On whether quarterbacks drafted early in the NFL are better than ones drafted later

From Phil Birnbaum:

As you’d expect, the early draft choices got a lot more playing time than the later ones. Even disregarding seasons where they didn’t play at all, and even *games* where they didn’t play at all, the late choices were only involved in 1/4 as many plays as the early choices. Berri and Simmons don’t think that’s a problem. They argue — as does Gladwell — that we should just assume the guys who played less, or didn’t play at all, are just as good as the guys who did play. We should just disregard the opinions of the coaches, who decided they weren’t good enough.

That’s silly, isn’ t it? I mean, it’s not logically impossible, but it defies common sense. At least you should need some evidence for it, instead of just blithely accepting it as a given.

And, in any case, there’s an obvious, reasonable alternative model that doesn’t force you to second-guess the professionals quite as much. That is: maybe early draft choices aren’t taken because they’re expected to be *better* superstars, but because they’re expected to be *more likely* to be superstars.


The reason I bring this up now is that, a couple of days ago, Berri reiterated his findings on “Freakonomics”:

“We should certainly expect that if [Andrew] Luck and [Robert] Griffin III are taken in the first few picks of the draft, they will get to play more than those taken later. But when we consider per-play performance (or when we control for the added playing time top picks receive), where a quarterback is drafted doesn’t seem to predict future performance.”

What he’s saying is that Andrew Luck, who is widely considered to be the best QB prospect in the world, is not likely to perform much better than a last-round QB pick, if only you gave that last pick some playing time. Presumably, Berri would jump at the chance to trade Luck for two last-round picks. That’s the logical consequence of what he’s arguing.

Read the whole thing from Phil, along with his follow-up and see more here on the original Gladwell-Pinker debate and analysis.

  • hnice

    I mean, the Freakonomics article summary is transparently poorly-reasoned for its 100% reliance on rate stats —

    It’s not really hard to think of reasons that a later pick might do relatively well per-play but not be as valuable as an earlier pick — they lack durability, they’re unable to play a complex system and as a result have early success but then d’s figure them out, the active willingness of a d to let a new qb try things out so *they* can gauge *him* (or simply cover receivers and wait for the new guy to throw a pick) — and that’s just 30 seconds of thinking. Oh, also, garbage time, right? There’s another one — lousy QB’s are going to see more garbage time to pad their rate stats.

    So, that’s the immediate sniff-test failure for me — the Freak article quotes nothing but rate stats. They’d make the case that that’s all they’ve got, but the fact of the matter is, rate stats are (maybe, possibly) half the story.

    OK, reading further, the outrage sets in because they apparently *know* they’re only using rate stats and don’t find a problem with it:

    “(and we considered a variety of per-play measures across a variety of time periods in a player’s career)”

    The author even *admits* that he’s only using rate metrics. Did you know that CC Sabathia batted .667 in 2007? They should DH him on days he’s not pitching!

    Everyone who thinks seriously about player valuation in any sport knows that value has a rate component and a duration component. For goodness sake — any first year physics student knows that you need to know something about both of those things. But these Freaks, who I’m increasingly tired of for their shoddy reasoning and smug attitudes, apparently feel that ‘a variety of per-play measures’ tells the story — and acting as though they’ve discovered something at which our eyes should widen in wonder, that’s the arrogant jackass icing on the poorly-constructed cake.

    I’m not saying their wrong, but if this is how they got there, they’re right for crap reasons and it’s a lucky guess.

  • Michael Schuttke

    At the NFL level, I often wonder how much of a quarterback’s success comes down to how the salary cap pie gets divided. In other words, would that third or fourth-round QB, given two years to sit and learn the system while other pieces get added to the personnel puzzle perform as well after the incubation period as a first-round pick who is thrown to the wolves immediately…further, would the first-round picks, by and large, do better if they sat while this “build the team up” strategy occurred. I think there are limits to this though as QB’s who are great will make receivers look good, have lower adjusted sack rates (i.e. better pocket presence than their peers), etc.  At the end of the day, the two most fundamental aspects to a receiver doing well revolve around a.) getting open and b.) actually catching the ball so all of their performance is ultimately an extension of the quarterbacks ability (or inability) to throw an accurate, catchable ball.  However…you wonder what a guy like Colt McCoy would look like if paired with say Larry Fitzgerald executing said functions rather than who he has had to throw to and a better right tackle…Again it goes, would that same argument and more apply to his first-round peer Sam Bradford though? There comes a point I think where, as Brian Burke has written about at Advanced NFL Stats, the professional game truly becomes a game of “gladiators” (i.e. winner takes all) and not “bricklayers” (i.e. it’s better to have a QB making $3.2 million performing like the average $6.4 million guy than to have a guy making $10 million but performs like the “average” All-Pro QB making  $12 million). I do think certain positions it is worth paying the premium for to get even the slightest edge from the rest of the league as an edge at these positions seems amplified…Then again, it seems like every QB Bill Walsh touched turned to gold so then I wonder how much of it is about system, teaching, and other organizational components.

  • stan.brown

    Most of our mutual funds beat the averages (’cause the ones that didn’t got closed down).

    I’ll bet that the average 7th round pick who starts at QB in the NFL for ten seasons is just as good as the average 1st rounder who starts for ten seasons.  Guess there must not be any difference between 1st rounders and 7th rounders.

    This academic study is worthless.  But it’s still better than most academic studies.  The only thing dumber than the findings of the typical study are the people who rely on them.

  • DrummerHoff

    Gladwell injects himself to become The story and its complete non-sense designed to sell his brand.

  • to me it doesnt matter when you get drafted anyone can be a superstar it just depends on how hard that person works to become a superstar or get more playing time. You can take a last drafted quarterback and make him out of a superstar it just depends on how bad he wants it.

  • Kurt Warner was undrafted and Tom Brady was at the end of round 6.