The Art (and Science) of Drafting: III. 49ers vs. Patriots in the Salary Cap Era

Way back in Part 1 of this series - which seems like forever ago - I broke down the 49ers' draft picks from 1994-2008 by round, position, and conference. Just to refresh everyone's memory, here was my description of the Niners' overall draft strategy:

  1. When we're good, let's trade away picks. When we're bad, let's acquire more picks.
  2. Trade up into the 1st round using 2nd-round picks. Trade down into the 6th and 7th rounds using 5th-round picks.
  3. Take players from BCS conferences.
  4. Dominate the neighborhood (i.e., take Pac-10 players).
  5. Wait until Day 2 to draft QBs, RBs, and WRs.
  6. Grab TEs, LBs, and DBs in the late rounds for depth and special teams.
  7. Don't pull an Al Davis (i.e., Ks and Ps are not draft-worthy).

Today, I'll conduct a point-by-point comparison of this strategy to that of the New England Patriots. Why the Patriots, you ask? Well, the goal here was to find a team that, unlike the 49ers, has actually won a lot during the past 15 years, has done so consistently throughout those 15 years, and has done so in similar contextual circumstances. The specific criteria for identifying a team with which to compare were (a) having a top-3 winning percentage in the Salary Cap Era, (b) having won multiple championships in the Salary Cap Era, (c) having had 5 or more years between Super Bowl appearances in the Salary Cap Era, and (d) having regime contexts that were similar to the 49ers.

Given these criteria, NE is the only team that qualifies. Regarding criterion (a), the top 3 teams in winning percentage since 1994 are NE (65.0%), PIT (62.9%), and GB (62.1%). Regarding criterion (b), the only teams that have won multiple Super Bowls since 1994 are NE (3), PIT (2), and DEN (2). That narrows it down to NE and PIT. Regarding criterion (c), the only teams to have played in multiple Super Bowls separated by 5 years or more are NE (1996 and 2001), PIT (1995 and 2005), and NYG (2000 and 2007). So it comes down to criterion (d), which favors NE. That's because, whereas PIT has had a pretty stable organizational hierarchy (2 draft regimes, 2 coaches, 1 owner in 15 years), NE has had management turmoil (3 draft regimes, 3 coaches, and 2 owners in 15 years) similar to the 49ers. Not to mention that NE also had a Donahue/Erickson-esque "Does this team have a clue?" period from 1997-1999 when Bobby Grier was fully in charge of the draft (i.e., finally free of Bill Parcells' watchful eye, ala Donahue free from Walsh) and Pete Carroll was ineptly manning the sidelines (ala Erickson). So, taken together, NE is the best comparison because they've had a similar team context during the Salary Cap Era, yet actually have consistently won despite it, wholly unlike the 49ers.

Alright, so without further ado, let's start the draft strategy comparison...

After the jump, I'll compare each aspect of the 49ers' draft strategy in the Salary Cap Era to that of the Patriots...

DRAFT RESULTS

Before I really get into the meat of the matter, I think it might be useful to preface this article by discussing how NE has compared to SF in terms of their starter and Pro Bowl rates.

