Sunday, April 26, 2009

NFL draft 2009 thoughts, market inefficiencies

I am ecstatic about the Miami Dolphins picking up Pat White. I haven't been this excited about a pick since .... probably ever.

One thing I enjoy about sports is trying to determine where there are market inefficiencies. By that, I mean where the general consensus undervalues something. Examples of market inefficiencies:
1. Living in Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh has many of the attributes that make for a great quality of life, but is still relatively affordable.
2. Wines from South Africa. Considering the quality of the wines, you can get great values in wines from South Africa compared to other regions.
3. Great defensive players in the NBA. Offensive statistics are well defined in basketball, so it is easy for teams to probably determine the market values for player's offensive abilities. However, teams still struggle to quantify a player's defensive abilities, and therefore an NBA team can pick up a great defensive player (especially if their defensive skills are in something other than blocks or steals, which are readily measured) relatively cheap.
4. Short MLB pitchers. Major league baseball teams over-value height when rating pitchers. Therefore, you can pick up short pitchers at a relatively low cost.

For the entirety of my football-watching lifetime, there is one type of player that has been disproportionately successful at the college level, but not used well in the NFL- the option quarterback. Nearly every year, there are several star college quarterbacks who are able to tear apart college defenses because they can both run and throw effectively. However, because they don't fit the NFL prototype of the dropback QB, they either fail when asked to play NFL-style QB (which is essentially a different position), or are converted to another position (for some reason, safety is a common choice, but also WR or running back).

For the most part, these players are then perceived as failures. Eric Crouch, a Heisman trophy winner from Nebraska, was converted to safety and never did much. This is seen on some level as proof that option QBs can't succeed on the NFL level. The one guy who has been successful, Donovan McNabb, is not really the same player he was in college. In my opinion, Donovan McNabb was a far better college player. The NFL has literally cut off McNabb's legs- he was (until Pat White broke his record this year) the most prolific running QB ever. The fact that McNabb has been a decent (but, in my opinion, not great) thrower obfuscates what a great player McNabb could have been if he had been allowed to play his game.

So, what we've had over the past 20-30 years is a bunch of incredibly successful college QBs who are readily available in the late rounds of the NFL draft- guys like Brad Smith from Missouri, Major Harris from West Virginia, Joe Hamilton from Georgia Tech, Michael Bishop from Kansas State, etc. Every year, there is this one single group of terrific college players who are completely dismissed by the NFL, and because they can't change positions, are essentially told they can't play football.

It occured to me about 20 years ago that if an NFL team committed to playing the option, they could pick up these players on the cheap and create a series of schemes that NFL defenses would not be ready for. The players come so cheap (many aren't even drafted) that could stockpile 5 of them on your roster. If one gets hurt, just put another one in. You could even play 4 or more of them at the same time- one at QB, 2 at running back, and 1 or more at wide receiver.

For years, the NFL dismissed this as crazy talk. The NFL would make claims that you couldn't do something like this- the NFL defensive players are too fast and too tall, and the QBs would get hurt too frequently.

However, one trend changed the perspectives of the NFL- the rise of the SEC.

A few years ago, Arkansas was in an unusual position- they weren't a particularly good team and were particularly weak at QB, but they had arguably the 2 best running backs in college football at the same time- Darren McFadden and Felix Jones. So they decided to play both of them at the same time in a variation of the single wing offense, the Wild Hog offense. It was incredibly effective, and made McFadden into an even bigger star.

The next progression was the emergence of Tim Tebow at Florida. He was essentially a fullback during his freshman year when they won the national championship. He then became a full time QB, and the best in the country, winning the Heisman as a sophomore. But he still didn't fit the NFL prototype. But then, as a junior, he played the prototype NFL QB, Heisman trophy winner Sam Bradford from Oklahoma, in the national championship game. Bradford is a great player and will likely be the #1 pick in the draft next year and an All-Pro in the NFL, but even as a Bradford fan, I couldn't help but notice that Tebow was a better player.

NFL teams noticed too. Even 3 years ago, NFL teams would have dismissed Tebow as a pro QB prospect, but the confluence of trends has made teams realize that anyone as dominant as Tebow has been as a college player can probably dominate in the pros, if any team was ever willing to commit to letting Tebow be Tebow.

The third event (also involving an SEC player) was that the Miami Dolphins brought the Wildcat to the NFL. Miami was coming off an awful 1-15 season and lost their first 2 games, and early in the year was playing the mighty New England Patriots (who had went unbeaten the previous year) in the 3rd week of the season, at New England.

Miami killed them. They won 38-13, in what I think was one of the most shocking regular season games of my lifetime. What was more startling than just the score was how Miami won- they installed their running back Ronnie Brown in the Wildcat formation, and he had an absolutely monster game.

It's not an accident that this happened in Miami. Their QB coach, David Lee, had been the offensive coordinator and QB coach for Arkansas during the Darren McFadden years. He realized that the using a mobile QB in a varied offensive set could throw off NFL defenses designed to attack the classic dropback passer.

And now they have drafted Pat White, a QB perfect for the Wildcat formation. As a Miami Dolphins fan, I couldn't be more ecstatic.

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