The annual NFL draft takes place almost four months after the Super Bowl. It’s always struck me as a weird time to hold the draft. Why not hold it earlier?
The NFL draft is the best-known way that teams add to their rosters. It’s usually the first step in a player’s professional development process, unlike baseball where a player can be drafted for years before they put on the club’s mainstream uniform.
How should sports bettors anticipate and react to the league’s annual draft? The answer is complicated.
Why Sports Bettors Can (Basically) Ignore the NFL Draft
I want to start with a big caveat. Plenty of NFL bettors don’t consider the sport’s annual draft to be all that big a deal. I’d add that you could easily get by as an NFL bettor without paying all that much attention specifically to each year’s draft results.
Adding a phenom to an NBA team means improving 20% of the starting lineup and 6% of the overall roster. Drafting the best player on the board can literally make an NBA team. The same isn’t true in football, where any one player represents under 2% of the team roster, and well under 10% of the starting lineup. Outside of a few outstanding examples (Tom Brady, Jim Brown, Jerry Rice), you’re not going to see a vastly different team from the addition of a single player.
NFL teams don’t tank for draft position as frequently as teams in other sports.
The NFL season is the shortest of all four major pro American sports. A rookie may only have a few games to prove his value to the market. The same goes for veterans looking for contract extensions. The 17 games NFL players have with which to pad their stat sheet pales in comparison to baseball’s 162 games, or even hockey and basketball’s 82 game schedule. There’s not much room for tanking behavior on teams made up of 53 guys looking to secure their legacies (and paychecks).
NFL draft results are rarely a surprise.
Modern sportswriters and pundits are good at predicting NFL draft orders. This is especially true of the first ten picks, known as lottery picks. Rarely do we see a team making a lottery pick that shocks the sports world. That means the NFL draft results are widely known ahead of time, and any sports bettors interested in leveraging this information into handicapping success for the following year have already done so. Remember also that the draft is one of many player acquisition models – most teams alter their makeup more frequently through trades than through the annual draft. Fans of NFL betting who keep up with league news and who have had some past success handicapping games most likely won’t benefit a great deal from a deep analysis of the NFL draft. That said, newcomers to the sport, or bettors who have had limited success in the past, can absolutely learn from the process, the picks, and the roster impacts of the 224 new additions to the league.
The rest of this post will look at the impact each year’s draft has on handicapping efforts for the following season. While the NFL isn’t a sports league that’s heavily impacted by the draft, for all of the reasons covered above, the addition of new names, new play styles, and new skill sets will absolutely change the way sports bettors handicap contests in the future.
Who Am I Looking At? Players Eligible for the NFL Draft
The NFL doesn’t require players attend college, though the vast majority of NFL players did attend at least one year of university. Technically, any football player who graduated from high school at least four years ago is eligible for the NFL draft.
We’ve seen more than a few football players from Canada in the draft, and it’s not uncommon that an Arena Football League or German Football League player’s name is tossed out. In some positions, it’s common to see players drafted who haven’t played formal football before at all – it’s common to see kicks drafted from university soccer systems, for example.
Bettors looking for the big picture are probably looking to know how much value a particular draft pick adds. Typically, players who add the most value to their team are offensive giants – running backs and dual-threat QBs who put a lot of points and yards on the board. At the NFL draft, these guys are going to go in the top-10, those lottery picks that are much bandied about in the sports press.
This isn’t to say that players drafted in later rounds won’t eventually add tons of value to their teams. They probably will. Famously, Tom Brady was picked 199th, and he’s one of the all-time value adds in the sport’s history.
Look for big running backs and QBs who can run the ball, guys like Lamar Jackson, who turned in the second-best Approximate Value stat in the sport’s history in his second season after being taken in the first round. Jevon Kearse is an example of an outlier – a DE who added more value to the Super Bowl runner-up Titans than any other player in the league. He was taken 16th overall.
What to Do with a Bad Draft
Talking heads are quick to rate every NFL draft, team by team, often assigning them a letter grade. It’s a cliché as beloved as any other, and I think it’s unfair and harmful to sports bettors.
Consider the Detroit Lions, who in 2008 became the first NFL team to go 0-16. In the eight drafts preceding that remarkably bad season, the Lions had eight first round draft picks, including six lottery picks. How much was that team affected by all those high draft picks? Well, the 0-16 record should give you a clue.
If a team you’re handicapping has a bad draft, I’d take it with as big a grain of salt as I could find. There’s no direct correlation between high draft picks and increases in wins or participation in the playoffs. The learning curve for new professional players is just that steep.
When a team fails to secure a future franchise QB through the trade market, their season will immediately be labeled “re-building,” even if they secure a lottery pick QB. The draft is just not known to be an immediate precursor to league success.
A smart sports bettor who’s well connected to league news and trends probably shouldn’t spend too much time sweating the draft.
During the course of their typical handicapping process, they’ll learn everything they need to know about changes to team dynamics, and with the stately pace of the NFL season, bettors have plenty of time to react and change sports betting strategies between contests if it becomes necessary.
The NFL draft is a big media event, and for fans of the sport it’s the first real bit of football news we’ve heard in many weeks. It gets a lot more credit than I think it deserves, for all of the reasons outlined in this post, and because it’s a boring event. We all know ahead of time what names are going to be called and when.
Incorporate the changes to each team’s roster into your future season handicapping. But I wanted small-scale bettors without the team necessary to follow all 224 picks the relief of knowing that they can still be successful as an NFL gambler without being a draft nut.