Rick Spielman: Master of the Draft – Daily Norseman

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With the 2020 NFL Draft beginning on Thursday, it seems appropriate to look once again at draft strategy and the success of the Vikings General Manager, Rick Spielman.

I’ve done a few pieces in recent years on the draft, starting a few years ago with a piece detailing how most draft picks are busts. Two years ago I did an assessment of the Spielman drafts from 2012 – 2017. And last year I did a two part series on how the Vikings built one of the best rosters in the NFL, Part I here and Part II here.

All of these assessments included the use of Pro Football Reference’s Approximate Value (AV) measurement to determine the relative value of players across different positions and over many seasons, based on factors like number of games started, various accolades like All-Pro or Pro-Bowl honors, and other factors. You can learn more about it here.

At that time, just before last year’s draft, the Vikings had accumulated the second-most Draft AV points (DrAV) of any team in the NFL since Rick Spielman became General Manager of the Vikings in 2012. Draft AV points are those AV points accumulated for the team that drafted the player. AV points accumulated for other teams don’t count, because they don’t benefit the team that drafted the player.

I have since re-calculated the DrAV points for the Vikings and Rams, and the Vikings have now surpassed the Rams with 680 DrAV points since 2012, while the Rams now have 666. I spot checked the leading contenders as of 2017 (Seahawks, Cowboys, Packers, Ravens, Chiefs) to see if any of those teams had surpassed the Vikings, and none of them had.

So, unless I missed some other team that’s climbed up the rankings quickly over the past couple years, the Vikings and Rick Spielman have been the best drafting team in the NFL since Spielman became GM in 2012.

And he did it despite the bad luck of having three first round picks have their careers derailed by unpredictable injuries – Matt Kalil, Teddy Bridgewater and Shariff Floyd – and losing another first-round pick in trade to replace Bridgewater the week before the season started.

So how did he do it?

Basically in three ways:

First, by being smart about the things he could control: things like preparation and due diligence; putting more resources into scouting and analytics; and working closely with coaches to better determine the type of players needed.

Secondly, by understanding that despite all of the above, the draft is still largely a crapshoot – there are no predetermined and knowable factors or measurements that absolutely predict whether a player will be successful or not. That being the case, it’s better to have more picks – more times up to the plate – to hopefully increase the number of good players you draft.

Third, by understanding that teams don’t always value draft picks correctly, and that the standard for draft pick value doesn’t correlate well to historical player performance. And, that being the case, trading draft picks using that standard, primarily by trading down, to create more value and draft picks. Also, by being aggressive in the UDFA market, which is essentially a free-for-all extension of the 7th round.

Let’s take a look again at each one.

Preparation

No GM can control whether a draft pick will pan out. What they can do is use all the tools available to them to help make the best decisions possible based on the information available to them.

With that in mind, Spielman expanded the scouting department, increasing staff, while also making sure the scouts were long-time veterans and not cheap college grads still learning the business. In terms of cost-benefit, leveraging a scouting department by providing more resources could easily pay for itself with only one or two more players on cheap rookie contracts vs. much more expensive veteran free agents.

He also expanded the use of various analytics to help in scouting and conducting due diligence on draft prospects, which also allowed his staff to scout more players via these tools. He was also one of the first GMs to really pursue the UDFA market after the draft concluded, attempting to gain more value in what was previously something of an after-thought for teams. That has led to more teams following suit in recent years.

Lastly, he’s made it a point for his scouting department and coaching staff to work together to determine the type of players, their skill sets, measureables, character traits, etc., they need, so the scouts can then go out and find those players.

By doing all those things, the hope is it leads to at least slightly better picks, both in terms of the player’s ability to succeed in the NFL, and also scheme fit, locker room fit, etc.

The NFL Draft is a Crapshoot

In the Most Draft Picks are Busts piece I did in 2017, the results of 20 NFL drafts beginning in the mid-90s led to the following results for drafted players:

  • 16.7% never played for the team that drafted them. Basically didn’t make the team or never played in a regular season game.
  • 37% were considered “useless.” These players had a DrAV of between 0 and 4, and hardly ever saw the field.
  • 15.3% were considered “poor.” Players with a DrAV of between 5 and 10. Perhaps played a number of years on special teams, but few if any starts, and generally undistinguished performance.
  • 10.5% were considered ‘average.” Players with a DrAV of 11-17. These are undistinguished journeymen role players or rotational guys for the most part.
  • 12.3% were considered “good.” Players with a DrAV of 18-35. These are generally multi-year starters, but still undistinguished journeymen.
  • 6.9% are considered ‘great’ picks. Players with DrAV of 36-80. These are typically multi-year starters with distinguished performance- All-Pro or Pro Bowl honors and/or in the top echelon at their position.
  • 1% are considered ‘legendary.’ Players with DrAV over 80. These are the Hall of Famers and Ring of Honor players.

