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Anthony Villiotti – DraftMetrics

October 13, 2011
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Anthony Villiotti – DraftMetrics  (May 12,  2011):

First, can you tell readers about your website, how you got started and what we should expect in the weeks ahead?

DraftMetrics covers the gamut of NFL player acquisition activities. Most of the coverage is on the draft, but trades, free agent signings and other activities are covered as well. I have been interested in the draft since the late 1960s, first as a “draftnik” and then as someone interested in studying the outcomes of the draft.

I published a study in the late 1980s called The NFL Draft: A Historical Perspective that I sold to a number of NFL teams and fans. In late 2009 I decided to pick this study back up again and in the spring of 2010 I published DRAFTMETRICS which was purchased by several NFL teams, player agents and fans. As I was writing DRAFTMETRICS it seemed that a website would be a better way to present my information since it allowed for continual updating and addition of information.

As far as what to expect in the weeks ahead, my main priority is going to be revising my website to make it more user friendly. After that I will probably ignore the draft for a little awhile and do more research and articles on the general issue of how NFL teams are built.

In examining the NFL draft over the past 2+ decades, what are some of the most frequent mistakes teams make in your opinion?

There is no data to support this so it’s just my opinion but I think the two biggest mistakes that teams make are to place too much value on post-season activities and to reach for players. A guy has four years of game action on tape that is sometimes wiped out by one offseason workout session.  

Reaching is understandable if you have a need at a particular position but it leads to mistakes.

On the Steelers specifically, what have they done well over the past few seasons in the draft? What area of the draft do you think the Steelers could improve on?

It’s really hard to be overly critical of anything the Steelers have done in the draft.

What they have done best, though, in recent years is to “hit” with their first round draft choice even though they typically draft later in the round. The jury is still a bit out on Ziggy Hood, though he did look promising in 2010, but otherwise you have to go back to Kendall Simmons in 2002 for someone who was somewhat disappointing,

Even Simmons was not a terrible pick since he started 83 NFL games.  This shouldn’t be taken for granted. Based on research DRAFTMETRICS has done, only about 62% of first round draft choices become five-year starters in the NFL. The Steelers look on track to bat 100% with their recent choices.

If I had any criticism of the Steelers regarding the draft it’s that I think they tend to undervalue the cornerback position in the draft room. In the last ten years they’ve selected only one cornerback (the ill-fated selection of Richard Colclough in 2004) with a pick in the top 50 of the draft and only three (Bryant McFadden at #62 in 2005 and Curtis Brown this year at #95) in the top 100 picks.

In short, though, it’s really hard to criticize anything the Steelers have done regarding the draft. They pretty serve as the model for the rest of the NFL when it comes to the draft.

Do you see a difference in how Tomlin has approached the draft versus Cowher? If so, how?

I really don’t see any difference in approach. Kevin Colbert is the common denominator with both coaches and the Steelers draft philosophy is well established. I doubt Tomlin would have been hired if he didn’t buy into the Steelers philosophy.

How does the Steelers’ draft approach differ from that of most teams (if in fact it does)?

I don’t think the draft approach is much different than anyone else. The stability in the organization just allows them to have a clear profile of the kind of players that fit the system.

Plus, they are patient and let the players develop in their system. According to Art Rooney II, maybe they’re even a little too patient. Over the last 20 years only the New York Giants have had fewer draft choices start as rookies than the Steelers.

You’ve done a lot of research on team building and what works best. Have you found trends on whether teams find more success when built through the draft or through free agency? What do you think makes one approach better than the other? In your analyses, do you find that teams that trade down for more draft picks (as has been the trend of New England lately) find more or less success overall than teams that trade up or stand still?

I think building through the draft has proven to be the most effective way to build a team. There are a lot of different ways to approach this issue. One very simple way is to look at the teams who used the most draft choices versus the teams that used the least and see how they fared on the field.

The five teams with the most draft choices, in order, were the Patriots, Titans, Packers, Steelers and Eagles. These teams have a total of 943 draft selections over the last 20 years and a total of 943 wins (no typo, same number of wins as draft choices).

The five teams with the fewest number of draft choices were the Redskins, Saints, Lions, Raiders and Jets. These teams had a total of 739 draft choices and only 713 wins in the 20 year period. So there does seem to be a positive correlation between the number of draft choices and a team’s success.

The other interesting thing to note is that the second group of teams actually had more draft choices, by a very small amount, in the first 28 draft selections than did the more successful teams. So it could be argued that the accumulation of later choices really made the difference. I will be studying this issue in more detail later this year.

So why is it better to build through the draft? I think it’s due to the salary structure of NFL and its salary cap.  With the cap, nobody can be the New York Yankees and bury their mistakes. Despite some of the big salaries paid to early first rounders, it is simply cheaper to get talent in the draft than it is through the free agent market.

More and more small school players seem to be making NFL squads and getting drafted. Why do you think this is and how does it change the way teams approach the draft?

Actually, I’m not sure that is the case, at least on the drafted side.

90% of the players drafted over the last 10 years have come from BCS schools, compared to 85% for the years from 1996-2000. Football Championship Series schools (aka Division 1-A) have seen their percentage of players drafted drop from 9% in 1996-2000 to 7% in 2006-2010. Division 2 and 3 schools have had their percentage drop from 5% in 1996-2000 to 3% in 2006-2010.

This is contrary to what would seem to be logical, though. With the decrease in college football scholarships at the D-1 level over the years, you would expect a higher level of talent at the other levels of college football. For whatever reason, that has not been reflected in the draft.

As far as players making in the NFL, I don’t have that broken out right now, but I will make a point of addressing that in the future.

The days of the true, undiscovered sleeper seem to be over.

The ease of filming (I know, showing my age) and access to video makes it hard to hide anyone. So I think all teams do a thorough job of scouting at all levels of football.  

Any correlation between the size of a team’s scouting department and their draft success? Do teams that invest more in the draft process actually draft better?

That’s a very good question, but one I have not thought to study. Sounds like a summer project!!

In looking at Pittsburgh’s 2011 draft, what players excite you most and why? What was the best value pick?  Conversely, do you see any of these picks as being reaches or just poorer selections?

It was a little bit of a funny year for the Steelers draft.

There was no one that I thought they really stretched to grab (Cortez Allen is probably the closet to that) and no one I thought they got a great bargain on. I’m somewhat excited about Cameron Heyward, because I think he is the perfect fit for the Steelers defensive scheme, but he isn’t a flashy player who is likely to stand out on day one.

I’m most intrigued by Baron Batch and think he has a real shot to be a contributor on this team as a third down back. He essentially played like a third down back all the time at Texas Tech and he is a really easy guy to root for.

I was not too excited about Marcus Gilbert. Nothing concrete about my feelings, just think he went a little higher than he could have and that there may have been a better value out there at the time.  There is a question in my mind if he will match up well with quick edge rushers. He is said to be best friends with Markice Pouncey, though, so maybe some of talent will rub off.

 Any last thoughts for readers?

The thing I have found most intriguing in my research is where the talent drop-offs are in the draft. I have divided the draft into seven “Value Groups”. All the choices in each Value Group have had about the same rate of success in their post-draft years. The Value Groups are as follows:

 Value Group 1  Selections 1-13
 Value Group 2  Selections 14-28
 Value Group 3  Selections 29-48
 Value Group 4  Selections 49-74
 Value Group 5  Selections 75-114
 Value Group 6  Selections 115-200
 Value Group 7  Selections 201 and after
 
The Value Groups mean, for example, that players selected with the 13th choice have done about as well as players selected 1st.
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