Unfortunately, things didn't always go according to plan, and we are probably most familiar with this word from Shakespeare's Hamlet, where he referred to the possibility of an individual being "hoisted with his own petard", or launched into the air by a bomb of one's own making, at least in a figurative sense. Sometimes things just don't go the way you expected them to, and the results can be a bit unpleasant.
With that sort of unexpected result in mind, I made a chart that we named PETARD. This was intended to show what the Ravens might expect from one of their draft picks, when it comes to the percentage of games started in their first four years in the NFL, depending on when the player was selected. While individual results will vary, based on numerous factors such as actual ability (though this probably matters less than you would hope), I just wanted to get a sense of what the average result for a player might be. With this, we can get some rough idea as to what the Ravens' management is expecting from a player, and how close a player came to meeting these expectations.
While many people may try to grade a team's draft class, based on their own subjective opinions, the degree to which we should pay attention to any of this jibber-jabber is highly debatable. Like many other people, I have my own views on these things, but there's no reason for anyone to take the opinion of a dilettante of NFL statistics, such as myself, too seriously. In the end, it is really just a question of whether the players appear to be meeting the team's expectations, which I want to examine.
So, what I decided to do is to calculate the total number of games we should expect a player to start in their first four years, and find the cumulative total for each draft class, and then see how close the entire class actually came to this projected average result. Whether the player is arguably any good, really doesn't matter to me. If the team wants to start a player, despite that player performing horrendously, is entirely up to them. Take Gino Gradkowski, for example. According to PETARD, Gradkowski would have been projected to start 17.5 games in his first 4 years, based on where he was drafted. So far, he has started 16 games, performing quite horribly according to most people's accounts. If the Ravens choose to continue giving him starts, that is up to them, though it seems unlikely that this will happen.
If, in a given year, PETARD projects that a draft class should generate a hypothetical 140 total starts over a four year span, we are simply seeing how close that class came to meeting this expectation. If a draft class accumulates the 140 projected games started, PETARD would give this a result of 100% efficiency. This wouldn't necessarily mean that a draft class was good, it merely means that a particular draft class fully reached the average expectations the team might have had for it. The total number of projected starts will obviously vary from year to year.
The number of draft picks that a team has in a given year, and how high those draft picks happen to be, really makes very little difference. A team could just as easily have one draft pick in the 7th round, and still be judged to be quite respectable in the eyes of PETARD. For example, if this solitary and imaginary late round prospect was chosen with the 238th pick, we would only expect this player to start 4.35% of all games within their first four years, or just 2.78 games in total. If this imaginary player started this insignificant number of games, PETARD would still view this draft class as having met expectations, and give it a grade of 100%. If a draft class produced more starts than expected, the grade could easily rise above the 100% mark.
Now, since the Ravens are frequently viewed as a team that does quite well in the draft, I wanted to see how they have done over the course of time in meeting what appear to be their own expectations. Since much of their reputation seems to stem from their notable successes from the late '90s to the mid 2000s, that was the period of time I chose to target for all of this. The chart below shows how PETARD would evaluate their performance from the years 1999-2011. The goals isn't to judge the Ravens, but instead, to let them judge themselves. Basically, this is sort of like sending the Ravens' management to a Montessori school. We can just sit back, and let the team hoist themselves on their own petard.
For the most part, you can just ignore the trendlines that are on the chart, as they are just there for a later discussion, which I may or may not end up pursuing.
Before we get much further into this, there is a minor adjustment I think we should make. When we initially came up with our calculations for PETARD, we excluded a small handful of kickers, punters and fullbacks, since the expectations are clearly quite different for people who play at these positions. In the above chart, you will see that the Ravens' result for the 2007 draft class is a rather insane 142%, which would suggest that they performed 42% above what we would consider to be the average expectation. Unfortunately, a lot of that is driven by the inclusion of fullback Le'Ron McClain, who was selected in the 4th round with the 137th overall pick, which is about as high as you would normally expect a fullback to ever be taken. Normally, we would only expect a player to start about 18.6% of all games in their first four years, if selected at that position, while McClain actually started 84.375% of all games.
Since the inclusion of such a strange player, at such an arguably peculiar position, produces rather disturbing results, I thought I would also include an alternative chart for this same time period, that excludes Le'Ron McClain from the equation. I think this might present a more sensible picture of the situation, but you can make up your own mind about this issue.
The Ravens have had their ups and downs, just like any team, but it does seem to be quite clear that from 1999 to 2007 they almost always managed to draft players who succeeded in meeting their expectations, at least in a cumulative sense. This doesn't mean that I fully endorse all of the decisions the team made during this period of time, but they certainly appear to have been at their best during this period. The only major blip on their radar was their horrific performance during the 2004 draft, where their selections produced practically nothing while under their rookie contracts. On the other hand, in 6 out of these 9 years their draft classes fully met expectations, and frequently exceed them by a rather good margin. The average result during this period would have been about 103.5%.