Starter Rates

Pro Bowl Rates

Category

SF

NE

Category

SF

NE

Overall

42.4%

35.1%

Overall

9.3%

10.5%

Round 1

72.2%

100.0%

Round 1

16.7%

41.2%

Round 2

84.6%

53.3%

Round 2

7.7%

13.3%

Round 3

44.4%

33.3%

Round 3

11.1%

5.6%

Round 4

31.3%

45.5%

Round 4

6.3%

9.1%

Round 5

7.1%

13.3%

Round 5

0.0%

6.7%

Round 6

38.9%

8.7%

Round 6

16.7%

4.3%

Round 7

23.8%

8.3%

Round 7

4.8%

0.0%

Day 1

65.3%

62.0%

Day 1

12.2%

20.0%

Day 2

26.1%

19.0%

Day 2

7.8%

4.8%

QB

28.6%

28.6%

QB

0.0%

14.3%

RB

33.3%

25.0%

RB

16.7%

6.3%

FB

100.0%

--

FB

33.3%

--

WR

33.3%

25.0%

WR

5.6%

8.3%

TE

44.4%

25.0%

TE

11.1%

0.0%

OL

64.3%

41.7%

OL

7.1%

16.7%

DL

31.8%

33.3%

DL

4.5%

11.1%

LB

40.0%

29.4%

LB

20.0%

5.9%

DB

38.1%

48.0%

DB

4.8%

12.0%

OFF

45.6%

31.0%

OFF

8.8%

9.9%

DEF

36.2%

38.3%

DEF

8.6%

10.0%

BCS

43.6%

38.6%

BCS

8.5%

10.9%

Non-BCS

37.5%

24.2%

Non-BCS

12.5%

9.1%

First, some housecleaning... Remember back to my Walsh Era (Part 2b) discussion of starter and Pro Bowl rates for a moment. You'll recall that I attempted to adjust these rates for context because draft picks on better teams are more likely to make the Pro Bowl, but less likely to crack the starting lineup. The crude method I used for this "likelihood adjustment" was the difference in winning percentage. Applying that method here, I noted earlier that NE has had a 65.0% winning percentage in the Salary Cap Era. The 49ers' winning percentage during that span was 52.1%. Therefore, if we apply my crude method of adjusting for context, a NE draft pick has been 12.9% more likely to make the Pro Bowl, but 12.9% less likely to start.

However, there's one more adjustment we need to make. Namely, it's also 7 times more likely in general for a player to be an OFF or DEF starter than it is for that player to be an OFF or DEF Pro Bowler. Trust me on this one, I did the math. So, we actually have to divide that crude 12.9% Pro Bowl advantage for NE by 7 to eliminate a draft pick having dumb luck, and thereby get the true advantage due to that draft pick playing for NE (i.e., the better team). If your eyes just glazed over, just know this for the purposes of our discussion: NE draft picks have had a 1.8% Pro Bowl advantage over SF draft picks since 1994.

OK.  So as it relates to reading the table, I've displayed in bold the better percentage for each category after adjusting it in the manner I just described and adding in a little margin for error. Specifically, if a starter rate is in bold, it means it's the better rate based on a SF advantage of +10% to +12%. If a Pro Bowl rate is in bold, it means it's the better rate based on a NE advantage of +1% to +3%. Again, I realize this is a crude method, but it's what I'm going to go with for the sake of simplicity. OK, back to the show...

First question: "Has NE been better overall at drafting than SF?" The answer is "probably not." We get this answer from the differences in their overall starter and Pro Bowl rates, which are within their respective margins of error.

Maybe, then, NE has been better at drafting in specific categories rather than overall. Indeed, looking at specific categories starts to paint the picture of how NE has been better than SF in the draft. What stands out to me is that NE has outshined SF in the 1st round, at QB, and at DB. How I interpret this is that the Patriots have been light years better than SF in the most important round of the draft and at picking the most important position skill positions on the field. Indeed, NE has been a perfect 17 for 17 at finding starters with their 1st round picks, with 7 of these 17 picks making the Pro Bowl as a Patriot. In contrast, the SF has been 13 for 18 at finding starters in the 1st round, with only 3 of their 18 1st-round picks making the Pro Bowl as a Niner. At QB, the Patriots obviously hit with Tom Brady (and Matt Cassell for that matter), whereas all the 49ers have to show for their QB picks is Alex Smith and Tim Rattay. Finally, at DB, 12 of the 25 NE picks have become Patriot starters; 3 of whom have made the Pro Bowl as a Patriot. This compares to 11 of 23 SF picks having become 49er starters; only 1 of whom (Lance Schulters) made the Pro Bowl as a Niner. So the moral of the story is that, if you want to draft like a consistent NFL winner, be great in the 1st round, and hit home runs with your QB and DB picks.

Now for the point-by-point strategy comparison...

STRATEGY #1

When we're good, let's trade away picks.

When we're bad let's acquire more picks.

As I described in Part 1, the 49ers have had 118 draft picks since 1994. The Patriots, in contrast, have had 134. That's a difference of 1 pick per season, which, although not statistically significant, is nevertheless practically important. I mean, that's still 1 more pick per season. It's also practically important because the average round for each team's picks was 4.13 for SF and 4.25 for NE, which means that we're talking about 16 more 4th round picks, on average, for NE than SF.

