Yesterday, the Wall Street Journal ran a piece on the Philadelphia Eagles’ draft strategy: take guys with college degrees. It notes that 6 of the 7 Eagles’ draft picks this year are on track to graduate this spring, and that this is a conscious decision from the organization. This comes at a time when record numbers of underclassmen are entering the league. The seeds for this idea were planted by Tony Dungy.
"Philadelphia’s philosophy of pursuing graduates was born when Roseman, the Eagles’ general manager since 2010, and Kelly, the team’s second-year coach, each discovered that teams with the most college graduates are overwhelmingly successful. Kelly learned this late in his coaching tenure at Oregon, when former Indianapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy, whose son played at Oregon, mentioned in a talk to Oregon players that in the 2000s, the two teams who happened to have loads of graduates were the Colts and New England Patriots. Those teams dominated the first decade of this century."
"“I didn’t know he’d take it this far,” Dungy said, jokingly."
It’s a wonderful thing to believe in, that those college guys who work the hardest and stay in school the longest do the best. The NCAA, where most athletes go pro in something other than sports, would no doubt approve. Sports intelligence and acumen–which can be correlated with overall intelligence but not perfectly–is a valuable trait. Not having to teach someone over and over and having athletes that can pick up plays and concepts quickly saves resources.
Is it true, though? I have my doubts that it is as strong as the article leads us to believe. The article notes that Seattle and Denver were two of the three teams who had the most five year college players drafted in the last five years (it is silent on the third). Yeah, okay, but in looking over the draft history, Seattle hasn’t been perfect by any means, and plenty of the bad picks have been older players, while Earl Thomas is the first round pick who was an early entrant. Demaryius Thomas, along with Von Miller, is probably the best first round pick for Denver (early entrant), and remember, they signed Peyton Manning. Manning would make your roster, regardless of college graduates or people that attended clown school, look good.
Chase Stuart ran a regression of age and draft position, and found that age is undervalued in the draft. Age is not a perfect proxy for “college degree” but most early entrants will be 21 or 22 upon entering the league, while fifth year players will tend to be 23 or older. Stuart found that, while accounting to draft position, the older the player, the less value on average is produced. The players who provided the most value relative to their expected draft position production were younger, as a group, than the rest of drafted players.
I took a look at two recent draft classes from a different perspective: whether the underclassmen provided value. For the 2008 and 2009 draft classes, I found all drafted players who were early entrants, and compared them to the five players drafted closest to them (by looking at the player drafted 1 spot in front, then 1 spot behind, then 2 spots in front, etc.). Just like age, early entry status is not perfectly correlated with whether one graduated from college, but it is related.
The results? The underclassmen provided more value, using the approximate value numbers at pro-football-reference.com. (The average was 20.9 for the underclassmen, and 17.1 for the comparably drafted non-early entrants). This result came despite Darren McFadden, Vernon Gholston, and Derrick Harvey being the first underclassmen drafted in 2008. The booms outside the first round were over-represented by underclassmen. Here is a summary of the average for each round:
Looking over the early entrants since 2010, I don’t think the results would be very different. Many of the breakout stars have been players who entered the league before their college eligibility expired. Of the 74 drafted underclassmen in 2008 and 2009, 42 were better than the average of the five players drafted near them, 28 were worse, and 4 were equal.
Maybe my comps were all the guys who used up their eligibility but did not graduate, I don’t know. Perhaps underclassmen who graduate early are insanely good and pulling those numbers up. I’m skeptical of the graduate findings, but need to see better data on who actually got a degree, rather than vague anecdotes and reports of “studies” without a name attached. I could see how, perhaps, players with college degrees could be good to round out a roster, as versatile role players who can adapt to multiple positions and provide depth. I am far less convinced that the stars and best players–like LeSean McCoy, one of the youngest entrants in the league and the Eagles most dynamic weapon–are over-represented by players who obtained their college degree before going professional in their occupation of choice.