Why Selecting Best Player Available in NFL Draft a Myth
If you are a casual reader of Dallas Cowboys Times, you may gloss over the comments at the bottom of each post. If you have the time, I highly recommend delving into those thoughts in greater detail, as I consider many of them to be just as intriguing and thought-provoking as the actual articles.
As the draft approaches, one of the topics we’ve begun to discuss in those comments is complex draft strategy. With the Cowboys in a bit of an awkward position with the ninth overall selection, a lot of opinions have been put forth regarding what the team should do in that spot. Try to trade down? Select the best player available? Select the best player available at a position of need?
Like many (or even most) of the long-held NFL “truisms,” the concept of selecting the BPA (best player available) is mistaken. As is the case with punting on 4th and 1 or always kicking extra points, selecting the BPA will actually lead to sub-par results.
But what about all the NFL GMs, such as the Colts’ Bill Polian or the Ravens’ Ozzie Newsome, who claim they always select the BPA? Well, they’re lying. No general manager always selects the BPA. Many, however, select the BPA at a position of need.
While there are various sub-sets of strategies inherent to this particular philosophy, I plan to show that, contrary to just about anything else you’ll read concerning draft strategy, selecting the BPA at a position of need is also an inefficient means of drafting.
The key to this strategy is a concept I’ve discussed in a few of my fantasy football articles–VORP (value over replacement player). The term actually arose from Sabermetrics–a means of objective baseball analysis which was a primary impetus for the creation of this site.
In any event, I’ve defined VORP in the past:
In a nutshell, VORP means selecting not the player with the most projected points, but the player with the largest disparity of projected points compared to the next player at the same position who you could secure in a later round.
If you read between the lines, you can see game theory is really the backbone of this strategy. To effectively maximize value, it is critical to understand perceived worth.
Let’s take a real world example. Suppose the Cowboys’ top-rated player, for some strange reason, is Temple’s Muhammad Wilkerson. According to their board, Wilkerson is the best player available and, even better, he fits a position of need.
Is it intelligent to select Wilkerson at No. 9 overall? Of course not! Even if the ‘Boys truly believe Wilkerson will be the best player to come out of this draft, their knowledge of other teams’ thoughts on Wilkerson must be at the forefront of their own draft strategy. You can see with this simple example why bypassing the BPA is often a prudent strategy.
Now, let’s take a more realistic example–one I’ve been discussing for weeks–the OT/DE dilemma. If the Cowboys secure a free safety in free agency, these two positions will undoubtedly be their greatest needs. I’ve even projected the Cowboys to select Alabama’s Marcell Dareus (who would play defensive end in Dallas) in my Cowboys mock draft and my 32-team mock draft.
The reason? I think Dareus will be the top player left on Dallas’ board–high enough that bypassing VORP may be a prudent strategy in this case. But how do we determine this? How do we know when selecting the BPA at a position of need is the optimal means by which to maximize value, and when does VORP override this?
Simple math. For the sake of simplicity, let’s assume the ‘Boys will select a defensive end and an offensive tackle in the first two rounds, but they’re unsure of the order. Now, let’s provide a numerical value to the possible targets. As a guide, we will use the NFL draft trade value chart and my own 2011 NFL Draft Big Board to assign these values.
As I’ve already proposed, let’s assume Dareus (ranked No. 2 on my Big Board) is available for the Cowboys. At that ranking, he’s worth a whopping 2,600 points. As I’ve argued in the past, however, I think there is a major problem with selecting a defensive end in the first round. By the time the Cowboys’ 40th selection rolls around, there is zero chance that a top-tier offensive tackle will be left on the board. My top five tackles–Tyron Smith, Ben Ijalana, Anthony Castonzo, Gabe Carimi, and Derek Sherrod–will almost certainly be gone by the second-round.
Thus, the top offensive tackle that is left to pair with Dareus, according to my personal Big Board, is Alabama’s James Carpenter. . .all the way down at No. 71 overall. According to the value chart, that selection is worth 235 points, bringing the Dareus/Carpenter duo to 2,835 combined points. Certainly our VORP has been compromised, as Carpenter is terrible value in the second-round. But is Dareus’ BPA status enough to compensate?
To determine this, let’s project the Cowboys’ possible selections if they take an offensive tackle in the first-round. At No. 9, the ‘Boys may very well have their pick of the litter, and according to my board, Tyron Smith (No. 8 overall) is that guy. The eighth overall selection is worth only 1,400 points–a far cry from the 2,600 that we assigned to Dareus.
We can already see the Dareus/Carpenter duo is going to win out. Even if the Cowboys somehow land Cal’s Cameron Jordan in the second-round (which is clearly a pipe dream), his 14th overall ranking–worth 1,100 points–would still bring the Smith/Jordan duo to only 2,500 overall points–335 behind Dareus and Carpenter.
**It’s worth noting that, although the optimal tandem turned out to be that which was comprised of the BPA, the process by which we discovered that was still VORP. Thus, teams will often arrive at the right selection, but implement the wrong method of getting there. Selecting the correct player helps you now, but selecting the correct player by utilizing the proper draft strategy will help you in the future.
Of course, the Cowboys are very unlikely to assign value in a manner as crude as that which I used here. I think I’m safe if claiming they’d prefer Smith and Jordan to Dareus and Carpenter. Plus, they could probably acquire a top offensive tackle following a trade down, and if the extra pick they receive is north of 335 “value points,” the math shifts to favor Smith/Jordan.
If for some reason the math does play out as above, however, the Cowboys need to follow the numbers. Mathematics often leads to counterintuitive results, but the teams which disregard their “gut” and utilize the numbers on draft day are generally the most successful. Remember, the “gut feelings” are already implemented into a team’s rankings (whether they admit to it or not). Draft day is not the time to follow hunches.
To display just how counterintuitive VORP can be, let’s assume the ‘Boys have the same rankings as above, but list Dareus as the No. 3 overall player on their board, dropping his value from 2,600 to 2,200. This minor alteration drastically alters draft strategy, as the Smith/Jordan combination now becomes the optimal manner in which to maximize value (Note: I have a feeling someone is going to argue “But Jordan will never be available in the second-round.” This is irrelevant, as you can throw anyone’s name in there. I used my own Big Board, so Jordan was the guy I chose, but it could be Illinois’ Corey Liuget, Ohio State’s Cameron Heyard, or anyone else you think might be available in the second-round. As long as they are No. 14 overall, it doesn’t matter).
In the example above, you can see why bypassing the BPA, even at a position of need, is optimal. In that theoretical scenario, the Cowboys used game theory and VORP to temporarily pass on maximum value (Dareus over Smith), knowing they’d be able to compensate later in the draft. In that way, you can see VORP is an all-encompassing draft strategy that leads to greater ultimate value than BPA–a more short-sighted draft philosophy which disregards the future in favor of optimal value right now. Would you rather have $100 today (BPA) or $500 tomorrow (VORP)?
The latter example is also one which I think will be relevant on draft day. Assuming the Cowboys target an offensive tackle and defensive end in the first two rounds, I really believe VORP will be a key player in their decisions. Unless the team can secure a top-two player in their No. 9 spot, I don’t see any way that selecting a defensive end will lead to optimal drafting efficiency. There is next to zero chance that a top offensive tackle will be available for them in the second-round, meaning the replacement player’s value won’t compensate for the team “sticking to their board” in the first-round.
Ultimately, draft strategy is a highly complex philosophy. Despite popular consensus, drafting the BPA often leads to poor value, as does drafting the BPA at a position of need. To truly garner the best results, a team must not only take their own rankings into consideration, but they must also utilize an understanding of other teams’ beliefs.