Everything in the NFL Is a Market Inefficiency

Normally, I don’t write about football.  Normally, I don’t really write about any sport other than basketball.  However, I just came up with a new, albeit somewhat unoriginal and possibly inflammatory, idea.

I was looking at ESPN’s Free Agent Tracker and seeing their free agent grades.  Something that struck me was that Victor Cruz was ranked fairly low; while Jake Long was highest-ranked at “86” points on an apparently 1-100 scale, Cruz was only 80.  Considering all the praise I’d heard about Cruz-some of it coming from the pre-season before Cruz ever played an NFL game-I was honestly surprised.  I also remembered Bill Barnwell’s recent article on Grantland about how, with the salary cap not increasing at anywhere near the same rate as it had been historically, mid-level veteran free agents were now heavily undervalued, I started to think.

Everyone knows that football is full of diamond-in-the-rough stories: Tom Brady, Kurt Warner, Priest Holmes, and Bart Starr are names that come to mind.  I’ve also previously written that in any given year, about as many or more rookies drafted after the first round will eventually become Pro Bowlers as those drafted in the first round.  Well, I decided to click over to the Approximate Value stat at www.pro-football-reference.com and investigate some more.  Here are the players tied for a place in the Top 10:

  • DE J.J. Watt, Houston: 2011 11th overall pick.  2011 AV: 10, 2012 AV: 20
  • CB Richard Sherman, Seattle: 2011 5th round pick.  2011 AV: 5, 2012 AV: 19
  • RB Adrian Peterson, Minnesota: 2007 7th overall pick.  2011 AV: 8. 2012 AV: 19
  • DE/LB Cameron Wake, Miami: Undrafted.  2011 AV: 8, 2012 AV: 18
  • QB Matt Ryan, Atlanta: 2008 3rd overall pick.  2011 AV: 15, 2012 AV: 18
  • DE Julius Peppers, Chicago: 2002 2nd overall pick.  2011 AV: 12, 2012 AV: 18
  • QB Robert Griffin III, Washington: 2012 2nd overall pick.  2012 AV: 18
  • QB Tom Brady, New England: 1999 6th round pick.   2011 AV: 21, 2012 AV: 18
  • DT Geno Atkins, Cincinnati: 2010 4th round pick.  2011 AV: 14, 2012 AV: 18
  • LB Von Miller, New England: 2011 2nd overall pick.  2011 AV: 12, 2012 AV: 17
  • RB Alfred Morris, Washington: 2012 6th round pick.  2012 AV: 17
  • QB Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay: 2005 24th overall pick.  2011 AV: 23. 2012 AV: 17
  • LB Daryl Washington, Arizona: 2010 2nd round pick.  2011 AV: 9, 2012 AV: 17

If you’ll notice, not a single one of those fourteen players has an Approximate Value within three points of their previous season’s.  It’s well-documented that football statistics are very inconsistent, and this is further evidence, even if AV is specifically designed not to clash too much with conventional wisdom.

Which brings up another point: it is still not absolutely certain exactly what [edit: statistic] wins games in the NFL.  While yards and points are obvious, accreditation is certainly no easy feat, and many people much smarter than me have tried for years.  With all of the systems and reads and luck and everything else, it’s just hard to tell who is responsible for any one play.  However, football is so interconnected and complex that it is difficult-although my love of Wins Produced makes me loathe to say impossible-to determine the absolute truth.  While a SportVU-style tracking camera system would certainly be helpful, it is also worth noting that, as stated by Dave Berri, the average football season has about as many possessions as two or three NBA games for each team.  While a possession in football is much more descriptive than a possession in basketball, with many more plays and events in each one, it is worth noting that the average football game only has about eleven minutes of action; over a sixteen-game season, that is only 176 minutes, or 3-4 NBA games’ worth.

There are so many previously undiscovered “stars” in the NFL each year, and probably many more that we will never discover (what if Kurt Warner gave up during his well-documented and perhaps overblown time grocery-bagging?), that it seems pointless to overpay for players.  Like Barnwell said in his article, it only takes is a little bit of waiting for the price to go way down, and even then it may be ridiculous.  Heck, Jon Kitna played in the NFL for fifteen seasons, but he was discovered at a teammate’s try-out if my memory serves.  Stories like this are over the place;  I mentioned Cruz, an undrafted free agent at the beginning of this post.  It seems to me that experience might just be the biggest market inefficiency out there; until we know for sure how and over what time span to rate players, it seems fallacious to pay millions for one man.  If I worked with personnel in “the league”, I would definitely scour the waiver wire and almost take chances on random players.  If I were really smart, I would avoid the practice altogether.  Thank you for reading, please comment, and please come back.


2 thoughts on “Everything in the NFL Is a Market Inefficiency

  1. Bobby –

    Now you’re talking… NFL – even tho it’s not your first love, nicely done. Very good article.

    I have learned that you should not write in the same manner as you speak. But your matter-of-fact style is very refreshing, and a pleasure to read. You certainly write better than most adults.

    I have these minor suggestions –
    Make sure you edit – check out these small changes
    “…about as many or more players drafted after the first round as those drafted in it will eventually become Pro Bowlers.” (all players in the draft are rookies, and complete the thought – as those drafted in it)

    “…it is not absolutely certain what wins games in the NFL.” – How about – it is not absolutely certain what statistic best defines what wins games in the NFL. – What wins games in the NFL is scoring more points than the other guy.

    Watch out for misplaced phrases. You know what a dangling participle is. Watch out for dandling phrases… “…the average football season has about as many possessions for each team as two or three NBA games.”

    “… and probably many more that we will never discover.” (Cite – if Brady or Warner never got the opportunity)

    Keep plugging. You are doing great.
    I am proud to be your friend.

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