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Matt Ryan, Brian Brohm, and the right to choose

Posted by Jason Lisk on March 3, 2008

Matt Ryan is the consensus first quarterback who will be selected in the NFL draft. For example, this site has links to numerous mock drafts on the internet. Ryan is the first quarterback projected in virtually all of the mock drafts linked. However, there is less consensus on where he will go, with some placing him at the first overall, others somewhere in the top five, and the majority having him in the 8th slot to Baltimore. This is similar to what we see from the national draft pundits.

Almost universally, then, Matt Ryan is accepted as the top prospect. The next prospect on most draft boards is Brian Brohm. Chad Henne and Andre Woodson also appear in the majority of top 50 selections in mock drafts. Joe Flacco of Delaware rounds out the top 5 and is placed in the top 50 in about half of the mock drafts. There is almost uniform consensus that those are the top five quarterbacks available, as I did not see any others in anyone's top 50.

So, what is the likelihood that Matt Ryan will actually be better than Brian Brohm, the only other one who is unanimously somewhere in the top 50?

In their NFL Draft study, which Doug has previously discussed in detail here, here, and here, Massey and Thaler discuss some concepts that bear upon the issue of teams selecting quarterbacks in the first round.

One is what they refer to as "non-regressive predictions", which I would paraphrase as the failure to regress player predictions based on past information and history. And as Massey-Thaler point out, "[i]ndeed, to be regressive is to admit to a limited ability to differentiate the good from the great, and it is this skill that has secured NFL scouts and general managers their jobs." I would add "year round draft gurus" to that list.

The other issue is overconfidence (and thus overvaluing the right to choose). According to Massey-Thaler, as teams gain more information on a player (i.e., the Senior Bowl, the combine, individual workouts), they may gain in confidence about their ability to select players, without making significant gains in their true ability to actually differentiate.

I'll try to regress player predictions by actually looking at history, and examining cases where at least two quarterbacks were selected in the top 60 picks in a draft, to see how quarterbacks selected in the first round do head to head with those players selected in close proximity thereafter. Here is a list of all drafts where two or more quarterbacks were drafted in the top 60 selections, going all the way back to the first AFL-NFL common draft in 1967. If you have time, you can reminisce about the amazing 1972 draft. If you just want to get to the results, feel free to skip on down.

1967:  Steve Spurrier (3), Bob Griese (4), Don Horn (25), Bob Davis (30)
1968: Greg Landry (11), Gary Beban (30), Mike Livingston (48), Ken Stabler (52), Gary Davis (56)
1969:  Greg Cook (5), Marty Domres (9), Terry Hanratty (30), Bobby Douglass (41), Al Woodall (52)
1970:  Terry Bradshaw (1), Mike Phipps (3), Dennis Shaw (30), Bill Cappleman (51)
1971:  Jim Plunkett (1), Archie Manning (2)  vs. Dan Pastorini (3), Lynn Dickey (56), Leo Hart (59)
1972:  Jerry Tagge (11), John Reaves (14), Pat Sullivan (40)
1973:  Bert Jones (2), Gary Huff (33), Ron Jaworski (37), Gary Keithley (45), Joe Ferguson (57)
1975:  Steve Bartkowski (1), Mike Franckowiak (54)
1976:  Richard Todd (6), Mike Kruczek (47), Jeb Blount (50)
1977:  Steve Pisarkiewicz (19), Tommy Kramer (27), Glenn Carano (54)
1978:  Doug Williams (17), Matt Cavanaugh (50), Guy Benjamin (51)
1979:  Jack Thompson (3), Phil Simms (7), Steve Fuller (23)
1980:  Marc Wilson (15), Mark Malone (28), Gene Bradley (37)
1981:  Rich Campbell (6), Neil Lomax (33)
1982:  Art Schlicter (4), Jim McMahon (5), Oliver Luck (44), Matt Kofler (48)
1983:  John Elway (1), Todd Blackledge (7), Jim Kelly (14), Tony Eason (15), Ken O'Brien (24), Dan Marino (27)
1984:  Boomer Esiason (38), Jeff Hostetler (59)
1985:  Randall Cunningham (37), Frank Reich (57)
1986:  Jim Everett (3), Chuck Long (12), Jack Trudeau (47)
1987:  Vinny Testaverde (1), Kelly Stouffer (6), Chris Miller (13), Jim Harbaugh (26) 
1989:  Troy Aikman (1), Mike Elkins (32), Billy Joe Tolliver (51)(10,760)
1990:  Jeff George (1), Andre Ware (7), Tommy Hodson (59)
1991:  Dan McGwire (16), Todd Marinovich (24), Brett Favre (33), Browning Nagle (34)
1992:  David Klingler (6), Tommy Maddox (25), Matt Blundin (40), Tony Sacca (46)
1993:  Drew Bledsoe (1), Rick Mirer (2), Billy Joe Hobert (58)
1994:  Heath Shuler (3), Trent Dilfer (6)
1995:  Steve McNair (3), Kerry Collins (5), Todd Collins (45), Kordell Stewart (60)
1997:  Jim Druckenmiller (26), Jake Plummer (42)
1998:  Peyton Manning (1), Ryan Leaf (2), Charlie Batch (60)
1999:  Tim Couch (1), Donovan McNabb (2), Akili Smith (3),  Daunte Culpepper (11), Cade McNown (12), Shaun King (50) 
2001:  Michael Vick (1), Drew Brees (32), Quincy Carter (53), Marques Tuiasasopo (59) 
2002:  David Carr (1), Joey Harrington (3), Patrick Ramsey (32) 
2003:  Carson Palmer (1), Byron Leftwich (7), Kyle Boller (19), Rex Grossman (22)
2004:  Eli Manning (1) vs. Philip Rivers (4), Ben Roethlisberger (11), J.P. Losman (22)
2005:  Alex Smith (1), Aaron Rodgers (24), Jason Campbell (25) 
2006:  Vince Young (3), Matt Leinart (10), Jay Cutler (11), Kellen Clemens (49)
2007:  JaMarcus Russell (1), Brady Quinn (22), Kevin Kolb (36), John Beck (40), Drew Stanton (43) 

