Football Freakonomics: What Can Linsanity Teach Us About the Upcoming NFL Draft?

(Photo: Nicholas La)

The following is a cross-post from our Football Freakonomics project at Check out the interactive graphic and, at the end of this post, the video.

In his first six NBA starts, Jeremy Lin averaged 24.3 points and 9.5 assists while leading the Knicks to six straight wins.

If those numbers were attached to someone like Kobe Bryant or LeBron James, you wouldn’t bat an eye. But until a couple weeks ago, Lin was little more than roster fodder, an undrafted player already cut by two teams and about to be cut by his third. That’s when a desperate coach who had run out of able-bodied point guards threw him into the fire. The rest – for the moment, at least – is history.

Let’s be honest: the reason we’re hearing so much about Lin is because he was overlooked. This might lead you to think he’s a true anomaly, a great game-time athlete who somehow slipped through a pro sports league’s finely-tuned talent-scouting machine.

But if you look closely at the NFL, you’ll find Jeremy Lins all over the place. And with the NFL Draft coming up in April, you have to wonder just how scientific the science of drafting football players really is. Is Andrew Luck really the golden goose that Indianapolis is banking on, or might he turn out to be yet another top-tier bust?

Our latest Football Freakonomics episode — the last one this season — argues that the draft is much more of a crapshoot than most of its practitioners would have us think. The evidence is everywhere. Consider the research of Cade Massey and Richard Thaler, who find top draft picks to be seriously overvalued. Consider the data presented in the interactive graphic here, which reveals the average draft position for the top five players this season in key categories. For instance:

2011 Passing Yards  (Avg. Draft Position for Top 5 Performers = 51.4)



Overall Pick Number




Drew Brees




Tom Brady




Matthew Stafford




Eli Manning




Aaron Rodgers


2011 Rushing Yards (Avg. Draft Position for Top 5 Performers = 115.8)



Overall Pick Number




Maurice Jones Drew




Ray Rice*




Michael Turner




LeSean McCoy




Arian Foster**

Undrafted (257)

* Rice was the MVB (Most Valuable Bargain) in our inaugural Dough Bowl.

** We generously counted each undrafted player as if he was the first player chosen after “Mr. Irrelevant,” the last player chosen in that year’s draft. In Foster’s case, that would make him pick No. 257.

2011 Tackles (Avg. Draft Position for Top 5 Performers = 78.6)



Overall Pick Number




London Fletcher 

Undrafted (242)



D’Qwell Jackson




Chad Greenway




Pat Angerer 




Curtis Lofton


2011 Receiving Yards Leaders (Avg. Draft Position for Top 5 Performers = 118.2)



Overall Pick Number




Calvin Johnson




Wes Welker

Undrafted (256)



Victor Cruz

Undrafted (256)



Larry Fitzgerald




Steve Smith (CAR) 


This year’s sack leaders represented the highest average overall draft position: 

2011 Sacks (Avg. Draft Position for Top 5 Performers = 32.7) 



Overall Pick Number




Jared Allen




DeMarcus Ware




Jason Babin




Jason Pierre-Paul




(T5) Aldon Smith



(T5) Terrell Suggs 


Keep in mind that an average draft position of 100 is equivalent to a top pick in the fourth round. What’s most interesting is that in several major categories, the top five performers included at least one undrafted free agent. Or, put another way: One of the top five performers in these categories includes a player who wasn’t even thought to be among the top 250 players of his rookie class!

Granted, these numbers aren’t exactly encyclopedic. But they do a good job of showing just how much luck is involved in the draft — to say nothing of how much Luck — and how hard it is to forecast the future.

That’s why more and more teams, in all sports, are doing a deep statistical dive to try to identify undervalued players before spending too much money on the overvalued ones. So if you’re an NFL team looking to optimize your draft picks this year, maybe you’ll consider hiring a young guy to crunch the numbers for you. Maybe some economics major from Harvard who happens to know his way around the gym? Maybe someone like … Jeremy Lin?

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  1. Ryan says:

    I get the point, but in many of the cases that you show, there is some general consistency amongst all picks with the exception of one or two that really skew the results. The draft a risk mitigation process with value added to the least amount of risk in all areas (size, athletic ability, off field issues, etc.)

    For example, London Fletcher is the personification of a LB anomaly. He’s extremely short. He is absolutely the exception to the rule. And if the argument is that “value can be found late” I think you’d have to take a look at London Fletcher against all other LBs listed as a “generous 5’10” or shorter in the history of the sport. The odds likely more closely resemble winning the lottery as those guys just don’t exist.

    Similarly, Arian Foster was going to be drafted, but as the story goes, the Seahawks called him just before picking him to let him know. His attitude derailed that phone call and the Seahawks pulled him off the board.

    Busts exist every year in every round. Many times because of the player. Many times because of the situation of the franchise (which ultimately has less to do with quality of the player coming out of college.) I’d be willing to bet that success is closer to the 80-20 rule. That most of the time higher draftpicks are more successful and that the circumstances dictate success as much if not more than the purely looking at draft position.

    My 2 cents.

