Saturday, April 25, 2009

the NFL draft and how to win football games (or not)

From Reed Albergottia in the WSJ...

When it comes to the NFL Draft, which takes place this weekend, the Indianapolis Colts are exceptionally good at picking productive players, while the Cleveland Browns are not. The Baltimore Ravens have made the best picks in the first round since 1997, but over the full seven rounds, nobody's better than the Arizona Cardinals.

And here's a bit of a surprise: Some of the NFL's best teams, including the Pittsburgh Steelers, haven't distinguished themselves at all in the draft.

Conclusions are based on a comprehensive study of the results of eight NFL drafts between 1997 and 2004 conducted for The Wall Street Journal by Michael Fry, an operations-management professor at Cornell University. Unlike most attempts to "grade" the drafting abilities of NFL teams -- which rely on simple measures for players like games started or years played -- Mr. Fry used a more sophisticated metric: How many plays each draftee was on the field for in his first five seasons.

This snap-by-snap data, which is generally available only to NFL teams, can be used to rank the league's 32 teams in terms of the overall "snap percentage" of the players they've drafted. If a player was on the field for 450 of his team's 1,000 offensive or defensive plays in each of the past five seasons, for example, he would have a snap percentage of 45%. By combining these figures for every player each team drafted over eight years and comparing them to leaguewide averages by position and draft round, Mr. Fry's study revealed a fascinating divide in the NFL. (See the full chart here.)

Some of the league's winningest teams, like the Colts, New York Giants and Dallas Cowboys, ranked near the top -- a signal that good drafts are an integral part of their approach to team-building. But for many others, including recent Super Bowl winners like the Steelers, New England Patriots and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who finished near the bottom, show that for some teams, a mediocre draft is no impediment to greatness.

Overall, the results suggest that there are four methods of building a winning NFL team -- and that only two of them require teams to dominate in the draft room. Here they are...


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