Pondering draft day

Making wise investments over time might be better than chasing after silver bullet player

Marcell Dareus (r) is introduced by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell as the third pick to the Buffalo Bills at the 2011 NFL Draft. Dareus was traded last year to the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Photo by Debby Wong


The annual NFL college draft is like Christmas Day for Bills fans, although, like with some childhood Christmases, they may end up complaining about it to therapists later in life. Every year, Bills fans write up their wish list for Football Santa—a “franchise quarterback” is always in the spot kids reserve for ponies and go-karts—and then try to act excited with what they get on draft day, fighting off a gnawing feeling that what’s under the tree will ultimately turn out to be several lumps of coal and a talking J. P. Losman bobble-head doll that repeatedly says, “Sorry! Try again next year! ”


With the playoff drought monkey off their backs and a bag packed full of draft picks, including two precious first-rounders, the Bills are in a position to lay the foundation for a winning team for years to come if they can hit on enough of their draft selections at the end of April. And, if the Bills’ brain trust is low on ideas, there’s no shortage of advice. In recent decades, a cottage (or, perhaps to be more accurate, basement) industry of NFL draft gurus—most notably the bizarrely-coiffed motor mouth Mel Kiper Jr.—has developed a legion of self-proclaimed experts who pronounce with all certitude who will be the next superstars. Mention a player’s name and, like preprogrammed robots, they’ll start spouting a stream of opinions: “the best lateral foot speed since Gayle Sayers,” “the second largest hands at the combine,” “nonstop motor,” or “comes from a good football family” (defined as one where father wore high-waisted doubleknit athletic shorts and drew prevent defense schemes on an Etch-A-Sketch). But, are they right?


Given the value of drafting well and the resources that teams put into the process, it’s astounding, at least on the surface, how randomly the results turn out. Even acknowledged football “geniuses” barely outperform their peers over time. Two esteemed behavioral economists, Cade Massey of Duke University and Richard Thaler of the University of Chicago, concluded in their paper, “The Loser’s Curse: Overconfidence vs. Market Efficiency in the National Football League Draft” that NFL general managers tend to ignore reality (giving up a bundle of draft picks to draft at the top is a horrible idea) and, falling prey to emotion, overestimate their own abilities to select top talent. Rather than gamble (and it indeed is close to a coin toss, with dire implications for the future if it goes south) on giving away multiple draft picks to move up in the draft, the better strategy over time is to accumulate draft picks and use them. The more picks a team has in the bank, the greater its chances to draft productive players who have reasonable salaries. If you need a quarterback (or even if you don’t), draft one every year until you land a good one. If this sounds remarkably like the general draft approach of one William Belechick, you are correct.


The 2017 Bills draft was conducted after head coach Sean McDermott came on board and before general manager Brandon Beane replaced Doug Whaley. But McDermott’s fingerprints were all over the Bills draft, a successful one by recent standards. Combined with the moves made by the team since Beane took over the front office, there’s evidence to suggest that Beane and McDermott might have a set of criteria for players that they believe can lead to team success.


In some ways, drafting NFL players is similar to investing in the stock market. Much of investing is driven by emotion or the belief that you know more than the next guy, but the truth is that investors who aim to be average—indexing their investment portfolios as popularized by John Bogle of the Vanguard Group—do better over time than the vast majority of active portfolio managers. Obviously, no NFL GM is going to throw darts at a board on draft night, but the right knowledge and mental discipline—not wishful thinking—can go a long way toward having a successful draft.    


Legendary investors like Warren Buffet have proven that applying the right set of criteria to stock selection can lead to impressive returns. But too many investors chase after the next Apple, losing money along the trail. Buffet prefers boring: companies with a track record of earnings in an industry with continued good prospects. In other words, invest in companies that meet the fundamental requirements of a good business:  they consistently earn money.


