The Deep End Of The Pool

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Why the 2014 draft class may be looked on in future years as the deepest draft class in memory.

The 2014 NFL draft class is being called in many circles the deepest class in ten, twenty, even thirty years.   While it is impossible to know at this time whether the class of 2014 will live up to its lofty billing, there are reasons to suspect the evaluations of this being a historically deep class are more than just the usual pre-draft hype.  One factor driving the depth of this year's class is the size of the undergraduate contingent.  This year 102 undergraduates are entering the draft, a number some 40% larger than the previous record of 73 set in 2013.

You can see in the following chart that the number of undergraduates entering the NFL draft has been slowly but steadily climbing over the last five years, before exploding in 2014.  I was able to obtain the figures for 2009 through 2014, and the 2003 figure for historical comparison.  The chart shows relatively slow and stable growth until the anomaly of 2014.

Year

Undergraduates

.

2014

102

2013

73

2012

65

2011

56

2010

53

2009

46

.

2003

54

The obvious thing we can derive from the chart is that, all other things being equal, the 2014 draft should be the deepest in years, simply because there is a substantially larger pool of athletes to choose from due to the large increase in undergraduates.  It might, however, be instructive to delve a little deeper.  Let's take a look at a little more granular information regarding the 102 undergraduates entering the 2014 NFL draft.  Using the CBS Sports website's evaluation of the top prospects of 2014, 58 of the 102 undergraduates entering the 2014 NFL draft are ranked among the top 144 prospects, roughly corresponding to a 4th round grade or better.  That is 57% of the 102 undergraduates.  In addition, 80 of the 102 undergraduates, or 78.4%, are ranked among the top 300 prospects, roughly corresponding to those players with a realistic chance to hear their name called sometime during the 3 day draft.  Thus 22 of the 102 undergraduates are nearly certain not to get drafted, and given that only 256, not 300, players are actually drafted, in all likelihood the number of undergraduates who fail to get drafted in 2014 will be somewhere between 25 and 30.  In addition, once you get past the 4th round, the chances of a player making and sticking with an NFL team for more than a year or two fall sharply.  Given that 44 of the 102 undergraduates have 5th round or lower grades, it appears likely that somewhere between 40 and 50 of the undergraduates in the 2014 draft will find themselves in the precarious position of being a low round pick or UDFA, with the likelihood for most of a brief and dangerous career on special teams before washing out.

Now let's consider what the historical numbers we have regarding undergraduates entering the NFL draft since 2009 imply for the depth of the 2014 draft class, as well as the likelihood that future draft classes will be able to match that depth.

Consider the following chart.  It shows the number of undergraduates entering the draft each year since 2009, along with what those undergraduate numbers imply about the remaining seniors in each subsequent year.  Some explanation may be in order.

First we will assume that each class is roughly equal in talent before undergraduate defections.  That is obviously not precisely the case in real life, but it makes the discussion easier for purposes of comparing the draft classes of various years.

Next we note that if in a given year we expect 144 players to have a 4th round grade or better, then if we strip out x number of undergraduates from a given class, then the next year's class will be expected to have only (144 - x) players with a 4th round grade.  Thus the next year's class will have to have at least x number of undergraduates enter the draft just to get back to 144 players with a 4th round grade.  The same principles obviously apply for players with Top 300 grades. Taking a concrete example from the chart, in 2012 65 undergraduates entered the NFL draft.  Assuming a constant rate of 57% with a 4th round or better grade and 78.4%  with a Top 300 grade (to match the known percentages of the 2014 draft class), we derive that in 2012 approximately 37 undergraduates had a 4th round or better grade, and approximately 51 had a top 300 grade.  That means that, all other things being equal, the 2013 draft class lost 37 4th round or better players and 51 Top 300 players.  In order to just get back to 144 4th round or better players and 300 Top 300 grade players, the 2013 draft class would need to match the number of 2012 undergraduates. who would in effect replace the missing seniors taken by the 2012 undergraduates entering the draft.

