I have a long running joke with my friends that my Charger fandom peaks in the offseason. For as long as many of us can remember, the Chargers have been an offseason sweetheart-selection of pundits; we've nearly secured a dynasty of our own in the months that don't matter. Almost every March, April, May, and through the summer months, it's been easy to bait ourselves into believing "This is OUR year!"... only for a reality check to be cashed within the first few weeks of the season.
As such, the draft has been a 3 day holiday I plan around, as I'm sure many of you do as well. It's the Superb Owl Week of the off-season warriors, and right now we are an anxious 7 sleeps away from all our draft research and offseason scouting coming to a head. Naturally, this created a need for a deep analytical dive into how the Chargers could capitalize on this draft!
Draft Success Under Telesco's Leadership
The Staley era has certainly brought changes... changes that inspire hope. This article does not aim to discredit the undeniable change-of-course our team has gone through in the last 15 months, but rather investigate the overall trends of the Telesco era and infer potential course-corrections. To do so, I would propose we agree to look at the data with objective eyes, and see how successful Telesco has been with his "calling card" of team-building - the draft.
There are many ways of measuring draft success for a team. Some would like to point strictly to accolades and records, while others might venture into individual team-building strategies and attempt to correlate how heavily a team prioritizes the draft against other tools such as free agency or trades.
I would like to focus this FanPost on the most frequently used trade model in the NFL, and what it says about our proficiency as a team in drafting talent during the Tom Telesco era. This chart was the first of it's kind, and it's called the Jimmy Johnson Chart.
It's rather ironic that it is called the Jimmy Johnson chart. A die-hard fan of the Cowboys might interject, and educate us that the model was actually labored over and created by Mike McCoy... that's former Cowboy's minority owner Mike McCoy, not a certain visor-clad gentlemen that was much more focused on how great his last practice was. Anyway, "Dallas" McCoy took it upon himself to study the draft trends of the previous four years, and attempted to create an algorithm that would reflect the tradable value of the picks relative to one another.
When studying these models, it's important to understand that McCoy was using a fairly small sample size - merely 4 years - and was not measuring the actual value obtained by pick selections measured by their performance. McCoy rather tasked himself with finding correlations in the value general managers were seemingly already assigning to the draft order as evidenced by trade habits.
From The Dallas Morning News, April 26th, 2021:
For two days, McCoy analyzed trades from the previous four years and assigned a point value to each pick. And The Chart was born.
A chart that has largely dictated values we assign to trades for decades was built on four years worth of draft-day trades, and not the actual output related to the players selected post-draft. If that doesn't reek of inefficacies, I don't know what does.
Nevertheless, to the day this model is held in high esteem. Let's look at some former Charger "trade-ups," and see how closely they followed this model. The picks are displayed by the draft capital the given team traded away in the transaction, not what they received.
Some trades are admittedly closer than others, but it appears fairly plausible that Tom is trading with the Jimmy Johnson (Mike McCoy!) model in-hand.
If you watch the GAC video, you'll notice the Melvin Gordon Draft Capital number was off (accidently added an extra pick's value to our DC). As you can see, it was much more balanced than I initially posted.
Correlating Performance to Draft Position
Truly evaluating draft performance is a tricky task, as it's nearly impossible to separate draft success from team success. For example - how much easier has it been for players drafted by the Patriots to succeed when they are led by Tom Brady on offense, and the brilliant mind of Bill Belichick on defense? An "industry-standard" method of analyzing data, though not perfect, has been Pro Football Reference's Approximate Value.
PFR's Approximate Value is a proprietary algorithm that evaluates player performance both in a given year, and weighed across their whole career. It is not an end-all-be-all, but for data gathering proposes, it serves analysts well in it's simplicity to use, and reliability in measurement when weighed across large data sets. The quote below is from PFR founder Doug Drinen, who came up with the early-workings of the formula and open-sourced the fine-tuning of it.
"AV is not meant to be a be-all end-all metric. Football stat lines just do not come close to capturing all the contributions of a player the way they do in baseball and basketball. If one player is a 16 and another is a 14, we can't be very confident that the 16AV player actually had a better season than the 14AV player. But I am pretty confident that the collection of all players with 16AV played better, as an entire group, than the collection of all players with 14AV."
