QB Draft Series 2018: Introduction/NFL vs. NBA Draft Scouting

Welcome to my 2018 NFL QB Scouting Series. For various reasons, I decided to jump into NFL Draft stuff this year.

Oops.

It did not take long to realize that the NFL Draft is an entirely different beast than the NBA Draft. In fact, I think the only thing that I’ve found is similar is the biases that people display when talking about prospects. I wrote two separate articles on bad arguments and cognitive biases that apply just as well to the NFL Draft as they do to the NBA Draft – just replace the NBA players/prospects with NFL players/prospects and everything else can stay basically the same and apply just as well.

Before I get into the QBs, I wanted to highlight some of the biggest differences and similarities between scouting the NBA and NFL drafts.

There are no stats that can be easily relied upon

This is honestly the biggest difference by far. In the NBA, the first thing I do is get a spreadsheet with every draft-eligible player and cut out every player who doesn’t reach certain well-established statistical thresholds. Some of the stats I rely upon are actually fairly simple metrics – minutes played, shooting percentages, total points, rebounds, assists, steals, blocks. They’re not perfect metrics, but good NBA players were typically also good NCAAB players. I also use some advanced metrics, many created by other draftniks. There is an entire community of analytically inclined NBA draftniks that do really good, really interesting work.

The NFL Draft? Not so much. There are a few reasons for this.

In basketball, there are 5 positions and every position has the same stats. The expected stats for the different positions may vary, but they can be compared both within position and to other positions. In the NFL, there are a ton of positions, many of which have different stats than others, few which can be compared against each other. It means that any statistical analysis has to be done on a much smaller fraction of the draft at a time.

In college basketball, the average player plays about 33 games, 1000+ minutes and something like 55-60 offensive and 55-60 defensive possessions every game. In college football, the average player plays about 12-13 games and is involved in anywhere from single digits (kickers and punters) to about 75 (offensive linemen) plays a game. In total, most guys just do not have a large enough sample to create reliable stats.

The level of competition and style of play can also vary wildly from game to game and conference to conference. As far as I’m aware, nobody has created a metric accounting for these differences. There’s also differences in systems, weather, and multiple other things that can affect stats but do not appear in them.

Overall, stats are, at best, an unreliable signpost. They can be used to help guide what to look for on tape, but that’s about all.

There are so so so many more draft-relevant players to the point of being overwhelming

In basketball, before I even jump into the tape, I’m already looking at a pool of 50-70 guys total. In the past 3 drafts, I ranked 13, 13, and 15 college prospects as potential starters and 35, 52, and 37 prospects total as prospects worth potentially drafting, with another 10-20 listed in each draft as potentially interesting UDFAs. In football, there’s over 250 picks vs. only 60 for the NBA and then another 10+ UDFAs per team vs. 2 or 3 per team in the NBA who are usually fighting for minor league roster spots. In the NBA draft, about half the players drafted get to play real minutes in the NBA and about a third turn into real NBA players, with only 1-3 becoming true stars.

Using the 2014 drafts for comparison, about 30 NBA drafted players played significant minutes and only 15 have averaged 25+ MPG in their career, with only 1 making an all-star game. 146 NFL drafted players have appeared in 32+ games, 77 spent 2+ years as their team’s primary starter, and 21 have already made the Pro Bowl.

Basically, there are well over 200 draft-relevant prospects, and if the ratios hold, somewhere between 250-300 prospects should be ranked at a minimum (based on the greater number of UDFA both picked up and rostered, that number may actually be closer to 350-400). And because of the above point regarding stats, there’s no easy way to even cut down from the universe of “all FBS and FCS players” to “300 prospects worth looking at”.

Tape scouting is considerably more difficult

In basketball scouting, the tape is used to provide context to numbers and to give a fuller picture of a player. You’re looking for very specific things – shooting form, court awareness, athletic profile, see if anything stands out good or bad either way. There’s only 10 players vs. 22 and you can see all the action on the screen at all times. Defensive systems are well-defined and easy to parse right away. Offensive systems are fairly simple systems of screens and cuts. Regardless of whether shots actually go in, players are fairly consistent from game to game, so watching a few minutes of a few games, when combined with the numbers, is really all you need.

