Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Discounting Draft Picks: The Deal for Brady Quinn

I found the deal for Brady Quinn fascinating because it involved valuing unknown quantities over different time spaces. What rationale did the Browns have for risking such a high future draft pick on a star which at least 13 other teams (picks #9-#22) passed on? I grouped some assumptions about discounting draft picks, and tried to think it over below.

Assumption #1: Short-term team performance is the only thing that matters
Assumption #2: Long-term team performance is the only thing that matters

By #1, the Browns absolutely made the right decision in trading for Brady Quinn this year. A cynic would point out that both Phil Savage and Romeo Crennel risk being fired if this year is not a success, and thus they are putting themselves ahead of the team in making this deal. But rookie QB’s from the draft rarely transform a team (with the slight exception of Vince Young). More importantly, the Browns have been losing for years, and the other teams in town are starting to win again. If the Browns don’t improve soon, Cleveland could become a baseball or basketball town instead.

By #2, the Browns made the wrong decision, because they have substantially hurt their prospects for next year. It’s doubtful that the Browns will have a winning record next year, and thus next year’s pick to Dallas will be higher than the #22 pick they got this year. Worse, they gave up a 2nd round pick as well.

I think #1 is closer to the truth than #2; so I’ll give the Browns a pass because of their desperate situation in terms of fan and owner impatience.

Assumption #3: The draft contains 10-15 star players at the top
Assumption #4: The draft contains 40-50 star players at the top

If most drafts aren’t that deep, as in #3, then the Browns made the right choice. (And Mel Kiper should be out of a job, then, if the talent pool is that shallow.) I am not sure that Brady Quinn was top 5, but I am pretty sure he was ranked a top 10 player. And it’s unlikely that the Browns will have two terrible seasons in a row; the law of averages should work in their favor. Their pick will probably be in the teens next year, as it was in 2006. Thus the Browns traded two average picks for a star; any team would make that move.

However, I believe in #4 in this situation. Here’s a handy rule of thumb for drafts in pro sports. To know the number of stars in the draft, take the number of players on the field (22 for football, not counting special teams; 5 for basketball) and multiply by two. So then, the NBA draft usually has 10 good players and the NFL draft thus has 44. The Browns traded two picks in the top 44 for one pick in the top 44. They did use it to select the second-ranked QB, which softens the impact of making that deal. There’s a bigger upside to success than there is at other positions. On the other hand, QB’s tend to fail more than any other position. (ESPN had a study on this; I believe QB failure was around 50%?).

I believe the Browns made the wrong decision here; #4 makes more sense than #3 to me.

Assumption #5: The key to escaping the NFL basement is fixing weak positions to become average: the key to becoming a Super Bowl contender is adding stars.
Assumption #6: The key to escaping the NFL basement is adding stars: the key to becoming a Super Bowl contender is fixing weak positions to become average

Which comes first, the chicken, or the egg? The superstars, or the solid role players that allow the superstars to look good? It’s a great question in this salary cap era, and one that I don’t think enough teams seriously consider.

I think it’s fair to say that QB is a weakness on the Browns. They have former 3rd and 6th round picks fighting for the starting job, with no veteran QB’s. However, #5 would say that they just needed to go out and get a Trent Green or Daunte Culpepper for a year. Drafting a rookie QB is not making a weak area average. It’s actually making it worse at first, as many rookie QB’s can’t keep up with the NFL game. And if he is a star, he’s just going to get pummeled because of the weak offensive line. However, the Browns have invested heavily in the line lately, so perhaps the line would be average in a year.

By #6, though, the Browns absolutely made the right decision. Sure, maybe Brady takes a bit of a beating for a few years, and runs for his life on some 8-8 teams. But if he’s a star, he’ll make the players around him better, and the team can stay competitive and fill in the holes in the team to get to the top.

I don’t know whether I believe in #5 or #6. Is it really a good idea to get your stars first, when you’ll have to trade them or risk them getting injured if the team around them is really bad? But without any stars, what about attendance? Teams underperform when they have no stars, as well, because they lack game-breaking talent. What do you think?

In the end, I think the draft graders have been a little quick to give the Browns an A on this pick. The only reason it makes sense is because the Browns are desperate. But if not, they shouldn’t have done it, because they essentially traded two for one and aren’t one player away from anything. As to whether you build with stars or role players, or with imported talent vs. homegrown, that’s a good post for another time. I want to come back to that question in the context of NBA, where it’s even more of a dilemma.

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