Rick Spielman: master of the draft

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With the 2020 NFL Draft starting Thursday, it seems appropriate to reconsider the draft strategy and the success of Vikings general manager Rick Spielman.

I’ve done a few songs over the past few years on the project, starting a few years ago with a song detailing how most draft choices are busts. Two years ago I did an evaluation of Spielman’s drafts from 2012 to 2017. And last year I did a two-part series on how the Vikings built one of the best formations from the NFL, Part I here and Part II here.

All of these assessments included the use of Pro Football Reference’s approximate value (AV) measure to determine the relative value of players in different positions and across seasons, based on factors such as the number of games started, various distinctions like All-Pro or Pro- Honors and other factors. You can find out more here.

At that time, just before last year’s draft, the Vikings had accumulated the second highest number of draft AV points (DrAV) of any NFL team since Rick Spielman became general manager of the Vikings in 2012. The AV draft points are the accumulated AV points. for the team that wrote the player. AV points accumulated for other teams do not count as they do not benefit the team that drew the player.

Since then, I have recalculated the DrAV points for the Vikings and the Rams, and the Vikings have now surpassed the Rams with 680 DrAV points since 2012, while the Rams now have 666. I have spotted the best contenders from 2017 (Seahawks, Cowboys, Packers, Ravens, Chiefs) to see if any of these teams had overtaken the Vikings, and none had done so.

So unless I missed another team that has climbed the rankings quickly in the past two years, the Vikings and Rick Spielman have been the best editorial team in the NFL since Spielman became general manager in 2012.

And he did so despite the misfortune of having three first-round picks, their careers were derailed by unforeseeable injuries – Matt Kalil, Teddy Bridgewater and Shariff Floyd – and lost another first-round pick commercially to replace Bridgewater the week before the start of the season.

So how did he do it?

Basically, in three ways:

First, by being smart about the things he could control: things like preparation and due diligence; devote more resources to screening and analysis; and work closely with coaches to better determine the type of players required.

Second, understanding that despite all of the above, the project is still largely a crapshoot – there are no predetermined and knowable factors or measures that absolutely predict whether a player will succeed or not. That said, it’s better to have more choices – more times on the plate – to increase the number of good players you spot.

Third, by understanding that teams do not always properly evaluate draft choices and that the standard of draft choice value does not correspond well to the historical performance of players. And, that being the case, negotiate draft choices using this standard, mainly by trading downward, to create more value and draft choices. In addition, by being aggressive in the UDFA market, which is essentially a free extension for all of the 7th cycle.

Let’s take a look at each one again.

Preparation

No general manager can control whether a draft will take place. What they can do is use all the tools at their disposal to make the best decisions possible based on the information they have.

With this in mind, Spielman expanded the Scout Department, increasing the staff, while ensuring that the Scouts were longtime veterans and not cheap college graduates who are still learning the business. In terms of cost-benefits, taking advantage of a screening department by providing more resources could easily pay for itself with just one or two more players on cheap rookie contracts compared to much more expensive veteran free agents.

He also expanded the use of various analytics to aid in screening and due diligence on prospect projects, which also allowed his staff to find more players through these tools. He was also one of the first GMs to really pursue the UDFA market after the project ended, trying to gain more value in what was once sort of an afterthought for the teams. This has led to more teams following suit in recent years.

Finally, it has made it a point of honor that its screening service and its coaching staff work together to determine the type of players, their skills, measurable, character traits, etc., which they need in order to so the scouts can then go out and find these players. .

By doing all of these things, the hope is that it leads to at least slightly better choices, both in terms of the player’s ability to succeed in the NFL, but also in terms of pattern, locker room, etc.

