San Francisco 49ers Draft History: Worst 10 Picks Since 1990 (According to Stats)

AUTHOR'S NOTE: So the cat's out of the bag. Starting July 1st, I'll be half of a 2-headed monster taking over for Bill Barnwell as Assistant Editor of Football Outsiders. As cool as this is for me personally, I think there's something to be said for the fact that the other half of the monster, Rivers McCown, is also a product of SBN. To me, that's a testament to the overall quality of talent in this little blog network, and I think it's only going to get bigger and better as time goes on.

It's fair to say that I wouldn't have this opportunity with Football Outsiders if David didn't give me the opportunity to write on NN, so infinite thanks to him. It's also fair to say that I wouldn't have acquired many of the qualifications that got me the job with FO if I didn't have you all forcing me to explain the stats more clearly, make my arguments more concisely, and react to comments more stoically. So, thanks to anyone whose read and reacted to any of my posts over the past 3 years.

As for my future with NN, as David alluded to yesterday, I won't be posting articles nearly as often as I have since 2008. However, the good news is that I will be posting stuff from time to time. Even better news is that the articles I do post will necessarily be shorter than the dissertation-length content I'm known for in these parts. And, of course, I'll be reading NN daily, and joining the comment threads frequently; so yeah, I'll be around plenty. Oh, and also, it's a free internet, so there's nothing stopping us from interacting on FO or my brand-spanking-new Twitter account (@FO_DTuccitto). OK, enough about me, let's talk about draft busts...really quickly I might add. I've got about 20 years-worth of DVOA data to pore over in the next 6 days.

The NFL Network has their Top 100 Players of 2011, as well as a multitude of miscellaneous Top 10 lists - most of which have some Niner-related phenomenon ranked #1. Here at NN, David put together his Top 10 list of SF draft busts (since 1990) according to his own mind. Today, I'm going to use the expected approximate value framework that I introduced a couple of months ago to give you my list of the worst 10 Niner picks (since 1990) according to the statistics. I'm not calling this a "Top 10 busts" list because it turns out that, from 1990-2006, the 49ers only drafted 8 busts according to my statistical criteria (i.e., 1st- or 2nd-rounder who returned 50% or less of SF's pick investment). Being a numerologist, 8 just doesn't give me the good vibes that 10 does; hence, this "Worst 10" list.

After the jump, the Niners' worst 10 draft picks from 1990-2006... 

It's been a couple of months, so, before I give you the list, let me just first review how my statistical evaluation of draft picks works. Basically, post-merger NFL history provides a very reliable performance expectation for each slot in the draft. In fact, there's a very simple equation for it

Exp AV/Yr = 7.82 - 1.29*ln(Pick)

AV is "approximate value," which is a statistic developed by Doug Drinen of Pro Football Reference that assigns a numerical value to each player season since the beginning of time.  AV/Yr is a player's career AV total divided by how many years he was in the league. For context, Joe Montana's AV/Yr was 7.69 and Jerry Rice's was 8.00.

That's what Montana's and Rice's actual career performances were. To find out what their careers were expected to be based on where they were picked, we use the above equation. You just take the natural log of their pick number, multiply that by 1.29, and then add 7.82. For Montana (Pick 82), his Exp AV/Yr was 2.14, whereas Rice's (Pick 16) was 4.24.

From there, we can evaluate how good the Niners' picks of Montana and Rice were - from a statistical perspective - by either subtracting their Exp AV/Yr from their actual AV/Yr, or dividing their actual AV/Yr by their Exp AV/Yr. The one where you subtract, I call Value Above Expectation (VAE). The one where you divide, I call Return on Investment (ROI). In this example, the Montana pick's VAE was 5.55 AV/Yr (i.e., 7.69 minus 2.14) and its ROI was +259.96% [(7.69 divided by 2.14) minus 1)]. For the Rice pick, VAE was 3.76 and ROI was was +88.52%.

Using this framework, we can evaluate every pick in every draft since 1970, which means we can evaluate the strength of a draft class league-wide, the strength of a draft class for a specific team, the strength of draft class for a specific position, etc. Another application is what I'm doing today, i.e., evaluating all 1st- or 2nd-round picks in the draft history of a specific team.

So, without further ado, here's the list of the worst 10 Niner picks in the 1st or 2nd round from 1990 to 2006 based on how their actual career compared with the career they were expected to have based on where they were picked:

Rk

Player

Pos

Year

AV/Yr

Exp AV/Yr

VAE

ROI

1

Israel Ifeanyi

DE

1996

0.00

2.88

-2.88

-100.00%

2

Reggie McGrew

DT

1999

0.25

3.72

-3.47

-93.28%

3

Jim Druckenmiller

QB

1997

0.50

3.62

-3.12

-86.18%

4

Rashaun Woods

WR

2004

1.00

3.39

-2.39

-70.51%

5

Todd Kelly

LB

1993

1.25

3.57

-2.32

-64.97%

6

Alex Smith

QB

2005

3.50

7.82

-4.32

-55.24%

7

Mike Rumph

DB

2002

1.60

3.57

-1.97

-55.17%

8

Adrian Hardy

DB

1993

1.33

2.83

-1.49

-52.83%

9

Kevin Mitchell

LB

1994

1.80

2.70

-0.90

-33.30%

10

Jamie Winborn

LB

2001

2.00

2.85

-0.85

-29.91%

Holy crap! Alex Smith is on this list, which means - gasp - Alex-haters of the world have been vindicated! How's that for a parting shot from me on NN!

In all seriousness, though, we can discuss this list in the comments section (and we will!). The one thing I want to point out though, which I think is a perfect microcosm of my awesome tenure here as a regular contributor, is how this stats-based list compares to David's opinion-based list. After all, the overarching theme of the comment threads for my posts over the past 3 years has been the internecine battle between people who believe in football statistics and people who don't. For instance, right now I'm wondering how someone who's an Alex-hater feels and also a stats-hater feels about the fact that the stats back up their opinion? Is it a flagrant foul if they were to use this ammo in an argument?

So, here's David's list (players on both lists are in bold):

Rk

Player

Pos

Year

1

Jim Druckenmiller

QB

1997

2

J.J. Stokes

WR

1995

3

Rashaun Woods

WR

2004

4

Mike Rumph

DB

2002

5

Kentwan Balmer

DE

2008

6

Todd Kelly

LB

1993

7

Kwame Harris

OL

2003

8

Dexter Carter

RB

1990

9

Reggie McGrew

DT

1999

10

Dana Hall

DB

1992

As you can see, we actually agree on half of the list, and there are easy explanations for the differences. Specifically, my list only goes through 2006, so Balmer doesn't count. More importantly, though, the other 4 discrepancies highlight exactly how stats complement objective opinion: people's opinions are heavily influenced by availability bias. I'm guessing that, when David sat down to compile his list, he didn't have very strong memories of guys like Ifeanyi, Hardy, Mitchell, and Winborn. I mean, except for perhaps Winborn, I can't really remember what these guys did in their careers either. And that's the point. Guys like Ifeanyi, who literally never played for the Niners, get booted out of our minds, such that when we sit down to think about how bad players are, we can't remember his bad performances because he essentially had no performances. Statistics, on the other hand, don't forget anything. Ifeanyi's #1 on my list because, objectively, getting absolutely nothing out of a 2nd-round pick is much worse than, say, several years worth of starting-caliber WR play out of J.J. Stokes.

See you guys in the comments section. Oh, and thanks again for reading my stuff over the past 3 years. It's really been my pleasure to provide it to you.

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