To understand the effectiveness of the Jimmy Johnson Draft model, I gathered the AV's of 10 years of draft picks, and organized them by pick (2009-2018). The AV calculation thus represents your "Expected Approximate Value (EAV)" at each selection, backed by ten year's worth of data. I then divided each EAV by the corresponding Draft Capital (DC) associated with the pick, which gave us a calculation for your Return on Investment (ROI). I charted the ROI below.
There is variance between what round the picks in the 4th round and later fall into because of compensatory allotment differences, so labeling of the rounds is not included.
The results of the data were pretty staggering:
Note, after round 1, as draft capital values decrease much more gradually and one or two "outliers" in performance can spike the AV at any particular pick, I measured a given pick's Average AV as an average of the 5 picks around it (two before, two after, and the pick itself). This effectively "smoothed out" the graph, but displays the same information and correlation.
By basing the Vertical Axis on a calculation of Career Approximate Value against the JJ-Model Draft Capital, I'm essentially measuring the expected Return On Investment (ROI) for any given pick.
A "flat" horizontal line would essentially mean a stagnant relationship between the draft capital spent on a selection weighed against their career approximate value, or ROI. Instead, we see a very clear correlation depicting the ROI dramatically increasing as we move through the draft.
Although the growth takes off exponentially after pick 211 and rounds 1-3 might appear more stagnant, here is what the first 96 picks look like if we focus in on them:
In this data set, pick 32 is considered worth 590 JJ-Draft Model points, but over ten years averaged an Career AV of 31.90. Pick 1, valued at 3000 points on the JJ Draft-Model, brought in averaged a production level of 66.6 Career AV points. That placed Pick 1's ROI at .022... compared to Pick 32's ROI of .054. Pick 32's ROI was 244% greater than Pick 1's.
Put another way... Pick 1's JJ chart value is actually worth considerably more than Pick 29, 30,21, and 32 combined (3000 points compared to only 2450 points). But let's say you somehow leveraged a trade for Pick 1 for all four of those selections. Pick 1 has average a Career AV of 66.6 points in our data set, and Picks 29-32 combine for Career AV points of 118, more than double that of Pick 1.
Using These Calculations To Grade Telesco Drafts
Apologies if the analytical deep dive bored you, but here is where it starts relating to the Chargers.
By using Pro Football Reference to pull out each individual team's draft classes from years 2014-2021 (2014 represents the first year Tom had a full year of management and scouting under his belt prior to drafting; I don't feel 2013 was fair to grade him against as he had just stepped into the role), I was able to calculate each picks AV, compare it against the Draft Capital associated with their selection, and weigh them against each other.
Fans often debate just how good of a talent evaluator Tom is, and the crux of the debates if often the amount of high draft picks Tom has had at this disposal, thus increasing his draft capital by no other means than fielding a subpar roster year after year.
By compiling comprehensive data on Tom's draft classes and comparing them against it's peers, the following observations can be noted:
- We have drafted with the 13th highest draft capital in the Tom Telesco era. This is largely due to lack of team success, as Tom rarely trades to acquire additional draft capital, and as I've written about previously we have not manipulated the compensatory formula to squeeze out additional value either.
- Despite the abundance of draft capital, we actually rank a measly 27th in total value accrued.
- When measuring our ROI (Approximate Value/Draft Capital), we rank 25th.
- Tom's perception as decent drafter or talent evaluator hinges on his middling Approximate Value/Pick ranking of 15. Draft Capital isn't factored into this figure at all, and he still is "middle of the road."
Weighing Tom's Previous Trade-Ups Against "EAV"
Now, if we use the values I calculated for EAV to give a baseline of what return we should have expected to receive from each of our trade-ups, here is what the data looks like:
As you can see, although the JJ values give the appearance of balanced trades, or even some where we gained additional capital over our trade partners, we absolutely hemorrhaged our expected returns on investment. In total, we lost 51.10 points of EAV from these trades... which, if you were to add to TT's "Total AV" in the chart where I ranked his success unless the rest of the NFL, which move him from 27th to 24th in the rankings. That might not seem significant, but it's one example of how bad processes and poor metrics for analyzing potential trades has routinely hurt this team's potential.
