The Art (and Science) of Drafting: IIc. The Donahue Era (2002-2004)

Yesterday, in Part 2b of my review of 49er draft history, I broke down the Walsh II regime's picks from 1999-2001 by round, position, and conference. Just to refresh everyone's memory, here was my description of Walsh II's draft strategy:

  1. Stockpile picks when your team sucks.
  2. Draft for need on Day 1, especially when your team sucks.
  3. This is the pros, not college. There's no need to dominate your neighborhood.
  4. Focus Day 2 on non-BCS players because even one diamond in the rough more than makes up for several lumps of coal.

And, in comparison, here was the Policy regime's draft strategy that I detailed in Part 2a:

  1. Draft picks are commodities best used for moving up.
  2. Once you've addressed positional needs in free agency, there's no need to focus on them in the draft.
  3. Dominate the neighborhood (i.e., take Pac-10 players and those near Youngstown, OH).
  4. There's plenty of talent outside the BCS conferences, but wait until Day 2 to acquire it.

So basically, the main differences between the two regimes were (a) Walsh II used the draft to rebuild the roster, whereas the Policy regime used the draft to tinker around the edges of the roster; (b) Walsh II drafted for need (esp. on Day 1), whereas the Policy regime didn't; and (c) Walsh II didn't have a geographical bias, whereas the Policy regime did. As I said in Part 2b, difference (a) is no doubt due, in some part, to differences in context. Nevertheless, it's still a difference worth noting, and it's overshadowed by differences (b) and (c), which have nothing to do with context.

I bring up both of these draft strategies because they can serve as opposite ends of a draft strategy continuum going forward. In other words, because they're such polar opposites, we can use them as draft strategy templates with which to describe the Donahue and McNolan strategies. Speaking of Donahue, his regime's drafts are the topic of this article.

After the jump, I'll put the Donahue drafts in context; break the results down by position, draft day, and conference; and provide the idiot's guide to Donahue draft strategy...

Here again is the link to my Excel spreadsheet of 49er draft picks in the Salary Cap Era:

49er Draft Picks 1994-2008

IN CONTEXT

Fans of a certain age might remember Dion's song, "The Wanderer." Well, from 2002-2004, Donahue apparently remade the song in his image and called it, "The Squanderer." Probably the easiest way to describe this is in a graph:

Draft_history__part_2c__chart_1_medium 

As shown, team wins peaked in the last year of Walsh II and began its decline in the first year of Donahue. That's a pretty stark display of how Donahue squandered Walsh II's success, and is much more vivid than anything I could say in writing.

The obvious questions here are, "Why the complete turnaround?" and, "What did Donahue do to precipitate it?" Well, knowing the specific contexts of each Donahue is probably a good place to start:

  • 2002 Draft - Key Losses: OL Ray Brown (free agency) and DB Lance Schulters (free agency). Weak 2001 Stats: 20th in ST DVOA.1 Lingering Issues: None. Needs: OL, DB, ST.
  • 2003 Draft - Key Losses: DL Dana Stubblefield (free agency) and DL Chike Okeafor (free agency). Weak 2002 Stats: Dropped to 18th in DEF DVOA; 26th in ST DVOA. Lingering Issues: Major injuries to OL Dave Fiore and DB Zack Bronson; half of the OFF at least 30 years old. Needs: DL, ST, OFF depth, DEF depth.
  • 2004 Draft - Key Losses: QB Jeff Garcia (free agency), RB Garrison Hearst (free agency), WR Terrell Owens (trade), WR Tai Streets (free agency), OL Derrick Deese (free agency), OL Ron Stone (free agency), DL Travis Kirschke (free agency), and DB Zack Bronson (free agency). Weak 2003 Stats: 19th in DEF DVOA; 28th in ST DVOA. Lingering Issues: Still hadn't replaced Stubblefield; Starting OLs missed 18 total games with minor injuries. Needs: QB, RB, WR, OL, DL, DB, ST.

Looking only at 2002 and 2003, it sure seems like Walsh II set Donahue up pretty well for the future, seeing as how Donahue had to deal with 6 fewer key losses per offseason in preparation for his first two drafts. Basically, Donahue could do whatever his heart desired with his 2002 and 2003 draft picks. This certainly wasn't the case, however, with respect to the 2004 draft, after Donahue blew up the roster in a Walsh-esque salary cap purge.

So with respect to evaluating Donahue's drafts we have an interesting context to consider. He had even fewer needs in the first two drafts than the Policy regime did back in the halcyon days of 49er teams past. However, his final draft was Walsh-like in that he was tasked with a self-induced roster overhaul. Therefore, for the first two drafts, we need to see whether Donahue was sitting back on his laurels in a Policy-channeling-Nero sort of way; whereas for the 2004 draft, we need to see whether he (successfully) attacked the draft in a Walshian sense.

