By Bill Barnwell
Hello! Welcome to the year’s first “Outside Foxborough”. I’ll be your host, Bill Barnwell. Although the column has a new name, this is the second year I’ll be penning a weekly column looking at the Patriots from the Football Outsiders perspective.
For those of you unfamiliar with our site, Football Outsiders is a website dedicated to analyzing the NFL through viewpoints not seen anywhere else. Primarily, that’s through our work in developing new metrics and means of judging performance that are more accurate than established measures like yards. Our primary metric, DVOA, measures performance against the league-average while accounting for context in ways that those traditional measures don’t, and are a better predictor of wins than the previous year’s performance. Now that I’ve explained all that, I’ll say that this week’s column has nothing to do with DVOA. In the future, I’ll explain DVOA and our statistics further when they come into play. Although our work has been featured in places like ESPN The Magazine and The New York Times and on FOXSports.com, if you enjoy these columns and want to read more of our work, I’d recommend you go out and purchase Pro Football Prospectus 2007, our annual that features essays on each team, original research looking at those teams, player and team projections, fantasy football information, and everything else you’ll need by your side come Sunday.
The archive of last year’s columns is available here; among other things, I looked at whether Deion Branch and Adam Vinatieri were worth the money, how wide receivers from different college conferences performed in the pros, the historical injury rates suffered by the Patriots defensive backs, and whether running quarterbacks age faster than pocket passers. Several of the essays were expanded and updated for PFP 2007.
This week’s column, though, was inspired by Cut Day, and what the Patriots did to get to the 53-man limit; namely, remove all their Day Two (Rounds 4 to 7 of the NFL Draft) draft picks short DT Kareem Brown, who might also have been cut had Richard Seymour been ready to play. While three of the players went to IR, the Patriots also cut four more players. This wouldn’t be surprising for some teams, but the Patriots have been known for their drafting acumen during the Belichick era. A look at the players they selected between 2002 and 2006 on the draft’s second day reveals several key Patriots that were found on Sunday in April instead of Saturday:
Not only did the Patriots find stars like Asante Samuel and Dan Koppen, but useful role players like Tully Banta-Cain, Jarvis Green, David Givens, Ryan O’Callaghan, and Willie Andrews have all came out of the later rounds of the draft. So it would seem to be a surprise, then, that the Patriots were only able to find one active roster spot for their Day Two picks this year. (G Clint Oldenburg has already been signed onto the practice squad.) While this is a deep, veteran team, it isn’t exactly a new situation for Belichick and Pioli.
Let’s evaluate Day Two, though, and see how the Patriots have done there. It’s sort of a forgotten day in the modern draft cycle; it gets sent to ESPN2, where most people don’t watch it, 99% of mock drafts don’t talk about it, and it’s seen as somewhat of a crapshoot for most, if not all teams. Of course, it’s precisely these areas seen as crapshoots or otherwise underappreciated that smart franchises like the Patriots exploit to their advantage.
To look at how teams did on Day Two, I went through the five drafts that took place between 2002 and 2006 and evaluated the results of each of the 799 players taken as measured by their games played and games started in the years following their selection. Games played and started were counted for all teams, not just the team who selected the player. You’ll also note the “Value” column above — that stands for Draft Value, as determined by the generic NFL Draft Value Chart, which you can find here. While the specific charts vary, the chart quantifies the value of a pick and assigns each a numerical value, ranging from 3000 to the first overall pick all the way down to two for the 224nd pick. (Since each of the drafts had more than 224 picks, I assigned all picks following #224 zero points.) The chart’s origins are attributed to Jimmy Johnson, and while it stands as a decent generic base for judging potential trades, I’m sure the Patriots’ chart is different from the one being used here.
The Games Played chart is led by the team that I believe has the best scouting of any team in the NFL right now, even if they don’t often receive the credit for it they deserve. Note that the “2002” column, for example, measures the number of games played over the past five years by people who were selected in that draft, while “2006” measures only those players who were selected in 2006.
The Baltimore Ravens franchise is impeccable at finding talent in the lower rounds and integrating them into their lineup (Adalius Thomas comes to mind). Amongst the other top teams, you see a mix of awful teams with nothing to lose in Tennessee and San Francisco, but then a series of relatively successful franchises, including the Patriots.
