Roster Building with Seattle: Skill, luck, or something else….

So Seattle just stomped Denver in the Super Bowl.  Game sucked, commercials sucked, RHCP played air-guitar/bass.  At least Bruno Mars came through.  I didn’t really see anything particularly interesting to discuss from the actual game, other than to note that Pete Carroll made some very poor strategic decisions early on (the 4th down calls).  Of course, if he thought his team was much better than Denver’s (and it appears that was the case), then taking the points may actually have been the right call.  Remember, favorites want low variance.  Refer back to here.

I did, however, see something interesting when looking at Seattle’s roster composition.  Specifically, the great defense the team has put together is composed of players who were drafted with relatively low picks.  Here’s are the starters, plus Cliff Avril:

Screen Shot 2014-02-05 at 9.38.10 AM

Two 1st round picks, neither from the top 10, and one 2nd round pick.  What you’re seeing there is an incredibly efficient use of draft resources.  The vaunted secondary features two 5th round picks, a 6th round pick, and Earl Thomas.

If this isn’t surprising you, remember that elite players come mainly from the 1st round of the draft, and almost entirely from the first two rounds.  See this chart from the archives:

So…it looks like what the Seahawks managed to do (build a historically good defense with low-round picks) should be extremely difficult, if not impossible. Let’s take a look.

First, how good were the Seahawks this year?

I’m going to use a shortcut here, and rely on just points allowed adjusted for league average.  This measure isn’t perfect because it doesn’t account for the contributions from the offense and special teams, but it also relies on readily available data, and more importantly, doesn’t offer a lot of false positives.  Since 2000, here are the best teams by this measure, with Seattle added to the mix:

Screen Shot 2014-02-05 at 9.15.55 AM

The teams highlighted in yellow won the Super Bowl.  I should also note that this year’s Carolina Panthers just missed the list.  They allowed 35.6% fewer points than average.

Anyway, as you can see, Seattle was historically good this year at preventing points.  Now, how does their roster compare?  Well I looked at the starting rosters, according to Pro-Football-Reference.com, of the 5 teams ranked ahead of them (haven’t had time yet to look the rest).  Here’s what I found:

Screen Shot 2014-02-05 at 9.53.22 AM

Screen Shot 2014-02-05 at 9.53.47 AM

Most of those teams seem to line up with our expectations; the best defenses ever feature a lot of 1st round picks.  I realize that not all of these players were drafted by the teams they ultimately played for above.  That’s a secondary matter, though, and one we can explore separately.  For now, I’m just interested in where the talent originally came from. It’s not enough just to count up 1st rounders.  We want a complete comparison that accounts for the differences in the value of each pick.  To do this, I used the Draft Pick Value Chart.  This is the chart teams either use or used to use as a guideline for weighing trades.  Here are each of the previously mentioned teams, with the starters listed along with their Draft Pick Value.  I’ve summed each at the bottom.  Click to expand.

Screen Shot 2014-02-05 at 10.05.08 AM

Here is the condensed version:

Screen Shot 2014-02-05 at 10.08.44 AM

So yes, the Seahawks appear to have done something remarkable, though perhaps not as remarkable as I expected.  Additionally, nearly all of Seattle’s contributors on defense were, in fact, drafted by the Seahawks, eliminating the possibility that they simply waited for late-round talent to prove itself in the league and then signed it.

The upshot:

There are a few possibilities here:

– The Seahawks are simply better at drafting then everyone else.  If you read the work I did on Skill vs. Luck in the draft, you know that’s almost definitely NOT the case.

– The Seahawks got lucky, and managed to string together several unlikely outcomes (very good players in the late round).  This one’s possible, and perhaps the most likely scenario.

– The Seahawks coaching staff is very good at turning its players into valuable contributors.  Also possible, but the level of results tells me to be skeptical here.

– Something else is going on….

We’ll need to explore these options in more depth to get a good sense of what’s actually happening.  For now, just know that what the Seahawks did, as far as roster-building goes, was EXTREMELY unlikely.  If we can figure out HOW they did it, it will tell us a lot about the kinds of strategies the Eagles should employ (even if it turns out Seattle did just get really lucky).

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5 thoughts on “Roster Building with Seattle: Skill, luck, or something else….

  1. I think it is a combination of the last two.

    When you get so many quality starting CBs from the late round, the coaching staff is doing something right.

    The Seahawks did get lucky that they had a lot of their best players still on cheap late round rookie contracts so that they could get FAs like Avril and Bennett and there is a good chance they do not reach the Super Bowl with out those two.

  2. I think it’s the last two also. But as some like tommy lawlor have pointed out, coaches fresh from college may have a leg up on drafting for a few years. It may be worth it to do some sort of analysis on this point because it’s so relevant to the eagles.

  3. Oh and one more thing worth considering: some gm/player combos may work exceptionally well together. This could get lost with a top level data analysis to the extent that organizational arrangements are fluid. But I’m pretty confident that strong organizations are more likely to get the most out of their players. They similarly may be able to run a draft better under certain circumstances.

  4. It has to be liberal use of PEDs. The extreme physical dominance of low draft picks is only explained by use of performance enhancing drugs. Chris Clemmons was free agent fodder dropped off the Eagles, who the next 2 years became a physically dominant defensive end. You got to be blind not to see it.

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