Let's take a look at how the picks actually performed by tracking who was drafted, and what their AV was.
By these metrics, it's fairly interesting that although EAV predicted the Melvin Gordon trade would be a flop, his actual AV or production did actually exceed his EAV enough to make the deal appear as a "win" for the Chargers, when strictly looking at the production each pick produced. However, if you look a little closer you'll notice Melvin Gordon's AV still didn't exceed the EAV of 49.3 that the chart predicted the two picks we traded away should have netted. Essentially, the Chargers made a pick that exceeded expectations, and the Niners made two picks that underperformed their expectations for where they were drafted; sometimes, bad processes do yield good results.
In total, we lost 93 points of actual AV by making these trades, which basically the output of Melvin Gordon, Austin Ekeler, and Drue Tranquill's careers' combined (a total of 95 AV points). Imagine if just by avoiding these trades, we gained production replicating those three careers stacked on the roster we had already built. That's very significant!
For fun, I plugged in the actual AV that was lost in these trades back into Tom Telesco's total AV, and his ranking of total AV earned shoots from 27th to 16th.
What If We Traded Down This Year?
Let's go ahead an imagine the Packers really do want to arm Rodgers with a stud WR from the draft, and use their extra draft capital to do so. They are interesting, because they already have (2) 1st rounders, and are definitely in "win now" mode, so an aggressive move to appease their stud QB makes sense. Here is a list of their current picks:
- (2) Firsts- 22nd, 28th
- (2) Seconds - 53rd, 59th
- (1) Third - 92nd
- (2) Fourths - 132nd, 140th
- (1) 5th - 171st
- (3) 7ths - 229th, 250th, 259th
Tom says, "GIVE ME YOUR DAY 2!"
Let's say Trader Tom comes out to play, and offers the Packers our 17th overall pick for 53, 59, 92, 132, and 140. That might sound crazy on paper, but the JJ Draft capital given up by the Chargers would be 950, and we would only get 888 points in capital back.
But if we measure this against EAV, what do the numbers tell us? Since we are outside of the first round with the Packers picks, I went ahead and used the Average EAV of the 5 picks surrounding each selection to protect against significant outliers skewing the data (so for pick 53, I averaged the EAVs of 51, 52, 53, 54, and 55).
The results are pretty staggering.
As the Packers would now be armed with three first round picks, and would still have a fifth and three sevenths (seven total picks), I could actually see them making a trade like this, and the Chargers would gain an extra 40 points of AV... essentially doubling their expect return of pick 17.
Tom Slides Back in the 1st
Many fans have been hoping the Chargers slide back in the first, grab a Kenyon Green or Zion Johnson if he were to fall, and recoup our missing 2nd rounder. So, what would that look like?
The Chargers would essentially have to slide to 28 to pick up the 2nd without having to give away too much extra draft capital. The deal that makes the most sense would be the Chargers sending the 17th and 195th in exchange for the Packers 28th and 59th. This would be a very minor overpay in draft capital for the Packers, which typical for the team trading up. Here is how it played out:
Interestingly enough, the Packers would be losing almost 2.5 AV points in making this deal, but overall the expected results would be surprisingly even. As such, would it really be worth it for the Chargers to miss out on picking "their guy" at 17? Giving up that 6th was the difference between a return in DC of 961.8 and 950, so it's very likely this pick would be necessary to balance the trade out. However, we are effectively losing a pick that traditionally has the highest ROI, and certainly has the highest ROI in this transaction.
I believe this data suggests we should go ahead and trade out of the first altogether.
Naturally, this is not the "end-all, be all" of trading an analyzing draft value. However, I do think it represents a model that would certainly trend us towards more successful results in the future.
Thanks for taking the time to read this bear! Let me know how you feel about looking at draft capital and trades through this model!
This content is also available in Podcast form, thanks to Tyler at Guilty as Charged!