A short explanatory note is in order here.  The designation of a 4th round or better grade, or a Top 300 grade in the chart is based on an idealized, constant value for such grades reflecting equal talent.  Thus any given class might have more or less than 144 4th round or better grades, and more or less than 300 Top 300 grades.  You'll note in the chart the statistical quirk that each class after 2009 has in fact been given credit for more than the average values of 144 4th round or better grades and 300 Top 300 grades.  How can that be?  It is an artifact of the steadily rising number of undergraduates entering the draft.  Each successive year has had more undergraduates than the last, resulting in each draft class effectively robbing Peter to pay Paul.  It's somewhat like you taking out a payday loan each payday.  Every payday you then have more than your actual paycheck to spend; however, eventually you will have to pay the price on the back end.  In fact, with the interest, each week you will have to borrow a little more just to hold steady in the amount you have to spend.

Now look closely at the chart.  You'll notice this exact same effect has been taking place in the draft.  The number of undergraduates being drafted has steadily risen, yet until 2014 the number of total prospects with 4th round or better grades and Top 300 grades has remained essentially constant at about 148 and 306, respectively.  All other things being equal, the draft classes have been essentially running in place depth-wise, even as the number of undergraduates drafted has steadily risen.

Year

Undergrads

4th Round

or better

grade

Remaining

Players 4th

Round or

better

grade

Total

in Draft

Class

4th Round

or

better

grade

Undergrads

Top 300

grade

Remaining

Players

Top 300

grade

Total

In

Draft

Class

with

Top

300

grade

.

2015

74**

86

160

103**

220

323

2014

58

102

160

80

243

323

2013

42*

107

149

57*

249

306

2012

37*

112

149

51*

256

307

2011

32*

114

146

44*

258

302

2010

30*

118

148

42*

264

306

2009

26*

36*

.

2003

31*

42*

Estimates based on a constant 57% with 4th round or better grades and 78.4% with Top 300 grades.

** Extrapolation of the number needed to match the 2014 Draft Class given the estimated remaining seniors with 4th round or better grades and Top 300 grades, respectively.

Now let's take a look at what this implies for 2014, and beyond.  Notice first that with the dramatic uptick in undergraduates entering the draft in 2014, for the first time in years the expected depth of the draft class has risen dramatically.  This is one of the root causes for the 2014 draft class being talked about as the deepest class in years.  In 2014, all other things being equal, we would expect to have a full 160 players with a 4th round grade or higher, or 16 more than an average draft class of 144.  We would also expect to have 323 players with a top 300 grade, or 23 more than an average draft class.  You can see here in stark numbers why the 2014 draft class is being raved about.  But remember, with each undergraduate entering the draft, we are robbing the next year's class of talent.  The huge influx in 2014 implies some very interesting things about 2015 and beyond.  The loss of 102 players from the 2015 class leaves that class bereft of talent.  In short, we can expect the remaining 2015 class to have only 86 players with a 4th round or better grade (not even enough to fill out 3 rounds, let alone 4), and only 220 players with a Top 300 grade.  Thus, in order for the 2015 draft class to match the 2014 draft class in depth, all other things being equal, the 2015 class will have to borrow a whopping 74 undergraduates from future years with a grade of 4th round or better, and 103 Top 300 players.  If we assume the percentages of such players in relation to the total number entering the draft do not change from 2014, then for 2015 to just match 2014 in depth, a huge class of 131 total undergraduates will have to enter the 2015 draft class.

