The NFL pre-draft discussions are in full swing, with all 30 teams analyzing every conceivable personality trait, character flaw, and overall football potential of the candidates hoping to make the jump to the league this April. In no other sport do we see such incredible scrutiny of athletes as we do in football, where college players are routinely expected to play in all star games, participate in combines, do private workouts — and even submit to psychological testing that, in theory, predicts with a high degree of validity how well the player will do in the league.
So does all this excruciating analysis pay off in the end? The short answer to this question is probably not — yet teams continue to do more and more investigating each year. Granted, future draftees are not asked to juggle, ride a unicycle, or perform card tricks — yet — but it does seem as though these candidates are vetted harder today than ever before. The reason for this has little to do with gaining more predictive validity and everything to do with the psychological principles of group dynamics.
How Much Analysis is Enough?
It goes without saying that some analysis is necessary and helpful when deciding upon which players to draft, but most sport psychology experts will agree that this process can be completed in a mere fraction of the time that NFL GM’s spend today micro-analyzing every detail of the players they find interesting. Ironically, the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior, and NFL GM’s have at least 3 full years of tape on most draft candidates already — data that far outweighs how well a QB can throw a ball in an empty gym.
It’s even more interesting to think about all the potential errors that often occur interviewing players – another very inexact science. Similar to the problems using the Wonderlic test to predict future NFL on-field performance (the test has no evidence of strong predictive validity when used with football players), interviewing players over and over may eventually reveal something interesting, but even then the question becomes whether that data is useful in any meaningful way? In other words, if you learn after 13 interviews that the player has an unusual affinity for strawberry ice cream, does that provide any useful information about his mental toughness or how many interceptions he can grab in a season?
The reality is that over the years the NFL has experienced issues relating to group dynamics more than new advances in how to gauge and evaluate player potential. What I mean by this is it’s more a product of “follow the leader” being witnessed in the NFL today than anything else. If a couple teams are using a specific measurement, it’s likely a bunch more teams will follow suit. If the other 29 teams learn the Seattle Seahawks test how well future players can play poker, it’s likely the rest of the league will follow.
Group dynamics play a part in everyday life as we have all “followed the leader” at various points in our lives even without really thinking why. For example, if a bunch of your friends ran out and got flu shots this week, you might have followed them and taken the same course of action — not because of your critical analysis whether you needed a flu shot, but simply because it seemed like everyone else was doing it. NFL teams have more than enough data from the tape available from when players competed in college, and really only need a fraction of the current analysis they conduct in order to make responsible decisions (keep in mind no future decisions are ever guaranteed, regardless of the level of scrutiny used).
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