Friday, April 27, 2007

Predicting a Draft | by Jay

You might remember we held a contest a few months ago calling for BGS readers to submit an original post. We posted the first winning entry, by Stephen Kelley, a heartfelt tribute to Notre Dame fandom. The other winner was Michael Bangert, but we decided to hold his entry until now, especially since Mike's post deals with college football awards and how they relate to the NFL Draft. Enjoy!

Hardware Hopefuls

by Michael Bangert, '99

So as I was sitting at a bar watching the National College Football Awards show, waiting to watch the Notre Dame hoops team upset #5 ranked Alabama, and I thought to myself, “Do these awards predict where a guy will go in the NFL draft?” Then I remembered the Blue-Gray Sky’s posting contest and decided to do some work to figure it out in the hopes of winning the box set. Would Heisman Trophy winner Troy Smith be the number one draft pick? Will it be Brady Quinn, winner of Maxwell Award? Or will someone else go first?

There are plenty of mock drafts floating around the internet attempting to predict what will happen at the end of April, but instead of just reading those, I decided that it might be fun to go back about 25 years to wade through NFL draft history and college football award winners, and to see how those awards relate to the NFL draft.

Methodology. To determine if winning an award accurately predicts becoming a top draft choice, I looked at how well each year’s award recipient did in the following year’s NFL draft.

• I analyzed the following awards: the Heisman Memorial Trophy, the Maxwell Player of the Year, the Walter Camp Player of the Year, the Dick Butkus Outstanding Linebacker, the Outland Interior Lineman, the Davey O’Brien National Quarterback, the Johnny Unites Senior Quarterback, the Fred Biletnikoff Outstanding Receiver, the Jim Thorpe Outstanding Defensive Back, the John Mackey Tight End, the Rimmington Trophy for Outstanding Center, the Hendix Defensive End, the Vince Lombardi Lineman and the Walker Running Back awards.

• For the player of the year awards (Heisman, Maxwell and Walter Camp), I looked to see if the winner became the overall #1 draft pick.

• For the position awards, I looked to see if the winner became the top draft choice at his position or related positions. For example, the Jim Thorpe award goes to the most outstanding defensive back, which includes cornerbacks, strong safeties, and free safeties. So, if a strong safety won the award, but a free safety was drafted ahead of him, I concluded that the award winner was not the top draft choice.

• Of course a couple a couple of other things could happen to an award winner, the most obvious being that he returns to play another year of college football (like Heisman winner Matt Leinart did two years ago). In this case and in other cases when a player did not appear in the NFL draft (like Charlie Ward, a Heisman winner who opted for basketball instead) I recorded that the player did not go to the draft, and I just ignored that year in the analysis. In addition, in the early 1980s, three Heisman Trophy winners -- Hershal Walker, Mike Rozier, and Doug Flutie -- opted to play in the USFL instead of the NFL; and in 1991 Raghib Ismail, who won the 1990 Camp Award, chose to play in the CFL. I ignored those years in the analysis as well.

• To determine how often winning an award accurately predicts becoming a top draft choice, I divided the number of times the award winner went first by the total number of players considered (ignoring the times that something else happened).

• I took my data primarily from three sources: NFL draft information from 1982-2006 is available at, College Football award information is available at, and in the cases where what ultimately happened to an award winner was not obvious I relied heavily on Wikipedia and other internet sources.

• Some of the awards, like the Heisman, are long-standing, and thus have the full 25 years of winners to support the analysis. Others, like the Hendricks Award for Best Defensive End (first given in 2002), have a very small sample size.

Here are the numbers.