What is the likelihood of this happening?  I would guess it is rather slim.  Why?  Because the decision to enter the draft is, at its core, a financial decision.  If you choose to enter the draft early, you forfeit a year or more of development which should lead to a better future draft slot.   In order to make this risk worthwhile, the prospective undergraduate should weigh the depth of the competition in any given year along with his chances of going high or low in the draft.  In 2014 it is likely, as previously discussed, that 25-30 undergraduates will end up going undrafted, and  40-50 will end up falling out of the first four rounds.  When this happens, we might expect a paradigm shift to occur, as advisers of undergraduates will have to take into account the risks that up to 50% or more of those entering the draft will end up being low picks or completely undrafted, an outcome most surely are not expecting and will not welcome.  In addition, in order for the 2015 draft class to match the 2014 class in depth, approximately 131 will need to come out early.  If that happens, we can expect as many as 65 of those to wind up being low draft picks or undrafted.  Given that each undergraduate is able to submit their credentials to the league and receive an unbiased view as to where they can expect to land in the draft, what is the likelihood 50, 60 or more underclassmen will be told in 2015 that they can expect bad news and yet they choose to come out regardless?  I think that likelihood is very small indeed.  It is likely to get even smaller when those underclassmen consider just how bereft of talent the 2016 class will be if so many enter the 2015 draft.  Under the circumstances, it would likely behoove many to choose to stay in school and take their chances with a much less competitive 2016 draft class.

Now consider what happens if the 2015 draft class only matches the 2014 record of 102 undergraduates.  In such a case, we would expect 58 of those to receive a 4th round or better grade, and 80 to be Top 300 players.  But remember, we have each year been robbing Peter in order to pay Paul, and running in place as a result.  The end product of this is that in 2015 the seniors will only have 86 players with a 4th round or better grade, and 220 players with a Top 300 grade.  Meaning that if 2015 just matches 2014 in undergraduates entering the draft, the 2015 draft class will have only 144 total players with a 4th round or better grade, and only 300 Top 300 players.  Although this would constitute exactly average depth over the long run, because we have been living in a world of ever increasing undergraduates, this would, all other things being equal, constitute the weakest draft class since at least 2010.

Taking this one step further, suppose the 2015 class, upon seeing how many 2014 undergraduates wind up in less than ideal situations, decide to return to school in numbers more closely reflecting pre-2014 drafts.  Let's assume, for the sake of argument, the 2015 draft class includes only 75 undergraduates, a number that would have been a record in any year prior to 2014.  In such a case, the 2015 draft class could be expected to have only 43 undergraduates with a 4th round or better grade, and 59 Top 300 players.  That would mean a class that would end up with only 129 players with a 4th round or better grade, 15 players short of the long term average of 144, and only 279 Top 300 players, 21 players short of the long term average.  Such a draft class would constitute one of historical weakness, approximately as much below average as the 2014 class is above average. It would also mean that only 30 or so players would find themselves in the position of being late round picks or undrafted, and even among those players, the opportunity to stick would be appreciably enhanced due to the weak competition provided by a historically weak draft class.  In short, every undergraduate entering the draft would have their futures enhanced fairly dramatically if the total number of undergraduates fell to just the second highest total ever.  This is the effect of finally paying Peter and Paul back for the years of ever growing loans from future draft classes.

Given the rather bleak prospects for a large portion of the 2014 undergraduates entering the draft, and the unsustainable trend of ever growing undergraduate classes entering the draft, it is a fairly safe bet that the 2015 draft class will not be as deep as the 2014 draft class.  It is also all but inevitable that draft classes for years to come will wind up gradually paying back the loans the recent draft classes have taken out against undergraduates.  In short, the only way to even maintain the depth of draft classes is to have ever growing numbers of undergraduates entering the draft.  Since this is obviously a numerical impossibility, at some point the numbers will level off and likely reverse to some extent.  Given how many undergraduates need to enter the 2015 draft class just to keep pace with the enormous depth of 2014, it is a pretty decent bet that 2015 will be the year the trends begin to reverse themselves.  If so, then, all other things being equal, we might expect that over the next several years, maybe even a decade or so, the draft classes will be in general sub par in depth, in effect paying the price for the last 5 or more years of better than average depth (based solely on the numbers entering the draft, without taking into account any individual talent evaluations).  In short, it is very much like the biblical 7 years of plenty followed by 7 years of famine.  We have been experiencing the years of plenty since at least 2009, the result of ever increasing undergraduate numbers.  We should be prepared for the eventual reckoning, which could very well begin in 2015.  In my next article I'll try to break down what this might imply as to the Jets' specific draft strategy in 2014.

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