NFL Picks & The Draft: Measuring True Impact on Sports Gamblers

Jason Lake

Tuesday, April 28, 2015 1:43 PM UTC

Tuesday, Apr. 28, 2015 1:43 PM UTC

People generally overreact to the goings-on at the annual NFL Draft, but if you focus on the things that matter, you can extract some value when you’re making your NFL picks for the 2015 campaign.

I believe it was William Shakespeare – or maybe it was 2Pac – who said “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.” That’s the National Football League in a nutshell. Things did not go well for the NFL last year, but make no mistake: This is still the King of All Sports. The most recent Harris Poll had 32 percent of U.S. respondents calling pro football their favorite sport, followed by baseball at 16 percent and college football at 10 percent. The people love their football.

They love it so much, the annual NFL Draft has turned into a three-day spectacle with a massive TV audience. Last year’s draft pulled in a reported 45.7 million viewers, with 32.0 million of those tuning in for Round 1. Almost 10 million tweets were sent out on the Twitter, and perhaps even dozens more on Google Plus. And that doesn’t count the weeks and months of speculation before the draft. People want to know who’s going where, and more importantly, how it should affect their NFL picks for the following season.


Information Wants to Be Free
Sadly, like most televised events, the NFL Draft is made up of about 97 percent hot air. As Neil Paine over at FiveThirtyEight showed before last year’s draft, there’s a massive drop-off in talent once you get beyond the first 10-20 picks, and even with those top prospects, teams tend to grossly overvalue the impact those players will have once they turn pro. And no matter how much money teams pour into their war rooms and their scouting departments, every team is both highly prepared and yet making educated guesses at the same time.

But what about those NFL betting trends we presented back in February, the ones that show how teams who pick No. 1 in the draft tend to be profitable NFL picks the following season? Sure, selecting the first available talent gives a team the best chance of landing a quality player, but as we said at the time, simple regression to the mean accounts for much of that team’s improved record. The NFL salary cap and the short 16-game regular season make it even more of a crap shoot.

Be that as it may, making football picks is an exercise in small margins, and we’d be foolish not to take into account the arrival of all these young players – especially when we’ve got a fresh wave of sharp draft analysis coming from places like Football Outsiders. Let’s take a look at two of their recent studies and see what we can cherry-pick from this free pile of stuff.


Rough Trade
Firstly, let’s revisit FO’s new QBASE (QuarterBack-Adjusted Stats and Experience) model for projecting the value of quarterbacks. As you’ve probably heard by now, they’ve got Jameis Winston pegged with a 61.3-percent chance of going busto. For FO’s purposes, a bust is a QB who produces less than 500 DYAR (Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement) between Years 3-5 of his pro career. That doesn’t quite fit with our needs for making NFL picks in 2015, but it’s useful nonetheless. So despite the inherent value of regression, we might want to avoid following the Tampa Bay Buccaneers next year, assuming Tampa selects No. 1 as expected.

And secondly, let’s consider an oft-overlooked part of the NFL Draft: How much value teams get from trading their picks. According to the NFL odds, Washington has done a horrible job at this over the past decade, even after you account for Robert Griffin III and his injuries. The New England Patriots, on the other hand, have been very good at trading up and down and finding value. So again, even with regression in mind, perhaps we should be avoiding Washington and supporting New England when we make our 2015 football picks. Let’s see who ends up where after all the wheeling and dealing is done.

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