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Here’s Why Greg Little Wasn’t a Failed Draft Pick

joshgordon

Josh Gordon.

Or, more clearly, because the Browns weren’t deterred by their failure to get their #1 WR and they kept trying.  They didn’t do the “cat on a hot stove” or “fat pope/thin pope” move and decide that their failure in one instance meant that they should never try again. There’s a tendency of thought that exists that would go instead “well we tried getting a big receiver and look how that turned out, let’s try to find the next Wes Welker instead.”

And now the Browns have a true #1 WR. The Cardinals did a different version of the same thing when they drafted Michael Floyd. They already had a #1 WR in Larry Fitzgerald, but they didn’t let that stop them from trying to draft another one. Now they might have two 1a level receivers. The Chiefs did the same thing when they tried to add Jon Baldwin to Dwayne Bowe. They swung and missed. But there’s an important lesson in probability in all of these examples. If you’re trying to draft the next Andre Johnson/Terrell Owens/Calvin Johnson/etc. your hit rate isn’t going to be 100% even if you draft big receivers. But getting the next Andre Johnson is only possible if you draft big receivers. Your odds of getting the next Brandon Marshall, when you draft Tavon Austin or Ted Ginn, are essentially zero.

A probabilistic decision that a lot of people have a tough time with is hitting on 16 in blackjack, even if the dealer has a face card showing. Some people are so afraid to hit that they just stand and figure that at least they have no shot of busting that way. But the odds are to take the hit. You win more long term by doing it that way. The only way to think about it when you’re thinking about taking the hit is to say to yourself “I’m going to lose more by not taking the hit.” It’s the same thing with NFL receivers. Teams will lose more by not drafting big receivers (and they’ll lose some even when they do draft the big receivers).

The Steelers are often lauded for being able to pull productive receivers out of the 3rd round of the draft and I suppose they should get some praise for doing that. But their “success” at drafting small receivers in the 3rd round might actually do more harm than it does good. It’s also prevented them from getting a real #1 WR. Maybe you think that doesn’t matter because the Steelers have been a successful franchise in spite of not having a real #1. But I would argue that they’ve succeeded in spite of their receivers, not because of them. The table below shows PIT’s ranks in terms of offensive efficiency on two measures, Points Per Drive and Red Zone Touchdown Rate (how many drives that reached the red zone also resulted in a touchdown).

TM SEAS RZTD PPD PPDRANK RZRANK
PIT 2006 0.57 1.77 12 19
PIT 2007 0.68 2.13 6 8
PIT 2008 0.63 1.73 18 15
PIT 2009 0.58 1.90 12 23
PIT 2010 0.63 1.96 9 18
PIT 2011 0.58 1.84 13 23
PIT 2012 0.64 1.76 18 13
PIT 2013 0.57 1.85 18 27

The key number, their ranking on PPD has been 13th, 18th and 18th over the past three years. They’ll need to correct that in order to become a contender again and one of the remedies they’ll need is to get better in the red zone. Having a true #1 is probably part of that fix. There are probably other fixes as well, like rolling out a 2 TE offense in the red zone. In any case, they need to score more when they get in close and they haven’t been very good at that over the past 8 years or so. Also, the one year that they were pretty good at it, they won a Super Bowl. Some people look at the Steeler offense and see success. I look at it and see a long term relationship with scoring mediocrity. You might say “well you started this piece by using Josh Gordon as a positive example and yet I would rather have the Steeler offense than the Cleveland offense”. Maybe. The difference between the two is that the Cleveland offense is a quarterback away from being good (even though they have no RB) while the Steeler offense actually has to make a painful admission in order to be good. They have to admit that even though they have a good QB, and even though they have a WR that many consider to be top 10, and even though they have a promising rookie RB, they aren’t actually a good offense. So what would you change? When you start to look at things that could be changed, the assumptions that the Steeler offense are built on start to come tumbling down.

The funny thing about football is that this is all pretty intuitive. If I told you that a game existed that involved a lot of physical collisions, you would probably guess that bigger humans would be good at that game. And yet people immediately dismiss the importance of bigger players in the NFL. I don’t even see any signs of that exploitable issue going away.

Maybe another way that I could have illustrated the point of receiver size is to look at the Super Bowl. You had the NFL’s top offense featuring oversized receivers, going against the NFL’s top defense featuring d-backs meant to stop large receivers.

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