Scouting Football Talent – Boom or Bust?

Chris Gross of recently submitted this question to The Football Educator;

The phrase “boom or bust potential” is often used a lot when discussing draft prospects. What is the best method of evaluation to measure both the floor and ceiling of a prospect, and what is used to determine whether or not the reward will outweigh the risk? 

My immediate reaction to the question was this – “If we had the exact answer to that question then we’d all be seven figure General Managers in the National Football League!”

Either way you look at it

If only it were that easy.  The National Football League is entering into a period perplexing to me as a former General Manager.  If you’re a college football fan, this is a time to cheer on your outgoing seniors (in some cases juniors) as they enter professional football.  Speculation as to where they’ll fall is at the forefront of every tweet, blog, article, post, video clip and nightly sportscast across the country.  If you’re invested in your school or a particular player, then the pecking order would be of interest.

If you’re inclined to follow professional football, the draft is more about adding talent to maintain or improve your club’s chances of success on Sundays.  With a limited entering player pool, there are only so many at each position to go around.  We anxiously await where the elite players will fall and then pontificate how they’ll supplement or detract from our team’s current on the field efforts.

Sharp opinions

“Boom or bust”, it’s black or white.  “This class is deep, this class is lacking, this class has none,” and so it goes.  I wish just once fans could see the actual process at work.  They’d fully comprehend that scouting football talent and building draft boards is nothing like the hype and circumstance presented to capture their never ending attention.  The college talent pool can only support so many elite players at each position in any given year.  The best way to determine how deep that goes is through historical NFL draft data and those numbers stay relatively consistent.

The numbers tell a story

There are a number of studies that show where the vast majority of long term productive NFL players are picked in the NFL draft.  A lot of fans will argue that you can find GREAT players deep into the 5th, 6th, or even 7th rounds.  However these are truly the exceptions, not the rule.  For every Tom Brady taken in the 6th, many a player never even sees the field selected in a similar position.

3 studies that I like to incorporate into my own thoughts are;

  • “Where 2-Deep rosters come from” by Joe Landers. (By position & round, % of players that are 1st & 2nd string)
  • “Can you avoid a bust” by Chad Reuters.  (Players that start 56 games over their first 5 years; position & round %)
  • “Sudden Impact” by Joe Landers (what positions outperform the average veteran as rookies)

The key to using statistical data and working it into your decision making process is coupling it with sound scouting reports, thoroughly detailed and across a broad spectrum of perspectives (coaching and scouting).

I recently tweeted the following that surprised a number of fans;

Already out of the #NFL – by draft year; (11%) 2011, (20%) 2010, (35%) 2009, (42%) 2008, (54%) 2007

Best of the best

Over half a draft class won’t even make it to free agency.   Joe Landers found that the highest percentage of 2-Deeps are made up of 1st and 2nd round selections, then undrafted free agents!  As an example, from 2009-20011, 36% of 2-Deep RB’s came from the 1st round, another 14% from the 2nd round, and an additional 14% from undrafted free agency.  Half of all 2-Deep RB’s come from the first 64 picks of the annual NFL Draft.  On average that number is around 6, with the total usually right around 20.

For a vast majority of players, the fate of their career is already determined as “boom or bust” by the natural order of selection, though a small few will go on to be highly productive players regardless of the sequence.  Success or failure shouldn’t be determined on how well a club matched the guru’s board top to bottom, but rather based on picks one, two, and perhaps maybe three.  Focus needn’t be on the Top 10 at each position, but in many cases about half that.  The rest is left to chance, and a myriad of factors that could make you the next Terrell Davis or more possibly another forgotten 6th round selection.

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