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How Not To Succeed at the NFL Draft (or Why Picking Rolando McClain at No. 8 Was a Terrible Decision)

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When the Oakland Raiders chose Alabama middle linebacker Rolando McClain with the eighth pick of the 2010 NFL Draft last Thursday, the entire football world was stunned by the decision. After years of enduring bewildering picks that lead to negligible on-field payoff, the Raider brain trust seemed to have made the right decision on draft day.

"Cup your ears and listen to the Hallelujah!" crowed the San Jose Mercury News. "It's coming from the Raider Nation."

McClain is now likely to pull in a multi-year contract somewhere in the ballpark of $40 million. So it's a win from his point of view.

Alabama has a plan to replace him in the lineup is likely to enjoy even more clout on the recruiting trail with the success of Crimson Tide players in the 2010 Draft. So its a win from our point of view. 

But it's really possible that the people happiest with this pick stand to lose the most - the Raider Nation. 

Now I'll be the first to admit that I was a bit queasy when I heard Al Davis' minons chose our beloved Rolando on the first day of the draft. But it's a massive paycheck and I'm sure if anyone can find a way to make it work in Oakland it's McClain. I've been really impressed with the way the fans have embraced the big guy.

This isn't a piece bashing the pick, the team or the fans. It's a look at how the selection is emblematic of the problems of the NFL Draft. 

First up is the underlying flaw in the NFL Draft methodology. Basically, due to the high cost of the top picks and the roughly 50% chance of a selection going kerplop - it's a loser's wager. The closed nature of the system diffuses any kind of leavening influence of market forces ensuring the inherent imbalances will do nothing but continue to expand for the foreseeable future. 

Earlier today, SB Nation's Andrew Sharp wrote a superb piece highlighting what makes some teams so successful in the draft and others... not so much. The key, he points out, isn't the value of the individual picks but the overall performance in draft. And the McClain pick shows how not to do it.

The Oakland Raiders selected Rolando McClain at number eight overall on Thursday night, and considering Oakland's draft history, it was actually a pretty solid choice. More than 24 hours and 50 selections later, New England drafted Brandon Spikes out of Florida. And... Well, what's the difference between McClain and Spikes? McClain graded out slightly better in the pre-draft testing and was considered a more enticing prospect, but last year, they were the two best players on the two best defenses in the best conference in America.

The question isn't which player is better than the other, rather the question is should a team pay one elite player $40 million or chose another with roughly the same skill set for $30 million or so less? Simple math, eh? Well, sure, but it's not that simple.

Last year, Mike Tanier of Football Outsiders penned a great article looking at what makes a draft pick successful and his assessment was the most important elements were those that occurred after draft day. Outside of a super-elite class of athletes "so gifted that the only force that can stop them is themselves" there is the realm of the really really good player good enough to play at the pro level.

The success of these guys is determined by the club itself in the process described under that vague title of "player development." Tanier listed a series of factors that must be met for that raw rookie to succeed in realizing the potential wrapped up in that massive signing bonus. They are as follows:

  • The workout and conditioning plan given to him by coaches in minicamp.
  • The role he is expected to play, and his suitability that role.
  • The skills and techniques he is taught in camp, and the reinforcement he receives in those skills.
  • The advice and support he gets from family, agent, and teammates in the first months of his career.
  • The quality and success of the players around him.
  • Truly unpredictable factors, like dumb luck or freak injuries.

Needless to say, recent history leads one to believe this is an area that the Oakland organization might not be a leader in the league.

So to be successful in the draft, a franchise has to master an arcane selection system to select the precise player needed to fit their particular needs and have a overreaching development system in place to bring the new talent along in such a way that maximizes their skills. 

So bad teams, make bad selections and do little to nothing in order to maximize those player's possible skills. This likely translates into inferior on-field performance, lamentable W/L records and an early slot in the draft which, due to the economic flaws of the system, means the whole terrible cycle will repeat itself again.

The big fear for every franchise is that their big money pick proves to be a bust. There is almost ZERO possibility this is going to happen with Rolando. Yet, by picking him at No. 8, the Raiders are asking him to be that once-in-a-generation player that has the raw skills and ability to lead a reeling organization out of this terrible malaise. That's not really very likely either.

In fact, that would be a bit like winning the lottery, wouldn't it? And the way the lottery stays in business is because tickets are $1 not $40 million.