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Labriola on the greatest draft class of all

Posted Apr 21, 2017

Only the use of analytics and metrics can make this more difficult than it needs to be.

Ready or not, here it comes:

* The question is not a tough one, but leave it to the metrics geeks to make the question more complicated and the answer more convoluted than it needs to be.

* The question: Which is the best draft class in NFL history?

* The answer: The Steelers’ Class of 1974.

* And if anyone ever needed any additional clarification/evidence, the simplicity of the argument was rather undeniable. The Steelers’ 1974 draft yielded four Hall of Fame players, all of whom were integral to the team winning four Super Bowls over a six-season span that started in 1974. No other team in the history of the NFL Draft, a process that began in 1936, ever had picked more than two Hall of Fame players in any single draft class.

* Seems simple enough, but not to the metrics crowd. Recently, ESPN.com featured a story jointly authored by Brian Burke, the founder of the website AdvancedFootballAnalytics, and Doug Clawson. This was their lede paragraph: “The path to franchise success in the NFL has always been the draft, and picking great players remains essential to building a winner. So we were curious: Which draft provided each NFL team with its best haul of talent?”

* Straightforward enough, but then this was the next sentence: “To find each team's best draft class ever, first we had to define ‘best.’”

* Things went downhill after that. Citing Pro Football Reference’s Approximate Value (AV) metric, which they described as “a composite measure of a player's value to his team, based roughly on game appearances, game starts and awards such as Pro Bowl and All-Pro selections,” Burke and Clawson took that and also incorporated “meaningful individual stats to also help determine a player's AV, and the metric is boosted for players who are members of winning teams.”

* You might think that “meaningful individual stats” would somehow incorporate number of Hall of Fame busts per class, but hey, those probably fall under the category of Elementary Football Analytics, not Advanced Football Analytics. Not to be cynical.

* So anyway, the conclusion reached by Burke and Clawson is that the best draft class of the “common draft era,” which is defined as 1967-present, was the Dallas Cowboys’ Class of 1975. That class was afforded an Approximate Value score of 551.

* “The Cowboys' class of 1975 proved the most productive draft class of any team in the common draft era,” wrote Burke and Clawson. “The group was known as ‘The Dirty Dozen,’ because 11 picks and one undrafted player made the final roster, headlined by Hall of Fame defensive tackle Randy White, the second overall pick in 1975. Five members of the class became Pro Bowlers: White, linebackers Thomas ‘Hollywood’ Henderson and Bob Breunig, tackle Pat Donovan, and guard Herbert Scott. And five started the Cowboys’ Super Bowl XII win over the Denver Broncos following the 1977 season.”

* Comparing the Steelers’ 1974 class to Dallas’ in 1975: there were four Hall of Fame players – Lynn Swann, Jack Lambert, John Stallworth, and Mike Webster – plus three other draft picks who made the roster: cornerback Jim Allen (No. 4b), guard Rick Druschel (No. 6b), and tackle Charles Davis (No. 9b). And since the Cowboys are getting credit for the ONE undrafted player who made their roster in 1975, the Steelers had TWO undrafted players make their roster in 1974 – Donnie Shell and Randy Grossman.

* Maybe to analytics people, getting voted to the Pro Bowl is significant, but to football people, being named first-team All-Pro means a heckuva lot more. Swann, Lambert, Stallworth, Webster, and Shell all were voted first-team All-Pro at least once. Swann was a Super Bowl MVP.

* And just sticking with what Burke and Clawson determined were significant categories in which Dallas’ 1975 draft class distinguished itself: Swann, Stallworth, and Lambert started for the Steelers in their Super Bowl X win OVER THE COWBOYS; and Swann, Stallworth, Lambert, Webster, and Shell started for the Steelers in their Super Bowl XIII win OVER THE COWBOYS, who conceivably should’ve been much better after reeling in the best draft class of all time just three years earlier.

