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Muddled draft projections could become the norm

By Jacob Feldman
April 11, 2018

The draft is two weeks away, and yet when it comes to the quarterback crop, we haven't seen a consensus favorite emerge, much less a consensus pecking order for the four quarterbacks expected to go in the first handful of picks. The last five times a QB has gone first overall (as is expected to be the case in 2018), we had a good sense by around this time. Even after the Rams traded up in 2016, we had Adam Schefter tweeting on April 14 that the team was leaning towards Goff. I'd be surprised if we get similar clarity from him or any insider in the coming days.

The seemingly obvious explanation for the murkiness is that this class is abnormally even. But even with crowded classes of the past, pundits have produced a consistent order, like in 2007, with JaMarcus Russell, Brady Quinn, Trent Edwards, and so on. For over a decade, NFL reporter Bob McGinn asked experts to rank the incoming QBs each year, and this week Bill Barnwell collected many of those rankings to prove how often evaluators are wrong. But another trend is evident in the data: The draftniks have been wrong together. Like in '07, when 15 considered Russell the top option, compared to three dissenters. Or in '13, when, faced with Geno Smith, E.J. Manuel, Mike Glennon, etc., a super-majority favored Smith.

If the pundit class voted on this year's bunch—Sam DarnoldJosh RosenJosh Allen, and Baker Mayfield—I think it's safe to say no clear favorite would emerge. That has something to do with the fact that these QBs present such different profiles. With a turnover-prone leader, a cerebral firebrand, a raw athlete, and an undersized stat-stuffer to choose between, the decision is largely about what a decision-maker values, fostering a more fundamental disagreement between the many viewpoints that now flood this debate. But let's focus on that diversity of opinion, because I think the cluster we're seeing this year has more to do with those putting together the mock drafts and big boards than it does with the names being slid around. Just flip back to Barnwell's list of McGinn's results for proof.

The 2015, 2016, and 2017 classes also saw historic levels of debate. In each case, the player with the most first-place votes only had one more than the second-place finisher. The closest previous race saw a difference of four first-place votes in 2014. Before that, going back to '05, the average difference between first and second was over 10 first-place votes. So, what's changed?

To start, this whole draft analysis industry has exploded (see story No. 2 below, for more). We now have stats guys arguing with tape guys arguing with ex-scouts arguing with rumor guys arguing with themselves. And many of those factions are represented inside franchises as well. As mentioned before, each set brings their own set of preferences and potential red flags, leading each group to identify their guy.

Faced with all that noise, it's become acceptable for the writers making predictions to be wrong most of the time, which further incentivizes them to come with something different. Because hey, if your mock is crap, at least make it interesting! Of course, different often ends up being wrong, but it provides further cover for others to go the same route—and demand for them to do so if they want your attention as well. For all the other positions where fans are less interested, we still see a consensus holding. But when it comes to quarterback projections, we've got a self-sustaining mess. Interview snippets, viral game clips, and simplified stats have the power to shift public opinion over and over again for months.

And that's exactly how the league wants it. For the bean-counters in New York, months of debate plus draft-day uncertainty helps sustain the NFL as a 12-month conversation piece. Meanwhile, obfuscation benefits the Browns and other teams at the top of the draft, strengthening their trade bargaining power and giving them a competitive advantage when they map out how they expect the draft to unfold. As the league grows and these decisions become even more important, secrecy and spycraft within these organizations will only grow apace.

Throw it all together. An eclectic group of passers. A media environment that welcomes an increasing number of viewpoints and thrives on difference. A league hoping for confusion. Only one thing is left clear: horse-race journalism is coming for the draft, and it's trampling everything.

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PRESS COVERAGE

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1. Richie Incognito announced his retirement in an interview with The Buffalo News, saying that a doctor recently told him, "The stress is killing you." A four-time Pro Bowler who played for the Rams, Bills, and Dolphins, Incognito is most known for his role in the Jonathan Martin bullying scandal.

2. Rick Maese profiled Daniel Jeremiah, who gave up climbing the NFL management ladder to join the "cottage industry" that is NFL draft analysis.

3. Building on its previous work, The New York Times published a story Tuesday in which cheerleaders claimed "​groping and sexual harassment are common" parts of what they endure at work. The women reported being told "I hope you get raped!" and being sent to dance in a fan's basement.

4. What's the most controversial thing Josh Rosen told ESPN? That he'd like to win more rings than Tom Brady? That he wants to be a champion for fighting global warming? You decide.

Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images

5. A couple Eric Reid notes: The safety visited the Bengals Monday and, reportedly, he rejected the possibility of returning to the 49ers on a one-year deal.

6. Charles Robinson laid out the issues NFL lawyers were expected to bring up in deposing Colin Kaepernick as part of the QB's collusion complaint Tuesday. Those topics include any salary demands he had in mind as a free agent, his health, his willingness to play outside the NFL, and so on.

7. Get up to speed on this year's draft prospects quickly with Danny Kelly's one-play guides.

8. As The Charlotte Observer reports, the number of names linked to a potential purchase of the Carolina Panthers seems to be growing, not shrinking, with six weeks to go before the league hopes to present a finalist at the May owners meetings.

9. Whether or not D.J. Moore turns out to be as good as fellow Maryland product Stefon Diggs, it seems NFL teams will be snapping him up much earlier than the fifth round. And for good reason.

10. Packers wideout Trevor Davis probably won't be making explosives-related jokes at an airline ticket counter again anytime soon.

Have a story you think we should include in tomorrow’s Press Coverage? Let us know here.


THE KICKER

It's a draft hat mock draft! Enjoy.

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