Why NFL Teams Should Take A “Moneyball” Approach To The Draft

Should Dion Jordan be a top 10 pick?

The NFL Draft will take place in New York starting on Thursday, April 25. All 32 NFL teams will try to project the athletic future of 22 year old men, while simultaneously trying to improve their teams. If the team’s really want to have a successful draft, they need to follow Billy Beane’s lead and take a “Moneyball” approach to the draft.

“Moneyball” was a book written by Michael Lewis which chronicled the Oakland Athletic’s philosophy of building a baseball organization. The A’s completely contradicted many of the accepted mores of professional baseball while taking an analytical approach to the game.  Beane was the general manager of the A’s and led this statistical revolution.

They used statistical analysis to decide who to draft and how to most effectively win baseball games. The “Moneyball approach” certainly has had its detractors, but it was effective in keeping a small market team like Oakland competitive with the bigger market teams like New York and Boston.

One of the central tenets to the philosophy was to draft production over tools. It was better to draft a college pitcher who threw 88 mph but had a career 1.90 ERA, than a high school pitcher who threw 95 mph but struggled to find the plate. The theory was that an athlete who has shown the ability to succeed at a more competitive level, is more likely to succeed as a professional than an athlete who has not faced that kind of competition.

A baseball player who dominates in college is more likely to dominate in the major leagues, than one who dominated in high school. Bill James has shown this many times through statistical analysis. NFL scouts and general managers should pay attention to James’ teachings.

You are better off taking a player in the NFL draft who showed the ability to dominate in college, than drafting on tools alone. Unfortunately, many scouts prefer the players with all the sexy combine results. You can see this phenomena in the 2013 draft when it comes to pass rushers.

Right now most mock NFL drafts project Oregon OLB/DE Dion Jordan to be selected in the top 10 picks. Jordan has prototype size at 6’6″ 248-pounds and ran the 40 at the NFL Combine in 4.60 seconds. He is coveted by NFL teams as a pass rusher.

Jordan had five sacks in 2012. His best season as a pass rusher was in 2011 when he tallied 7.5 sacks along with 13 tackles for loss. When you draft a pass rusher in the top 10 picks that means you expect him to get 10-plus sacks per season.

How can Jordan be expected to get 10 sacks per season in the NFL when he never approached that number in college? He was not an elite pass rusher in college, while going up against much less talented offensive linemen than he will face on Sundays.

Contrast Jordan’s projection with that of Texas A&M defensive end Damontre Moore. The junior from Rowlett, TX tallied 12.5 sacks as a junior and was projected as a first round draft pick until he ran a 4.95 40 at the NFL Combine and struggled on the bench press.

Now many project Moore to be selected in the second round of the draft, despite the fact that he has proven that he is an elite pass-rusher in the toughest conference in America. There are scouts out there who would select Jordan over Moore simply because Jordan ran the 40 yard dash .35 second quicker than Moore.

That would be logical if the quarterback was 40 yards away from the line of scrimmage, but he is not. Moore has repeatedly proven that he can get to the quarterback more often than Jordan can.

Dwight Freeney stands 6’1″ and weighs 268 lbs. That is too short to be a defensive end in the NFL according to most scouts. The Indianapolis Colts selected Freeney with the No. 11 overall pick in the 2002 NFL Draft because he registered 17.5 sacks for Syracuse during the 2001 season. He showed the ability to get to the quarterback so the Colts overlooked his lack of ideal height and selected him.

Freeney has been a to the Pro Bowl seven times and is the Colts’ all-time sack leader with 107.5 career sacks. He did not have the prototype size to succeed in the NFL, but he proved he could be a dominant pass-rusher in college and that continued in the NFL.

The best pass-rusher in Indianapolis Colts’ history.

In 2002 Terrell Suggs set an NCAA single-season record with 24 sacks. He then went and ran a 4.84 in the 40 at the NFL Combine. Many scouts felt that 4.84 was too slow for a 6’3″ pass-rusher so they passed on him in the draft. Baltimore selected him with the No. 10 overall pick of the 2003 draft.

Suggs was the 2003 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year after posting 12 sacks. He was named the NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 2011 after recording 14 sacks. Suggs has played in five Pro Bowls and is the Ravens’ career sacks leader. He helped Baltimore win the 2012 Super Bowl.

Both Freeney and Suggs did not fit the scouts “ideal” for the position. Both players showed that they were dominating pass-rushers in college and that extended to the NFL.

Jerry Rice dropped down to San Francisco at the No. 16 selection in the 1985 draft because he only ran a 4.6 40 for the scouts. As a junior in college he set an NCAA record with 102 receptions. Rice’s senior season included NCAA records for receptions with 107 and receiving touchdowns with 27.

No receiver had ever dominated the college game like Rice had, but he dropped in the draft because of a poor 40 time. He proceeded to become the greatest wide receiver to ever play the game in the NFL.

Contrast Rice’s draft experience with that of former Maryland wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey. The Oakland Raiders made Heyward-Bey the No. 7 overall pick in the 2009 NFL Draft.

Heyward-Bey’s best season at Maryland was his sophomore season in which he caught 51 passes for 786 yards. He had 13 career touchdown receptions in college. Heyward-Bey ran a 4.25 40 at the NFL Combine so he jumped up the draft boards.

When you take a wide receiver with a top ten pick, the expectation is that he will be a dominant receiver who will catch 70-80 passes per year for at least 1,000 yards receiving. Heyward-Bey never showed the ability to be that kind of prolific playmaker in college.

In the NFL he has averaged 35 catches for 517 yards and about three touchdowns per season. In college he averaged 46 receptions for 696 yards and four touchdowns per season. He never showed the ability to dominate in college, so why did anyone think he would be a dominant receiver in the NFL?

If you want to know how a player is going to perform in the NFL, look at how he performed in college. In investing they like to say that “past performance is not an indicator of future success.” In the NFL it often is an indication of future success.

Those who dominate in college are more apt to dominate at the next level than someone who simply has a few tools that jump out to scouts. NFL scouts need to to follow Billy Beane’s lead and draft based on performance, and not simply on a “good face.”





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  • Brian

    You can find just as many examples of players who dominated in college, but failed in the NFL because they couldn’t handle the size, strength, and speed of most NFL veterans. The NFL draft is a game of Roulette, you bet on a couple of numbers, and hope fully one or two of them hit.