Assessing Talent is HARD—Ask the NFL

The National Football League (NFL) is holding its annual talent draft tonight (as I write this).  So, yes, you’re getting two sports related blog posts this week.  What’s fascinating about this is how the 32 teams evaluate a large pool of potential players and how wrong they are in the most critical evaluations.  If you’re familiar with the NFL draft, you can skip ahead past the bullets.  If not, here’s a quick primer:

  • Each year, the NFL forces the top players who have not yet played in the NFL (think of guys who played college football) to participate in a process where teams select which players that they want (the draft).  The order of the draft is determined by the teams’ records the year before, with the worst team (Jacksonville) going first and the team that won the championship (Tampa Bay) going last.  There are 7 rounds in the draft.
  • If a team wants a particular player, but thinks that he will be taken before it is their turn, they can trade players and/or their draft picks for a better pick.  This is called trading up and can be very expensive.
  • The most important employee (player) on an NFL team is the quarterback.  Teams that do not have an “elite” player at this position will do almost anything to draft one.  There are economic incentives for drafting a quarterback rather than trying to get an experienced one from another team.
  • Each team has an entire department of people whose sole job is to evaluate the skills and abilities of college players, determine the needs of the team, and recommend players to draft and in which order.  The NFL even sets up what are essentially job fairs where the teams can look at players up close, interview them, and they even give a league-wide cognitive ability test.  These players really get put under the microscope.

So, we have a situation where the skill and ability levels of the players are well known.  Given that, you would think that teams can select players, especially quarterbacks, with uncanny accuracy.  And you’d be wrong.

If we look at the quarterbacks drafted in the 1st round (63) since 2000, it’s pretty fair to say that (not including those who are too early in their career to judge):

  • 15 turned out to be very good (consistently led their team to a winning record and won playoff games)
  • 13 were/are good (there teams won more than they lost, but were nothing fabulous)
  • 30 were not good (losing record, didn’t stay with the team long, etc.). 

Those of you who are football fans may quibble with the categories where I put the players, but even if we move players around a bit between the categories, teams have about a 25% success rate and about a 50% miss rate.

In roughly the same time period, teams have “traded up” 25 times to draft a quarterback in the 1st round.  In other words, they paid a premium to “get their guy.”  14 of them were/are not very good, 3 were/are good, and 6 were/are very good.  Again, we see this 50% miss rate, though slightly higher hit rate.

How can this be?

Most obviously, football is a game where all of the players on the field need to do their job well for the team to be successful.  Like it or not, the quarterback gets outsized credit and blame for the team’s success and failures.  But, regardless of his skill level, he cannot control a lot of what goes on around him.  This makes for a very difficult selection situation.

There are also some confounding factors.  The first being that the worst teams pick before the good ones and they are more likely to choose a quarterback than good teams.  And, one of the reasons these teams are not very good is that they don’t judge talent well and do a poor job of developing and retaining the good players that they have.  Related to this, they often take a quarterback before they have good supporting players around him.  It’s entirely possible that several of the quarterbacks who were drafted early, but performed poorly, would have been successful with other teams.  And, a few of them, but not a lot, were after they changed teams.

To make the success rate seem even worse, teams choose to ignore players are other positions that are more likely (historically) to be successful in order to make the sexier, and riskier, play for a quarterback.  And I get that—there are enough examples of a highly drafted quarterback completely changing a team’s fortunes that teams are willing to miss 2 out of 3 times to get one.  Any team would be happy to draft 2 not so good quarterbacks to get to the one that leads them to a championship, even if it takes them several years to do it.

What we do know is that new quarterbacks tend to succeed where the team has a sustainable plan.  Often times, teams change their playing philosophy if they don’t have a successful year so they fail to implement one that fits the quarterback’s skills.  Successful quarterbacks rarely play for multiple head coaches (managers).  The lesson here is that good plan that senior management sticks with is more likely to be one where your most expensive talent can succeed.

It used to be that newly drafted quarterbacks would have a more experienced one ahead of him to learn from for a year or two before being elevated to leading the team.  There are many reasons why that is not the case anymore, but it does limit the opportunity for some drafted players to develop into good quarterbacks. Players drafted at other positions tend to have the luxury.  Organizations that realize which key players can contribute immediately and which ones need some seasoning are also more likely to get the most out of their talent.

The NFL (and other professional sports) draft is a unique selection system.  In some ways it allows talent evaluators to get a great deal of information, but in other ways there is a lot of mystery around what allows players to translate their college success into the pros.  And, in looking at success vs. failure of the quarterback, sports fans tend to ignore the organizational issues that allow some players to shine rather than flounder.  All good lessons to keep in mind as companies begin to hire recent college graduates.

And good luck to Trevor Lawrence.

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