Before breaking things down, it's useful to detail how Donahue replaced all of those starters in 2004 so we can get a handle on his "draft vs. free agency" slant. The comparison with Walsh II is very straightforward here because both were handcuffed by the salary cap. In other words, they both had the same constraints when considering whether or not to address certain needs in free agency. So without further ado, here are Donahue's 2004 replacements along with the method via which they were acquired:

  • QB Tim Rattay (2000 Walsh II draft pick) for Garcia
  • RB Kevan Barlow (2001 Walsh II draft pick) for Hearst
  • WR Brandon Lloyd (2003 Donahue draft pick) for Owens
  • WR Cedrick Wilson (2001 Walsh II draft pick) for Streets
  • OL Kyle Kosier (2002 Donahue draft pick) and OL Kwame Harris (2003 Donahue draft pick) for Deese
  • OL Justin Smiley (2004 Donahue draft pick) and Kosier for Stone
  • DL Anthony Adams (2003 Donahue draft pick) for Kirschke
  • DB Ronnie Heard (2000 Walsh undrafted free agent signing) for Bronson

As you can see, none of the replacements were acquired via traditional free agency; very Walshian indeed. However, before we start applauding Donahue as a draft maven, notice that there was an even split between how many replacements were Walsh II leftovers and how many were of Donahue's making. Namely, Donahue's 50.0% "holdover help rate" is considerably higher than Walsh II's 16.7%. In other words, Donahue had a lot more help with replacing starters in 2004 than Walsh II did while in a similar predicament from 1999-2001. Of course, this says nothing about how Donahue handled the 4 starters he had to replace in 2002 and 2003 or about how many of his draft picks ever became 49er starters.

So there's the context. For his first two drafts, Donahue was in an even better position (thanks to Walsh II) than the 12-wins-per-season Policy regime from a need perspective. Essentially, he had none. In contrast, Donahue's 2004 draft found the team in a predicament similar to what Walsh II dealt with from 1999-2001. He had to turn over the roster through the draft due, in part, to the fact that he was constrained in free agency by salary cap woes. But here's a thought: Perhaps Donahue didn't "find" himself in the 2004 predicament. Maybe 2004 was the result of his own draft failures in 2002 and 2003. Just maybe, rather than being an innocent bystander vis-à-vis circumstances that lead to the 2004 fire sale, what if he was instead a catalyst of his own misfortune? In other words, what if these two different contexts (need-light heaven and need-heavy hell) are not mutually exclusive? For the answers to these questions, we need to break down Donahue's drafts.

PICKS, PICKS, AND MORE PICKS

From 2002-2004, the 49ers made 27 selections in the NFL draft, which works out to 9 picks per season. Once again, that was very Walshian of Donahue. Given how Walshian this amount of picks was, you might think that Donahue followed the "trade away picks when good, and acquire picks when bad" strategy of his two predecessors, such that he had more picks in the 2004 rebuilding draft than he did in the "happy days are here again" 2002 and 2003 drafts. Interestingly, this wasn't the case: Donahue had the same number of picks in 2002 (10) as he did in 2004, and he had the full repertoire of 7 picks in 2003. So, all in all, Donahue seemed to learn the lesson of Policy regime failure: Don't ignore the draft just because you're winning.

With respect to Donahue's starter and Pro Bowl rates, he was, again, very Walshian. He had the same exact starter rate (48.1%) and a similarly poor Pro Bowl rate (3.7% vs. 7.4%). Based on these stats, and given the similarity in winning percentages between the two regimes, we can come to the same conclusion about Donahue's general draft success that we did regarding Walsh II. Namely, he wasn't necessarily any better or worse than his predecessor(s).

Bottom line - Here's what I think are the main things to take away from this section:

  • Donahue was eerily Walshian with respect to the number of draft picks he had and how successful those picks were overall.
  • Donahue stockpiled picks; even when the 49ers were good.
  • After you account for differences in context, the Donahue, Walsh II, and Policy regimes were pretty much equals when it came to drafting 49er starters and Pro Bowler.