Indianapolis also stands out as a franchise who have often used Day Two picks, especially on defense, to fill in gaps. Keep in mind that this is strictly games played, so all a player needs to do is play one snap to count as much as someone who plays the full game. Matt Cassel has eight games played in his career. To see whose draft picks are really making a difference, we’ll need to look at the games started figures.
Again, the same mix of teams is near the top, even though the Ravens drop slightly. The 49ers in 2002 were the last team of the Steve Mariucci era, and the number of Day Two starts from that draft is due less to the quality of the players and more to the confluence of salary constrictions and the failure of both the Mariucci and Dennis Erickson eras to draft successfully on Day One. This is the franchise that chose Mike Rumph, Kwame Harris, and Rashaun Woods with successive first-round picks. The Colts and their Cover 2 guys are second, with players like David Thornton, Robert Mathis, Cato June, Jason David, and Antoine Bethea all stepping into starting roles.
Chicago, meanwhile, has Alex Brown, Ian Scott, Nathan Vasher, Kyle Orton (hey, he started 15 games), and Mark Anderson in their haul.The teams at the bottom of the list are also a mix of surprises and usual suspects. The Broncos are generally thought of as a team that drafts well, but all they have to show from Day Two over the timeframe is Elvis Dumervil, Jeb Putzier, and the argument against you being able to gain 1000 yards behind Denver’s offensive line, Quentin Griffin.
Pittsburgh’s also been famed for their drafting abilities for decades, and they unearthed contributors like Larry Foote, Brett Keisel, and Verron Haynes in 2002; after that, though, the well has gone dry. Chris Kemoeatu is a depth guy at defensive tackle, and Noah Herron got some carries in Green Bay, but no one else has really made the breakthrough into being a steady NFL player. On the other hand, Washington’s well-known for both trading away draft picks and making sure it has a very famous starting 24 with nothing else behind it, while Oakland and Detroit are the teams you associate with futility in everything.
The interesting thing here, and what surprised me when I was doing the research, is that there’s no consistent “year-after” effect where a team in salary cap hell or otherwise awful starts 15 second-day picks for two years in the hopes that a bunch make it through. There’s no correlation between a team’s wins the year before and the number of games played or started by their Day Two picks the year after, nor is there one between Day Two picks starting and the team’s wins that season.
Now that we’ve seen which teams are successful, we can look and see which positions have the best return on value.
Generally, we see running backs, receivers, linebackers, and defensive backs offering the best return on value, while quarterbacks and linemen tend to lag behind. Well, there’s a reason for that; those four positions make up the majority of special teams players, and many teams grab their special teamers from Day Two. Again, we’ll have to look at games started to get a clearer picture.
The first thing that stands out is those fourth-round tight ends! No wonder the Patriots went after Garrett Mills. Justin Peelle, George Wrighster, Darnell Sanders, Robert Royal, Donald Lee, Bo Scaife, Putzier, Courtney Anderson, and Owen Daniels have all seen plenty of playing time as starters, while Randy McMichael has started every game of his professional career. Fifth-round offensive linemen include Koppen, David Diehl, Tony Pashos, Jacob Bell, and Jake Scott. The clear trend is that late-round defensive players are more likely to be successful than offensive players (tight ends excluded), with skill-position players in particular lagging behind their defensive counterparts.
As you can see from the games started chart above, the numbers do seem to trend downwards as the draft goes along, which indirectly answers another question: Is there a point at which the draft becomes a crapshoot, and picks in one round are just as valuable as those from another round? The chart indicates that the answer is no, and it’s easy to confirm by checking for a correlation between draft value and both games started and games played.
The correlations are both positive (-.28 for games played and -.23 for games started) across all draft picks; if you remove the fourth round and just run the correlation for the fifth round on, the correlations are weaker, but still trend positive. The same is true for the sixth round. This means conventional wisdom is true; the draft becomes more of a crapshoot as it goes deeper, but a fourth-round pick is still much more valuable than a seventh-rounder.
So, with all this data compiled, we can finally look and see what we’d expect the average Day Two class to do in its rookie year. The result? 30.2 games played and 10.5 games started. It’ll be hard for Kareem Brown to accomplish that all by himself, no matter how long Richard Seymour is out for.
Bill Barnwell’s ‘Outside Foxborough’ will appear every Thursday. We welcome your comments here.