Source: Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Tools to Cut Through the Draft Hype One Week Before Draft Day – A Longitudinal Analysis of Mel Kiper’s Big Board


Around this time of year, draft buzz is at its peak.  Sports news sites like ESPN and ProFootballTalk are seething with “reports,” but for every true report there are three false ones so the average fan truly has little idea what their team’s leadership is thinking about draft-wise, even though most have very strong opinions about it.  Moreover, football fans have been inundated with mock drafts (on the behalf of Black & Teal, you’re welcome) from all across the sports web, and these mock drafts, along with prospect ranking scales like ESPN’s/Scout’s Inc’s Top 32, are the primary basis by which fans valuate prospects.  But as with all things that occur over time, the narratives of draft season has hugely affected prospect rankings in the webisphere.  A poor showing at the combine, a poor pro day, or an unfortunate interview response could disproportionately diminish the stock of any player, and a good day in shorts could have the opposite effect on some players.  But at the end of the day, the prevailing attitude is that nothing tells the story of a player better than his game tape – how he played against real competition with some context for what the circumstances were in that game (eg, a game in which an offensive line prospect gave up no sacks or hurries against a team that blitzed 90% of the time would look far more impressive than the same stats against a team who never blitzed and whose top pass rusher was out).  In this article, I’d like to follow the trail of the top prospects’ games by following Mel Kiper’s Big Board.  What should result is: a) the progress of a player throughout the season, with respect to pre-season and early season expectations.  b) how consistently a particular prospect was considered elite.   Let’s hit it.

Before we start for real, let’s talk methodology.  What I’ve done is picked nine of Mel Kiper’s Big Boards throughout the year.  The first was created right before the commencement of the college season.  The next six that were picked took place during the college season (approximately one per month), including a final one that was dated the week after the BCS title game.  Finally, three more were chosen to demarcate the pre-draft season: one that marked the beginning of pre-draft talk in January (wasn’t sure whether to include this one, but decided to just to take a step back away from all the bowl games), a post-combine Big Board, and post-pro day Big Board.  On these Big Boards, I tracked the top 10 players for each one, in addition to the Big Board position of other prospects we’d consider “elite” in this year’s draft if applicable.  Finally, I threw in some numbers and messed with some calculations and tada, a blog post!

“Matt Barkley, how do you feel about your precipitous fall from the top of Mel Kiper’s Big Board?” Source: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Mel Kiper put out the first Big Board for this year’s draft on August 29, 2012.  With no games having been played yet, these rankings are purely projection of the results of the previous season, weighed most heavily towards the end of the previous season.  As you might guess, Matt Barkley sits atop the Big Board, a player Kiper says would’ve been a “likely bet” to go #2 after Andrew Luck.  If those two went 1 and 2, would RG III have been in Black & Teal?  Isn’t that something to ponder… But back to the Big Board.  In August, the college preseason expectations were about as high for some prospects as they are now.  Chance Warmack and Star Lotulelei were sitting at #8 and #9 overall respectively.  You have to feel good about those guys – that based on the previous season, there were high hopes for them going into this season, and overall they must’ve met those expectations.

But there’s more to like than that, because Warmack and Lotulelei have maintained remarkable consistency over the year on the Big Board.  Lotulelei has been a fixture on the Big Board – he was the only player that has been on every Big Board I chose (and no, that was not rigged in any way, shape, or form), and once he got in the top 5 on the September Big Board, he only dropped out of it once, when he dropped to #8 overall at the end of February when the Combine revealed his previously undiagnosed heart condition.  Lotulelei has been cleared since then and worked out at his Pro Day.  He currently sits at #7 overall.  Chance Warmack was barely outshined by Lotulelei this year on the Big Board.  While Lotulelei sat comfortably in the top 10 on every Big Board chosen, Warmack was right there with him… except for in one.  In the latest Big Board, Warmack has slipped to… wait for it… #11 overall, breaking a remarkable feat of consistency that only Lotulelei could surpass.  There’s mad love for Warmack on this site, and seemingly rightfully so.

Other top prospects in the August Big Board have slipped a little since their original Big Board appearance but have maintained their place in the rankings overall.  Jarvis Jones started the Big Board at #2 and was a fixture atop it for the next 7 Big Boards I used.  That’s right, he performed the same feat Chance Warmack did – make the Big Board Top 10 eight out of nine times, but in the process, he was #1 on the Big Board seven of those times after starting on the Big Board at #2!  Also like Warmack, he slipped up in the latest Big Board, as even Kiper’s undeniable man-crush on Jones couldn’t outweigh the medical concerns and poor Pro Day that have plagued Jones’s draft stock.  Barkevious Mingo, believe it or not, has been the most stable fixture at DE on Kiper’s Big Board.  The pre-season expectations for Mingo were high, as Mingo started the first Big Board at the #3 overall spot.  However, since then he’s settled in between #6-#8 overall, and only dropping out of the top 10… to #11 overall once at the end of January.  Mingo’s status on the Big Board was likely boosted early on by his pre-season projections and later on, by his Combine performance. Even still, seeing consistency from a player too often labeled as inconsistent on the field can only be a positive thing.