DAY ‘N' NIGHT

The first difference we see between Donahue and his predecessors is related to the percentage of draft picks they had on each draft day. Specifically, whereas Policy had a 52/48 split and Walsh had a 41/59 split between draft days (which I incorrectly reported as more like 50/50 yesterday), Donahue made only 33.3% of his selections on Day 1. Part of this had to do with draft day trades in 2002 and 2004, but it was also due to compensatory selections that were awarded by the NFL (which can't be traded), and having to forfeit a Day 1 pick in 2002 thanks to Policy Era salary cap shenanigans. Either way, Donahue's draft day disparity was nowhere more evident than in the 2002 draft, when only 2 of his 10 selections came on Day 1. Perhaps if he had a few more Day 1 picks that year, maybe he wouldn't have found himself in the sorry situation that was the 2004 offseason? Hmmm.

Looking at the relative success of their Day 1 and Day 2 picks, we find that Donahue was slightly worse than Walsh II at picking starters on Day 1 (55.6% vs. 64.3%), and slightly better than Walsh II at picking starters on Day 2 (44.4% vs. 30.8%). With respect to Pro Bowlers, Donahue failed to pick one on Day 1 (Walsh II = 9.1%) and was as (un)successful as Walsh II at picking them on Day 2 (5.3% vs. 6.3%). Given the similarities in team context between the Donahue and Walsh II eras, we can conclude that they weren't all that different in draft day success except for, perhaps, Donahue's Pro Bowl swing-and-miss on Day 1.

Bottom line - Here's what I think are the main things to take away from this section:

  • Donahue had far more picks on Day 2 than Day 1; unlike the Policy regime and Walsh II.
  • Donahue was similar to Walsh II (and the Policy regime) with respect to drafting 49er starters and Pro Bowlers on a given draft day.

ASSUME THE POSITION

I established earlier that Donahue didn't really have any glaring positional needs in 2002 and 2003, and that he had a veritable sh*t-ton of them in 2004. But for the sake of comparison, here's how Donahue's Day 1 and Day 2 picks break down by team unit:

Unit

Day 1

Day 2

Total

OFF

4

9

13

DEF

5

7

12

ST

0

2

2

Total

9

18

27

As the table shows, Donahue was more Policy-esque (i.e., evenly split) than Walshian in terms of the positional breakdown by draft day. Of course, this is to be expected given that his first two drafts were ones in which he didn't have to address any glaring positional needs. He basically had "draft freedom," and he divided that freedom equally between OFF and DEF.

Donahue's 2004 draft was a different story altogether, with replacing over half of their starting OFF becoming a distinct Niner priority. As I said earlier, Donahue luckily had 10 picks in the 2004 draft. So how did he use them? Well, let's just say he must not have read the team needs like you and I just did. Specifically, Donahue drafted only 4 OFF players in 2004: 2 WRs, 1 OL, and 1 QB. I'll give him credit for taking 3 of these 4 OFF players on Day 1, which I argued in Part 2b is a good idea. However, I do have one gigantic bone to pick in re addressing needs during the 2004 draft.

Donahue waited until the 6th round to take his lone QB draft pick despite Garcia's release having left the team with two 7th-round QBs and a 5th-round QB on their roster. Keep in mind, here, that 2004 is now considered one of the best QB draft classes of the past 30 years (thanks to the Big 3), and that Donahue traded down twice in the 1st round.  I can only assume that Donahue tried (and failed) to trade up for Ben Roethlisberger. But once he realized he wasn't getting Roethlisberger at Pick 16 (or earlier), how does he not take a QB before the 7th round? I want to be clear here. This is not about results: Donahue was right to trade down after the top 3 QBs were off the board, and odds are that if he had taken a QB before the 7th round, that QB wouldn't have panned out. It's about effort. Given how Walshian other aspects of Donahue's draft strategy were, I sure wish he would have employed Walsh II's "bites at the apple" strategy with respect to QBs.

One more thing I'll say about (lack of) QB bites at the apple is that Donahue took 3 QBs from 2002-2004: 1 (Brandon Doman) was selected in the 5th round, and 2 (Ken Dorsey and Cody Pickett) were selected in the 7th round. This is certainly not a serious attempt to solidify the QB position long-term. Perhaps if he would have been more serious in 2002 and 2003 about it, he wouldn't have found himself in the 2004 predicament.

Here are two final observations I'll make about Donahue's position picks. First, he took as many Ps in 2004 as he did QBs or OLs. Granted, he drafted ROBO-PUNTER (aka Andy Lee), but what is he doing drafting a P when he has half of a starting lineup to replace? Also, when you have Hearst playing on a bionic ankle at RB in 2002 and 2003, how do you take 0 RBs in 3 drafts? Sure, Barlow showed potential; but not even 1 RB in 3 drafts? Not even for depth? Pure madness. And I haven't even mentioned the fact that he actually took a K in the 4th round of the 2002 draft.