Now, what I did was put each quarterback in a head to head competition with all others selected in the top 60. As an aside, one of the cool new features of p-f-r's draft lists is that you can sort them by any of the header rows, so if you want to know who threw for the fifth most career passing yards from the class of 1971, you can find that rather quickly.

In my head to head competition, I used two different standards. In one, I gave a win if a quarterback threw for 3,000 or more career yards than another, and a tie if they were within 3,000 yards. In the other, I used 10,000 as the benchmark for needing a "win". Here are the head to head results, sorted by draft position within the top 60, for the draft classes through 2003. Now, is career passing yards the best indicator, no, but its simple and easy to sort, and for the most part does a good enough job with what we are looking at here, namely, comparing players from the same draft class. For example, in looking at the 1999 draft class, Donovan McNabb gets 4 wins (Couch, Akili Smith, McNown, and Shaun King) and 1 tie (Culpepper) in both groups, while Tim Couch gets 3 wins and 2 losses in the 3,000 yard group, but 0 wins, 2 losses, and 3 ties in the 10,000 yards group.

                 3,000 yards difference              10,000 yards difference
selection        W       L       T       PCT     W       L       T       PCT
1st pick	30	 4	 3	0.85	22	 2	13	0.77
2 to 5	        28	19	11	0.58	21	12	25	0.58
6 to 10	         7	12	 7	0.40	 5	 9	12	0.42
11 to 20	16	17	12	0.49	13	13	19	0.50
21 to 30	16	16	 6	0.50	10	10	18	0.50
31 to 40	13	11	 7	0.53	12	 8	11	0.56
41 to 50	 3	17	10	0.27	 1	15	14	0.27
51 to 60	 6	25	 4	0.23	 3	20	12	0.26

The First Overall Picks fare pretty well head to head against their peers, and the picks between 41 and 60 generally do not. However, in between, the right to choose between pick #2 and pick #40 generally is not worth much, especially considering the dramatic increase in salary that the difference in those picks requires. This bears some resemblance to the Massey-Thaler values, with some notable exceptions.

Most importantly, when it comes in years when a top "likely not to miss" quarterback is entering the draft, having the first overall selection is not a bad thing, as these quarterbacks who are worthy of the first overall selection are typically better than their peers. It is the picks that follow, in the top 10, that are worth less. Massey-Thaler estimated the most valuable pick in the draft to be #43. For the quarterback position, I would estimate that most valuable pick (besides the first overall) to be more in the 30-35 pick range, and the value to begin to decrease rapidly at around pick 40. Historically, the guys selected late in the first round, and early in the second round, can more than hold their own against the early first round picks, led by guys like Favre, Marino, Esiason, Cunningham, Jaworski, Lomax, and Brees.