You may be wondering where all the top prospects on the original Big Board were.  Moreover, you may be wondering about the top players at certain positions the Jaguars will highly be considering at #2 overall – guys like Luke Joeckel, Eric Fisher, Dion Jordan, Geno Smith, Sharrif Floyd, Dee Milliner, Ezekiel Ansah.  The answer, surprisingly, is nowhere to be found.  Besides Joeckel, who sat at #12 overall on the original Big Board, none of the aforementioned prospects were anywhere on the original Big Board, which functions as Mel Kiper’s ranking of the top 25 players in college football.    In fact, besides Joeckel, not one  of those players makes the top 10 of Mel Kiper’s  Big Board until Dee Milliner gets to #10 overall in the Big Board following the BCS title game.  In addition, of these players, only Milliner (#6) and Eric Fisher (#9) actually make the Big Board top 10 before the Combine is held.  For the rest of these players, how much of their rise is based on game tape evaluation versus working out in shorts and a t-shirt? Makes you wonder doesn’t it…

Dee “Dark horse” Milliner looking to make move on up to #2 overall. Source: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

But the news shouldn’t be completely concerning.  Over the course of the year, some players did make a progressive rise on the Big Board, with Milliner and Fisher highlighting that group.   Milliner made his first appearance on the second Big Board (September) I tracked, at #15 overall.  Once he got on, Milliner wouldn’t let himself be taken off, as he remained a fixture in the top 15 until January, when the BCS title game vaulted him into the top 10 (#10).  Since then, Luke Joeckel, Star Lotulelei, Chance Warmack, and Milliner are the only players to maintain a top 10 position on the Big Board since the college season, and furthermore, has been the only one of those players to maintain his place or move up on the Big Board every month since then.  Despite all the talk of Milliner being a lesser prospect than the top 10 cornerbacks taken in previous drafts, he’s been consistently moving up the Big Board all year – he currently sits at #4 overall.

Eric Fisher got an even later start on the Big Board, but once he got on, he never dropped a single spot.  As impressive as Milliner’s run up the Big Board was, no one has had as impressive of a rise as Fisher.  He didn’t  make his way onto the Big Board until November (#21 overall), but has steadily and consistently risen from there to his current place, #2 overall.  Most of us didn’t hear about Fisher until his impressive Senior Bowl week in late January, but during the course of the season, he impressed Kiper enough for Kiper to put him at #13 overall in his end-of-the-season Big Board before the Senior Bowl.  Score one for the head draftnik!

Sharrif Floyd, Dion Jordan, and Ezekial Ansah have all been late bloomers to the Big Board.  Although Floyd made his first appearance in the top 25 in September (#20), he didn’t actually stick until the December Big Board (#23).  Dion Jordan and Ezekiel Ansah both made their initial appearances on the January Big Board at the end of the college season but have skyrocketed up since.  How much of that was due to their incredible Combine workouts?  I can’t say for certain, but I can give you the numbers.  Jordan and Ansah were #19 and #24 overall respectively on the January 30th Big Board.  One month and combine later, Jordan and Ansah were sitting pretty at #4 and #12 overall.  As athletic as advertised. They now both sit in the top 10.

If you’re wondering about Geno Smith, he made the Big Board 3/9 times, no higher than #24 overall.  Although Matt Barkley and Geno Smith were the only quarterbacks on the Big Board for much of the year, it was actually NC State QB Mike Glennon that was the only player at his position in Kiper’s end-of-the-season Big Board (#21).  However, in the latest Big Board, Geno took over that honor once again at #24 overall.  Although most 2013 mock drafts have a quarterback going in the top 10, there seems to be an overwhelming opinion that no quarterback prospect in this year’s draft is actually deserving of that status.  Kiper seems to follow suit on that opinion (…or did he create it?), as he has Geno going #4 overall to the Eagles in his latest mock draft, despite ranking him #24 on his latest Big Board.

Aside from tracking the Big Board progress of the top prospects in this year’s draft, I also created a scoring system to quantify “elite status.”  I used the mildly arbitrary distinction of achieving Top 10 status on the Big Board as my criterion for “elite status,” and gave each top 10 player an increasing number of points in reverse order of their standing on the Big Board (ie the #1 overall player on any given Big Board would receive 10 points and the #10 overall player would receive 1 point).  Then I made calculations for total points, pre-combine points, and during the season points (which excludes pre-season and all off-season Big Boards) to give an idea of how the player was perceived during their entire time as a prospect, during the pre-season/offseason/post-season preceding the combine, and solely during the 2013 season.  Here are some highlights from the results:

  • Regardless of the calculation used, Jarvis Jones dominates these rankings, even though he’s sitting at #13 overall in the latest Big Board.  With scores 25% higher than the next closest prospect in every ranking, Jones had the best season of any player in this draft… or has become very close friends with Mel Kiper.
  • Star Lotulelei sits by himself at #2 overall in all calculations.  If not for the abnormal cardiac test at the Combine that’s seemingly a non-issue now, Lotulelei would likely be a top 3 lock in this draft.
  • Luke Joeckel looks like an elite prospect, but he’s not the only one left.  Joeckel rounds out the top 3,  but Barkevious Mingo falls only marginally behind him when you consider all three calculations.
  • A team that can motivate Damontre Moore has a chance to really find themselves a player.  Whether you look solely at the 2013 college season or you also include the time during the pre-season and post-season preceding the combine, Moore ranked third in overall Big Board score, ahead of Joeckel, Mingo, and every other prospect not named Star or Jarvis.  He’s a classic boom-or-bust prospect – not because of his production but because of his work ethic, desire, and “intangibles” (aka Tebow talents).
  • Jordan and Floyd sure haven’t been perceived as elite prospects for long, but here’s to hoping that their meteoric rise up the Big Board has been justified.  Likely, both of these players have been under strong consideration for the Jaguars at #2 overall, and it certainly wouldn’t be a surprise if we hear one of their names when the Jaguars pick at #2 next week.

The data compiled for this article is attached below (click to enlarge image).  Francis Griffin, we couldn’t have done this without ya!

 

 

 

 

– Zain Gowani

Tags: Dee Milliner Jacksonville Jaguars Jarvis Jones NFL Draft Star Lotulelei