Grading the Draft Grades


The NFL offseason calendar, in any normal year, usually goes like this: Superbowl, coaching moves, break, free agency, combine, pro days, pre-draft analysis, the draft, post-draft analysis and then, sometime in early May, draft grades. This year, even with all the labor issues and lawsuits, seems to be no different. It’s early May, and regardless of whether or not the 2011 draft class will actually become a part of the NFL this year, the grades have arrived.

Personally, I’ve never paid attention to grades. They’re arbitrary, childish, and in the long run they’re about as accurate as fortune cookies or that drunken homeless guy who offers you directions at the train station for a dollar. Don’t believe me? Let’s take a look at a random sampling of grades from the 2010 draft, courtesy of Fox News:

"Green Bay: The Packers got great value with their first pick, Iowa OT Bryan Bulaga, who has a chance to start as a rookie at right tackle. Georgia Tech safety Morgan Burnett gives the Packers some depth at safety where Atari Bigby has had injury concerns. Mike Neal is really strong and spent five years at Purdue, starting as a defensive end and then switching to defensive tackle…The best news about the team’s top three picks is that all are solid citizens with no injury history. TE Andrew Quarless spent a lot of time in Joe Paterno’s doghouse at Penn State… RB James Stark [sic] missed his entire senior season at Buffalo, but if he plays to his old level could prove to be a valuable addition. Grade: CDenver: Yes, there have been many snickers around the NFL about coach Josh McDaniels being immature (Chargers incident last season) and still learning on game days. But he’s turned into one trading Jessie on draft day. He and GM Brian Xander left the first round with two selections and the two players they wanted in WR Demaryius Thomas and QB Tim Tebow…Unlike Brandon Marshall and Jay Cutler, these two players are saints and definitely hard-workers. Zane Beadles… was a solid pick in the middle of the second round. Minnesota receiver Eric Decker was a one-man show in college and a lot of teams loved him in the second round until a foot injury sidelined him…McDaniels eventually took a risky pick in Oklahoma State CB Perrish Cox, who was suspended at the end of the season, but he could turn into a top-flight player and returner. Grade: B+Panthers: On paper, if this is GM Marty Hurney’s final draft with the Panthers, it has a chance to be his best. Hurney didn’t have a first-round pick and he tried to trade up with the Rams in order to select Notre Dame QB Jimmy Clausen, but got him anyway with the 48th overall pick in the second round. Clausen should give Matt Moore a run for his money sometime this season as the starter. With Carolina’s great running game, Clausen has excellent deep-ball accuracy… To help Moore and Claussen, the Panthers got two potential playmakers in Armanti Edwards and Brandon LaFell… The only bad thing was that Hurney traded away next year’s second-round pick to the Patriots to get this done. OLB Eric Norwood was also good value in the fourth round. Cincinnati QB Tony Pike was an interesting pick. Grade: A+"

You see my point. Of course, not all draft grades turn out to be as epically wrong as this set, but in general they very rarely translate into anything more than a small boost in page views for the writer and a few minutes of killed time for the reader. In the 2010 draft, the Eagles spent nine of their 13 picks on defense, and most TV analysts and football bloggers gave us high grades for it. When the season finally began, however, it was our offense – players who were already on the roster prior to the draft – that broke records and ultimately won the NFC East for us.

Draft grades do not necessarily translate to a team’s success the following season. They are snap judgments based on general opinion and rough statistics, an easy way to rank teams against each other and quantify a wide range of intangible variables – like potential, attitude, and adaptation to the pro game – that simply cannot be quantified. Basically, the only real rubric for an early May draft grade goes like this:

Teams get good grades for sticking to the script – by drafting players in the same order that the analyst or blogger giving the grade had expected. Teams get poor grades for going off the grid – by taking players earlier than the blogger had expected or by targeting positions that the analyst hadn’t anticipated.

And, on top of all that, we have to consider the fact that only about 30% of a team’s draft picks, on average, end up making the starting roster anyway. Not only are draft grades inaccurate, inconsequential, and heavily biased, they are also totally pointless. Analysts would be better off spending the first weeks of May trying to figure out which players from the draft will actually make the team, instead of sitting at their computer for hours on end, wondering whether the Vikings’ 7th round pick deserves a C or a C-.

Or, better yet, they could all just wait until the season started. As all true fans and good coaches already know, the only grade that counts in the end is not an A or an A+, but a W.