Paralysis by analysis: Ignore draft grades

By Steve Makinen  (Point Spread Weekly editor) 

April 28, 2020 07:44 PM

The 2020 NFL draft was unique — and a smash hit for the networks that covered it. With no other live sports, NFL fans and bettors were glued to their televisions like never before, and the instant analysis was insane from seemingly everyone on social media.

Watching it happen, it occurred to me: Does anything bettors read about draft results matter? Of course, actual analysts out there essentially make their living by breaking down the draft each year. The football world deeply values their opinions. Fans use their work for water-cooler talk, bookmakers use it in setting season-win-total props, and bettors use it to try to find weak spots in the odds. 

But is their analysis really worth the amount of airtime spent on it? Is there any predictive nature to it? Can anything we saw last weekend jump-start our handicapping on the 2020 season? These are the questions for which I sought answers as I studied the draft grades published by SI.com, a consistent source for postdraft analysis.

As you’ll see from my findings, very little concrete evidence suggests that anything teams did on draft weekend will make a substantial direct impact on their fortunes in the near future. I don’t mean that players picked on draft weekend mean nothing to their teams’ fortunes; obviously, some are the next franchise cornerstones. I’m merely trying to convey that grades from sources like SI.com should carry only entertainment value at this point and will not necessarily correlate with instantly transforming teams. In fact, I credit such sources for going back years later and regrading earlier drafts, since that type of analysis is far more accurate. From what I learned in studying the statistical characteristics of teams that can rapidly improve or decline from season to season, that is clearly more important than draft grades.

So the bottom line is: Don’t overreact to anything you saw or read about the 2020 draft. It will take time to sort itself out. The fact that the Cowboys got an A+ is exciting for fans in Dallas. The same can be said for those of Denver, Detroit and the Los Angeles Rams, all of whom received A grades. Conversely, the fact that New Orleans (C-), Philadelphia (C) and Pittsburgh (C) received the worst grades doesn’t mean hope is lost for 2020. 

In general, SI.com tends to grade like a highly optimistic teacher, with an average grade point of 3.08 over the last six drafts, including 2020. That is between B and B+ range. Only one of the 192 teams to draft since 2015 was given a grade worse than C-, and that was the 2016 Falcons, who received a D. Did that doom Atlanta to a miserable 2016 season? Absolutely not. In fact, coach Dan Quinn’s team went from 8-8 to 11-5 after that draft and won double-digit games the next season as well. 

Similarly, SI.com has awarded four A+ grades over the last six drafts, including the Cowboys last weekend. Looking at the fortunes of those three other teams, the 2016 Bengals, hot off a 12-4 season, were widely praised for supposedly preparing themselves for the next step on draft weekend. Instead, they dropped to 6-10 after that allegedly stellar draft. That same season, the Jaguars were looking to improve on a dismal 5-11 season and were thought to have shored up a lot of weak spots with a fantastic draft. The result was a 3-13 record. Finally, after the 2017 season, the Super Bowl runner-up Patriots took what was the league’s best draft grade and actually dropped two games in their regular season won-lost mark. New England did win the Super Bowl that season but was generally considered a lesser team than its predecessors.

Those rare grades at opposite ends of the spectrum were obvious misses by their authors. I have found that they are right a little less often than they are wrong. So the term “inaccurate,” or possibly “inconclusive,” can best be used to describe the predictive nature of their analyses. The accompanying chart shows the one-year, two-year and three-year eventual regular-season win differences for teams that were assigned each grade level.

The closest parallel relationship I could find came from the three-year plus-minus column, essentially indicating that a team that drafts very well should reasonably expect to reap the rewards three years later and those that draft poorly suffer the consequences after a few seasons. In other words, if a team received a draft grade of A from SI.com after the 2015 season, its 2018 record should improve from 2015, and vice versa. The rest of the numbers seem to jump around without rhyme or reason. That is why I termed the relevance of draft grades as inconclusive.

These are the teams that graded highly or poorly after 2017, so if the pattern holds, they should improve this season over 2017:

2018 A+ or A grades (2017 record)

New England A+ (13-3)

New York Giants A (3-13)

Green Bay Packers A (7-9)

Chicago Bears A (5-11)

2018 C or C- grades (2017 record)

Indianapolis Colts C- (4-12)

Houston Texans C (4-12)

Seattle Seahawks C (9-7)

Of course, this fails to take into account the teams’ other relevant signings or draft picks in the seasons in between. For instance, since Green Bay went 7-9 in 2017, this three-year window analysis forecasts only that the Packers would exceed that record in 2020, and by 2.11 games. Yet they went 13-3 last year. So use this information for what it’s worth.

Another clearly inconclusive finding focuses on cumulative team grades against their on-the-field success over the last five seasons. Here are all NFL teams in alphabetical order with their average SI.com draft grade and league ranking for 2015-19 as compared with their regular-season won-lost record in that span. I have used a common grade-point average scale for quantifying the draft grades of A (4.0), A- (3.7), B+ (3.3) and so on.