So basically, despite all the research, due diligence, analytics, and everything else, 69% of draft picks are busts, and another 23% are largely forgettable and/or indifferent picks – players that come and go without much fanfare.

In terms of players that fans pay to see, it’s really the last 8% that qualify. I’m guessing, for example that 99% of all NFL jersey sales are for these ‘great’ and ‘legendary’ picks.

But in a draft of 256 players, only 2 or 3 players on average will become legendary picks. Only 17 or 18 will become great picks. So basically only about 20 guys out of the over 250 new players selected every year will become stars.

That’s not many.

Moreover, other studies have indicated that no team or GM has really been able to consistently pick better players over time, on a per pick basis. The charts below, based on data between 1994-2013, show the ability of a team or GM to “beat” the draft market in any given year, or consistently over 3 year periods.

The scatter-shot nature of the graphs indicate no discernible pattern, meaning no GM or team was able to consistently do better than average, on a per pick basis, when it comes to successfully picking draft prospects.

So with success rates so low, and no team or GM historically being able to consistently pick better than others, on a per pick basis, what’s a GM like Rick Spielman to do ?

Work the system.

The Value of Draft Picks

Back in 1990, Jimmy Johnson created a value chart that assigned points for every draft pick in order to better facilitate trading draft picks. It quickly became the standard value chart GMs used in trading draft picks, and is still often used. This is the chart:

However, Johnson’s chart didn’t have any real statistical evidence to back up the relative trade value of each pick, even as it became the standard for valuing them. But over the course of time, and study of the actual performance of players selected at each draft position, it was found that Jimmy Johnson’s draft pick value chart over-valued earlier-round draft picks, and under-valued later-round ones.

Specifically, comparing player performance using the Pro Football Reference (PFR) Approximate Value (AV) measure with Johnson’s draft pick value chart, the following chart was created, which summarizes the differential between the two:

What this chart implies is that the first 50 or so draft picks are over-valued relative to the average AV players have historically produced from those draft spots, and the higher the pick, the more overvalued it is. The graph also implies that draft picks after 50 or so are under-valued by Johnson’s value chart relative to the average AV players drafted after #50 have produced historically.

Nevertheless, Johnson’s draft pick value chart has still been the standard for most in-draft trades to this day.

About a month before Rick Spielman was named Vikings’ GM in January of 2012, Kevin Meers from the Harvard Sports Analysis Collective put together a draft pick value chart that more closely conformed to the average AV measurement data:

Comparing this chart to Jimmy Johnson’s and the career AV of players selected at each draft position, yields this graph:

In the above chart, the red line represents Jimmy Johnson’s draft pick value chart, the blue squiggly line represents the variance in career AV over average throughout the draft. The average AV for all draft picks is 15, which is also the average for pick number 94. That pick is considered the “normal” or average draft pick and is assigned a value of 100 (100.3 actually) as a reference point.

The black line represents the best fit for the career AV variance blue line throughout the draft, and is the basis for the revised chart values Meers derived.

The #1 overall pick in the draft has historically produced an AV of roughly 500% of the average pick (#94, with AV of 15), and so is valued at approximately 500% of pick #94, or 494.6. On the other end of the chart, pick #224 has historically produced an AV of just under 40% of average, and is valued at 39.8.

The other important thing to note about relative value of draft picks in terms of the AV metric is that the variance at any particular draft position is pretty big, meaning one player picked one year at pick #112 could do really well, while the next year the 112th pick could be a bust. That variance tends to increase as the draft progresses from the first to last pick, according to this chart:

This graph represents generally the increase in variance in players career AV throughout the draft at a given draft spot.

Additionally, because of the increasing variance in career AV throughout the course of the draft, there is less statistical confidence surrounding the average career AV calculation for later draft picks. That is reflected in this graph:

So, based on all these charts and measures, if you’re a GM using the Jimmy Johnson draft pick value chart to value trades with other teams, it almost always makes statistical sense to trade down, given the difference in trade value vs. career AV, particularly in the first and second round.