Just intuitively, if the Patriots have had the highest winning percentage since 1994, and they've had 16 more picks than the 2-wins-less-per-year Niners, then it stands to reason that the Patriots haven't been trading away picks when they're good. However, let's look a little deeper, and a picture says a thousand words. Below is a graph showing the number of 49er wins each season along with the number of picks they had in the draft immediately following that season:

Draft_history__part_3__chart_1_medium 

To fully appreciate this, just pay attention to the two trendlines. As you can see, there's a pretty strong relationship between 49er wins and the number of picks they had in the subsequent draft. As the number of wins increases, the number of picks decreases, and vice versa. Now, here's the same graph for NE:

Draft_history__part_3__chart_2_medium

Again, the trendlines tell the story. For the Patriots, their wins and picks ebbed and flowed together until around 1999, at which point their number of picks stayed relatively the same as the number of wins increased. One more thing you'll notice when you compare the two graphs is that, whereas the Patriots' number of picks have generally ranged from 7 to 10 each season, the 49ers' number of picks has bounced around all over the place. Therefore, based on these two differences, we'd have to conclude that the Patriots have not subscribed to the first aspect of Niner draft strategy.

STRATEGY #2

Trade up into the 1st round using 2nd-round picks.

Trade down into the 6th and 7th rounds using 5th-round picks.

Suffice it to say that going back and looking at every draft pick trade since 1994 is a bit of a tall order seeing as how (a) the internet didn't hit the mainstream until 1999, (b) I'm not going to sort through microfiche slides at my local library, and (c) I'm not going to call the 49ers' and Patriots' front office and wait weeks, months, or years for them to get back to me with the info. No big deal, though. I needed to rephrase this strategy as "The 2nd and 5th rounds aren't that important to us," anyway. After all, the reason for coming up with it was because the Niners had peculiarly low pick totals in those two rounds. So, the best way to see if the Patriots are any different is to compare the round-by-round totals:


Draft_history__part_3__chart_3_medium 

A few things are worthy of noting in this graph. First, given that there have been 15 drafts since 1994, NE has averaged no less than 1 pick per round per draft. In other words, they've had a pick total in every round that's greater than or equal to the 15 that have been allotted to them by the NFL (before Spygate). This is true of the 49ers for every round except - you guessed it - the 2nd and 5th. Second, if we were to rank the 14 total rounds (7 for SF and 7 for NE) by number of picks since 1994, the lowest 4 would be SF's 2nd round, SF's 5th round, NE's 2nd round, and NE's 5th round.  Third, for both teams, look at how the 2nd round compares to the 1st and 3rd, and how the 5th round compares to the 4th and 6th. You'll notice that both teams have a dip in the 2nd and 5th rounds as compared to the rounds that are on either side.

Fourth, check out that 4th round total for NE. They've had nearly as many picks in the 4th round as they have in the compensatory-pick-heavy 6th and 7th rounds. Now compare that with the 49ers' middling 4th round pick total of 16, and you begin to think to yourself, "NE must really like something about that 4th round." Well, the possibilities are endless, but it might be useful to see what positions NE is taking in the 4th round.

Here's a table breaking down SF's and NE's 4th-round picks by team unit:

Unit

SF

NE

Total

OFF

4

12

16

DEF

11

9

20

ST

1

1

2

Total

16

22

38

Whereas the 49ers have taken far more DEF players in the 4th round, NE has taken more OFF players. This, by the way, is a statistically significant finding: whether or not a 4th-round pick plays OFF or DEF is dependent on whether SF or NE selected him.

And what kind of success have the two teams had with their 4th-round picks? All we have to do here is refer back to the starter and Pro Bowl rate table I displayed earlier. As you can see, NE has been far better than SF at finding starters in Round 4. So perhaps one reason the Patriots stockpile 4th-round picks is because they're really good at finding starters in that round. I know you're wondering, "Are they conscious of this success?" Well, they've acquired at least 1 extra 4th-round pick in 5 of the last 8 drafts after having found starters with 4 of the 9 4th-round picks they selected in their first 7 drafts of the Salary Cap Era. Remember, we're talking about the 4th round here, so 44.4% is pretty damn good. Or maybe it's just some numerology thing involving 4s. You be the judge.

STRATEGY #3

Take players from BCS conferences.