The NFL Draft is a Crapshoot

In the play Most of the draft picks are busts I made in 2017, the results of 20 NFL projects starting in the mid-90s led to the following results for the draft players:

  • 16.7% have never played for the team that wrote them. Basically, he was not on the team or never played in a regular season game.
  • 37% were deemed “useless”. These players had a DrAV between 0 and 4, and almost never saw the field.
  • 15.3% were considered “poor”. Players with a DrAV between 5 and 10. Maybe played a number of years in special teams, but little or no starts, and generally undifferentiated performance.
  • 10.5% were considered “average”. Players with a DrAV of 11-17. They are mostly indie companion role players or rotation guys.
  • 12.3% were rated “good”. Players with a DrAV of 18-35. They are generally multi-year beginners, but companions still without distinction.
  • 6.9% are considered to be “great” choices. Players with DrAV from 36-80. They are usually multi-year beginners with distinguished performances – All-Pro or Pro Bowl honors and / or higher in their position.
  • 1% are considered “legendary”. Players with DrAV greater than 80. These are the Hall of Fame and Ring of Honor players.

So basically, despite all the research, due diligence, analysis and everything else, 69% of the draft picks are busts, and 23% are largely forgettable and / or indifferent choices – from players who go and come without much fanfare.

In terms of the players that fans are paying to see, it’s really the last 8% who qualify. I suppose, for example, that 99% of all NFL jersey sales go to these “awesome” and “legendary” choices.

But in a draft of 256 players, only 2 or 3 players on average will become legendary choices. Only 17 or 18 will become great choices. So basically only about 20 guys out of over 250 new players selected each year will become stars.

It’s not a lot.

In addition, other studies have indicated that no team or GM has really been able to select better players over time, on a basis of choice. The graphs below, based on data between 1994 and 2013, show the ability of a team or a general manager to “beat” the provisional market in a given year, or consistently over periods 3 years.

The dispersed nature of the graphics indicates no discernible pattern, which means that no CEO or team has been able to consistently outperform the average, on a selection basis, when it comes to selecting successfully leads.

So with success rates so low, and no team or GM being historically able to choose systematically better than the others, on a choice basis, what should a GM like Rick Spielman do?

Operate the system.

The value of project choices

In 1990, Jimmy Johnson created a table of values ​​that awarded points for each draft choice to facilitate the exchange of draft choices. It quickly became the standard value chart used by GMs in draft pick exchanges, and it is still used often. Here is the table:

However, Johnson’s chart had no real statistical evidence to back up the relative market value of each choice, even though it has become the norm for evaluating them. But over time, and a study of the actual performance of the players selected at each draft position, it was found that Jimmy Johnson’s choice value table overestimated the draft choices of previous rounds and underestimated those of subsequent rounds.

Specifically, by comparing player performance using the pro football benchmark (PFR) measure of approximate value (AV) with Johnson’s provisional selection value graph, the following graph was created, which summarizes the difference between the two:

What this graph implies is that the top 50 or so draft choices are overvalued compared to the average that AV players have historically produced from these spots, and the higher the choice, the more it is overvalued. The graph also implies that the draft choices after 50 or more are undervalued by the Johnson value table compared to the average of AV players written after # 50.

Nevertheless, Johnson’s provisional selection chart has always been the norm for most deals being drafted to date.

About a month before Rick Spielman was appointed general manager of the Vikings in January 2012, Kevin Meers of the Harvard Sports Analysis Collective developed a draft selection value table that more closely conformed to the average AV measurement data:

By comparing this table to that of Jimmy Johnson and to the career AV of the players selected at each draft position, we obtain this graph:

In the graph above, the red line represents Jimmy Johnson’s table of selection values, the wavy blue line represents the variance of the career VA compared to the average throughout the project. The average AV for all draft choices is 15, which is also the average of choice number 94. This choice is considered to be the “normal” or average draft choice and is assigned a value of 100 (100.3 actually) as a benchmark.

The black line represents the best fit for the blue line of the career AV variance throughout the project and forms the basis of revised graph values ​​derived from Meers.

Overall choice # 1 in the project has historically produced an AV of around 500% of the average choice (# 94, with an AV of 15), and is therefore evaluated at around 500% of choice # 94, or 494 , 6. At the other end of the graph, pick # 224 has historically produced an AV of just under 40% of the average and is rated at 39.8.