Now, in terms of draft success, here's how Donahue compared to Walsh II at the positions I identified earlier as needs over the course of their respective tenures:

Donahue

Starter

QB

RB

WR

OL

DL

DB

Total

Y

0

0

2

4

2

3

11

N

3

0

2

0

3

2

10

Total

3

0

4

4

5

5

21

Walsh II

Starter?

RB

OL

DB

Total

Yes

3

3

2

8

No

3

2

4

9

Total

6

5

6

17

Once again, Donahue can be described as Walshian here, and he was actually super-Walshian with his OL picks.

So far I've seemed to suggest that Donahue had more in common with Walsh than Policy when it came to drafting. If that's really the case, we still haven't figured out why the team regressed so precipitously during Donahue's tenure, and why it seems he left the franchise in such a bad situation after 2004. Well, the first clue has entirely to do with the 2004 draft. Here it is:

Rd

Player

Pos

Starter?

Pro Bowl?

1

Rashaun Woods

WR

No

No

2

Justin Smiley

OL

Yes

No

2

Shawntae Spencer

DB

Yes

No

3

Derrick Hamilton

WR

No

No

4

Isaac Sopoaga

DL

Yes

No

4

Richard Seigler

LB

No

No

6

Andy Lee

P

Yes

Yes

6

Keith Lewis

DB

Yes

No

7

Cody Pickett

QB

No

No

7

Christian Ferrara

DL

No

No

You might say, "Well, he got 4 starters and his lone Pro Bowler out of that draft. That's not so bad!" Remember the context though. He had just lost 8 starters in a fire sale, 4 of which had been Pro Bowlers during their 49er careers. This was no time for an OK result. Donahue needed a draft like Walsh's 2000 effort: one that totally revitalizes the team, and sets it up for a division championship in the near future. Unfortunately for Niner fans, Donahue's 2004 draft was just OK; not an A+, not an F, just a C.1st-round pick? A bust. 3rd-round pick? A bust. 4th-round picks? A miss and a DE/DT tweener who spent 4 seasons trying to find a position.  6th-round? These guys have contributed a lot, except only on ST. 7th-round? Nevermind. So basically, although he had the chance to pull a Walsh II with 10 picks,  Donahue instead only drafted 2 players (both 2nd-rounders) that could be considered to have had a perennial positive impact on the OFF or DEF starting lineups. A Walsh-circa-2000 this draft was not. It's no wonder then that SF has yet to recover from the 2003 fire sale.

Bottom line - Here's what I think are the main things to take away from this section:

  • Like Walsh II, Donahue focused his Day 1 picks on the most glaring positional needs (when he had to).
  • Donahue seemed to sit on his laurels when the team had few needs. He didn't draft any RBs despite having a bionic starter, he didn't draft a QB before the 5th round despite having a geriatric starter and 7th-round backups, and he actually chose a K in the 4th round.
  • Donahue didn't use Walsh II's "bites at the apple" strategy.
  • Donahue had a just-OK draft in 2004 when he needed to have a great one.

CONFERENCE ROOM

By far, the biggest difference between Donahue and his predecessors was with respect to the conferences from which he drafted his players. Before elaborating further, here's how Donahue's 27 picks shake out by conference:6 Pac-10 picks, 6 Big East picks, 5 SEC picks, 4 Big 10 picks, 2 Big 12 picks, 1 ACC pick, 1 Division 1 Independent pick, 1 MWC pick, and 1 WAC pick.

The difference I'm talking about was not related to "dominating your neighborhood." On this count, Donahue revived the Policy regime's preference for Pac-10 players. Between his ties to UCLA, his permanent SoCal home, and his (infrequent) trips to Santa Clara, Donahue had to have watched a lot of Pac-10 football.

Rather, the difference I speak of is Donahue's near-perfect BCS rate. Specifically, 92.6% of his draft picks came from BCS conferences. This rate was well above the Policy regime's (79.7%), and dwarfed Walsh II's (59.3%). Now, I'm going to speculate here about what Donahue's clear preference for BCS players might mean, so feel free to provide opposing viewpoints in the comments section.

To me, Donahue's BCS rate was just another indicator of his lackadaisical work ethic, something that 49er fans and media have accused him of since 2002. Exhibit A: His BCS rate. It sure doesn't take much work to pick players from the conferences with mega-million-dollar broadcast contracts, i.e., the conferences whose games can be found from August to January simply by turning on a TV set. Exhibit B: The 2 non-BCS conferences represented in Donahue picks, the MWC and WAC. First, MWC and WAC teams are in close proximity to California and - I don't live out there so correct me if I'm wrong on this - they have games that are broadcast locally in parts of California. Second, if you look at Jeff Sagarin's conference ratings from 2002-2004 (here, here, and here), you find that the MWC was the top-rated non-BCS conference all 3 years, and that the WAC was the 4th-, 4th-, and 3rd-highest rated non-BCS conference in 2002, 2003, and 2004, respectively. In other words, he wasn't exactly digging into the diamond mines with the 2 non-BCS picks he did make. Exhibit C: His preference for working from home in LA. This one's been well-documented, so there's no need for me to elaborate further.