This one's pretty easy to figure out. Here's a table showing the number of SF and NE picks that have come from BCS and non-BCS conference:

BCS?

SF

NE

Total

Yes

94

101

195

No

24

33

57

Total

118

134

252

As this table shows, the totals are pretty similar (as are the corresponding percentages). Furthermore, this conclusion stays the same even if we break the 49ers' and Patriots' picks down by draft day. Specifically, SF's BCS rate on Day 1 has been 89.8% since 1994, whereas NE's has been 86.0%. Similarly, the Niners' BCS rate on Day 2 has been 72.5%, whereas the Pats' has been 69.0%.

The only discernible difference in BCS rates between the two teams has had to do with the team unit on which the draft picks play(ed). Here's the relevant table:

BCS Rate

Unit

SF

NE

OFF

78.9%

67.6%

DEF

79.3%

87.6%

ST

100.0%

33.3%

It seems that NE has had more of a BCS bias with DEF picks than with OFF picks. In contrast, SF has had more of a BCS bias than NE with respect to OFF draft picks. In fact, the latter difference between the two teams is statistically significant: SF has been more likely than NE to take BCS players at OFF positions. Taking everything in the section together, we can conclude that, except for the SF's larger BCS bias on OFF, the 49ers and Patriots have been pretty similar when it comes to favoring players from BCS conferences.

STRATEGY #5

Wait until Day 2 to draft QBs, RBs, and WRs.

Here are two tables that show the 49ers' and Patriots' QB, RB, and WR picks by draft day:

SF

Pos

Day 1

Day 2

Total

QB

3

4

7

RB

2

4

6

WR

7

11

18

Total

12

19

31

 

NE

Pos

Day 1

Day 2

Total

QB

1

6

7

RB

7

9

16

WR

6

6

12

Total

14

21

35

By far, the difference between the two teams has been at QB. When compared to the 49ers, the Patriots have had a considerable Day 2 bias at this position. With respect to RB, SF and NE have been pretty similar between draft days. Finally, at WR, the Patriots haven't seemed to have had a Niner-esque Day 2 bias.

However, where there does seem to be a huge difference is in the total number of picks at RB and WR. Specifically, as the table shows, NE has taken a staggering 16 RBs since 1994, whereas the 49ers have only taken 6. In contrast, SF has taken 18 WRs, whereas the Patriots have only taken 12.

To appreciate just how aberrant these totals are, all we need is a simple knowledge of probability. Between the two teams, 8.7% of their 252 picks since 1994 have been at RB. This means we would expect SF to have used 8.7% of their 118 picks, or about 10, at this position. Using this same calculation for NE, we would expect the Patriots to have used about 12 of their picks at RB. Essentially, the Niners have taken 4 fewer RBs than expected, whereas the Patriots have taken 6 more RBs than expected. For WR, the expected totals are 14 for SF and 16 for NE, which means that SF has taken 4 more - and NE 4 less - than expected. It turns out that the differences between the two teams' expected and actual pick counts at RB and WR are statistically significant.

STRATEGY #6

Grab TEs, LBs, and DBs in the late rounds for depth and special teams.

Similar tables can be used to determine any differences between the two teams with respect to Day 2 picks at TE, LB, and DB. Here they are:

SF

Pos

Day 1

Day 2

Total

TE

2

7

9

LB

7

8

15

DB

7

14

21

Total

16

29

45

NE

Pos

Day 1

Day 2

Total

TE

4

8

12

LB

6

11

17

DB

13

12

25

Total

23

31

54

From these tables, we can conclude that (a) both teams have had a Day 2 bias at TE, (b) NE has had more of a Day 2 bias at LB, and (c) SF has had more of a Day 2 bias at DB. In other words, the teams have a 1-1-1 record against each other with respect to their propensity for drafting Day 2 TEs, LBs, and DBs. I don't know about you, but that seems pretty even to me.

STRATEGY #7

Don't pull an Al Davis (i.e., Ks and Ps are not draft-worthy).

Here, it's even Stevens. NE has drafted 2 Ks and 1 P since 1994. SF has done the same.

