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Hey ESPN – Data Context Matters!

I recently read an article on ESPN that was talking about why quarterbacks in the NFL are difficult to assess. I think anyone who is a football fan knows the importance of the quarterback position. The passing yards seem to be increase every year, and we are seeing both passing records and touchdown records broken on a regular basis. None of this can be argued.

Where I have a problem is how ESPN used data. I’m going to copy an excerpt from the article:

From 1960 to 1979, 59 quarterbacks were taken in the first two rounds of the draft. That total spiked to 66 from 1980 to 1999, and since the year 2000, there have already been 53 selected in the first two rounds, with four or five more likely to go this year.

On the surface this seems like a legitimate data point. More quarterbacks being drafted early means it is a more important position. Using the same data ESPN used from Pro Football Reference, we can plot the QBs drafted by decade [figure 1]. In the graph we can clearly see that as of the 2000’s, more quarterbacks drafted than any time in NFL history. Furthermore, the trend for the current decade will likely have even more quarterbacks drafted.

Figure 1
Figure 1

But let’s look at the framing of the data: From 1960-1979 compared to 2000-2013. There is one big series of events in this timeframe (the last 50 years) that has affected the need for quarterbacks, and it’s not importance.

NFL Expansion

Since 1960 there have been ten more teams added to the NFL. Simple logic dictates that if you increase the amount of teams, you will have an increase in the number of quarterbacks as well. Let’s take a look at framing the number of quarterbacks drafted compared to the number of NFL teams in that given decade [figure 2]. In this example, we can plainly see the correlation between the number of teams in the NFL, and the number of quarterbacks drafted in the first two rounds of the draft.

Figure 2
Figure 2

A New Measure is Needed

Instead of just looking at the pure number of quarterbacks drafted, let’s look at a different metric. I propose looking at the percent of quarterbacks as compared to all players in the draft, or QB Draft %. By viewing the data in this manner, we will eliminate the number of teams in the NFL as a factor in the analysis. Looking at the QB Draft % by decade [figure 3], we can see that while the importance of QBs has risen in the last three decades, the ’60s appear to have had more emphasis on passers. Furthermore, if we apply a linear trend line [figure 4], we actually see a slight decrease in the QB Draft %. This contradicts the point ESPN made.

Figure 3
Figure 3
Figure 4
Figure 4

What Does The Future Hold?

While I don’t have data (yet) to prove it, I believe the next ten years are going to be a boon to quarterbacks coming out of college. With the new collective bargaining agreement in place that contains a rookie salary cap, teams can afford to take more risk in drafting a marginal QB in the early rounds. General Managers don’t have to fear making a Jamarcus Russell sized mistake guaranteeing $32 million, and instead can get by with an E.J. Manuel sized $10 million commitment. The success of Andrew Luck, Russell Wilson, and Cam Newton illustrates that teams can get wins without breaking the bank.

About Nathan Matuska

Nathan Matuska is Director of Product Development at the Carlson Rezidor Hotel Group and founder of Analytics Nerd. He has nearly 15 years of experience in Ecommerce Strategies, Data Analysis, and Digital Marketing. He has extensive experience in web analytics, previously working as the Manager of Client services for a web analytics start-up and has worked with other tools such as SiteCatalyst, Google Analytics and Webtrends.

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