Lest you think that the relatively poor showing of the top 10 is due to head to head losses to the first overall picks, here are results, just looking at the players drafted within 30 selections thereafter, to see how valuable the right to choose is.

                 3,000 yards difference              10,000 yards difference
selection        W       L       T       PCT     W       L       T       PCT
1st pick	18	 3	 2	0.83	12	 2	 9	0.72
2 to 5	        11	 8	 5	0.56	 6	 5 	13	0.52
6 to 10	         2	 8	 4	0.29	 1	 6	 7	0.32
11 to 20	 8	 7	 6	0.52	 6	 6	 9	0.50
21 to 30	 5	 6	 4	0.47	 2	 5	 8	0.40
31 to 40	 7	 4	 1	0.63	 7	 4	 1	0.63
41 to 50	 9	 5	 3	0.62	 4	 4	 9	0.50
51 to 60	14	 5	 9	0.66	12	 4	 12	0.64

It appears that three different tiers of quarterbacks exist for drafting purposes: the first overall picks, everyone else in the first round and early to mid-second round, and then, everyone else, from late second round picks to undrafted free agents. Removing the drafts prior to 1980, back when the draft did not draw as much attention, and the level of information may not have been what it is today, has not improved teams' abilities to differentiate within a tier group of players. What does appear to have happened since the 1980 is that the range for the second tier has tightened down to early to mid-second round range. In the 1970's, numerous top quarterbacks emerged from between picks 50 and 100, including Lynn Dickey, Ken Anderson, Joe Theismann, Joe Ferguson, Dan Fouts, Danny White, Vince Ferragamo, and Joe Montana. Since then, the best that we have seen from this range has been guys like Chris Chandler, Steve Beuerlein, Jeff Hostetler, Jay Schroeder, and Neil O'Donnell.

So, turning back to the five top quarterback prospects, Henne, Woodson and Flacco all are projecting right now at the cutoff between the first round tier, and the "all other quarterbacks" tier. Personally (which means about nothing), I like Chad Henne. When I wasn't hearing him discussed among the top prospects, I had him down as a later round success possibility based on my earlier research. Now, if a team wants to employ the no scouting philosophy, as has been suggested, it can trade down into the early second round, sign Henne for a fraction of Ryan's cost, add another player, and rely on the wisdom of the crowds to determine that Henne is, in fact, an early second round prospect.

Joe Flacco of Delaware is probably the most intriguing. In my earlier post on later round quarterbacks I pointed out that since 1983, only 4 out the 49 non-Division IA prospects who were drafted outside the top 50 even threw 150+ pass attempts in one NFL season--Rich Gannon, John Friesz, Josh McCown, and Craig Whelihan (we can now add Tarvaris Jackson to the list). In contrast, here is a list of all the non-division IA quarterbacks drafted in the top 40 selections in the last 30 years:

Steve McNair-Alcorn State
Ken O'Brien-California-Davis
Neil Lomax-Portland State
Phil Simms-Morehead State
Doug Williams-Grambling

And you could arguably add Chad Pennington and Daunte Culpepper, who played the majority of their careers in Division I-AA before their schools transitioned at the end of their careers. There are no busts on that short list, and it would be my guess that most of these guys were significantly undervalued in the draft considering the regression that Chase came up with in his recent post on black quarterbacks.

The dichotomy is interesting when looking at the small school quarterbacks. Early in a draft, when teams are likely to be more conservative with the "high profile" first round and early second round picks, these guys have represented great value, as teams may have been risk-avoidant of guys that had not played the highest level of competition, but had first round tools. Later in the draft, when teams may be looking to make a splash, the small school guys have been poor value, while the solid (i.e., boring) pocket passer known commodities from big name schools have actually represented good later round value over the last 25 years.

Turning back to the original title, I wouldn't have much confidence that Matt Ryan is in line to be a substantially better pro than Brian Brohm. He may be, he may not be. I'm not predicting that Matt Ryan will be a bust, and I have nothing against him. What I do know is that, if he is not the first overall selection, history does not favor him strongly over the guys taken soon thereafter. I would say that it is maybe slightly better than 50% in favor of Ryan over Brohm. So, if you want to express an opinion that Brohm should be drafted first, you would be in a small minority at this point. However, the reality is teams have not been all that good at distinguishing between early, non-first overall quarterbacks, and late first, early second quarterbacks. Unless all this overload of information and paralysis by analysis actually allows people to make better decisions at such a fine level, I don't have much confidence it will change.