ADDITIONAL SF-NE COMPARISONS

Before I wrap this up, here are some additional draft-related differences between SF and NE that I think are interesting, but that didn't really fit into the point-by-point strategy breakdown. I figured that, because I did the stats work, I might as well share the full fruit of my labor with you. I'd be more than happy to discuss these further in the comments section if you wish. First, the strongest (i.e., statistically significant) differences:

  • SF has picked more 3rd-round WRs than NE (5-0). SF has picked more 2nd-round Big East players than NE (4-0).
  • SF has picked more Pac-10 OLs (6-1) and OFF players (13-5) than NE.
  • SF has picked more 2nd-round Big East players than NE (4-0).

Next, the stronger (i.e., almost statistically significant) differences:

  • NE has picked more 2nd-round WRs (5-0), 3rd-round DBs (6-1), and 6th-round OLs (3-0) than SF. SF has picked more 6th-round WRs (5-2) than NE.
  • NE has picked more Day 1 RBs (7-2) and Day 2 OLs (18-6) than SF. SF has picked more Day 2 WRs (11-6) than NE.
  • NE has picked more Big 12 (25-13), MAC (5-1), and MEAC players (3-0) than SF.
  • SF has picked more Big 12 players in the 4th round (4-1) and SEC players in the 5th round (4-0) than NE. NE has picked more Conference USA players in the 4th round (4-1) and Big 12 players in the 5th round (5-1) than SF.
  • SF has picked more Day 1 Pac-10 players than NE (10-4). NE has picked more Day 2 MAC players than SF (4-0).
  • NE has picked more Conference USA OFF players (4-0), Big 12 DLs (6-2), and Big 12 DEF players (15-8) than SF. SF has picked more ACC OFF players than NE (6-2).

Finally, the strong (i.e., more trend-like than statistically significant) differences:

  • NE has picked more OLs than SF (24-14).
  • NE has picked more 4th-round OFF players (12-4) and Day 1 DBs (13-7) than SF.
  • NE has picked more MWC players than SF (6-2).
  • NE has picked more 4th-round Big East players (4-1), Day 1 Big 12 players (10-5), and Day 2 MWC players (5-1) than SF. SF has picked more Day 2 SEC players than NE (12-8).
  • NE has picked more ACC DEF players than SF (7-3).

SUMMARY AND CONCLUSION

To wrap things up, below is a table summarizing ways in which NE's overall draft strategy since 1994 has been similar to and different from the SF draft strategy I detailed in Part 1 of this series:

STRATEGY

NE SIMILAR?

Trade away picks when good. Stockpile picks when bad.

X

The 2nd and 5th rounds aren't that important to us.

Throwbackpatpatriotpin__small__medium
 

Take players from BCS conferences.

   Throwbackpatpatriotpinhalf__small__medium

Dominate the neighborhood.

X

Wait until Day 2 to draft QBs, RBs, and WRs.

Throwbackpatpatriotpinhalf__small__medium

Grab TEs, LBs, and DBs in the late rounds for depth and ST.

Throwbackpatpatriotpin__small__medium

Don't pull an Al Davis.

Throwbackpatpatriotpin__small__medium

So, NE has differed entirely on 2 of the 7 SF draft strategies. First, the Patriots have valued the draft more consistently than the Niners because (a) NE has had an average of 1 more pick per draft than SF, and (b) the relationship between NE's previous year record and current draft number of picks is much weaker than SF's. Second, the Patriots haven't had a localized regional bias towards their draft picks because (a) the Big East only ranks 4th in number of NE picks since 1994, and (b) NE's Big East rate is much lower than SF's Pac-10 rate.

NE has differed, in part, on 2 other SF draft strategies. First, although NE has exhibited an overall and draft day BCS rate that's similar to SF, their BCS bias decreases considerably for OFF picks; to the point that it differs significantly from that of the 49ers. Second, although NE is similar to SF in terms of their QB, RB, and WR rate on Day 2, the Patriots differ from SF to a statistically significant extent with respect to the total number of RBs and WRs they've taken since 1994. Essentially, it's true that NE generally prefers selecting players from these three positions on Day 2; but it's also true that NE generally prefers selecting RBs regardless of the draft day. In other words, they take a lot more bites at the RB apple than SF.

