The Most Important Component of Any Drafting
It was two days before the 2003 draft for my league, and I had just
assured myself of what I considered to be the perfect position in
my draft. I don't do a very good impression of C. Montgomery Burns,
but after I hung up the phone, I indulged myself, tapping my fingertips
together while snarling breathlessly, "Excellent. Everything
is falling into place."
For reasons that cannot possibly be of interest to anyone outside
my own fantasy league, it appeared that Jamal Lewis was going
to be available as late as the 4th pick of the second round. I
knew in advance when Randy Moss, Marvin Harrison, Terrell Owens,
Daunte Culpepper, and Peyton Manning would go. And that meant
that if the running backs were picked in the order one would expect,
I would be able to snag Shaun Alexander at 1.9 and Lewis at 2.4.
After swinging a trade for the set of draft slots that came with
the 9th overall pick, I went into my draft brimming with confidence,
thinking about the risks I would be able to take on my receivers
with a running tandem as productive as I expected Alexander and
Lewis to be. Even if I decided to take an early flier on perennial
headcase David Boston, I would be all right with that incredible
According to the scuttlebut, the three guys picking ahead of
me in round 2 all had Edgerrin James, Tiki Barber, and Corey Dillon
ranked ahead of Lewis. I didn't care how things would sort themselves
out with picks 2.1, 2.2. and 2.3 as long as Lewis was still available
Things played out pretty much as I expected through round 1;
I ended up with Alexander, just as I had hoped. Manning went at
2.1; James at 2.2. But then, in a surprise move, the guy picking
ahead of me at 2.3 nabbed Lewis. Barber and Dillon were both still
available, but I didn't want either one. I was leery of Barber
because I had too many concerns about the O-line in New York and
our league's stiff penalty for fumbles. And I certainly didn't
want Dillon, as I already had one feast-or-famine runner in Alexander.
But I had already outlined which receivers, backup RBs, and
QBs I expected to have available in rounds 3-10. And as things
played out, my projections were pretty much on target. I was able
to grab Matt Hassleback in the 8th (which was where I wanted him)
and Derrick Mason in the 4th. But Mason and Hassleback were small
consolation given that my backfield had fallen from stellar to
lackluster in one single pick.
So who did I take in round 2? I ended up taking Dillon even though
I really didn't want him--and we all know how that worked out.
I reasoned, at the time, that my whole draft strategy was contingent
upon getting 2 RBs in the first two rounds. I told myself that
I didn't want to throw my whole strategy out the window just because
I couldn't have Jamal Lewis, so I settled on Dillon because, as
I put it at the time, "at least he is a running back."
That wasn't very clear thinking. My whole strategy had not been
built simply on getting 2 RBs in the first 2 rounds; it had been
built on getting 2 very specific RBs: Alexander and Lewis. Once
that became impossible, I should have reacted with more flexibility
than I demonstrated.
When I had outlined the possible configurations of my team before
the draft, I had done so with Alexander and Lewis in pen and everyone
else in pencil. With two such dependable RBs, I reasoned that
I could take some risks with my receivers. Although I wasn't sold
on Donald Driver, his performance in 2002 meant that he was sure
to go late in the 3rd or early in the 4th in my draft. I knew
that the most reliable receivers would be gone by the time I picked
at 3.9, but I figured I could afford to take a chance on a Driver
or a Boston with a backfield as solid as mine would be.
But when my backfield turned out not to be the one I expected,
I still went with Driver as if the switch from Lewis to Dillon
had no impact at all on the risk I could afford to take with my
Part of my reason for drafting the way that I did was simply
that I was in denial. The season was well underway before I accepted
the fact that I had not gotten the running back tandem I wanted.
But the main reason I drafted the way I did was because I had
put so many hours of thought into building a team around Alexander
and Lewis that I didn't want to "waste" that mental
energy by building a team around Alexander and Dillon.
In other words, I was lazy. I didn't react well to the fact
that things didn't go as planned primarily because I had already
done my mental work and didn't think I should have to do it again.
What is Value?
When we are inflexible in our thinking, it is usually because
we are succumbing to this kind of laziness. Psychologists and
economists are familiar with a series of fascinating studies about
the role that laziness plays in the ways that we, as humans, assign
value to things. You won't have to go very far in your draft in
2004 to see their findings at work in the thinking of your competitors
(or perhaps even in your own thinking).
For a long time, we thought that valuation worked like this:
A is more valuable than B, and B is more valuable than C, so A
is more valuable than C.
But some sneaky psychologists have demonstrated that in actual
practice, we don't consistently assign value according to this
traditional model. The experiment that proved this point was a
bit underhanded, but extremely convincing. Data collectors handed
out questionnaires to kids on college campuses, promising rewards
to those who took the time to fill out the questionnaires. The
questionnaires themselves were simply a prop; no one cared how
the students responded to the questions. They were interested
in which rewards the students would take. The first batch of students
who handed in their questionnaires were told that as compensation
for their participation, they could choose between a fancy pen
and a decorative keychain.* Overwhelmingly, the first batch of
students opted for the keychain.
It appeared that the keychain (A) was more valuable than the
But when the second batch of questionnaires were handed out,
the students who participated were given 3 choices. They could
have a fancy pen or a decorative red keychain or a decorative
All of a sudden, people started going for the pens.
It seems that people didn't want to have to choose between the
red keychain and the blue keychain. By opting for the pen, the
participants spared themselves the mental anxiety of having to
choose between the 2 keychains. Value, in other words, isn't
simply a function of what a thing can do for us; it is often a
function of how much thought we have to put into an acquisition.
When I was outlining my expectations for the 2003 draft, I saw
that no matter how things played out, a number of risky receivers
with great upside potential would be available to me at the end
of the 3rd. Did I really want to use my third round pick on a
risky wide-out with upside? No, not really. But I knew that settling
on that possibility would spare me the chore of having to think
through the whole range of choices that would be available to
Be Prepared To React
Although there are all sorts of circumstances in which it makes
perfect sense to adopt a Value-Based Draft model or to subscribe
to the Stud-RB Theory, the fact is that we cannot always predict
how a draft will go. A blind adherence to any theory or model
is probably a symptom of laziness--an unwillingness to adapt to
the fluctuating values of players based on the unique dynamic
of the particular drafting situation in which we find ourselves.
A steal isn't always as advantageous as we think. I may be able
to pick up a solid RB prospect in the 6th round even though I
expected him to go in the 4th, but if I already have 3 RBs that
will start ahead of him, then what value am I getting? Certainly
I am hurting other owners by depriving them of access to that
RB, but am I hurting my own team more? That question can only
be answered after careful thinking--thinking that cannot usually
be done ahead of time and that not everyone in your draft will
be willing to engage in.
There is something comforting in telling ourselves that we will
always draft running backs in the first two rounds or that we
will always take the player with greatest separation from other
players at a given position (whether we need any more players
at that position or not), but that comfort is nakedly related
to the fact that it lifts from us the burden of having to think
or react on the fly to the infinite variety of unpredictable variables
that crop up in a draft. My advice is to plan on building your
team around a particular marquee player only if you have the top
overall pick in your draft. Otherwise, be prepared to react. Depend
on nothing going according to plan; be ready to adapt.
*I don't really recall which objects were
used in the studies, but I don't think my faulty memory of the
particulars does anything to undermine the importance of the lesson
the studies teach us.