The draft is a crapshoot. That’s not a controversial statement. Any attempt to predict the draft will always be an exercise rooted in futility. Whether mock drafts attempt to predict the draft order or actual player outcomes, everyone’s hit rate is abysmal, even NFL teams themselves. It’s difficult to predict how a player’s college performance will translate to the NFL, how they’ll personally handle the transition, and if your plan for using them is correct.
But that doesn’t mean that mock drafts are worthless. They’re a great tool to help get to know the draft class in a given year, and they provide a written record of draft-pick stock over time. Aggregators like Arif Hasan’s consensus big board and Benjamin Robinson’s Grinding The Mocks project give us a sense of what people thought before the draft, lest we lose ourselves in the benefit of hindsight.
In particular, it’s informative to examine where consensus and real-life results differ. Through much of the 2019 pre-draft process, D.K. Metcalf was a consensus first-round pick. Days before the draft, his stock plummeted, mostly because of a couple of poor athletic tests. Now he’s a top NFL wide receiver, much like everyone initially thought he would be.
The NFL seemed to over-value his agility testing as opposed to the rest of his athletic profile and his prolific tape. As the draft drew near, the recent tests became easier to remember than the tape. Whether his slip was due to recency bias or an over-emphasis on athleticism in general, there’s a lesson to be learned here. Singular, headline-grabbing deficiencies shouldn’t define a prospect when they have a litany of evidence proving they can overcome them.
We can learn a lesson from our beloved Vikings’ worst miss in a decade as well. Drafting Laquon Treadwell over Michael Thomas will forever live in Vikings infamy, but the draft consensus was right there with them. On Arif Hasan’s consensus board, Treadwell ranked 11th. That means that, on average, draft evaluators and predictors thought he was just outside the cusp of a top-10 prospect. Some had him in the top 10 outright. And there was below average variance on those rankings, meaning the community generally agreed.
Michael Thomas, on the other hand, ranked 40th, and with even less variance. So the whole draft community — the Vikings included — thought Treadwell would work out better than Thomas. Obviously, that couldn’t be more wrong. What lessons can we take from that?
It’s easy to default to dismissive takeaways. The Vikings missed, the New Orleans Saints didn’t, the Vikings should’ve known better. Perhaps you even want to use it as a referendum on Rick Spielman’s skill in general, though the draft’s overall randomness is difficult to ignore. Instead, let’s examine why the consensus failed and see if it’s reasonable to guess that the Vikings made the same error.
Here is a scouting report on Thomas from 2016. The negatives, in particular, feel almost made up. “He’s not built for fourth down.” He needs to play with a “dog mentality.” Concerns about being hand-held by Ohio State’s offense (quarterbacked by Cardale Jones and J.T. Barrett). The positives rave about his hands, his releases, and his size, but he didn’t have the eye-popping highs to convince an NFL team to draft him in Round 1.
A Treadwell scouting report, on the other hand, goes to great lengths to dismiss genuine concerns. His 4.63 40 confirmed in-game speed issues he had already overcome. His college leg injury was a possible excuse. His route tree was limited, but perhaps an NFL offense could expand it. His quarterback (Chad Kelly) was holding him back. In hindsight, Thomas had so many fewer weaknesses, but Treadwell’s highlight reel had to be explained somehow.
Now that we can compare this extreme example, we can learn from it. Thomas’ lack of weaknesses was his strength. How do you beat a player that doesn’t have any common ways to lose? NFL teams have found that out with Thomas, while Treadwell’s NFL career circles the drain. For Treadwell, his poor athletic testing shouldn’t have been dismissed by injury, and his limited route tree turned out to be a much bigger problem.
Turning to the offensive line for one final lesson, let’s look at Billy Price. The Vikings were interested in Price, and mock drafts considered him a first-round pick for most of his college career. But his draft stock plummeted after an injury at the NFL Combine. That injury became the story of Billy Price during the draft and perhaps distracted from long-term weaknesses.
Price had some bad habits on tape, such as lowering his head (betraying otherwise good leverage habits), and was often overpowered at his playing weight of 305 lbs. Those things became a lot easier to ignore with the injury. The narrative went from balancing the pros and cons to a much sexier game of “What If?”. The lesson we can learn from Price, who has been a disaster for the Cincinnati Bengals, is to keep injuries separate from evaluations.
A better way to approach Price is similar to a good way of cosidering off-field issues in draft prospects. At first, ignore those non-football issues. Put a pin in them. It’s crucial to develop a starting point for that prospect, and adjusting for the medical or off-field issues must be a separate process. If not, you risk overvaluing what a “clean” version of the prospect would look like because of our brain’s natural tendency to make a story out of it.
It’s deceptively easy to slide back into default positions on old prospects. If a team missed, that team must be bad, right? But when the consensus, the NFL, and the results all disagree, there’s likely a story worth uncovering in hindsight. That way we can foresee these sorts of issues in the future. The lessons learned from Metcalf and Thomas could be applied to the Vikings’ selection of Justin Jefferson. Prince Tega-Wanogho, who went in the seventh round, was not overvalued because of medical concerns. The NFL can learn from its mistakes, and we can too.