The other important thing to note about the relative value of draft choices in terms of AV metrics is that the variance at any particular draft position is quite large, which means that a player chooses one year at a time. choice # 112 could do very well, while the following year the 112th choice could be a bust. This gap tends to increase as the project progresses from first to last choice, according to this graph:

This graph generally represents the increase in variance in the career of AV players throughout the repechage at a given repechage point.

In addition, due to the increasing variance in career AV throughout the project, there is less statistical confidence around the calculation of the average career AV for subsequent draft choices. This is reflected in this graph:

So, based on all of these graphs and metrics, if you’re a general manager using the Jimmy Johnson stock selection chart to assess trades with other teams, it almost always makes sense to trade lower, given the difference between business value and AV career, especially in the first and second rounds.

Choices from earlier rounds tend to be more secure, which means that the variance in the AV career is not as great as in subsequent rounds. But the downside risk of being wrong with the previous round choices is also greater, depending on the relative value of these choices compared to the later round choices.

Ultimately, it makes sense to trade lower not only to increase the total AV value of your choices relative to their market value, but it also helps to mitigate the downside risk of choosing a wrong first round.

System operation

Rick Spielman has not only been the top performing general manager since 2012 in his team’s AV Draft buildup, he has also been the most active trader in the draft. These two things are probably related.

As the analysis of the above data has shown, no team or GM has been able to significantly or consistently outperform the average on a selection basis. However, the only real way to outperform in terms of the actual number of good players recruited is to accumulate more choices. And that’s what Spielman did.

Spielman has completed a total of 32 selection trades for selection (i.e., transactions not including existing players), giving a net total of 11 additional draft choices.

Since the 2012 draft, Rick Spielman had a total of 67 draft picks entering the drafts, and emerged from the projects with a total of 78 draft picks. This result, a total of 78 draft picks since the 2012 draft, tied for 2nd in the NFL (49ers), just behind the Seattle Seahawks (79).

And with 12 draft picks in the next project, up from just 7 for the Seahawks and 49ers, the Vikings since 2012 are poised to have the highest number of draft picks of all the teams in the league since 2012. The Vikings have also had 4 less compensatory choices than the Seahawks during this period, who are awarded for losses from free agent signing a major contract with another team.

Work on the UDFA market too

In addition to the draft picks, Spielman was also one of the general managers to lead the league by taking a more aggressive approach to the UDFA market, spending more time researching and recruiting potential UDFAs in advance and also offering more money to some. of the most wanted UDFAs in order to have them signed with the Vikings.

Few UDFAs make an NFL list, and those that often don’t have much impact. But the Spielman Vikings have also done much better than the average in this market, simply by spending more time working it.

Since 2012, the Vikings have acquired Adam Thielen, Anthony Harris, Eric Wilson, Holton Hill, Mike Boone, Aviante Collins, CJ Ham and Hercules Mata’afa as free university agents who made the list and stay with the team. Collectively, they represent 15% of the Vikings list of 53 men. And although most of them are actors, having only one UDFA in the list is unusual. Having 8 of them on a list is even more so. And having both a 2x Pro-Bowler and a top-ranking PFF player at his post from the UDFA market is truly exceptional.

I venture to guess that no other team has been as successful in the UDFA market as the Vikings since Rick Spielman became general manager in 2012.

Evaluation of results

The best way to assess in-project transactions that produce more project choices, as well as UDFAs, is to treat the additional net choices and UDFA choices as bonus choices. Failures do not count, only successes. The rationale is simple. The cost of the additional pick (s) represents the additional risk of failure with the original pick for being negotiated down, and the original pick is valued normally.

So if a GM has his normal list of 7 choices, one in each round, and does not trade, but say he has 2 successful choices, he should not be considered more successful than another GM which also had its normal list of 7 choices, but fell several times to acquire 3 additional choices, while having 2 successful choices. The first GM should not be credited as the best draft coach because he had 2 hits in 7 picks, while the 2nd hit 2 hits in 10.