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  2. JasonR says:

    By choosing just the top 5 performers from one year, you’re severely overweighting in favor of potential outliers by grossly increasing variability of results.

    Also, you’re judging the success of those selections based on singular metrics which doesn’t accurately illustrate the overall impact each of these players has on wins and losses for their respective teams for a given year, much less their entire career with the teams that drafted them.

    Lastly, you need to show the progression of draft precision over the years. Has the predictive nature become more accurate? I’d assume the methodology has improved over the years and thus the results.

    Drafting isn’t an exact science, but accounting for the above, I’d be willing to wager that it’s not as random or variable as presumed based on this or other like articles.

    All that said, the best returns are still a result of relying on probability. Meaning, the teams that get the most draft picks in the first 3-4 rounds over the course of a couple years probably show the most drastic improvement in the years following those players’ maturation. The caveats are accounting for finding a franchise QB and coaching staff continuity, especially in the offensive and defensive schemes.

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    • pawnman says:

      What you say is true, but the post is based on the research conducted by Cade Massey and Richard Thayler, which was much more extensive. The top five in each position, compared to their draft rank, is just an illustration of the principle.

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  3. Joel says:

    Your numbers are interesting but misleading. To say a player was picked 32nd is correct, but if teams don’t need a QB or have more pressing needs they aren’t going to pick one early on.

    Best to compare apples to apples instead of QBs to LBs. The QBs you have listed above (with the exception of Brady) were all picked in the top 3 QBs selected in their draft year.

    Player -Overall Pick Number- -Overall Pick Number for his Position-

    Drew Brees -32- -2- (Vick #1 overall)
    Tom Brady -199- -7- Horrible year for QBs apparently with only 7 picked in the top 200 and most of those in the later rounds
    Matthew Stafford -1- -1-
    Eli Manning -1- -1-
    Aaron Rodgers -24- -3-

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  4. Brian says:

    You can forge the statistics to say anything you want. Using the median instead of average would show that draft position is more important. Instead of cherry picking data just see how the draft position correlates to success on the field.

    The fact is that most of the players who are on the NBA All Star Teams are high draft picks. It wasn’t like the recruiting were relying on dumb luck.

    Sure there is always risks, but the odds are much more favorable the higher your draft pick is especially in the NBA. For every Jeremy Lin, there could be 100 undrafted players who lack the talent. Just because he was overlooked doesn’t mean that the draft is unimportant.

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    • Ryan says:

      Exactly, with a distribution like: 53, 55, 60, 154 any stats 101 student would tell you that using the mean for central tendency is miss-representing what is happening. The preferred measure of central tendency for skewed distribution is the median.

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    • JBP says:

      Brian wrote, “The fact is that most of the players who are on the NBA All Star Teams are high draft picks. ”

      Yes, but is that because they were better or is it because the team is more invested in a first round pick? Check out “Commitment” and “Consistency” this site: The fact is that most of the players who are on the NBA All Star Teams are high draft picks.

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  5. Caleb b says:

    I’ve always wondered about a metric I call the Stud Factor. So many times, kids from smaller schools get overlooked bc it’s assumed that they’re playing against weaker competition. But, if that smaller school rises in national perception while that kid is there, it’s in part due to that star player being so good that they dramatically increase they’re teams chances of winning. Think LaDamian Tomlinson at TCU, or Ray Rice at Rutgers. These programs weren’t much before these guys and fell off a ton when they left. It can also explain why big name guys at big schools don’t pan out, bc the talent around them inflates they’re numbers. Obviously, there is more to it than that, but you get the idea.

    Of course, we’d need a way to quantify it, but this metric might show why Andy Dalton has been so good and why Kellen Moore might be a steal.

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  6. Jason says:

    Would it make sense to trade down in the draft then? You can typically trade a first round draft pick for multiple later round draft picks. If you assume you suck at picking players, that might make some sense. Another interesting thing to look at would be how long they were in the league before they started; it’s possible that sitting on the sidelines or a practice squad for a year or two improves players.

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  7. Zack Arenstein says:

    I think that there is much left to be determined about draft prospects after they’ve been drafted. While if you take draft day in a vacuum, selecting a certain player may be the right decision. It’s really what the team does with the player afterwards that’s important. What if Tom Brady had been selected by the Buffalo Bills instead of the New England Patriots? Would he still be considered to be one of the best QB’s of all time at this point in his career? How much of his succes is a function of the coaching he’s received since he was drafted and the system he plays in? I’d guess a bunch. There’s a reason it seems like the Steelers, Giants, and Packers are great on draft day. It’s because they know what to do with players once they’ve been added to the team.

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    • JasonR says:

      I agree completely. I think team culture and administrative leadership is as, if not more, important than actual on-field talent, except for maybe at the QB position. As you expressed, there’s a reason certain franchises are consistently successful and it usually has to do with the ownership, front office/general manager, and head coach.

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  8. paozug says:

    I remember as a kid, a commentator on MNF talking about how much better teams are at picking the offensive line, because they don’t have any statistics to rely on, they just need to watch the guys in action.

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