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Revisionism, Absolutism and Draft Grades

Update: I wanted to clarify something. I’m don't think looking back at past drafts, seeing what a GM values or overvalues, is at all a bad thing. I don’t think evaluating the overall success of a draft after a period of time is a bad thing either.

What I was speaking about is “Re-Drafts” and results based analysis. Beyond the inherent flaw, that being the inability of the person writing in the present to divorce themselves from all they know now and the team couldn’t know then, it’s also illogical because it assumes that had, say, another team drafted Frank Gore, that Gore’s career would have been identical except with a different team. Once you change any part of the past, all that follows is unknowable. Further, how players fit within a system, the talent of the other players they join, and how each influences the other, is inseparably linked to how we evaluate a player. If Joseph Addai hadn’t been drafted by the Colts, but instead by Kansas City or Baltimore, would we think Addai the same quality back?

So, with regards to what Mr. Rose and others have said, I’m not saying there isn’t value in evaluating a GM by his past drafts. I’m not saying their isn’t value in looking at drafts from the past, learning what worked, what didn’t. I’m only saying that for the commentator, it’s only fair to judge a draft when it happens. With the same ammunition the GM has. Otherwise, it’s not unlike telling me last week’s winning lotto numbers.

. . .

This nugget is making the rounds, so I apologize for picking on Mike Florio, who runs the indispensable Pro Football Talk , but I’ve stands as much as I can stands, and I can stands no more.

Every year at this time (actually, we can’t recall ever doing it before), we hand out our grades for the NFL draft.

Coincidentally, every team gets the same grade:  Incomplete.

There’s no way of knowing for sure who will or won’t succeed at the next level until they enter the arena at the next level and show what they can do.  If anyone knew for sure, the future Hall of Famers would always be the first few guys taken.  Next would come the players who’ll make it to four or five Pro Bowls.

I completely disagree. Florio’s killing the exception and arguing absurdity:

So, because not every early pick turns into a HOFer, you cannot in any way evaluate a draft? That's insubstantial and misleading. It presents an either/or argument that implies either we know X for certain, or X is completely unknowable.

Lets take this to its logical end. If we really can’t grade a draft, than we can’t grade the individual picks within a draft. Then I certainly couldn’t argue something like this.

JaMarcus Russell did not deserve to be drafted first overall in 2007. He struggled to win the starting job at LSU, losing that position to future 7th round pick Matt Flynn Russell's sophomore season. Russell was surrounded by pro caliber receiving talent. He also ran one of the more fundamental offenses in college football. Much of the hype surrounding Russell stemmed from his arm strength, a notorious red herring, and the way his team, LSU, dominated his chief rival’s team, Brady Quinn and Notre Dame, respectively. Russell was a known loafer, panicked under pressure and had trouble both learning an offense and reading a defense. It was a very risky pick and deserves a negative evaluation.

It's not any more unreasonable to evaluate any pick on available knowledge. How did a player perform in college? Was he a starter and for how long? What was the level of surrounding talent? What was the level of opposing talent? Has this person shown drive in all his pursuits? Consistent achievement? How was he evaluated by scouts? Known Red Flags: injury history, criminal history, conditioning problems, conflicts with coaches, etc. It doesn't mean you'll be right, but throwing your hands up and saying the draft is a crapshoot is nonsense. That most draft grades are given by people with poor analytical skills, bogus methods, or unwillingness to research and fact check doesn't mean that draft grades are in of themselves stupid or irrelevant.

Sorry, this is bordering on a screed, but absolutist thinking drives me nuts. For certain, a draft involves a great deal of uncertainty, but grades can be given and those grades can be founded on facts and logic.

The popular counterargument is that a draft can only be evaluated after 3 years or 5 years or whathaveyou. That, of course, is fundamentally flawed. You CANNOT judge a past draft, because you are privy to knowledge the people drafting could not have possibly known. It’s basic revisionism. In the 2006 draft, Marcus McNeill fell to the third round because he suffers from spinal stenosis. SS is a potentially debilitating condition, and teams were rightfully wary of drafting an offensive lineman with a potentially debilitating condition. His first season, McNeill went to the Pro Bowl.

Proponents of the revisionist argument took this chance to trumpet how inaccurate drafting could be. Except, those who questioned McNeill’s longterm viability were right then, and are beginning to look right now. McNeill allowed nearly twice as many sacks in 2007 (9.5) as he did in 2006 (5). The Chargers run blocking declined, and McNeill’s particular territory, left tackle, fell from 4th in adjusted line yards to 28th . Anecdotal evidence buttresses these facts; McNeill looked stiffer and slower – as if he were suffering from a debilitating back condition.

A logical argument could be made, at the time of the draft, that McNeill was a far riskier pick than others in his class. No one questioned his ability. McNeill performed ably his first season but already looks to be validating concerns about his future. An intelligent grader should evaluate all these facts, including the inherent risk/reward of taking a potential franchise tackle in the 3rd round, and provide an appropriate grade. An illogical critic can take that man to task because McNeill has a solid first season. Draft grades aren’t perfect, they’re too simple and obviously will hit and miss, but they are, done right, a reasoned, realistic assessment of a team’s draft when the draft happened. Revisionist grades are utterly worthless.