When a First Pick Isn’t the Best Pick

As it turns out, however, the draft does not play the Robin Hood role particularly well. Indeed, I have written a paper, recently revised, on this subject with Cade Massey, a professor at the Yale School of Management. We found that the teams choosing early in the draft generally don’t, in fact, get the players that provide the most value per dollar. Our paper is titled “The Loser’s Curse” because we discovered that the first pick in the draft is, on average, the least valuable in the entire first round.

That surprising result has implications not only for football, but also for any domain where organizations try to select talent, whether C.E.O.’s or their own “rookies” — newly minted graduates.

Our analysis pivots around the idea that while there is an active trading market for N.F.L. draft picks, the market places too high a value on picking early. A team that wants to select a player before its turn can offer another team a deal in order to “trade up.” Over time, teams have come to agree on the price of such trades by resorting to a table now universally known as the Chart, which assigns a value to each pick in the draft. Alas, the Chart has the “wrong” prices.

If the market for draft picks were “efficient,” meaning that the prices reflected intrinsic value, the resulting value for a team that trades up for a higher pick should be equal to the value of the picks it gives up. The price of moving up is steep: to move from the 11th pick to the 5th pick, for example, a team would have to forfeit its second-round pick as well. To be worth it, the player taken just six picks earlier would have to be a whole lot better — because both of the players given up could have become stars, too.

How confident should a team be that this early pick is better? Suppose we rank all the players at a given position — running back, linebacker, etc. — in the order they were picked in the draft, then compare any two in consecutive order on the list. What do you think is the chance that the player picked higher will turn out to be better — as judged, say, by number of games started in his first five years in the league?

If teams knew nothing, the answer would be 50 percent, as it would be for flipping a coin. If they had perfect knowledge, the answer would be 100 percent. Go ahead, make your guess.

The answer is 52 percent — an outcome that is barely better than that of a coin flip. This means that although the value of players declines throughout the draft, quality declines more slowly than compensation — players picked early are very highly paid. As a result, the first pick in the draft has often provided less value to his team, in performance per dollar, than the last pick in the first round (the one awarded to the Super Bowl winner). In other words, in the world of the N.F.L. draft, the rich get richer.

The owners and players should find common ground on this issue, because it makes absolutely no sense to be giving so much money to unproven rookies, many of whom turn out to be busts.

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Malcolm Gladwell on Hiring and mismatch problem in sports.

Malcolm Gladwell is the New York Times bestselling author of Blink:The Power of Thinking Without ThinkingThe Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big DifferenceOutliers:The Story of Success, and What the Dog Saw: And Other Adventures.