Sadly, once we start looking at the years after 2007, things seem to have hit a bump in the road. From that point forward, the team seems to have consistently fallen a bit short of the mark, with their best results only managing to measure up with what might have been viewed as a rather disappointing result in their better days, with an average outcome of around 84.8%, during the 2008-2011 period.
Technically, I really shouldn't be including the 2011 draft class in any of this, as they haven't completed their fourth year yet. Still, it's fairly simple after three years to project things forward a bit, and see that they too will probably fall a bit short of expectations. While their result for now is projected to be about 90%, I actually suspect it might end up being perhaps 1-2% higher. A lot of this projected grade hinges on Jimmy Smith and Torrey Smith starting 32 combined games in the upcoming 2014 season, and injuries can obviously have a huge impact on this. According to PETARD, the 8 players that the Ravens selected in 2011 were projected to generate 127.6 cumulative games started. So far, after their first 3 years in the league, they have produced 83 games started. With just one year remaining, that leaves them 44.6 games below expectation. Now, if Jimmy Smith and Torrey Smith both start all 16 games this season, that reduces the 2011 draft class' debt to 12.6 games that would still need to be picked up, or 2.1 games started per player, for the six other prospects that were taken in 2011.
That would seem like a fairly easy goal to achieve, but it probably isn't. Tandon Doss and Anthony Allen aren't even on the team anymore, and seem unlikely to start for their current teams (which Ozzie would still get credit for). Tyrod Taylor, as a backup quarterback, also would appear unlikely to see any action. This increases the debt that each of the 3 remaining players would have to make up for from 2.1 games started/player, to 4.2 games started/player. Considering that this debt falls on the shoulders of Jah Reid, Chykie Brown and Pernell McPhee, I think it is safe to say that the goal will most likely not be reached.
When we consider the 2012 draft class, things don't seem to improve very much. So far, the bulk of the heavy lifting being done by the 2012 class is coming from Courtney Upshaw and Kelechi Osemele. While Upshaw has started 68.75% of his games so far, his shortcomings seem to have been a likely factor in the team's decision to sign the veteran pass rusher Elvis Dumervil to split snaps with him. It's not exactly a ringing endorsement of your top pick when a team is making those sorts of moves after a player has been in the league for just one year. Still, it's way too early to assign a grade to this class. Nonetheless, I have some concerns about this group.
I realize that some people won't like the idea of judging a draft class based on how many "starts" it produces relative to a weird idea of "expectation". All I can really say is that I prefer to keep things fairly simple. At some point, a team has to find/produce starting caliber players, or else they are likely to run into problems down the road. There's plenty of room to debate certain aspects of this. Sometimes a player manages to emerge a bit later in their career, even if they weren't a starter in their first few seasons. The problem with that is a player's long term contributions probably shouldn't be a deciding factor in evaluating a draft pick. One of the primary values of a draft pick is the relative affordability of their rookie contracts. The draft isn't really about acquiring talent. It is about acquiring cheap talent. If they're not getting on the field fairly early, a team really isn't getting much value out of their investment. It also means that the team will have to compensate for this by signing/starting veteran players, who are more likely to be expensive, while also limiting their ability to evaluate whether the youngsters have anything to offer.
People might also point to the Ravens' fairly successful run during the past 5 seasons, where they have frequently managed to make it to the playoffs. Of course we could argue that a lot of the foundation of those successful teams was probably built during the drafts of the late '90s and early 2000s, with selection like Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Jonathan Ogden, Marshal Yanda, Haloti Ngata, Terrell Suggs, etc. As these players get older and retire (which some have already done), does it appear that the team has really found replacements of a similar caliber? Or, will the team start to decline, as the draftees of the past 7 years are forced to become the new faces of the franchise? I may end up posting something a bit later that relates to this, but much like the popular opinion you hear on this subject, I do think it generally takes about 3-4 years for the full effects of a draft to be felt, whether they are positive or negative. If the Ravens are going to go into a decline, I wouldn't be surprised if the consequences of recent drafts only start to show up right about now. Perhaps this is already occurring based on their relatively poor performance in 2013.
There is one other factor in all of this that I can't dismiss. There is always the possibility, no matter how unlikely I personally find it to be, that a team can simply shift its philosophy towards giving playing time to young players, which could affect their PETARD results. So, what happened in 2008, that might explain the team's apparent decline in draft efficiency? The obvious answer might be the hiring of John Harbaugh, who happened to arrive in 2008, right when PETARD seems to suggest things really went downhill. Whether Harbaugh is hesitant to start young players, or whether the young players have failed to meet his expectations, is a difficult question to answer. Either way, the result is the same. It all ends up amounting to a reduction in the value coming out of the team's draft picks.
While none of this can truly say how the Ravens have performed in comparison to other teams, I do think it points to the possibility that whatever magic or luck guided the team in the past may have begun to fizzle. Perhaps, much like the way that fans refer to Ozzie Newsome as The Wizard of Oz, he is really just a mere mortal hiding behind a curtain, madly pulling levers in a desperate attempt to keep the citizens of the Emerald City content. If I only I had a brain, I might be able to answer these questions a bit better, but for now, I remain pessimistic about the team's immediate future.