In responding to a column I wrote for Swerb’s Blurbs justifying rooting for the Browns to lose the final two games of the season, John Hnat asks, “Does drafting higher, particularly at the top of the draft, improve a team’s chances of winning?”
He says drafting higher does not improve a team’s chances of winning and he grounds his argument on three claims:
1) That drafting players is too difficult to ensure that a high draft pick means drafting a good player.
2) That drafting higher means paying more money, which hinders a team, particularly given that the compensation for the top picks is substantially larger than the compensation for lower picks.
3) That the money paid to top picks is critical given the NFL salary cap.
I do not take issue with the grounds upon which Mr. Hnat bases his argument. I think that drafting players is an inexact science, that drafting higher means paying more, and that the money paid to top picks is critical given the salary cap. These are largely uncontroversial claims.
But I do not agree that drafting higher does not improve a team’s chances of winning. A few points:
*Drafting players is indeed an inexact science (to wit: the Browns recent draft history), but a quick scan of the MVP list reveals that top picks become future MVPs at an exceedingly higher rate than players drafted in any other contiguous group. A team is far more likely to draft a future MVP if that team drafts in the top three. If we assume that MVPs are both good players and help their teams win, then the likelihood of a player becoming an MVP is an adequate standard for measuring whether drafting higher can lead to drafting good players. By and large, better players go higher in the draft. The science might be inexact over the entire course of the draft, but the best players tend to be drafted where you would expect the best players to be drafted.
For more evidence, look at this year’s Pro Bowl rosters. There are far more first-round draft picks than there are picks from the other rounds combined, and of the first round draft picks a disproportionate number were top-five picks. This is even more impressive when you consider that the success of one’s team influences the likelihood of making the Pro Bowl and players drafted higher are drafted to better teams. The top-five players were all drafted by bottom-five teams, and yet they are in the Pro Bowl and of these players only Andre Johnson (Texans) and Chris Samuels (Redskins) play for teams that definitely won’t be making the playoffs. This is not a counterargument to Mr. Hnats claim that the draft is inexact so much as a reason to believe that drafting highest (not necessarily higher) does help teams win (since MVPs and Pro Bowlers come predominantly from winning teams and winning teams don’t usually draft very high).
*Playing for a good team is evidence Mr. Hnat uses in his article to further his argument. He writes:
Another way to look at the issue is by asking the question: how many top picks have led their teams to the Super Bowl? From 1999-2005, of the 35 players drafted in the first five slots, three (McNabb, Jamal Lewis, and Julius Peppers) have played in a Super Bowl for the team that drafted them. By contrast, in that same period, no fewer than six of the 25 players drafted in spots 11 through 15 helped their teams get to the big game..
Mr. Hnat is quick to point out that this evidence might be flimsy, and I agree, but for a different reason: Good teams draft lower, so it should be no surprise that team that drafted 11-15 drafted more players that went on to play in the Super Bowl in the last six years than teams that drafted in the top five. My guess is that players drafted 21-25 played in as many Super Bowls as those drafted 11-15, if not more, simply because they were drafted by better teams. It’s also worth noting that there are a lot of journeymen players who get picked up by good teams and stumble into the Super Bowl. Saying that a player is good just because he’s played in a championship game is kind of silly (this seems to be the general thrust of Mr. Hnat’s example). So “number of Super Bowls played in” is a fairly weak criterion for determining the productivity of a player.
*Higher draft picks are paid more, and the first and fourth and ninth and thirteenth draft picks in 2007 will be paid more than their 2006 or 2005 counterparts. But the salary cap in 2007 will be higher than it was in 2006, and as long as the cap grows at the same rate as contracts (I don’t know if it does) then the amount paid to a high draft picks from year to year doesn’t matter (well, it matters to owners). What matters is not the absolute amount of money paid to these players but the percentage of the salary cap paid to them. If higher draft picks are in each year paid a higher share of the salary cap, well, that would be a really good argument against really high draft picks (or more specifically, paying really high draft picks more and more money).
That said, the only money that definitely counts against the salary cap is the guaranteed money. Contracts in the NFL are not guaranteed so if a draft pick turns out the be a bust the team has the option of cutting him without paying the rest he’s owed on his contract. The only money he’s due is his signing bonus. So if Player A is drafted second and signs a $30 million contract and Player B is drafted eighth and signs a $23 million contract, it’s as crucial (if not more crucial) to look at the guaranteed money as it is to look at the whole sum due to the players. If Player A is only guaranteed $6 million while Player B is guaranteed $21 million, Player A is probably more financially attractive to his team. Whole sums don’t tell the whole story.
Again, I would return to the example of last year’s draft. The difference in guaranteed money last year between D’Brickashaw Ferguson, the fourth draft pick, and Donte Whitner, the eighth, was only four million dollars. This is the range of draft picks the Browns are playing for. Is a difference in four draft spots worth four million dollars? I don’t know, but when the salary cap is above $100 million four million dollars doesn’t seem too large a price to pay.
*Particularly this year. This draft class is deep. There are a number of big names (Quinn, Thomas, Johnson, Peterson, et al.) who many teams will be dying to take. Which brings me around to my final point regarding the draft: the Browns can always trade down. If the Browns secure the fourth pick there is no dictate requiring them to draft a player and then pay him the sort of money the fourth pick demands. The Browns could get the twelth pick Mr. Hnat would prefer, plus another second round pick, say, or a late first round pick. On a team with as many holes as the Browns — and given that the draft is an inexact science — having many, many picks sounds like a good idea. The prospect of having many, many picks increases the higher the Browns start in the draft. It’s hard to role a mid-round pick into a nice collection of lower picks, but the fourth pick in a really deep draft, well, rolling that into a nice collection of lower picks is not an impossible task. In this year’s draft there is no reason to think that the Browns would be better off with a lower pick.
To return to my article, I would like to make explicit my two (primary) arguments. First, the Browns ought to play the last two games of the season with an eye towards next season. Fellow Blurbs blogger Steve Buffum would liken it to September call-ups in baseball. You give a number of rookies a chance to play even though they might not be the best players to play if you want to win. Teams out of the playoff running, like the Royals or Marlins, probably finish with worse records for doing this than they might otherwise, but in the long term teams gain valuable insight on who can play, who can’t, and what must be addressed in the off season.
Second, rooting for your team to lose one or two games is not antithetical to being a fan. From time to time there are circumstances under which hoping your team loses makes sense, like when losing means the greater possibility of going further in the playoffs. Such was the case in the Clippers-Grizzlies game, and I would argue that the Clippers-Grizzlies game is somewhat analogous to the position the Browns are in right now. The difference in the Clippers-Grizzlies example is that losing would provide one team immediate gains — a better chance in the playoffs. The Browns losing does not provide immediate gains, but there is reason to believe that the team will be better in the long run if they do.
So I would rather see the Browns with the 4th draft pick and a final record of 4-12 than the 9th draft pick and a final record of 6-10, but I am only half-serious when I say that they should tank. I want them to lose, but I’d have a problem if they didn’t do everything possible to improve the chances of winning next season in the final two games of this season. Tanking would fall into that category. I think the team should play all the players they are unsure of (like Anderson) to get as good a look as possible at what these players might offer the team in the future. Playing these guys probably means losing, but I have no problem with this. Losing is the by-product under this scenario rather than the aim.
UPDATE: Derik Anderson is starting Sunday against the Bucs.