One of the most-quoted bits from Ryan Pace is the notion that he wants to have long-term success built through the draft. He told Brad Biggs: "Our goal from the start is to have a team that is built for sustainable success. To do that, we must be calculated in free agency and string together successful drafts” (emphasis mine). That sounds really good. It sounds smart. It is also, ultimately, the same as admitting that he is depending on luck. In order to explain why, though, I want to change topics.
Nobody is good at tic tac toe. It is possible to be bad at tic tac toe, but after certain minimum skill levels are reached, the game itself almost always ends in a tie. Why? Because the moves available are known to most people, and there’s only so many ways to manipulate the choices. When the NFL draft is studied from any sort of distance, it becomes a game of tic tac toe.
Neil Paine, writing for the statistical analysis site fivethirtyeight explains simply “No Team Can Beat the Draft.” In 2014, he examined how draft pick success corresponded to expected value, and then concluded that while there were occasional outliers, on a whole teams fell in line remarkably well with one another. NFL teams do not beat the draft on a per-pick basis. Paine explains that “because of all of the effort and examination being poured into these predictions, the draft is a robust market that, in the aggregate, does a good job of sorting prospects from top to bottom. Yet despite so many people trying to ‘beat the market,’ no single actor can do it consistently. Abnormal returns are likely due to luck, not skill.”
Paine is not alone in making this claim. A year earlier, Chase Stuart examined every draft from 1970 to 2007 and found that: “there appears to be no real evidence that picking winners in the draft is a repeatable skill”. He uses the example of the 1970s Bears to illustrate his basic point: “The 1975 Bears had one of the most amazing draft classes in history…But guess what? In 1976 and 1977, the Bears were below average.”
There is an explanation for why some teams or GMs seem to be better than others, and it has to do with luck and with perception. Imagine that thirty people flipped coins and tried to call correctly whether the coin was going to land on heads or tails. Someone would have a better streak than everyone else, and someone would have a worse streak, too. However, very few people would claim that skill was involved. Instead, the outliers would simply be the people who got luckier than others.
Other researchers of various kinds consistently find the same results: Sports + Numbers agrees, and even management journals dedicated to understanding the application of scientific methodology to economics find the same outcomes—once front offices reach a certain level of competence, it becomes tic tac toe. It’s possible to lose, but barring one exception, it requires another team stumbling to win. That exception, of course, is being able to draft more often. If all GMs tend to break even on a per-pick basis, then the only real way to get ahead is to pick up extra selections.
All of this comes back to one conclusion, supported by independent research across multiple fields: only by accumulating extra draft picks and by succeeding after the draft—in player development, in free agency, and in coaching—can a team actually gain an advantage. It is possible to lose the draft, but anything more comes down to luck.