This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's April 25 NFL Draft Issue. Subscribe today!
OF ALL THE gambles NFL teams will take on players during this year's draft, perhaps the riskiest move will be betting on their own flawed judgment. Organizations invest millions of dollars in scouting and player analysis, applying everything from extensive physical testing to pseudo-scientific written examinations in an attempt to weed out true talents from the chaff. You can understand why: Given that rookie salaries are capped by the CBA, the potential return on investment is enormous. The difference between what Russell Wilson made during his first three seasons in the NFL and what it would have cost to acquire a similarly talented quarterback in free agency runs over $50 million.
There's one big problem: All the empirical evidence we can find suggests that nobody in the league is actually any good at picking players. The best plan? In the scratch-off lottery that is the draft, the smartest strategy is simply to have more tickets.
Several studies, notably recent analyses by Chase Stuart of FootballPerspective.com and Neil Paine of FiveThirtyEight, suggest that no NFL team exhibits any sort of year-to-year consistency in acing the draft. By all accounts, despite all the energy and money teams pour into picking players, the draft is mostly a crapshoot.
You don't need some expansive study either. Anecdotally, this is more accurate than we care to admit. Sure, that 2012 draft saw the Seahawks come away with Wilson and Bobby Wagner, but their subsequent two drafts yielded just one regular starter, struggling offensive lineman Justin Britt. The 1974 Steelers draft, which delivered four Hall of Famers, is regarded as the best single class in league history, but Pittsburgh's 1975 draft failed to produce a single Steelers starter. The same personnel executives who fawn over Wilson and Tom Brady for having the "it" factor were the ones who also said Mark Sanchez and Brady Quinn had "it" while passing on Wilson and Brady multiple times.
"In the scratch-off lottery that is the draft, the smartest strategy is simply to have more tickets."
Even if you want to make the argument that those teams were overstuffed with talent and couldn't support more picks, consider how the truly great personnel executives have made mistakes. Baltimore GM Ozzie Newsome sent first- and second-round picks to the Patriots to trade up for Kyle Boller. Bill Belichick has traded up to grab the likes of Bethel Johnson and Ron Brace. Teams run by people who have forgotten more about football than you or I will ever know traded up to grab Blaine Gabbert and Trent Richardson. Their boards were remarkably, catastrophically wrong.
At the same time, how can we blame organizations for intense draft preparation given the stakes? If you were an NFL executive who had started his career fetching coffee for subminimum wage and worked your way to the top of a multibillion-dollar organization, wouldn't you believe you knew something the street didn't? If you were an owner, would you trust that guy or the one who said, "Based on all we know, this is a crapshoot"?
So should teams stop showing up to the combine, fire all their scouts and just throw darts to pick players?
Of course not. There's value in scouting and research, but it needs to be tempered and approached from a different perspective. Teams should start from the premise that they know nothing about the draft pool and act accordingly. In practice, that means taking the lottery ticket analogy quite seriously and acquiring as many picks as possible.
And wouldn't you know, that's exactly what personnel executives like Belichick and Newsome do. Belichick trades down as much as anybody in football, while Newsome focuses on acquiring compensatory picks to add valuable draft capital.
Truthfully, the NFL should be better at this stuff. College football is a fully funded minor league system with thousands of players auditioning for multiple years, and coaches still complain that the systems aren't similar enough to prepare quarterbacks and offensive linemen for the NFL, even though many college schemes now look exactly like ones you routinely see on Sunday. What's the solution? A simple reminder to be stapled atop every draft board: All the evidence suggests that regardless of the era or its schemes, the best way to make one good draft pick is to start with two draft picks.