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The Science of the Draft
David M. Dorey

Drafting a good team is a science. Period. It is not an art, regardless what under-prepared, luck-reliant FF'ers say and it is the way you can take control of your draft and make the very best of educated picks. It is a science because you can measure, experiment and predict outcomes to a large degree of certainty.

When I build my draft list, a process with more complexity and numbers than filing the 1040 long form on your taxes, I consider each and every player by using an ordered list of important characteristics. I use a separate measurement for rookies, but for established players, I assess players following this ordered road map:

1. Opportunity
2. Demonstrated Production
3. Consistency
4. Team Dynamics
5. Strength of Schedule
6. Hands and Feet

Opportunity - In reality, most NFL players are probably within 10% of each other in terms of strength, speed and agility, While 10% is the difference in breaking away or eating turf, there is not a tremendous amount of difference between all but possibly the top ten players in a given position. In order to score, they gotta handle the rock. In drafting, it is critical to draft early those players who you can be certain will be "the man" for a team. The majority of all starting players in the NFL were not taken in the first round and did not have a stellar rookie year. They played until it was their time to get an opportunity, whether through attrition, injury or "a new direction" by the team.

Before you start confusing yourself on the task of guessing which players deserve to be taken in what order in the draft, first make out a list of the 30 starters in their position for their team in no particular order because these guys will have the opportunity first.

Demonstrated Production - Janet Jackson once sang it best - "What have you done for me lately?". You have the starting players now (if you followed directions). Compare each to their previous year's production. Personally I keep more statistics than the Math Dept. at MIT, but if you do not have them, consult the numerous statistical sources available here on the Web or from the FF magazines. Order each position as to their prior year's production. Congratulations! You now have a list of what you should have done last year! In truthfulness, you have what many people, and even some magazines, will be using this year. But it is not enough - onward!

Consistency - Hi there, my name is Consistency and I am only the MOST IMPORTANT QUALITY! There is no single factor I consider as strongly as consistency. None. Most FF'ers look at yearly yardage and TD totals when they evaluate a player. I love that, since I have personally analyzed every player for every week during the past 6 years. And I see players who have one or two monster games and then squat the rest of the season. They look like they belong in the middle with total scores, but give me consistency. I'd rather have a player with a solid 4 pts a week than someone who scores 12, then zero for a few weeks, then an 8, then a zero . . . .

Several magazines publish the previous season's weekly performances if you do not personally have 4 MB of FF spreadsheets on your computer. In determining consistency, I eliminate the best two games from the weekly performances for each player to reduce freak highs. Then I take the remaining 14 games and determine a threshold I want to see each week. (I start with ten points using my league scoring rules, then repeat with 5 points as the threshold to break 10 point ties). For each player, I count how many times in the 14 games he reached it. If you want, disregard the final game of the season for veterans resting before the playoffs.

I will also consider more strongly what a player did in the final 6 games than what he did in the first 10 weeks. This is a better indicator for a player, sans injury, for what he may do the following year.

Returning to the 30 starters, I adjust their order by moving players up or down according to how consistent they actually were. I can't stress enough how important this is. Rank higher any players who get points every week, even if they do not ever appear as the week's highest scorer. Get guys who will be there week in and out, and even in an off week still deliver 3-4 points. I hate zeros, I really do. You should too.

Team Dynamics - After you rank players as starters, as previous scorers and in regard to their consistency, know your NFL teams! What is going on with them, are they high scorers? Trying a new offense? Have a new coach? Has their Hall of Fame running back recently retired? Have they recently scored the least or most points in the history of the NFL?

You obviously want to take players from the higher scoring teams because besides opportunity for carries, you want opportunity for that carry to end with the ball being spiked. This is not the case for all teams. Rank a player higher if he is on a team that will score more than average. This really applies to receivers more than anyone. Last season the top FIFTEEN receivers for total yardage all played in the playoffs. While it would seem that worst teams would throw more from need, that does not equate to successful FF points. While the top ten QB's in attempts only had five playoff quarterbacks, the top ten QB's in either yardage or touchdowns only had three who did not make the playoffs. When you find yourself deciding between two players, a good rule of thumb is to take the guy on the higher scoring, more successful offense.

Many people will, and have, disagreed with this statement : Other than players who are consistently in the top 10 for their position, avoid them in the draft if they play on a "new team" (new system, new coach or an actual new team). The reason is simple, "risk". They will be generally over-valued in the draft surfing the wave of optimism that a new coach brings and they will not perform as well during the first half of the season as the team learns new ways, new plays and the QB has had to yell at linemen for missing their blocks the first twenty times. At this point, players who looked so great in August suddenly look like a bad idea in early October. Which is when you can make that (clear throat) altruistic trade for them before they do turn it on.