Finally, Exhibit D: He wasn't any good at it. Here are two tables comparing Donahue's success on BCS picks with Walsh II's:

Donahue

Starter?

BCS

Non-BCS

Total

Yes

12

1

13

No

13

1

14

Total

25

2

27

 

Walsh II

Starter?

BCS

Non-BCS

Total

Yes

10

3

13

No

6

8

14

Total

16

11

27

Wait a second. Donahue, the BCS-phile, was actually worse than Walsh II, the non-BCS-phile, at picking starters from BCS conferences? Apparently so: Walsh II had a 62.5% starter rate for BCS picks, whereas Donahue's was only 48.0%. Look, if you're going to be lazy, and if you're going to limit your talent pool so drastically as to have a draft strategy that says, "BCS or die," you better be darn good at it. "Darn good at it" Donahue was not. Despite it being just as easy for a Donahue pick to start as it was for a Walsh II pick to start (given their similar 3-year winning percentages), Donahue was as good as the flip of a coin at picking BCS starters.

This begs the question, "Why did he continue to ignore non-BCS players even though he kept missing with his BCS picks?" Surely, if he noticed the trend, and wasn't lazy, he might have shifted strategies midstream. He didn't, and I think it's because he was, in fact, uninterested in those mundane college scouting details that Walsh was so fond of. In other words, as much as Donahue tried to be a Walsh draft clone, he didn't possess the underlying quality that made Walsh successful: attention to detail.

So there's my take on the second piece of the "What did Donahue have to do with the 49ers' steep decline?" puzzle. Answer: laziness. Although his drafts were Walshian in several respects, Donahue simply didn't work hard enough to find those "diamonds in the rough" that are vital for sustaining NFL success. What's worse, he failed to adjust after this lack of success became painfully evident. In the words of Einstein, "The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results." As I said, that's just my educated guess based on some statistical (and journalistic) evidence. Take it for what it is, and feel free to offer an opposing viewpoint in the comments section.

Bottom line - Here's what I think are the main things to take away from this section:

  • Like the Policy regime, Donahue took a relatively large percentage of players from the Pac-10.
  • Almost every player Donahue drafted was from a BCS conference.
  • Even Donahue's rare non-BCS picks came from the best and most-watched mid-majors.
  • Despite Donahue's BCS-lust, he could have flipped a coin and been just as successful with his BCS picks.

GENERAL ANALYSIS AND CONCLUSION

I began this article by wondering if Donahue's 2002-2004 drafts had anything to do with the decline in 49er wins over the course of his tenure (and beyond). Initial signs pointed to "they didn't."

  • He stockpiled picks just like Walsh II, even though he could have just as easily repeated the Policy regime mistake of trading them away when the team is good.
  • Like Walsh II, he didn't over-utilize free agency to replace starters.
  • He had a similar overall starter and Pro Bowler rate to Walsh II's.
  • Like Walsh II, he focused his Day 1 picks on need positions when the team context dictated it.
  • He was as good as or better than Walsh II at picking starters at need positions.

Alas, however, the devil is in the details. Sometimes, even though it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and talks like a duck, it's still not a duck. Similarly, even though Donahue was Walsh II's doppelganger in many respects, he made two fatal errors that were anything but Walshian. First, he had a C-grade 2004 draft when an A+ draft was necessary to rebuild the roster. Second, he limited his available talent pool - rather than expanding it like Walsh did - by relying so heavily on the overexposed (and easily scouted) BCS conferences.

The 49ers are still paying for it to this very day. And it's too bad given the tutelage Donahue enjoyed as Walsh's understudy. All I know is that, if he would have taken more notes in class, he migh have gotten that A+ draft in 2004. So, based on everything I've said in this article, here's the idiot's guide to the Donahue regime's draft strategy:

  1. Stockpile picks, even when your team is good.
  2. Draft for need on Day 1, especially when your team sucks.
  3. Dominate the neighborhood.
  4. BCS or die!

That's it for now. Later today, I'll break down the McNolan drafts (2005-2008), compare them to the 3 regimes I've discussed so far, and give a heads-up on the draft strategy you might see in a couple of weeks. TO BE CONTINUED...

1 DVOA statistics used to produce this article were obtained from Football Outsiders.

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