* Also, Burke and Clawson determined that the Steelers’ 1974 draft was not even the best in franchise history, that honor being bestowed on the team’s Class of 1971. That group included Frank Lewis, Jack Ham, Gerry Mullins, Dwight White, Larry Brown, Craig Hanneman, Ernie Holmes, Mike Wagner, and Al Young.

* Lewis eventually was traded to make way for Swann and Stallworth, Hanneman is best known as the defensive lineman who lost contain on Oakland quarterback Ken Stabler on his touchdown run that set up the Immaculate Reception, and Young was a promising receiver whose career was cut short by an abnormal heartbeat. Ham, White, Holmes, Brown, Mullins, and Wagner all were starters on Super Bowl championship teams, but Ham was the only one of the group to be voted All-Pro, and he is the only one with a bust in Canton.

* This comparison isn’t meant to denigrate the players who came to the Steelers through the 1971 draft, but it instead should highlight the greatness of the Class of 1974. Being voted first-team All-Pro, being enshrined in the Hall of Fame are significant honors that come only after significant achievements.

* But hey, the analytics geeks have their own ideas of what is significant, and the most appalling thing about the rankings listed by Burke and Clawson is not that they listed the Cowboys Class of 1975 as No. 1, or the fact they listed the Steelers’ 1971 group ahead of the Class of 1974, but it was when they made the case that the Steelers’ Class of 1974 was tied with New Orleans’ Class of 1981 as the No. 3 draft class during the NFL’s modern era.

* “This (Saints) class featured the No. 1 overall pick, Heisman Trophy-winning RB George Rogers, who ran for 1,674 yards as a rookie, Hall of Fame linebacker Rickey Jackson and other key contributors such as Pro Bowl tight end Hoby Brenner (third round) and defensive tackle Jim Wilks (12th round),” wrote Burke and Clawson. “The Saints' 1981 selectees might be the best draft class to never see postseason success. Though Jackson, Brenner and Wilks were among those who lasted long enough in New Orleans to see the Saints' string of playoff appearances from 1990 through 1992, the team never made it out of the wild-card round.”

* Hoby Brenner and Jim Wilks? Really? Only in the world of AdvancedFootballAnalytics and Approximate Value (AV) metrics, apparently.

* Remember this the next time some fool at a press conference starts with the questions about advanced metrics and analytics, because if you start listening to those people you end up believing Hoby Brenner and Jim Wilks and George Rogers are better than Lynn Swann and John Stallworth and Mike Webster.

* In fact, Hoby Brenner and Jim Wilks and George Rogers combined couldn’t carry Donnie Shell’s jockstrap.

* Whether you love Thursday night football games or hate them, whether you believe the product is inferior or the same caliber, whether you perceive the exercise as a blatant disregard for player safety or just part of what comes along with the salary, it’s not going anywhere. Thursday night football will continue, and here’s why:

* According to a recent story in The New York Times, the NFL has reached an agreement with Amazon “to allow Amazon Prime customers to stream 10 Thursday Night Football games in the (2017) season … Amazon agreed to pay $50 million for the streaming rights to the NFL games … The amount was about five times the roughly $10 million Twitter agreed to pay the NFL last year for streaming rights to Thursday Night Football.”

* Five times more money than last year. There is no way the league or the players step away from that kind of cash, that kind of increase in cash flow. No way. Get used to Thursday Night Football, boys and girls, because at those numbers and at that rate of increase it is here to stay.

* And that’s not all. As another part of the arrangement, according to SportsBusiness Daily, the deal between Amazon and the NFL includes “as much as $30 million” in “marketing and promotion.” Specifically, Amazon will promote the NFL across its various platforms as part of the contract, which only can help millennials consume NFL games, which theoretically could impact the decline in ratings the league experienced in 2016.

* A wise man once told me that whenever the question is why, the answer is money.

* Not even analytics geeks could dispute that. Then again, they probably would.