Most of you will not do this, thank you very much, but before you throw away the idea, consider the next factor...

Strength of Schedule - Back to the basics - know the NFL defenses and the historic match-ups between teams, their performances on turf/grass, in domes, etc.. You can rank a RB higher now if he has a weaker schedule to play against. A tougher schedule will affect more positively QB's and WR's. Obviously, some defenses will be weaker against the run than the pass, or vice versa and you should also take that into consideration. No one said obsessive-compulsive behavior was going to be easy. After you determine, or rely on someone else, the true schedule strengths of each team, you can proceed to my boldest, oldest and most secret weapon -

Dorey's Rule

"Draft as if the season only lasted the first six weeks"

And the corollary to Dorey's Rule :

"If your league has playoff weeks, consider them separately but equal"

The reason is simple. You will win by not only drafting well, but more importantly managing well the entire season. This often entails trades, free agents and admitting you were drunk when you drafted Hoying. By season's end, the more successful teams will also be the teams that did not stand pat on a roster and made player moves.

Personally, I have ended up with as many as 13 out of 16 players changing by week 17. All FF'ers make right and wrong choices in the draft. By selecting the players who have the best chance within the first 5-6 weeks to score, you will position yourself much better to make "altruistic" trades with others who watched you win while their players stumbled through a tough initial schedule (and/or a new offense).

New to a team? New Offense? How about probably the best RB to switch teams twice in recent years - Ricky Watters (1995 and 1998).. He ended the year with 11 TD's and 1273 rush yards in 1995 and 9 TD's and 1239 yards in 1998. Pretty good. But using Dorey's Rule, let's break it down:

1995 - Philadelphia Eagles
Weeks 1-6 (500 yds rushed, 1 TD and this with 139 yds at WAS)
Weeks 7-16 (773 yds rushed, 10 TD's )

1998 - Seattle Seahawks
Weeks 1-6 (490 yds rushed, 1 TD)
Weeks 7-16 (749 yds rushed, 8 TD's)

The draft is something to over-prepare for during that cruel, barren time when there's no football. But aggressive management wins championships. After about the first twenty players are drafted, they all become more unknown risks. Increase your odds! For play-off leagues, also consider what teams will still be playing against a soft schedule during the final games of the season.

Move players within your rankings, particularly those outside the top tens, according to their chances the initial six weeks of the season. Grab a few if they have unusually attractive final month match-ups and your league has playoffs. And then manage your team, change your roster when it seems appropriate and watch that schedule.

Hands and Feet - I finalize my rankings considering the ability to carry, catch or throw the ball without turning it over. Even in leagues without punitive negative points for turnovers, I still consider this because there is no better way to get your player on the sideline than for him to give the ball away. Hands are very important, and there is nothing that can send a player to the bench like fumbles and dropped passes. Look at the number of times a player turned the ball over and maybe save yourself a mid-season surprise. It is unusual that someone truly cures a fumbling problem, the real question is when are they going to choke when it really counts? And when they choke, they sit. Some QB's manage to mature out of an interception problem, but all too may are not given the luxury of time. The NFL in the nineties is not about patience.

Just as important, I want fast, quick feet. Breakaway runs. Sideline dashes. Cuts that give linebackers knee sprains trying to keep up. Nudge players up when they have it, down if they are not at least average. I like 40 yard times in the 4.6 or less range. There are a lot of very fast, very quick guys out there just waiting for their turn. Speed can make the difference between you using the term "sleeper" or just muttering "dammit". And yet speed and quickness are worthless if a player won't consistently catch or hold on to the ball. Consider each player for these qualities and adjust your list for anyone with unusually low (like never) or high turn-over ratios.

By now, you've got a great, scientifically-formulated draft sheet. You need to add more players to your list depending on the roster quota your specific league allows and you can add players best by repeating the above scenario and use the #2 player in each position for each NFL team. Return to your sheet and add in rookies but be aware that while three to four rookie rushers do well, it is rare for QB's or WR's to shine in their freshman year. There is a reason why Moss is called "The Freak" and Manning was the #1 pick in the draft. They are exceptions, definite exceptions. Before you get pumped up on a rookie, also recall Dyson was drafted before Moss and Leaf went #2 overall.

By now, you could have a cheat sheet worthy of most any FF magazine, maybe even better. Lots of work? Hey, we don't run The Huddle as an outlet for just new or casual players. We do our homework here, state our views and are always "ready for some football". If you read this much, you probably do too.

When you finally divorce yourself from favorite player loyalty, and play FF a few years, you come to realize that there are certain benefits to being the guy who did his homework. The advantage goes to the FF'er with the insight born of knowledge, facts and stats. Learn the players, learn the teams and watch the schedule. Use a bit of science and you'll be amazed at how much better your report card looks by December!