Recently Ben Baldwin posted an analysis that caused a bit of consternation. The analysis (which produced the graph below) looked at data to determine how valuable on average a player at each draft position ended up being (purple), compared it to how much those draft picks get paid on their rookie deal (orange), to determine what he calls “surplus value” (green), or how much production you’re getting minus what you’re actually getting paid.
As you can see, this analysis has an unexpected and shocking result. The highest picks in the draft, which most people consider the most valuable, are actually less valuable than most 2nd round picks. According to this analysis the Bears should be willing to trade the top overall pick in the draft to the Chiefs for the 31st pick straight up and feel like they got an absolute steal of a deal.
(Note: This analysis excludes quarterbacks, so in reality that top pick will legitimately be worth more to whoever uses it on a quarterback than the 31st pick. But since quarterback is a uniquely valuable position it would skew the results so they’re not included.)
This seems completely insane. How in the world would you think that a top pick, even if it’s not a quarterback, is a worse value than a 2nd round pick?
It’s Actually Not That Crazy
Perhaps the easiest way to understand this is to think about the situation before the 2011 CBA dramatically reduced rookie wages. Back then top picks were given huge contracts, to the point where rookies were given deals equal to the top established players.
In that world it’s not surprising that top picks were not very valuable. Why would you want an unproven rookie you had to give a massive contract to when you could just get an established veteran for the same amount that you knew could actually play? The later draft picks, with more reasonable contracts, were obviously much more valuable.
That is the same exact logic that goes into this analysis, just not as extreme. The top picks are paid twice as much as picks even as early as the late first round, so they need to be significantly more likely to succeed than those later picks to be worth the money.
Teams Aren’t As Good At Scouting As They Think
Yes, teams do have some ability to predict which college players will succeed in the NFL and which won’t. This analysis backs it up, as the on the field value of the picks steadily declines as the draft goes on.
The problem is that this decline in player quality is not as steep as the decline in salary in the top 10-15 picks. The top overall pick is being paid 4x the salary of the top pick in the 2nd round, but on average that player is only going to produce 50% more value on the field.
An alternate (and nicer to NFL general managers) way to view it is that the gap between the top 5-10 best prospects and the rest isn’t that great, so there’s no reason to go crazy over one of those top picks. Why give up a huge amount of draft capital for marginally better prospects?
This Might Actually Understate It
What’s even more mind blowing about this analysis is that there are a number of reasons to believe that it’s even worse than this analysis suggests.
For example, the purple line measuring the on-field value isn’t actually measuring the on-field value. Instead it’s measuring how much the player got paid on their second contract. The assumption is that general managers are mostly good at evaluating talent and those contracts give a good indication of the player’s value. But in reality we know that general managers aren’t perfect evaluators of talent (see the section above), and thy often overvalue players who were previously high draft picks (see Carson Wentz). So the greater value of higher picks could be due in part to general managers simply tending to evaluate higher picks more favorably even if they’re not actually better.
In the same vein, higher draft picks are going to get more opportunities than lower draft picks. Imagine if Tom Brady had been drafted by the Packers in 2000 instead of the Patriots. In the 3 years of his rookie contract he would have gotten a grand total of 47 snaps, not nearly enough to establish himself as any sort of starting quarterback. He may have never gotten a fair shot in the league because of his draft status had it not been for Drew Bledsoe getting injured.
These factors artificially increase the apparent value of early picks in a way that’s all but impossible to measure.
Does This Matter To The Chiefs?
This analysis is meant to inform trade decisions, but it can also tell us about the Chiefs’ actual draft valuation. According to the traditional chart, the Chiefs’ 1st round pick is worth about 1/5th of what the most valuable pick is worth. A more advanced chart, used by Tankathon to make their draft power rankings, says it’s half as valuable as the top pick.
But this analysis has the value peaking around the 12th pick, and that pick is worth only 20% more than the last pick in the first round. As a consistent contender, the traditional view would suggest that the Chiefs would have a hard time maintaining a quality team as they have such late draft picks. This analysis however argues that a team like the Chiefs is really not that much worse off than any other team. And, if the team took advantage of this, could easily created extra value for themselves.