Thursday, May 5, 2011

NFL Draft and NCAA Style of Play

I was recently reading an article by Florida State SBNation blog Tomahawk Nation, which begins a conversation I’ve been contemplating for a while.  The basic question the article raises is that of the relationship between the style of play a college team employs, and the relative success of the school’s alumni in the NFL draft.  The article attacks the question from several angles.  I wanted to pose the question to the readers.  What impact (if any) does the type of scheme a college player played in have on the way NFL teams view them?

A quick note for those who don’t read on, READ THIS POST by Iowa blog Black Heart Gold Pants.  It is easily in the top 5 sports blog posts I have ever read. Easily. I’d suggest reading the comments as they do a good job illuminating the article.  The post is an attempt to find which schools best develop player talent.  I will only reference a small part of the article – that which deals with how a college’s scheme affects it’s alumni in the Draft.

At the center of this discussion right now is the spread option offense.  The spread option and its variance are currently all the rage in major college football.  There are two interesting points about the spread option in regards to this discussion.  The first is that it the scheme has proven very effective (for the time being) in the college game, but it has yet to be used effectively in the pros.  The second point is the spread option makes use of passing and running lanes not typically available to NFL offenses.  This makes it very difficult for pro teams to evaluate players coming from these types of offenses.  For example, how do you compare completion percentage of a quarterback coming from a spread option offense (in which a large percentage of his passes are short yardage/lateral throws made on the run), with that of a traditional “pocket passer” from a West Coast or Pro-style offense who is making more downfield throws?  If you’re an NFL GM, the kid from a Pro-style offense is much easier to project (though still very difficult) than a guy who spent the last 4 years making throws that will be either unavailable or ineffective in the NFL.

This brings us to the question at hand.  How does the difficulty of evaluating a player from a “non-NFL” style of play affect that player’s draft stock?  Let us take example of two identical quarterbacks – one who played in a spread option offense, and one who plays in a pro-style offense.  Is the spread quarterback likely to be drafted later due to the increased difficulty in evaluating him?  Or, is he more likely to be drafted earlier due to his “inflated” statistics?  Complicating matters is the fact that quarterbacks coming from the two offenses generally are very different players.  Speed and athleticism are of much greater emphasis in the spread option.

Another interesting point about the quarterbacks in the spread option is that they don’t resemble any of the elite NFL quarterbacks.  Of the undisputed top quarterbacks in the League (Brady, Brees, Manning, Rivers, and increasingly Rodgers), not a one of them could be confused for anything close to speed or athleticism.  Success in college ought not be confused with success in the pros.  The only “top level” NFL quarterback that would have been a prototype spread option quarterback is Michael Vick.  No other elite quarterback looks anything like Tim Tebow, or Cam Newton, or Denard Robinson, or Pat White.  Obviously this doesn’t prove that spread option quarterbacks can’t succeed in the NFL, just that they haven’t.

That still leaves us the question, how is a player’s draft stock affected by playing in a non-traditional scheme in college?  Recent history has given us anecdotal evidence on each side.  In last year’s NFL draft, Tim Tebow – who many consider among the greatest college players to ever take to the gridiron – fell all the way to the 25th overall pick.  This year however, the Carolina Panthers used their number 1 overall selection to take Cam Newton.  As a quick aside, the Panthers can be granted some leniency in taking Newton as it was likely a result of the franchise finally realizing that they actually took Jimmy Clausen a year ago.

Here is where I want to turn your attention to the aforementioned Black Heart Gold Pants article.  The writer (UUDD) does an absolutely tremendous job looking at player development throughout major college football. I won’t go into all of the methods here.  There are certainly a few legitimate criticisms of them, but on the whole the study is very good.  The theory is that each school brings in some talent pool x. The school either plays above, at, or below their talent level, measured by a win ratio.  Further a school “develops” their talent pool x by getting more, the same, or fewer players drafted than expected from their pool x

The quick and dirty is that the author took the incoming recruits to every school in BCS conferences and measured their incoming classes on the basis of the number of stars their recruits received from the scouting company Rivals.  He then calculated how many wins each school should get based on the number of stars of its recruits.  He also measured the number of NFL draft picks each school should get based on the same factor.  The writer then takes the school’s actual win total and compares it with the expected win total.  The resulting value is the “win ratio.”  He also calculates the “development ratio” by comparing the actual number of draft picks a school gets compared to the expected number.

The part of the study relevant to this discussion comes at the end of the post in the form of a chart that plots a team’s win ratio against its development ratio.  Each quadrant is then explained.  The author draws our attention to the quadrant which relates to team’s having a high win ratio but a low development ratio.

  Finally, the lower right corner is particularly interesting. These programs are outperforming their talent in terms of wins and losses, but that isn't translating into NFL careers for the players. West Virginia is a great example of how this happens: these numbers mostly reflect the Rich Rodriguez era of the spread'n'shred and 3-3-5 defense. These were great systems for winning college football games, but a far cry from the NFL norm. As a result, while Rodriguez turned his talent into wins, he did not turn it into NFL draft picks. Texas Tech is a similar case, the pass-pass-pass offense that made Mike Leach famous evened the playing field against more talented opponents, but did not prepare players for the NFL.

For the record, West Virginia and Texas Tech represent 2 of the highest “win ratio” to “development ratio” ratios (if that makes sense) in all of BCS football.

Now I’d like to investigate further, but I don’t have all the data.  I’ll see if the author is kind enough to provide it for further analysis.  In the meantime I want to hear your thoughts in the comments if you read this far!


  1. I disagree with your statement that this proves only that spread option quarterbacks "haven't" had success in the NFL. They can't have success in the NFL. The biggest difference between the NFL and college is the athleticism of the players. NFL players are too fast and too big for spread option quarterbacks. We have seen it time and time again that running or dual threat quarterbacks can't survive in the NFL. Vince Young, Tebow, Mike Vick, and Pat White are recent examples of this. None of these four quarterbacks has consistently had success. Their problems have always been durability or their run first instinct.

  2. I didn't get around to reading the whole Iowa guy's blog, but I have an issue at least with the developing talent thing. Maybe he addresses it, but how can you have a school like Wake Forest up there. The only time Wake players get drafted is when they are studs, so obviously that would inflate their chances of success. Like I said, I did not read the whole post so maybe I am missing something here, but that does not seem to be the best measurement system. I apologize if my argument is out of ignorance. I just did not have the time to read that entire post.


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