Spielman takes analytical approach…to a point

Vikings general manager Rick Spielman's actions back the findings of an analytical study about draft success … until he sees a player he really covets.

Although he declined to give specifics, Vikings general manager Rick Spielman revealed last year that he has studied which positions are most valuable to winning NFL franchises.

Spielman has made no pretenses about getting a younger roster, and the effects of that are evident in the makeup of this year's roster – 24 rookies, 11 first-year players, 12 second-year players (meaning they were rookies last year) and 11 third-year players on a roster that currently counts 89 players deep.

But if Spielman's strategy seems to take a football approach to some of the concepts in the book and movie Moneyball, how the Oakland Athletics built a championship team on a budget, that's because there are some principles from those concepts being applied, whether intentional or not.

"Playing Moneyball in the NFL is about jettisoning expensive and under-producing veterans, rejecting the big-splash free agent, and stockpiling draft picks," Brian Burke, who delves into NFL statistics, wrote for the Washington Post in 2011.

Sound familiar?

Over the last two offseasons, the Vikings have parted ways – either through retirement, trading, releasing or allowing to leave via free agency – E.J. Henderson and Antoine Winfield on defense and Percy Harvin, Jim Kleinsasser, Visanthe Shiancoe, Michael Jenkins and Sage Rosenfels, among others, on offense.

Some of those moves were dictated by the players themselves – Kleinsasser sensed it was time to retire and Harvin essentially forced his way out of Minnesota, whether it was because of unhappiness with the offense, the quarterback or his contract.

But it isn't just in free agency that the Vikings are following an analytical approach. They have taken some concepts of analytical studies about the draft. Spielman loves to acquire additional picks, which is the general message of one draft study. That approach allowed the Vikings to still come away with nine picks in seven rounds this year despite trading away second-, third-, fourth- and seventh-round picks in order to jump back into the end of the first round to select Cordarrelle Patterson.

According to one study, the best value in the draft has historically come with picks made late in the first round or early in the second round and the Vikings ended up three picks late in the first round this year.

"A 2005 study of hundreds of players found that drafted players in their initial contracts outperform veterans signed for the same price. In other words, to get the same level of performance, a team would have to pay a veteran much more," Burke wrote. "This is an essential consideration under the rules of a hard salary cap. The most surplus value of drafted players comes at the bottom of the first round and top of the second round. The new collective bargaining agreement greatly enhanced the surplus value of drafted players by drastically cutting initial contract salaries."

It might be too early to tell the overall effect of the CBA on increasing the value of picks early in the first round now that their salaries have been slashed, but Spielman decided that Patterson was worth the aggressive move at the end of the first round. The Vikings already had drafted defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd at No. 23 and cornerback Xavier Rhodes at No. 25, but instead of waiting to see who would be available 23 picks later with the Vikings' No. 52 overall pick in the second round, Spielman got aggressive and traded up to No. 29.

That move bucked the message from the five-year study of draft picks executed by professor Case Massey and economist Richard Thaler. Acquiring extra picks and maximizing opportunities is the overriding message of their findings.

"There are two ways of generating those picks. First, you can trade away soon-to-be free agents to other teams in return for picks or allow restricted free agents to sign elsewhere in return for compensatory picks," Burke wrote, summarizing the Massey-Thaler study.

In general, Spielman has espoused the tactic of stockpiling picks rather than trading more to move up.

In 2009 and 2010, when Brad Childress still had a big hand in the decision-making and the Vikings so famously went "all in" with Brett Favre and a veteran-laden team, the Vikings had five and seven picks, respectively. In 2011, with Childress gone and a transition in the makeup of power at Winter Park but with Spielman gaining, the Vikings made nine picks. With full control in 2012, he made 10 selections and accumulated additional "currency" in the 2013 draft. There, despite making the bold risk-reward move for Patterson, he still came away with nine selections and an additional pick for 2014 because of the Percy Harvin trade.

According to a Massey-Thaler paper named "The Loser's Curse," although NFL decision-makers are going to have more knowledge than most about the prospects, they are still better off making more picks to increase their odds of success. According to Massey:

  • In an environment where chance is so predominant, the best thing you can do is maximize your opportunities – the number of picks. Over a five-year period (2004-08), the Tennessee Titans averaged four more picks per draft than the Washington Redskins (the Vikings were third-worst, averaging less than seven picks during the time period that largely preceded Spielman's time with the Vikings).

  • Minimize the cost of choosing, so don't give up too much in thinking you know more than others in evaluating talent.

  • Don't trust solely one opinion; trust the consensus.

  • Draft success and failure is largely luck when comparing one team to another, but some teams are better at accumulating picks and maximizing the opportunity for success.

    "Overconfidence and urgency run rife in personnel departments around the league, and smart teams can take advantage of this," Burke wrote. "There are always teams willing to overpay for a pick that they are so certain will immediately turn their team into a Super Bowl winner. A team can sell its first-round pick for a second-round pick this year, plus a first-round pick next year. In the next draft, that team will have an additional first-round pick that could be sold for another second-rounder, plus another future first rounder. Presuming there are enough buyers, a team could generate an additional second-round pick in perpetuity by foregoing its first-round pick in only one year."

    The Patterson move bucked that tenant, one that Spielman has followed in the past, so, in essence, he has made a point to accumulate extra picks but also shown with Patterson this year and Harrison Smith last year that he is aggressive to make a move in which he believes.

    His motto on about judging draft picks three years down the road applies to Spielman performance, but so far it appears he believe in accumulating the extra picks … until there is a player he really covets.


    Tim Yotter is the publisher of Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.

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