Why Is It So Hard to Draft Great NFL Players?

And why does basketball scouting look so easy?
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Picking future stars is hard to do. In sports, as in entertainment, it's generally said of scouts that "nobody knows anything." That is, even with reams of research and hours of video, it's hard for teams to predict which draftee will turn out to be an extraordinary talent and who will turn out to be a bust.

But the NFL (which continues its draft today) does seem *particularly* bad predicting future stars. A new football draft study from the Worcester Polytechnic Institute found there has historically been more value among second-round picks than first-rounders. "The analysis of the past 13 seasons shows that second-rounders provide 70 percent of the production of first-round picks but at just 40 percent of the salary," ESPN reported.

To add some anecdotal color, when you look at today's best football players, their draft positions are utterly random. Look at the best quarterbacks. Peyton Manning was a first overall pick, while Aaron Rodgers was a late first-rounder, Drew Brees was the 32nd pick, and Tom Brady was famously a 6th rounder. Or consider the best running backs. Adrian Peterson was the top-rated in his class, but Arian Foster ranked 24th, and breakout star Alfred Morris wasn't drafted until the 6th round.

Your measured reaction might be: Of course, predicting the future of professional athletes is hard.

But why is it so much easier in basketball?

Look at the best players in the NBA today. They're practically all early 1st round picks. Tim Duncan went 1st. LeBron went 1st, obviously. He was followed by Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony, and Chris Bosh, all three super-stars. Kevin Durant was drafted 2nd and Russell Westbrook went 4th. Chris Paul went 4th, too. Basically *all* of the best basketball players were among the first four people drafted in their class. There are busts in basketball, of course (I've conspicuously failed to mention Darko). But they're so notable partly because they're so rare.

Are basketball scouts better than football scouts? Not likely. But it seems likely that basketball scouting is easier than football scouting. Why?

The most obvious answer is that there are fewer overall basketball players than football players, which means scouts are picking from a smaller pool, increasing the odds that the pool's star is drafted in the first round. The next most obvious answer is that there are more positions in football, and it's probably a more complicated game. But I wonder whether there are less obvious reasons, too. Are the skills that transfer from college success to pro success more easy to identify in basketball? Are there fewer variables to keep track of that successfully predict future success in the NBA? For example, in basketball, a 50 percent shooter has a can't-miss skill with no analog in football, where neither speed nor strength nor footwork alone has ever guaranteed lasting success.

This isn't a conclusion I've reached so much as a question I want to pose. Is it particularly difficult to predict the future success of NFL players -- and why?

Update: I really threw this together quickly, so I wanted to add another quick thought. My observation that the best NBA players were nearly all drafted in the first 4 picks should be placed in context: The first 4 picks in an NBA draft represent 6 percent of the drafted players. The first 6 percent of the NFL draft takes you through about the 14th overall pick.

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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