Earlier round picks tend to be safer, meaning the variance in career AV is not as large as in later rounds. But the downside risk in getting it wrong with earlier round picks is also greater, based on the relative value of those picks compared to later round ones.

Bottom line, it makes sense to trade down not only to increase the total AV value of your picks relative to their trade value, it also helps mitigate the downside risk of getting an early round pick wrong.

Working the System

Rick Spielman has not only been the most successful GM since 2012 in accumulating Draft AV for his team, he’s also been the most active trader during the draft. Those two things are likely related.

As the data analysis above has shown, no team or GM has been able to significantly, or consistently out-perform the average on a per pick basis. That being the case, the only real way to outperform in terms of the actual number of good players drafted, is to accumulate more picks. And that is what Spielman has done.

Spielman has completed a total of 32 in-draft, pick(s)-for-pick(s) trades (i.e. trades not including existing players), yielding a net total of 11 additional draft picks.

Since the 2012 draft, Rick Spielman had a total of 67 draft picks going into the drafts, and emerged from the drafts with a total of 78 draft picks. That result, a total of 78 draft picks since the 2012 draft, ranks tied for 2nd most in the NFL (49ers), just behind the Seattle Seahawks (79).

And with 12 draft picks in the upcoming draft, compared to just 7 for the Seahawks and 49ers, the Vikings since 2012 are poised to have the most draft picks of any team in the league since 2012. The Vikings have also had 4 fewer compensatory picks than the Seahawks during that span, which are awarded for free agent losses that sign a significant contract with another team.

Working the UDFA Market Too

In addition to draft picks, Spielman has also been one of the GMs to lead the league in taking a more aggressive approach to the UDFA market, spending more time researching, and recuiting, potential UDFAs ahead of time, and also offering more money to some of the more sought after UDFAs in order to get them to sign with the Vikings.

Not many UDFAs make an NFL roster, and those that do often don’t have much of an impact. But the Vikings under Spielman have done much better than average in this market too, simply by spending more time working it.

Since 2012, the Vikings have acquired Adam Thielen, Anthony Harris, Eric Wilson, Holton Hill, Mike Boone, Aviante Collins, C.J. Ham, and Hercules Mata’afa as college free agents that made the roster and remain with the team. Collectively they make up 15% of the Vikings 53-man roster. And while most of them are role players, having even one UDFA make the roster is unusual. Having 8 of them on a roster is even more so. And to have both a 2x Pro-Bowler, and a PFF top ranked player at his position come from the UDFA market is truly exceptional.

I’d venture to guess no other team has been as successful in the UDFA market as the Vikings have since Rick Spielman became General Manager in 2012.

Evaluating the Results

The best way to evaluate in-draft trades that yield more draft picks, along with UDFAs, is to treat the net additional picks and UDFA picks as bonus picks. Failures don’t count, only the successful ones. The rationale is simple. The cost of the additional draft pick(s) is the added risk of failure with the original pick for having traded down, and the original pick is evaluated normally.

So, if one GM has his normal slate of 7 picks, one in each round, and doesn’t trade, but let’s say has 2 successful picks, he shouldn’t be seen as more successful than another GM that also had his normal slate of 7 picks, but traded down a few times to acquire 3 more picks, while also having 2 successful picks. The first GM shouldn’t be credited as the better draft picker because he had 2 hits in 7 picks, while the 2nd had 2 hits in 10.

And for UDFAs, as their isn’t much at risk in the event of failure, and failure is also the expected outcome, any success should be considered a bonus, while failures are not counted.

Conversely, if one GM with his full slate of 7 picks decides to trade up, thereby reducing his number of picks to 5, let’s say, but has 2 successful picks, he shouldn’t be seen as more successful than another GM with a full slate of 7 picks who doesn’t trade, because the GM who traded up went 2-for-5 while the other GM went 2-for-7. The GM who traded up should still be evaluated based on his original slate of 7 picks.

Looking at Rick Spielman, and his drafts from 2012-2015 (four in total), where the players have had 5 seasons to accumulate DrAV points, we have the following results, using player DrAV points and breaking down the results in the categories used above:

Total Vikings draft picks 2012-2015: 36 (not including net trade additions or UDFAs)

  • Didn’t play for team (DrAV=0): 10 vs. expected (based on average): 6.
  • Useless (DrAV 0-4): 8 vs. expected average of 13.3.
  • Poor (DrAV 5-10): 7 vs. expected average of 5.5.
  • Average (DrAV 11-17): 4 vs. expected average of 3.8.
  • Good (DrAV 18-35): 7 vs. expected average of 4.4.
  • Great/Legendary (DrAV 36-80+): 7 vs. expected average of 2.8.