Applying the same mindset to football, if the number one job of an NFL quarterback is to throw the football, why do NFL teams draft quarterbacks in the first round who have to “work on their accuracy issues.” Excuse me: if you’ve been playing football since junior high and still can’t hit an open receiver in stride over the middle, why is anyone in their right mind gambling a first-round pick on you? (Answer: because the person making the pick either thinks they can fix the problem or all the vaporous draft chatter has whipped up a fog of emotion that obscures his grasp of reality.)


Here’s what we’ve gleaned from the Beane/McDermott personnel moves so far:

They like players who have played a lot of football. With a record number of players leaving college early for the NFL draft, it’s easy to get enamored of (and then burned by) a player with a limited body of college work. Remember Aaron Maybin?  Beane/McDermott appear to like players who have three or even four years of solid college play under their belts. Ideally, this experience makes talent easier to judge; it also helps ease a player’s transition to the NFL, something 2017 first-round pick and now budding NFL star cornerback Tre’Davious White—with four years of experience at LSU under his belt—had little issue with in his rookie season.


They like players who like football. Sounds borderline obvious, right? But a lot of college football players (and athletes in general) get started at a young age when their raw physical talent allows them to excel. With that comes social acceptance (friends! girls!), trophies (winning!), academic leniency (no studying!), free college (and maybe some under-the-table benefits!), and the prospects of fame and fortune in the NFL. What’s not to like? But, while these players’ outsized talents might get them to the pros, their lack of passion for the game will inevitably be exposed by subpar performance on the NFL field no matter what their physical “measurable.” One former Bills player has related that the most passion massive offensive lineman Mike Williams ever showed while on the team was when his teammates wrapped him in medical tape as a rookie prank. Not exactly what you want from a number four draft pick.


They like players who can stay on the football field. Another insight from Captain Obvious. A player, no matter how good, is of no use to a team if he can’t play, whether due to injury or other issues. Young people are prone to mistakes in their personal lives and can adjust and recover, but over time a stream of character issues can torpedo a career and be a major distraction to the team. Pro football is a physically brutal sport, and injuries are part of the game. Maybe it’s not the best idea to draft players with already well-known serious physical issues (see: Shaq Lawson). Even the most talented player can’t make plays unless he’s playing. Duh.


They like players who can execute the basics of their positions. After years of watching our quarterbacks miss hitting wide-open receivers (some years our number one receiver has been New Era turfgrass) or play like the middle of the field is a no-throw zone, I don’t care if a potential quarterback is 6’4” and has “a cannon for an arm.” Can he throw with accuracy? Under pressure? These are simple questions that, if answered honestly, would have avoided the E. J. Manuel mini-era.


They like team players. There’s been a lot of talk at One Bills Drive about The Process, i.e., the Beane/McDermott plan to build a consistently winning team from the ground up. We’re not privy to the details of The Process, but it’s a safe bet that a cornerstone is a willingness to put ego and personal agendas aside and do exactly what Beane/McDermott think is in the best interests of the team as a whole. Otherwise, you’re as gone as Marcel Dareus. If this reminds you of one William Belechick, you again are correct.


So, you might ask, if the Bills stick to drafting players who love football, have played a lot of it, can stay on the field, excel at the basics of their position, and can be team players, they’ll not only avoid the dismal drafts of yore, but grab themselves a bunch of future Pro-Bowlers?  Maybe. Maybe not. Football is a fast and fluid game with many parts moving at warp speed. The jump from the college ranks to the NFL is not easy, as rookie wide receiver Zay Jones learned this past season. The personal judgment of management, the human element, still plays a dominant role in the draft selection process. But, I would venture that if a team spends the time to develop a set of well-conceived criteria for draft selections and sticks with it, then, as with investing, they might avoid some awful picks—even if it means missing out on some high-risk long shots that hit—and land a bunch of productive NFL players.


On draft weekend, we Bills fans should be happy if the Bills stick to their process, use all their draft picks to draft actual players, take a quarterback (or two), and don’t let their emotions overrun reality. Enjoy the comedic stylings of Mel Kiper Jr. and relax, knowing that a good deal of the “good football people” making the selections could be effectively replaced by coins and that, with hindsight, everyone is a draft expert. If you can throw a dart, you can pretend you’re one, too.   


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