Team: SI.com 5-year Draft Grade (Rank), Won-Lost Record (Rank)

Arizona Cardinals: 3.2 (11), 36-42-2 (19)

Atlanta Falcons: 2.66 (28), 43-37 (13)

Baltimore Ravens: 3.2 (11), 46-34 (8)

Buffalo Bills: 3.22 (9), 40-40 (15)

Carolina Panthers: 2.8 (26), 44-36 (10)

Chicago Bears: 2.88 (24), 34-46 (25)

Cincinnati Bengals: 3.66 (1), 33-46-1 (26)

Cleveland Browns: 2.62 (31), 17-62-1 (32)

Dallas Cowboys: 3.06 (16), 44-36 (10)

Denver Broncos: 3.54 (2), 39-41 (16)

Detroit Lions: 3.2 (11), 34-45-1 (23)

Green Bay Packers: 3.46 (3), 46-33-1 (7)

Houston Texans: 3.14 (14), 43-37 (13)

Indianapolis Colts: 2.86 (25), 37-43 (18)

Jacksonville Jaguars: 3.4 (5), 29-51 (30)

Kansas City Chiefs: 2.94 (23), 57-23 (2)

Las Vegas Raiders: 2.66 (28), 36-44 (20)

Los Angeles Chargers: 3.32 (7), 35-45 (21)

Los Angeles Rams: 2.74 (27), 44-36 (10)

Miami Dolphins: 3.34 (6), 34-46 (22)

Minnesota Vikings: 3.46 (3), 50-29-1 (5)

New England Patriots: 3.04 (18), 62-18 (1)

New Orleans Saints: 3.06 (16), 51-29 (4)

New York Giants: 3.02 (19), 29-51 (30)

New York Jets: 2.66 (30), 31-49 (28)

Philadelphia Eagles: 3.26 (8), 45-35 (9)

Pittsburgh Steelers: 3 (20), 51-28-1 (3)

San Francisco 49ers: 3.22 (9), 30-50 (29)

Seattle Seahawks: 2.62 (31), 50-29-1 (5)

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 3 (20), 32-48 (27)

Tennessee Titans: 3 (20), 39-41 (16)

Washington Redskins: 3.14 (14), 34-45-1 (23)

A few highlights:

— The teams that have both played and drafted well would be considered Green Bay, Minnesota and Philadelphia. All are rated in the top 10 in draft rank and won-lost record.

— The teams that have struggled on draft weekend and on the field over the last five years have been Chicago, Cleveland and the New York Jets. All are bottom 10 in both categories.

— Teams that have greatly outperformed their supposed draft respect have been Atlanta (%plussign), Carolina (%plussign), Kansas City (%plussign!), the Los Angeles Rams (%plussign), New England (%plussign), Pittsburgh (%plussign) and Seattle (%plussign&). Obviously, fans of these teams should take draft reviews with a grain of salt.

— Teams that have not transferred draft success to the playing field have been Cincinnati (-25), Jacksonville (-25), Miami (-16) and San Francisco (-20). Of these four, the Bengals and 49ers scored A- grades for 2020. Fans shouldn’t celebrate just yet.

The last thing I studied was the on-the-field impact of scoring multiple high or poor draft grades in a row. This also turned out to be inconclusive:

— Baltimore received grades of B+, B+ and A- for the 2015-17 draft years. The Ravens improved in five straight seasons, capping it with a 14-2 record a year ago. They also received a grade of A- this year.

— Buffalo received A- grades in 2016 and ’17 and improved by two games in the 2017 season to reach 9-7 and earn a playoff berth. However, the Bills dropped by three games the next season.

— The Bengals received grades of A- or better in three straight years from 2016-18. But the results didn’t transfer to the field, as they averaged only 6.3 wins per season in that span, then plummeted to 2-14 in 2019.

— SI.com awarded Denver its fourth straight A grade last weekend. Yet the Broncos have produced just 18 victories and no playoff appearances over the last three years.

— Green Bay was widely vilified for selecting QB Jordan Love in the first round this year as well as for failing to procure a wide receiver. But the Packers scored grades of A and A- in 2018 and ’19 and rode that to a seven-win improvement in those two seasons and a trip to the NFC title game.

— The Raiders have been SI.com’s least-respected draft team, receiving grades of C+, C- and C+ over the last three seasons. This combined with the Broncos respect leaves me wondering if a little personal bias may be entering the equation. Regardless, the poor grades have not produced a winner for the now-Las Vegas Raiders.

— The Chargers had grades of B+ or better in four straight seasons from 2016-19, with wildly varying degrees of on-the-field success in that time frame. But they may have laid the foundation for a huge bounce-back in 2020.

— The Rams were on a downward trend from 2016-19 with four straight years of draft grades of B- or lower. This year they scored an A, but the damage may be done for the 2020 season.

— Minnesota has scored an A and an A- the last two years but is using this newfound talent to replace huge veteran free-agent losses.

— In three of the last five years, the Patriots received grades of C+ or worse. The franchise had the oldest team in the NFL last season. Perhaps this is the year it catches up to them.

— In three of the last five years, the 49ers received grades of A- or better. This franchise has seemingly put itself in position for lasting success.

— Tampa Bay’s last two draft grades were A-. People who have followed me on VSiN recently know I’m a big proponent of the Bucs and their chances this season. These high draft grades would add more fuel if I believed in the analysis more.

In most subjects I study, I make far better predictive analyses from the findings. Unfortunately, this isn’t one of those subjects, so take all of these proclamations for what they are worth — entertainment fodder.

To view the chart with this report, see this week's “Point Spread Weekly."

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