Overall, in terms of bust picks (first three groups), Spielman was about average with 25 vs. an expected average of 24.8.

He was also about average with ‘average’ picks: 4 vs. an expected 3.8.

But it is in the last two categories – the most successful ones – where Spielman really outperformed.

In the ‘good’ category, Spielman was over 150% above average, drafting 2.5 more good players than average.

And in the ‘great’ category (no draft pick has really been around long enough to be legendary yet), he’s more than doubled the expected 2.8 great players with 7 ‘great’ draft picks. Having an extra 4.2 great players on the roster can make a big difference as that equates to about 20% of a starting 22-man roster – and all those great picks are starters.

Over the next couple years more draft picks may move up in the category rankings as well.

The subsequent Spielman drafts (2016-2019) are too recent to evaluate with the DrAV metric simply because players haven’t been around long enough to accumulate DrAV points – so even the best one come out as average based on the DrAV rating scale.

Nevertheless, it’s already clear the 2016 draft was the worst one for Spielman as none of those picks made it to average and all those players are no longer with the team.

The 2017 and 2018 draft classes have the potential for adding to the great picks in future years, as Dalvin Cook and Brian O’Neill accumulate more DrAV points, and also Mike Hughes and Holton Hill have opportunities to become starters. Perhaps Hercules Mata’afa may work out too.

But it’s the 2019 draft class that maintains the most potential. Garrett Bradbury will likely continue to start and hopefully improve, while Irv Smith Jr. is likely to get more playing time and integrated into the offense. Alexander Mattison, Dru Samia, Armon Watts, Oli Udoh, Kris Boyd and Olabisi Johnson could all emerge as either role players or potentially starters that could make them successful draft picks too.

Bottom Line

Rick Spielman has been the most successful GM in the league since he was promoted in 2012 when it comes to the value added from draft picks, as evidenced by having accumulated more DrAV from his draft picks than any other team or GM.

He’s done it not by being a significantly better draft prospect picker than other GMs, although he’s been at least slightly better than average. But when he does hit on a draft pick, they’ve become more successful – moving into the ‘great’ category rather than just average or good picks.

He’s also done it by accumulating more draft picks- 2nd most in the league since 2012 – being very active in in-draft trading, and by being aggressive in the UDFA market as well.

All of these efforts – working the system – have contributed to the bottom line of accumulating more quality players to fill the Vikings roster.

And with a dozen picks in the upcoming draft, there should be more quality players coming soon.

Poll

Which team has been the most successful drafting prospects and acquiring UDFAs since 2012 ?

(include pick and rationale in the comments)

  • 0%

    Arizona Cardinals

    (0 votes)

  • 0%

    Atlanta Falcons

    (1 vote)

  • 3%

    Baltimore Ravens

    (9 votes)

  • 0%

    Buffalo Bills

    (0 votes)

  • 0%

    Carolina Panthers

    (0 votes)

  • 0%

    Chicago Bears

    (1 vote)

  • 0%

    Cincinnati Bengals

    (0 votes)

  • 1%

    Cleveland Browns

    (5 votes)

  • 0%

    Dallas Cowboys

    (0 votes)

  • 0%

    Denver Broncos

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  • 0%

    Detroit Lions

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    Green Bay Packers

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    Houston Texans

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    Indianapolis Colts

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    Jacksonville Jaguars

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  • 2%

    Kansas City Chiefs

    (6 votes)

  • 0%

    Las Vegas Raiders

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    Los Angeles Chargers

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  • 0%

    Los Angeles Rams

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    Miami Dolphins

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  • 77%

    Minnesota Vikings

    (198 votes)

  • 5%

    New England Patriots

    (13 votes)

  • 1%

    New Orleans Saints

    (5 votes)

  • 0%

    New York Giants

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    New York Jets

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    Philadelphia Eagles

    (1 vote)

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    Pittsburgh Steelers

    (1 vote)

  • 1%

    San Francisco 49ers

    (3 votes)

  • 3%

    Seattle Seahawks

    (9 votes)

  • 0%

    Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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    Tennessee Titans

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    Washington Redskins

    (2 votes)



254 votes total

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