GREEN BAY—The movie “Moneyball” brought analytics in sports to prominence, but Tony Villiotti has been crunching the numbers for years.
What is analytics? It’s the accumulation of meaningful patterns in data, for the purpose of using that data to predict future results.
Villiotti is the creator of draftmetrics.com, a football website dedicated to information on all things NFL, especially those things pertaining to the draft and free agency. At this time of the year, Villiotti is as busy as an NFL scout. The following is a snapshot of some of the information Villiotti is providing on the draft, free agency and the impact of both on success or failure in the NFL.
Bigger, stronger, faster?
Well, at least not faster.
Average times at the scouting combine for the 40 since 1999 have been flat. Running backs averaged 4.55 in ’99; 4.60 this year. Wide receivers averaged 4.57 in ’99; 4.50 this year. Cornerbacks and safeties were slightly slower this year.
How important is free agency?
Players acquired as veteran free agents accounted for nearly 27 percent of all games started in the 2012 NFL season, as opposed to 59 percent for teams’ own draft choices. The 2,992 games started by veteran free agents marks the second consecutive year of increased starts, following a steady decline in preceding years.
The real seven rounds of the draft
They’re different than the NFL’s version. Villiotti maintains that in terms of levels of prospect quality, the real seven rounds of the draft are as follows: selections 1-13, 14-40, 41-66, 67-86, 87-149, 150-189, 190 and later.
Villiotti’s data suggests that each level results in a drop in the quality of the talent available in the draft. Players selected in the 1-13 range, for example, have a 99.5 percent rate of having played three-plus years, and 95.1 percent rate of having played five-plus years. Players selected 14-40 are 92.8 and 82.5 percent. In the final group, the averages are 43.0 and 26.8 percent. For all of the groups, the averages are 67.6 and 51.6 percent.
Where do the Packers rank?
The Packers were ninth in the league last year in starts by retained players, 280. The Seahawks led the league with 319, followed by the 49ers with 309 and Redskins with 296.
Money and the draft
Villiotti estimates that the first pick in this year’s draft will receive a signing bonus of about $14.5 million and his cap number will be about $4.035 million. By comparison, the player selected with the 26th overall pick, which the Packers own, will receive a bonus of about $4 million and his cap number will be about $1.4 million. The difference in bonus money between the first pick of the draft and the final pick of the first round will be about $11.2 million.
The question is this: Is the owner of the first pick receiving good value for the $11.2 million difference. If not, it amounts to the equivalent of a regressive tax on the worst teams.
How soon should they become starters?
Thirty-seven percent of all first-time starters achieved that status as rookies, 30 percent in their second season, 15 percent in their third, etc. Thirty-five percent of all three-year starters achieved that milestone in their third season. Thirty-four percent of all five-year starters achieved that status in their third season.
Sooner would seem to be better.
Using all of the information, including teams’ drafting success percentage which, of course, has been affected by their place in the order, this is how Villiotti forecasts the 77 projected five-year starters from this year’s draft class to be divvied up: 2.25 or more—49ers, Dolphins, Vikings, Bengals; 2.0-2.24—Lions, Titans, Rams, Jaguars, Bucs, Eagles, Cards, Jets; 1.75-1.99—Ravens, Falcons, Chargers, Chiefs, Bills; 1.50-1.74—Texans, Giants, Steelers, Raiders, Packers, Cowboys; 1.25-1.49—Browns, Broncos, Seahawks, Panthers, Bears, Patriots; Less than 1.25—Saints, Colts, Redskins.
Making sense out of all of that is the tough part.
The first round is the money round
Apparently, it really is what’s up front that counts.
Even though the best teams draft at the bottom of the order, the best teams have a higher percentage of success with their first-round picks. Last year’s playoff teams had a 37.1 percent rate of starts by first-round picks, as compared to 35.5 percent by teams with losing records.
Losing teams were overall better in rounds 1-3, and playoff teams were better in rounds 4-7.
How do you like those analytics?