.

One player who has had to overcome some real coaching limitations is Russell Wilson of the Seattle Seahawks. He is widely recognized as one of the best quarterbacks in the league, but he might be seen even more favorably if he didn’t have to work with Pete Carroll’s antiquated philosophy. Look at this chart, which I got from a tweet by Bill Barnwell:

Seattle is a heavy first and second down run team, and that means that Wilson faced third and long a lot. His ability to overcome the hole his coaching often dug for him is underappreciated by most. With a player like Wilson, this seems almost criminal. Imagine how much more effective he could have been with more early passes.

Another player who suffered from this issue in a different way is Elliott. One of the reasons that Jason Garrett is gone is there were so many times during his tenure when the Cowboys made it blatantly clear that they were going to run the ball on first down, and the defense would load up the box to stop him. It was as old-fashioned an approach as Carroll’s with its reliance on lining up without attempting to disguise your intentions and just out-executing the other team. Despite that, Elliott still managed to be one of the leading rushers in the league. But imagine what his yards per carry might have been if the offense had spread the defense out instead of bunching things up. He might still be seen as the best back in the league. For what that is worth.

The evidence is that, despite the growing attempts to prove through analytics that there are smarter, more efficient ways to do things, coaches still rely on their gut instincts, especially when things are tight. Those analytics keep telling us that the gut is usually wrong. But coaches and coordinators make a lot of money, and it is hard to convince them that they need to do more to earn it. Human nature works against them.

All of these rankings don’t do much, especially since they are more about what happened last season than what might occur going forward. But I am just like everyone, clicking on them to see where my favorite players for my favorite team wind up. It often makes me angry, but that just keeps me coming back. Enjoy debating them all you wish.