Considering the similarities and differences in draft strategies, and putting them into the context of actual draft results (i.e., starter and Pro Bowl rates), it's certainly arguable whether NE has drafted better than SF over the past 15 years. And it's even shakier to conclude that the reason for NE being much better than SF since 1994 is an overall superiority in the draft.

Nevertheless, there are three specific areas that I think have contributed to the Salary Cap Era disparity in wins and championships between the 49ers and Patriots. First, the Patriots seem to have been more committed to the draft as a source of talent replenishment than the Niners: They've had more picks, they've had more round-to-round pick total consistency, and their pick totals haven't fluctuated with regular season wins and losses. It's true that NE hasn't necessarily been better than SF in terms of starter and Pro Bowl rates, but they have been better in terms of starter and Pro Bowl totals, and that's because they've had more bites at the apple (aka picks). In other words, everyone knows that the draft is a crap shoot. The question is, "How many rolls of the dice do you want to have?"

The second area in which I think that the Patriots' drafts have contributed to their success has to do with the Walshian quality of thinking outside the box. Specifically, the Patriots haven't seemed to go into the draft with prejudices and preconceptions about where NFL-caliber talent can be found. Rather, they seem to think that OFF players can be found outside the BCS, they seem to think talent in general can be found in unheralded conferences (e.g., the MAC, MEAC, SIAC, and SWAC), they seem to think that the first round of Day 2 (i.e., the 4th round) is just as important - if not more important - than the first round of Day 1, and they seem to draft OLs when everyone else is taking special teamers.

The final contribution that NE's drafts have made toward their overall success has to do with what I'll call, "the double whammy." The double whammy has everything to do with getting value out of your picks. To understand it, all we have to do is use fantasy football draft success (or failure) as a proxy. The two make-or-break points in a fantasy football draft (Whammy 1 and Whammy 2) are the first round and the middle rounds. When you miss spectacularly on a 1st-round pick in fantasy football, you're basically in catch-up mode for the rest of the season. While other teams' 1st-round picks are off having their predictably awesome seasons, yours has taken a one-way trip to Steven Jackson-land circa 2008. And what's worse is that you're never going to get equal trade value once your 1st-rounder has been declared a bust for the season.

In the middle rounds, it's just as important to hit on players; for two reasons. First, if you do happen to take a bust with your 1st-round pick, you're replacing that bust with a middle-round talent rather than a late-round talent. Second, and more importantly, the players available in the middle rounds can be classified as two types: (a) early-round talents at important positions whose stocks have fallen for one reason or another, and (b) the best players available at relatively unimportant positions (e.g., TE, K, DEF). The successful fantasy teams are those that get value here. While everyone else is taking their starters at unimportant positions, it's a perfect time to take the Jamal Andersons of the NFL circa 1998, i.e., those players who aren't total sleepers (e.g., Matt Cassel), yet nevertheless have been overlooked by everyone else. It's all about value. If you're able to find a player in the 6th round who blows up, you've now just put your team light years ahead of where it would be if you had instead taken the top-rated TE. The point here is that, contrary to popular opinion, it's the middle rounds - not the late rounds - in which you get the most bang for your "sleeper" buck.

Bringing this back to the SF-NE comparison, the Patriots have been perfect in the 1st round. As I said earlier, they've taken 17 starters and 7 Pro Bowlers with their 17 1st-round picks since 1994. That's getting unbelievable value in the 1st round. To boot, by not missing in the 1st round, or screwing around with the 2-or-3-years-away Kentwan Balmer types, the Patriots haven't had to play catch up with the talent on their roster. In the middle rounds, NE has taken a lot of players, with considerable success, in the 4th round. This means that the sleepers they hit on are 4th-round (or higher) talents rather than 6th- or 7th-round talents, and that they're not replacing injured starters with 6th- and 7th-rounders - Matt Cassel notwithstanding. Contrast this with the 49ers, who have swung and missed in the 1st round several times, and have been better at finding starters in the 6th round than they have in the 4th. What this means is that the Niners have been populating their starting lineup - whether by choice or by injury - with inferior college talent. They haven't been getting optimal value at the two most important junctures in the draft. In other words, they haven't succeeded in the double whammy.

That's it for now. On Wednesday, I'll compare specific SF and NE regimes, focusing primarily on McNolan. In other words, to which regimes are they most similar and different? TO BE CONTINUED...

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