The NFL’s use of analytics is like Colin Farrell’s acting career: It gets lots of attention, but it seriously lacks substance. Perhaps the latest statistical head scratcher is the Rams’ trade for the first overall pick in this year’s 2016 NFL draft, which starts tonight. The first pick is sexy, and it’s even sexier debuting a first overall pick at your homecoming in Los Angeles. But for the love of Milton Burrell what does the research say about the utility of the first overall pick in general? And, more specifically, what’s it say about presumptive #1 pick, Jared Goff?
1. The first overall pick is actually the least valuable pick of the first round due to highest expected performance and highest salary.
2. The same analysis found that trading down in the draft (in every 2 for 1 trade made) is an overwhelmingly better decision than trading up.
Our first guess is that there must be overwhelming evidence that Jared Goff is better than advertised; maybe the Rams have really done their homework. But without concrete knowledge about how these players will perform in the future, wouldn’t you want to err on the side of caution? Isn’t this why research exists in the first place? Especially when the first pick will cost you around $22 million over the next 4 years.
Desperation breeds bad decisions
As anyone who’s ever made a questionable decision outside of a bar at 2am can tell you, being desperate may not lead to our most sound, logical decisions. Indeed, decades of research in psychology, economics, and decision-making are pretty clear: Stress and other similar negative emotional states influence the decisions that we make (Starcke & Brand reviewed this topic in a 2012 paper). The crux of this research is that stress results in attention narrowing, where people focus only on certain aspects of a decision, thus compromising their ability to weigh costs and benefits. In other words, people often switch from rational (trading for the first pick won’t pay off in the long run) to irrational (trading for the first pick will make a big splash and keep me from getting fired!).
How the C listers do it
Since the Rams hired him in 2012, coach Jeff Fisher hasn’t had a winning season. The Rams won 7 games last year, and haven’t reached 8 wins (.500!) during Fisher’s tenure. In fact, Fisher hasn’t had a winning season since 2008, when he coached the Tennessee Titans (Kerry Collins started 15 games at QB). From an NFL coaching change study by Roach (2013) 1 , the average NFL coach should win an average of 8.4 games in their 4th season with the same team — that’s more than 1 more win than Fisher’s Rams have ever won during his tenure. Going into 2016, Roach’s findings indicate that in Fisher’s 5th season with Rams, they should be expected to win around 9 games.
Winning an extra two games in the NFL isn’t easy — especially in a division as tough as the NFC West, which is home two legitimate contenders in the Cardinals (13-3) and Seahawks (10-6). All of this to say: Coach Fisher and GM Les Snead might be feeling a wee bit of pressure to make a splash and win some games. Fisher’s already been put on the hot seat.
How the A listers do it
Job security in the NFL is a question of causation. Does Bill Belichick have job security and therefore can afford to not sacrifice future picks to fulfill immediate needs? Or, because he savvily trades down in the draft time and time again, he accrues greater value than other teams, wins more games, and ensures his job security? He’s the living embodiment of not necessarily winning the NFL draft, but making sure he doesn’t lose it. Belichick’s Pats simply don’t make overhyped, underperforming picks very often.
Don’t be the gossip column
The Rams have followed the Belichick strategy in the past by trading down in the draft (recall the RG3 pick trade in 2012) — and it seems to have worked in their favor. So why trade up this time?
Even if Goff turns out to be a good pick, football teams are not built on one big flashy player. Successful teams are made up of unsung, hard working grinders that often don’t make the sports section. The Rams are setting themselves up for a unfortunate precedent; more gossip column than Oscar winner.
1 Roach, M.A. (2013). Mean reversion or a breath of fresh air? The effect of NFL coaching changes on team performance in the salary cap era. Applied Economics Letters, 20, 1553-1556↩