And for UDFAs, because their risk is not great in the event of failure, and failure is also the expected result, any success must be considered as a bonus, while failures are not counted.

Conversely, if a GM with its full list of 7 choices decides to trade, thus reducing its number of choices to 5, say, but has 2 successful choices, it should not be considered more successful than another GM with a full list of 7 choices that don’t trade, because the GM who traded went 2 for 5 while the other GM went 2 for 7. The GM who traded should always be rated based on his original list of 7 choices.

Looking at Rick Spielman and his 2012-2015 projects (four in total), where players have had 5 seasons to accumulate DrAV points, we have the following results, using players’ DrAV points and breaking down the results in categories used above:

Total draft picks for the Vikings 2012-2015: 36 (without the net commercial additions or the UDFA)

  • Did not play for the team (DrAV = 0): 10 against expected (based on average): 6.
  • Unnecessary (DrAV 0-4): 8 against the expected average of 13.3.
  • Bad (DrAV 5-10): 7 against an expected average of 5.5.
  • Average (DrAV 11-17): 4 against expected average of 3.8.
  • Good (DrAV 18-35): 7 against an expected average of 4.4.
  • Large / Legendary (DrAV 36-80 +): 7 against expected average of 2.8.

Overall, in terms of chest choice (first three groups), Spielman was average with 25 versus an expected average of 24.8.

He was also average with “average” choices: 4 against 3.8 expected.

But it is in the last two categories – the most successful – that Spielman really outperformed.

In the “good” category, Spielman exceeded the average by more than 150%, picking up 2.5 more good players than the average.

And in the “big” category (no draft pick has really existed for long enough to be legendary), it more than doubled the 2.8 big players expected with 7 “big” picks. Having 4.2 additional excellent players on the roster can make a big difference as it amounts to around 20% of a list of 22 players at the start – and all of these excellent choices are beginners.

Over the next two years, more draft choices could also progress in the classification of categories.

Later versions of Spielman (2016-2019) are too recent to be evaluated with the DrAV metric simply because the players have not been long enough to accumulate DrAV points – so even the best spell on average based on the DrAV rating scale.

However, it is already clear that the 2016 draft was the worst for Spielman, as none of these choices managed to average and all of these players are no longer on the team.

The 2017 and 2018 draft classes have the potential to add to the excellent choices in the years to come, as Dalvin Cook and Brian O’Neill accumulate more DrAV points, and Mike Hughes and Holton Hill also have the opportunity to become beginners. Maybe Hercules Mata’afa will work too.

But it’s the 2019 draft class that holds the most potential. Garrett Bradbury will likely continue to start and hopefully improve, while Irv Smith Jr. will likely have more playing time and be put on the offense. Alexander Mattison, Dru Samia, Armon Watts, Oli Udoh, Kris Boyd and Olabisi Johnson could all emerge as role players or potentially newbies who could also make them successful draft choices.

Bottom Line

Rick Spielman is the most successful GM in the league since his promotion in 2012 regarding the added value of the draft picks, as evidenced by the fact that he has accumulated more DrAV of his draft picks than any other team. or GM.

It did not do this by being a much better lead picker than other GMs, although it is at least slightly better than average. But when they make a pick, they are more successful – moving into the “big” category rather than just average or good choices.

He also did this by accumulating more draft picks – 2nd best in the league since 2012 – by being very active in the draft trade and by being aggressive in the UDFA market as well.

All of these efforts – the functioning of the system – have contributed to the bottom line of accumulating more quality players to fill the list of Vikings.

And with a dozen choices in the next project, there should be more quality players soon.

Survey

Which team has been the most successful UDFA writing and acquisition prospect since 2012?

(include choice and rationale in comments)

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    Arizona Cardinals

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  • 79%

    Minnesota Vikings

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  • 5%

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  • 1%

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  • 3%

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286 votes in total
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