Tuesday, April 23, 2024

The NFL Draft: Are Teams Getting Better at Selecting Talent?

On Thursday, we will have the NFL Draft in which each team selects college players.   The draft has become a major television event, and an entire industry of analysts, scouts, and analytics gurus has emerged to flood the airwaves with "expert" commentary.  Teams have invested heavily in their scouting departments, and the assessment tools and analytics they use to select players are allegedly far more advanced than they were decades ago.  With that in mind, I decided to analyze the selection of quarterbacks in the first round over the decades.  I chose to analyze quarterbacks since that is the most important position on the field today.   You can see some interesting trends, although the 1990s appear to be a bit of an aberration (fewer stars and more busts than other decades).  Thus, I decided to compare the 1970s and 1980s to the two most recent complete decades (2000s and 2010s).  Here are a few observations:

  • Teams are selecting more quarterbacks in the first round now than they did years ago.  We shouldn't be surprised at this fact, given that the passing game is much more important today.   Teams are clearly investing in a position which has much more value and contributes more to winning today than 50 years ago.  In the period from 1970-1989, teams selected 1.9 quarterbacks per year in the first round.  That number rose to 2.8 quarterbacks per year in the period from 2000-2019.  
  • Despite the advanced scouting and analytics, and the tremendous investment in talent evaluation today, teams are not any better at identifying stars than they were in the past.  50% of the quarterbacks selected in the first round from 1970-1989 made at least one Pro Bowl.   Did the NFL general managers improve their hit rate in more recent years?  Not one iota.  50% of the quarterbacks picked in the first round from 2000-2019 made the Pro Bowl at least once.  No improvement despite all that work to allegedly improve talent evaluation!  
  • How many champions did the teams identify in these years?  From 1970-1989, 8 of the 38 quarterbacks selected in the first round were the starting quarterbacks on Super Bowl championship teams.  That equates to 21% of the players selected.  From 2000-2019, only 5 of the 56 quarterbacks chosen in the first round have won a Super Bowl (just 9%).  Now, that number is lower, in part, because some of these players have many years left in their career.  Others will surely win Super Bowls.  It is also lower because a certain quarterback drafted in the 6th round, who played here in New England, won so many championships since 2000.  Having said that, the fact is that many of the most elite quarterbacks in NFL history win multiple championships. Thus, a small set of quarterbacks end up champions.  Consider that 5 players have won 36% of the Super Bowls ever played (Brady, Bradshaw, Montana, Aikman, and Mahomes).   12 players have won 60% of the Super Bowls ever played! Thus, the chances of selecting a future champion remain very low, despite all the investment in talent evaluation.  
What are the lessons from this analysis?  Can business leaders learn anything from the NFL draft?  First, if a certain type of talent becomes more valuable, don't count on simply improving your ability to identify future stars when recruiting and hiring.   You may need to simply recruit more people, knowing that your hit rate might not improve much despite new analytics tools.  Second, in some businesses, a few truly elite talents can have an unusually large impact on organizational success.  Yes, we like to emphasize that business is a team sport, much like football.  Yet, there is no way we can simply ignore that 60% of the championships in this sport have been won by 12 quarterbacks over nearly 6 decades.   Of course, they had tremendous talent around them, and great coaching, but still the impact of these individuals at this most important position is quite extraordinary.  Third, beware of the hype around various talent evaluation tools.  Yes, analytics can be helpful, as can other new tools for evaluating talent.  However, we should be skeptical of those who claim that these new tools and methods can dramatically improve our ability to identify top talent.  Beware the hype! 

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