Friday, September 2, 2011

Is It Better to Pick Second in the NFL Draft?

By Lewis Sage

Speaking of the relative value of a player selected later in the NFL draft, there’s good evidence that the chance to select first in the opening round is substantially over-valued.
The rule of thumb, developed by Jimmy Johnson and used by ESPN, attributes a value of 3000 (30% of the value of the entire value of the seven-round draft) to the first overall selection and 2600 to the second, meaning that the first pick is worth about 15% more than the second.  Chase Stuart’s (2008) alternative assigns values of 73 and 64, rating the top pick slightly more than 14% ahead of the second.  Judging from past performance, however, this sort of difference seems unwarranted.
I’ve looked at the lifetime productivity of these picks in the draft years 1950-1996, the last year being early enough to exclude careers that had not ended by 2010.  Over that time, a total of 26 quarterbacks were drafted in the first two slots, 16 first and 10 second.  The analogous numbers for running backs were 14 and 6.  In the same years, 11 defensive linemen were chosen first overall and 8 second. 
Among the quarterbacks chosen first overall, the average career length was 11.3 seasons with a standard deviation of 5.6 seasons; among those chosen second, the corresponding statistics were 12.8 and 3.7.  Those drafted first averaged 2.1 Pro Bowls; those picked second averaged 2.3, with a smaller standard deviation.  On the surface, this suggests that the latter group is slightly better – or at least no worse – than the former.  Results were comparable for running backs and defensive linemen: second-selected running backs had longer careers and averaged slightly more Pro Bowl appearances than first-chosen; the two groups of linebackers were statistically indistinguishable.  My first impression, based on 41 firsts and 24 seconds, is that the overall first and second choices should be valued equally.

Dr. Lewis C. Sage likes intersections. Since 1991, he has taught Law and Economics, Mathematical Economics, and the Economics of Healthcare. A former Fulbright Fellow (Bulgaria 1995-6), he teaches an interdisciplinary Honors seminar, Enduring Questions, and is studying strategy in the NFL draft with faculty and students in Sports Management and Psychology. E-mail:

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This blog lives under the auspices of the Department of Economics whose mission has been to hold high the lantern beaming an "economic way of thinking" onto the world. Selfishness, rationality and equilibrium have been central to the teaching of an economic way of thinking rooted in the Renaissance. And, in this regard, the department has faithfully stayed the course. The intent of this blog, thinking out loud..., however, is to entertain exchanges which may challenge the centrality of economics as we teach it.