Eagles played the percentages by trading down

Posted: May 09, 2014

THE NFL WILL NEVER admit it, but the telecast of its annual college draft - two networks, one red carpet, no waiting - is really nothing more than an elaborate drinking game: "waist-bender" . . . drink . . . "Wonderlic" . . . drink . . . and that's just the W's). Given all of that, there is the need for a little bit of sobering counterbalance.

The 22nd pick in the first round turns out to be a productive player only about 60 percent of the time. He turns out to be an excellent player only about 19 percent of the time. Despite all of the time, effort and expense, that is how precise this NFL drafting business is - which is to say, not very precise at all.

Drink.

This is why the most sensible thing for the Eagles to do with the 22nd pick last night was to trade down. Of course, you need a willing trading partner, and there is nothing a team can do to make somebody willing, but that was the ideal. And, for the Eagles, the ideal happened when they were able to trade No. 22 to the Browns for No. 26 and a third round pick, No. 83.

The Browns took Johnny Manziel. The Eagles took Louisville linebacker/defensive end Marcus Smith, and he might or might not be great. But the math says that the Eagles went from having a 60 percent chance of hitting on a player to about a 70 percent chance. They also have about a 15 percent chance of hitting on both players.

That's just smart. The draft it is all about playing the percentages, and the percentages in the NFL draft say it's better to have two shots at hitting once.

"We had offers from a lot of people who wanted to move up," Eagles coach Chip Kelly said. "But what were they going to give us? I can say, it was a pretty active 10 minutes."

Kelly said that acquiring the extra pick was not a priority when the day began, that it just kind of happened - partly because Manziel was still on the board. But when it did, the Eagles - who had only six picks at the start of the draft - were more than interested. The calculation they made, Kelly said, was to move back only so far because they did not want to lose the chance to draft Smith. He said they calculated that about four spots was their limit.

"We thought it was big," Kelly said, of the added pick. "It was a bonus. I don't know who that guy is [who will be drafted in the third round]. But last year, we drafted [defensive lineman] Bennie Logan in the third round. If we can get another Bennie Logan type of player . . . "

It is all about the percentages. Looking at 25 years of draft information, there are two broad categories of players, defined by me: a productive player, meaning one who starts at least 50 NFL games, and an excellent player, meaning one who has been selected to at least two Pro Bowls.

These are arbitrary definitions, and you may send all complaints about their arbitrariness to the management. But as broad measures, they will suffice.

So, if you are drafting in the top 10, you have an 82 percent chance of selecting a productive player. If you are drafting between the 51st and 60th spot, the chances drop to 45 percent. From the 101st and 110th spot, the chances drop to 21 percent. And down and down.

And the excellent players? In the top 10, you have a 37 percent chance. From 51st to 60th, it drops to 7 percent. From 101st to 110th, it drops to 2 percent.

The temptation is to say - and I know, because I've said it - that NFL teams ought to save all of the money they spend on scouting and just invest in a really nice set of darts and start tossing them. But that's probably unfair. The overall process seems to work and to be intelligent, in that you don't find tons of great players slipping through to later rounds. The downward progression is pretty plain, and pretty consistent. In the aggregate, NFL teams are smart.

But other people have done studies - the latest was posted yesterday on fivethirtyeight.com - that demonstrate the key fact: that no matter how hard they work or how much they throw into the draft, no matter how smart or how innovative their front offices, individual teams do not consistently outperform their draft position. Teams that do well, even for a couple of years in a row, tend to be lucky and nothing more than lucky. The math seems to get everybody in the end.

Which is why, again, the smartest thing to do is make the math work for you by accumulating picks.

In a way, it is liberating to acknowledge you aren't any smarter than anyone else. It takes a lot of the emotion out of the process. The Eagles are better off with the extra pick. And they would be better off trying to trade down in the middle rounds and add picks in the later rounds. It just makes the most sense in a world where little makes sense, a world of "operates well in a phone booth" and "shoots the gap" and "looks like Tarzan, plays like Jane."

And . . . drink.


Email: hofmanr@phillynews.com

On Twitter: @theidlerich

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