Heisman Trophy 25 yrs

Walker RB 16 yrs
Biletnikoff Receiver 12 yrs
Drafted #1 Overall 3
Drafted First at Position 3
Drafted First at Position 3
Drafted 15
Drafted 12
Drafted 6
Undrafted/Didn't Enter 7
Undrafted/Didn't Enter 1
Undrafted/Didn't Enter 3
Correct Predictions % 17%
Correct Predictions % 20%
Correct Predictions % 33%

Maxwell Player of Year 25 yrs
Outland Interior Line 25 yrs
Lombardi Lineman 25 yrs
Drafted #1 Overall 3
Drafted First at Position 9
Drafted First at Position 8
Drafted 16
Drafted 13
Drafted 16
Undrafted/Didn't Enter 6
Undrafted/Didn't Enter 3
Undrafted/Didn't Enter 1
Correct Predictions % 16%
Correct Predictions % 41%
Correct Predictions % 33%

Camp Player of Year 25 yrs
Mackey Tight End
6 yrs
Rimington Center 6 yrs
Drafted #1 Overall 2
Drafted First at Position 3
Drafted First at Position 2
Drafted 17
Drafted 2
Drafted 4
Undrafted/Didn't Enter 6
Undrafted/Didn't Enter 1
Undrafted/Didn't Enter 0
Correct Predictions % 11%
Correct Predictions % 60%
Correct Predictions % 33%

O'Brien Quarterback 25 yrs
Butkus Linebacker 21 yrs
Thorpe DB 20 yrs
Drafted First at Position 4
Drafted First at Position 5
Drafted First at Position 8
Drafted 14
Drafted 13
Drafted 12
Undrafted/Didn't Enter 7
Undrafted/Didn't Enter 3
Undrafted/Didn't Enter 0
Correct Predictions % 22%
Correct Predictions % 28%
Correct Predictions % 40%

Unitas Senior QB 19 yrs
Hendricks DE 4 yrs

Drafted First at Position 4
Drafted First at Position 1

Drafted 13
Drafted 2

Undrafted/Didn't Enter 2
Undrafted/Didn't Enter 1

Correct Predictions % 24%
Correct Predictions % 33%

Analysis. The first thing that jumped out at me was how poorly the three national player of the year awards did at predicting the #1 draft pick – 17% for the Heisman, 16% for the Maxwell, and 11% for the Camp. Since the 1982 draft (25 years ago), only three players who have won the Heisman Trophy have gone on to become the #1 draft choice – Bo Jackson*, Vinny Testaverde, and Carson Palmer. Winning the Heisman Trophy correctly predicts becoming the #1 draft choice only about 17% of the time. Sadly for Brady Quinn, the Maxwell Award does a slightly worse job of predicting the #1 draft choice – correctly predicting it about 16% of the time. Why do these Player of the Year awards do such a poor job at determining the top pick in the draft?

For starters, there is an obvious degree of misalignment between the objectives of the College Football awards and the NFL general managers. The voters for the College Football awards are trying to reward the most outstanding players of they year, while each NFL team is trying to select the best player for that team in the draft. This certainly explains some of the effect, but the fact that a disproportionate number Heisman Trophy winners have either lackluster or nonexistent NFL careers is certainly odd.

Another statistic that offers little encouragement to hardware winners is that over the past twenty five years, 52% of first round draft picks did not win any national award at all, let alone the Heisman or Maxwell awards. It almost makes one wonder what the fuss about the Heisman is all about.

On the position awards, the voters tend to do a better job predicting the top draft choice at a particular position, although the range varies significantly:

The Mackey tight end award, which predicts the top tight end chosen in the draft 60% of the time, is the only award to actually give the winner a greater than 50% chance of being the top player drafted. Most of the other awards predict the top draft choice at their position about a third of the time. Some of this variance could result from strong collegiate tight ends having a higher tendency to become strong professional tight ends while strong collegiate quarterbacks and running backs have a lower tendency to become strong in the professional game. Or it could be simply that the small sample size has given us a very skewed look at tight ends.

Interestingly, over the past 25 years the winner of the Vince Lombardi Lineman award has gone on to become the overall number one draft pick four times -- as compared to just three times for the Heisman and Maxwell awards and twice for the Camp award. The Lombardi winners who went on to become number one draft picks are Kenneth Sims, Tony Casillas, and Steve Emtman, and Orlando Pace. Do the Lombardi voters see something in their winners that the Heisman and Maxwell voters do not see in theirs? Or are good lineman simply easier to identify (or perhaps less subject to individual bias)?

