Why Do Top Draft Picks So Often Fail?

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In professional sports, so much hinges upon finding draft picks with the greatest potential to lead the organization to victories in the coming years. Millions of dollars go into scouting and signing top draft picks, and this does not even include the endless hours of research, thought, and debate that go into making these choices. Team organizations consider their draft pick choices to be among the most important decisions that they make, and a huge amount of resources are invested into doing it right.

That’s why it’s always a little surprising, not to mention disheartening for the teams involved, to see hyped draft picks fizzle when they get to the professional level. Modern professional sports organizations have large scouting staffs full of experts whose job it is to get these things right, so why are they so often wrong?

In the National Football League, for example, it’s been estimated that that upwards of 20 percent of the draft picks chosen in the top ten are released or traded by their teams within the first few years of their careers. About one in 10 exit the game completely before their careers even have the chance to take off.

According to a recent study conducted at Arizona University, the inadequacy of NFL draft-pick scouting could simply be due to the fact that there is no single measure of future success when it comes to scouting a player.

The study concludes that NFL draft scouts may rely too heavily on the so-called “combine,” a set of physical and mental tests taken annually by the top 300 prospects in the game. The top draft picks are typically the players who perform best in these tests, even though, according to this study, there is little correlation between combine success and professional performance.

Think of it this way: Athletic performance is a little like the weather. We can make rough predictions based on current conditions and past performance, but in the end there are far too many factors to take into consideration, and the best we can do is guess. In other words, no matter how many metrics there are and how deep the analysis, there are always going to be factors of a player’s skills and talent that are going to go under the radar. This is never going to change, so we may have to settle for the fact that all draft picks are gambles.

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