NFL teams picking a receiver in the late first and second rounds have a difficult decision looming between a number of prospects.
- Rueben Randle from LSU, who is a big, physical deep threat, but reportedly dealt with QB issues at LSU. Their offensive coordinator was definitely terrible pre-2011.
- Alshon Jeffery from South Carolina, who has a ton of talent, but is risky due to alleged discipline issues.
- Stephen Hill from Georgia Tech, who might have the best measurables in the draft, but is far from NFL-ready due to playing in a triple option offense.
- Kendall Wright from Baylor, who might have overrated production due to playing in an explosive spread offense in college.
- Mohamed Sanu from Rutgers, facing lingering questions about his 40-yard dash speed.
Sanu vs. Randle is merely a question of style, as both dealt with similar issues with scheme and QB play during their careers. Does a team need a dependable possession receiver, or a long-striding deep threat to run down the sideline? In that sense, Randle going over Sanu is not objectionable.
The other three are more of a question of weighing risk. Do you go with the sure thing in Sanu - the player who is guaranteed not to bust, and will almost certainly be an average NFL starter for many years, or gamble on one of the more questionable players with a chance to be a star? This is a question of expected value - what is a ceiling for each particular option (X), and what is the percentage chance that the player will actually live up to that value (Y)?
If you think that Hill could have 1400 yards (with presumably, a lot of big plays) of receiving in 20% of scenarios, then the expected value of his ceiling is 280 yards. Likewise, if there is a 70% chance that Sanu has, say, 900 yards, then the expected value of his ceiling is 630 yards. There are not a ton of long touchdowns in there, but surely a high number of third down conversions to move chains and keep scoring drives alive, which football statisticians like to argue is an undervalued skill with respect to total yardage. Of course, the above is a very simplified version - the full calculation is a complicated average of a number of different possibilities, and weighing a ceiling vs. full career production is not simple. However, it is a useful barometer for how teams should think about the draft, but very often doesn't in practice.
One can certainly argue about what the actual values of the expected value functions for each of these players should be, and there definitely is an inherent bust factors involved. Case in point - several years back, Brian Robiskie was considered a "safe" WR pick. He has proceeded to accomplish jack squat in the NFL, although playing for the basket case known as the Cleveland Browns does not help. That is why, more than anything, what matters the most is that Mohamed lands in a good situation. Is Hines Ward still upset that he fell in the draft and ended up a Steeler? The counterexample to this of course is Anquan Boldin falling to the then-awful Cardinals and landing immediate playing time as a result. Maybe it's more of a question of not landing with a handful of leper franchises such as the Browns.
Stepping back from that tangent, it is clear that when there is not a convergence of talent and expected value (e.g., anywhere after the top few picks, where there is not all that much of a clear difference), teams don't really weigh expected value nearly as much as they should. If you're say, the Giants or the Ravens, fine, you can take a gamble on a potential star. Otherwise, what the heck are you trying to prove? This is basically the DeJuan Blair corollary - he was a great college basketball player, but fell because every NBA team thought he would break down over the long run. So what? He was still virtually guaranteed to be a productive player for his first few seasons. With the benefit of hindsight, franchises passed on Blair in favor of players who will never contribute meaningful minutes.
Let's be clear about one thing; this post is no a paean to weighing college production over physical attributes; not even in the slightest. The people who bemoan every year about how the NFL is ignoring system QB du jour (this year it's Kellen Moore) are both a broken record and likely to be profoundly wrong, as the NFL and college football have a multitude of genuine, very real distinctions. No, the idea is if the consensus of NFL scouts can come up with the equivalent of a range of production levels and probabilities for a particular prospect, the prospect's particular value in a draft should be a function of those numbers.
That is why gambling on say, Hill, over Sanu is a mistake for most teams, even if everything clicks, and Hill turns into the next Calvin Johnson. The team drafting him does not know that. Perhaps they projected different probabilities and ceilings for the players in question, which would be fine. If they have not though, and still willingly gamble on potential despite E.V. pointing otherwise, they are making a dangerous miscalculation which remains far too common, if not unavoidable, in sports. Cost-controlled young players are a valuable commodity, and even if Hill does turn into a star down the road, it probably is not going to be on his rookie contract. The bottom line? If you want a receiver in the late first to early third range this year, there really isn't any question about it. Mohamed Sanu will return more value over the life of his rookie contract than any of the other available options. There is no better bang for the buck available.