Even the most casual NFL fan, or non-fan, recognizes the name “Jerry Rice.”
He was perhaps the greatest receiver in NFL history.
Only the most diehard Washington Redskins fans will remember the names Devin Thomas, Fred Davis and Malcolm Kelly.
They, too, caught passes, although not nearly as many as Rice.
Thomas, Davis and Kelly were second-round draft choices of the Washington Redskins in 2008.
Rice vs. Thomas, Davis and Kelly are prime examples of how Dr. Richard H. Thaler, professor of behavioral science and economics at the University of Chicago and the Nobel Prize winner in economics in 2017, thinks the NFL draft can be logically conducted along economic guidelines.
Thaler, in his book “Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioral Economics” and on the Revisionist History podcast with Malcolm Gladwell, makes a convincing case for where NFL teams go wrong in the draft. They spend too much capital on first-round choices instead of trading out of the first round and acquiring more draft choices in other rounds, especially the second.
Sounds good. Makes solid sense. Love the logic and rational thinking.
Thaler’s point is that the first player in the draft is valued at more than five times (3,000 points vs. 580) the first pick in the second round, 33rd overall.
The points system Thaler uses isn’t some arbitrary creation devised while working late one night in his economics laboratory. The rating system, apparently used in some form by every NFL team, has been a guideline in the league for decades.
Thaler’s point is that first-round draft choices are overvalued while second-, and later-, round choices are undervalued. A team is better off moving out of the first round and acquiring as many second-round draft choices as possible, five being the perfect number.
Problem No. 1: Acquiring five second-round draft choices is all but impossible.
Problem No. 2: Having multiple draft choices in any round is not the same as using them wisely.
In 2008, the Redskins had as close as a team is likely to get to Thaler’s perfect draft allotment — no first-round pick and three selections in the second round. Washington took Thomas, a wide receiver, 34th overall, Davis, a tight end, at No. 48 and Kelly, another wide receiver, 51st. Three receivers in one round, especially the second, might have been excessive, but the Redskins seemed certain to get at least one credible, reliable NFL player that way.
By contrast, in 1985, Bill Walsh, coach and general manager of the San Francisco 49ers, traded up in the first round, going from 28th to 16th because he wanted a specific player, Rice. Rice’s value on the draft chart, which did not then exist, would have been 1,000. The combined value of Thomas, Davis and Kelly was 1,370.
Winner, winner, chicken dinner for the Redskins, right?
Well, let’s look at that.
Rice played 303 games, caught 1,549 passes for 22,895 yards, 14.8 yards per reception, and 197 touchdowns. He also had 10 rushing touchdowns. He is the NFL’s all-time leading receiver in yards, catches and touchdowns, by wide margins in each category.
Thomas, Davis and Kelly combined to play 148 games, catch 232 passes for 2,889 yards and 16 touchdowns. Even though Davis had the best numbers of the trio, 162 receptions for 2,043 yards and 13 touchdowns, he will be remembered more as the rookie who overslept and missed a Saturday morning minicamp practice than for any exploits on the field.
Rice was one of the great first-round bargains in NFL history.
This does not mean Thaler’s theories on how to draft are invalid. He’s correct, based on the results, when he says the Redskins drastically overpaid to move up four slots in 2012 to take quarterback Robert Griffin III.
The Redskins, based on results, also overpaid to move up two spots to No. 4 in 1992 to select wide receiver Desmond Howard.
Howard became a Super Bowl MVP, but for Green Bay as a kick returner.
Many other teams have made errors just as egregious because they fell in love with a player and just had to have him, no matter the cost.
Quality can trump quantity, though, such as when teams drafted John Elway, Peyton Manning, Ben Roethlisberger, Eli Manning, Darrell Green and Emmitt Smith in the first round.
Thaler’s right that it’s best to trade down, if possible, if there’s no player who floats your boat in the first round.
The flaw in Thaler’s theory, though, is that he applies reason and logic to the draft, which is almost totally lacking in either.