In football scouting, the tape stands for itself – the numbers provide little useful guidance. Each position has very different things to look for to the point where it’s basically evaluating different sports – it takes hours upon hours upon hours to learn enough to be able to look at one position. It is difficult to find all-22 tape for college from any angle – it simply isn’t publicly available. Any outlet that does not have access to the all-22 tape (especially from behind the offense and behind the defense) cannot do any real scouting for any position other than QB and maybe RB and the lines. Each player’s responsibility can change on each play, and I generally find that to really understand a given play, you need to watch it at least 6 times, minimum, to see what actually happened (I have watched many plays 15+ times). It is tedious and time-consuming – charting a single pass play for a single player took me 2-3 minutes. Basically, to truly accurately evaluate a single player, I believe you need to spend no less than 5 hours doing intense film study. I don’t think any draftnik has spent that much time on more than a handful of prospects.

So yeah, scouting football prospects is significantly more difficult.

The NFL Has Changed

In developing my NBA projection systems over the past few years, the biggest changes have been in recognizing major, fundamental shifts in the way the game is played and adjusting the value of players to reflect their contributions towards winning basketball games. That is, recognizing that skills and talents that were useful in the past are less or not useful now. This has nothing to do with individual talent level and everything to do with determining what talents are relevant to winning championships. The goal of any sport is to win the championship. How that goal is achieved is not static. Why do so many fans treat it as such?

In the NBA, a change in defensive rules caused changes in defensive schemes, which in turn caused changes in offensive schemes, which in turn completely changed how the game was played. This all occurred very rapidly. While many fans still value(d) skills that had been valuable in the 90s, NBA basketball as played now has no real relation to NBA basketball played even 15 years ago.

The NFL is no different. There are multiple rule changes basically every year. The total sum of those changes is that passing is easier (because of changes to what DBs can do) and blocking is worse (because of changes to how OLs can practice). Over the past few seasons, rushing has stayed static or dropped slightly, while passing has ticked up significantly (it dropped a little this year, in part thanks to Kizer’s special brand of terrible and in part due to defenses that are finally seeming to adjust a little).

While fans and analysts alike fetishize runners and “road-graders”, the fact of the matter is that, much like the NBA’s low-post game, the NFL’s rushing game simply isn’t nearly as relevant as it was in the past, and to the extent it is, its impact is limited. It should be noted that while RB rushing isn’t particularly relevant to winning, QB rushing is, as QBs tend to carry for a much higher YPC and much higher rate of first downs.

Because the NFL has changed, positional value must change with it

For my 2017 NBA big board, I actually put a value on each role, because some skillsets are more rare and more valuable than others. NFL fans clearly understand this – ask them the highest they would draft a kicker or punter and they’ll say 4th or 5th or maybe not at all. They have value, but they have limited value over replacement, so they’re not worth spending high picks on. But then when it comes to other positions, this same logic doesn’t seem to apply.

Part of this is due to disagreement as to what each position’s value is. As a general rule of thumb though, players who are involved in the passing game on either side of the ball should be significantly upgraded and players who are geared to the rushing game should be significantly downgraded. This is most noticeable with RBs, who are never worth a top draft pick. These players are overrated because they are highly visible and fantasy-relevant, but they are replaceable, have a low hit rate, and most importantly, simply do not have a big impact in winning games. Run-stopping DTs and LBs, runblocking OLs, and the like should also be significantly downgraded. QBs, WRs, passblocking OLs, passrushers, and pass defenders should be upgraded.

Conclusion

I started this project fully intending to do a deep dive and create a big board for at least the top 50 or so NFL draft prospects. Due to all of the above, I simply do not have the time necessary to do a good job. Therefore, I have decided to simply scout the QB prospects. Enjoy!

 

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