The two Quarterback Awards provide an interesting comparison. On the surface, they seem nearly identical in their predictive qualities, with each of them placing the #1 quarterback in the draft four times apiece. But among those four, only top quarterback Peyton Manning in 1997 was selected for both awards in the same year.

Year O'Brien Award Unitas Award
2005 Vince Young, Texas Matt Leinart, USC
2004 Jason White, Oklahoma Jason White, Oklahoma
2003 Jason White, Oklahoma Eli Manning, Ole Miss
2002 Brad Banks, Iowa Carson Palmer, USC
2001 Eric Crouch, Nebraska David Carr, Fresno State
2000 Chris Weinke, Florida State Chris Weinke, Florida State
1999 Joe Hamilton, Georgia Tech Chris Redman, Louisville
1998 Michael Bishop, Kansas State Cade McNown, UCLA
1997 Peyton Manning, Tennessee Peyton Manning, Tennessee
1996 Danny Wuerffel, Florida Danny Wuerffel, Florida
1995 Danny Wuerffel, Florida Tommie Frazier, Nebraska
1994 Kerry Collins, Penn State Jay Barker, Alabama
1993 Charlie Ward, Florida State Charlie Ward, Florida State
1992 Gino Torretta, Miami Gino Torretta, Miami
1991 Ty Detmer, BYU Casey Weldon, Florida State
1990 Ty Detmer, BYU Craig Erickson, Miami
1989 Andre Ware, Houston Tony Rice, Notre Dame
1988 Troy Aikman, UCLA Rodney Peete, USC
1987 Don McPherson, Syracuse Don McPherson, Syracuse
1986 Vinny Testaverde, Miami
1985 Chuck Long, Iowa
1984 Doug Flutie, Boston College
1983 Steve Young, BYU
1982 Todd Blackledge, Penn State
1981 Jim McMahon, BYU
(Highlight indicates top quarterback taken in draft that year)

The Unitas Award is constrained by having to pick a Senior quarterback, but the only case I see where that would have made a difference was last year.

Another interesting effect that may be skewing these numbers is that in the first few years of an award’s existence, the recipients tended to be less heralded players. For example the first two recipients of the Doak Walker running back award, Greg Lewis and Trevor Cobb, were not drafted highly and did not have particularly strong NFL careers. Both of these players did not have Wikipedia pages so I have no idea what eventually happened to them.

I am sure other conclusions could be drawn from the data. One obvious one that comes to mind: how many of these award winners end up as successful players in the NFL ("successes" perhaps measured by length of career, or Pro Bowl appearances, or another measuring stick)? But that is a project for another day.

* Tampa Bay drafted Bo Jackson first in the 1986 draft, but he never signed with the team due to his desire to play baseball. The next year, Jackson returned to the draft where the Raiders drafted him in the seventh round. The NFL archives actually leave the top draft choice off their official records for the 1986 season, but I deemed Jackson one of the three cases where the Heisman predicted the number one draft choice because Tampa Bay did draft Jackson first.

Ed. note: with Mike's post in mind, keep an eye on these 2006 award winners and see when (or in some cases, if) they are selected:
Troy Smith, Ohio State
Brady Quinn, Notre Dame
Walter Camp
Troy Smith, Ohio State
O'Brien Quarterback
Troy Smith, Ohio State
Unitas Senior Quarterback
Brady Quinn, Notre Dame
Butkus Linebacker
Patrick Willis, Ole Miss
Outland Interior Lineman
Joe Thomas, Wisconsin
Walker Running Back
Darren McFadden, Arkansas
Biletnikoff Wide Receiver
Calvin Johnson, Georgia Tech
Thorpe Defensive Back
Aaron Ross, Texas
Mackey Tight End
Matt Spaeth, Minnesota
Hendricks Defensive End
LaMarr Woodley, Michigan
Rimington Center
Dan Mozes, West Virginia
Lombardi Lineman
LaMarr Woodley, Michigan