Thinking Small, Winning Big: The NFL Draft

Each February, after the Lombardi Trophy has been awarded to the Super Bowl champion, the NFL off-season officially begins. During this period, the primary objective of each of the 32 franchises is to rid themselves of players with below average skill or who cost too much, while simultaneously replacing them with quality talent at inexpensive price tags.

One avenue for teams to accomplish both player subtraction and addition is free agency. In terms of purging players, teams have the option to allow current contracts to lapse, or to outright void them; concurrently, when it comes to securing new athletes onto the team, any player without a contract may be signed to a deal with any club. However, those who follow the NFL closely recognize that time and again it’s been demonstrated that teams routinely spend far more on a free agent contract than the player’s true on-field worth. This is a problem because, due to the NFL’s salary cap system, a club’s success often hinges on avoiding hefty contracts for anything less than hefty production.

Another notable route to injecting new blood into a franchise, and the method that many of the most well-run organizations prefer to utilize, is the NFL Draft. The player pool for the draft consists of people who are at least three years removed from high school and who also, although not always, played college football at a high level.

Held yearly in April, the NFL Draft is comprised of seven rounds in total, with picks being awarded to all 32 teams in reverse order of where they finished in the standings. This means that the worst performing teams have the luxury of selecting players at the beginning of each of the seven rounds, while the teams who competed for the Super Bowl choose at the end.

Though first-year players are unproven in the league compared to those who are free agents, the main argument for why teams would prefer to add talent through the draft is that these players are limited in how much money they can earn from their initial contract due to the rookie wage-scale. On top of that, there are also salary tiers within this wage-scale system, whereby players have access to more money the earlier in the draft they were selected. This means that teams could potentially pay bargain prices for high-level talent, thereby not hurting the franchise’s financial flexibility.

In total, the NFL Draft awards between 250 and 260 picks in a given cycle, with the total number fluctuating year to year due to common practices like the league awarding bonus “compensatory picks” on the basis of team’s losing productive players to other clubs during free agency, or through less common occurrences like stripping teams of picks as a punishment for breaking the league’s rules. As an automatic base package, each team is awarded one pick in each of the seven rounds, any of which is eligible to be traded.

Due to the fact that the most coveted players available can only be accessed with an early round draft pick, those selections are much more expensive to acquire from other teams compared to a late round pick. In fact, 6th and 7th round choices are often referred to as a “throw in” in the scheme of larger trades, and for good reason too, as the vast majority of the players selected with those picks amount to very little in the NFL. This reality is aptly exemplified by the fact that the last player chosen in the 7th and final round is bestowed the nickname “Mr. Irrelevant”.

That being said, just because selecting a valuable player in a later round is incredibly unlikely, it’s not impossible. Storied careers have been birthed at the end of drafts, including modern era 6th round picks like Tom Brady (QB), Antonio Brown (WR), Jason Kelce (OC), Delaine Walker (TE), and Adalius Thomas (LB), and 7th round picks like Julian Edelman (WR) and Marques Colston (WR). While it remains irrational to select anyone in the final two rounds with the hopes they’ll go onto a legendary career, players destined for the Hall Of Fame have been found there before, indicating that productive athletes of all level of skill could emerge from any given pick.

The bottom line is, the fortunes of a franchise change fastest when it amasses skilled players at discount prices, and successfully hitting on late round picks accomplishes that better than anything. Though it’s unrealistic that any individual 6th or 7th round draft pick will find success in the league, out of this unpredictability emerges a distinct strategy: employ quantity to unearth quality.

In 2006, Rick Spielman joined the Minnesota Vikings as Vice President of Player Personnel. One of his primary roles within this job was to oversee college scouting and submit final player evaluations and rankings of those eligible in the draft. Due to the complicated power structure already in place within the Viking organization though, the final say on all draft-related decisions was done by way of a sizable committee.

Below is a chart of the team’s 6th and 7th round picks from 2006 through 2011:

YearTotal Vikings’ Draft Picks6th RoundersLeague Total, 6th Round Picks7th RoundersLeague Total, 7th Round PicksTotal 6th + 7th Vikings’ PicksLeague Average, 6th + 7th Round Picks
2006 6(0) 39(0) 47 0 2.69
2007 8(1) Rufus Alexander (LB) 36(2) Tyler Thigpen (QB), Chandler Williams (WR) 45 1 2.53
2008 5(2) John Sullivan (OC), Jaymar Johnson (WR) 41(0) 45 2 2.69
2009 5(0) 36(1) Jamarca Sanford (S) 47 1 2.59
2010 8(1) Joe Webb (QB) 38(2) Mickey Shuler Jr. (TE), Ryan D’Imperio (FB) 48 3 2.69
2011 10(4) DeMarcus Love (OT), Mistral Raymond (S), Brandon Fusco (OG), Ross Homan (LB) 38(2) D’Aundre Reed (DE), Stephen Burton (WR) 52 6 2.81

Over the course of Spielman’s six years holding the job, the chart illustrates that the Vikings exceeded the league average in combined 6th and 7th round picks just three times. As time went on though, Spielman’s position in the organization strengthened due to the decision-makers above him exiting the team. This is also reflected in the chart, as Spielman’s final two seasons as VP of Player Personnel culminated in two of the three largest Vikings’ draft classes over that time span, not just overall but also in the final two rounds.

