Flipping Coins in the War Room: Skill and Chance in the NFL Draft

Research Paper will be posted in the coming weeks. Check back soon!
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Cade Massey


Abstract: People often judge owners and managers on their ability to pick players. Reputations have been made on the basis of one or two successful picks, and careers ruined by spectacularly unsuccessful ones. Consistent with this, teams spend millions of dollars and thousands of hours on draft preparation. This seems appropriate given how much impact drafted players can have on a team. But does that effort and investment make a difference? Is there any evidence of player‐picking skill?

We hypothesize that success in player selection is largely chance. Previous research has shown there is significant uncertainty in forecasting the NFL careers of college players, and that teams underestimate this uncertainty (Massey & Thaler, 2010). Indeed across many domains, people underestimate the role of chance in outcomes (Fischhoff, 1982). One consequence of this is “outcome bias”, a tendency to judge a decision by its eventual outcome rather than by inputs available at the time (Baron & Hershey, 1988). Because of these tendencies, management is overly praised when players succeed and overly criticized when they do not. Management errs as well, investing too much in the “skill” of picking players and too little on the “pick management” that the role of chance suggests.