In 2012 the Vikings officially presented full decision-making power to Spielman in the form of the long-vacant job of General Manager — the team had operated without a central source of control since Mike Lynn last held the position in the 1980s. Spielman immediately put his stamp on the franchise by altering the team’s core draft strategy in an effort to treat late round picks for what they really were: cheap lottery tickets.

Below is a chart of Spielman’s 6th and 7th round picks from 2012 through 2020:

YearTotal Vikings’ Draft Picks6th RoundersLeague Total, 6th Round Picks7th RoundersLeague Total, 7th Round PicksTotal 6th + 7th Round Vikings’ PicksLeague Average, 6th + 7th Round Picks
2012 10(1) Blair Walsh (K) 37(2) Audie Cole (LB), Trevor Guyton (DE) 46 3 2.59
2013 9(1) Jeff Baca (OG) 38(3) Michael Mauti (LB), Travis Bond (OG), Everett Dawkins (DT) 48 4 2.69
2014 10(2) Antone Exum (CB), Kendall James (CB) 39(3) Shamar Stephen (DT), Brandon Watts (LB), Jabari Price (CB) 41 5 2.5
2015 10(2) Tyrus Thompson (OT), B.J. Dubose (DE) 41(2) Austin Shepherd (OT), Edmond Robinson (LB) 39 4 2.5
2016 8(2) Moritz Böhringer (WR), David Morgan (TE)   46(2) Stephen Weatherly (DE), Jayron Kearse (S) 32 4 2.43
2017 11(1) Bucky Hodges (TE) 34(4) Stacy Coley (WR), Ifeadi Odenigbo (DE), Elijah Lee (LB), Jack Tocho (CB) 35 5 2.16
2018 8(2) Colby Gossett (OG), Ade Aruna (DE) 44(1) Devante Downs (LB) 38 3 2.56
2019 12(3) Armon Watts (DT), Marcus Epps (S), Olisaemeka Udoh (OT) 41(4) Kris Boyd (CB), Dillon Mitchell (WR), Bisi Johnson (WR), Austin Cutting (LS) 40 7 2.53
2020 15(2) Blake Brandel (OT), Josh Metellus (S) 35(4) Kenny Willekes (DE), Nate Stanley (QB), Brian Cole II (S), Kyle Hinton (OG) 41 6 2.36

As the chart indicates, not only did Spielman drastically increase the total number of picks in his draft classes as GM, he accomplished this by accumulating more 6th and 7th round picks than the league average in nine out of nine drafts. On top of that, Spielman and the Vikings set a league record in 2020 for most selections in a single draft with a total of 15 (six of which came in the final two rounds), indicating that this strategy continues to prevail within the organization.

In regards to the specific players who have been drafted with those 6th and 7th round picks under Spielman, it appears unlikely that any of them are bound for the Hall Of Fame. This certainly doesn’t mean the team has failed with the choices though, as the Vikings have found a number of players who became starters or provided crucial roster depth. In particular, standouts from Spielman’s draft classes between 2012 and 2019 (2020 has yet to take the field) are 6th round picks Blair Walsh (K) and David Morgan (TE), and 7th round picks Shamar Stephen (DT), Stephen Weatherly (DE), Jayron Kearse (S), Ifeadi Odenigbo (DE), Kris Boyd (CB), Bisi Johnson (WR) and Austin Cutting (LS).

Though none are stars, if the names listed above can be considered “hits”, this would equate to a 26% rate of success amongst selections in the final two rounds. Hitting on approximately one out of every four picks in the early rounds would result in a GM losing their job rather quickly, but with the reduced expectations that accompany the end of the draft, this rate is entirely acceptable. Furthermore, it once again demonstrates the value of late-round pick acquisition, as the majority of selections are whiffs.

No professional sports league gives out trophies for “almost”, and the record books exist to capture which team won the championship, not who had the best internal decision-making process.

The point though, is that sports, like life, is about playing the small percentages and spreading out the focus on winning over a long-term horizon. Each decision on its own may not turn out to be correct, and a correct decision may not lead to success, but when every minor choice is made within the scheme of a larger plan, it gives the desired outcome the best chance to succeed.

Even the sharpest decision models can’t anticipate every variable, namely luck, but they can create the circumstances for it: preparation and opportunity. After that, it’s simply a game of patience.

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