WP: Rebuilding with Moneyball for Football

The Redskins need to restock the cupboard with talent. Here's how a team can build and sustain a winning roster.

Playing Moneyball in the NFL is about jettisoning expensive and under-producing veterans, rejecting the big-splash free agent, and stockpiling draft picks. There are two ways of generating those picks. First, you can trade away soon-to-be free agents to other teams in return for picks or allow restricted free agents to sign elsewhere in return for compensatory picks. For too long, the Redskins have been on the wrong end of those transactions.

The second way is to trade picks for more picks. Overconfidence and urgency run rife in personnel departments around the league, and smart teams can take advantage of this. There are always teams willing to overpay for a pick that they are so certain will immediately turn their team into a Super Bowl winner.  A team can sell its first-round pick for a second-round pick this year, plus a first-round pick next year.  In the next draft, that team will have an additional first-round pick that could be sold for another second-rounder, plus another future first rounder. Presuming there are enough buyers, a team could generate an additional second-round pick in perpetuity by foregoing its first-round pick in only one year.

There's one team in the league that understands this, and they've been phenomenally successful doing it:


There’s one model NFL team that’s in continuous Moneyball rebuilding mode. It releases or trades expensive veterans on what seem like irrational whims. It trades away picks for more and more future picks. In fact, at one point this team had two picks in each of the top four rounds of the 2011 draft. Since 2001, this team has averaged more than 12 wins per year, and has missed the playoffs only twice. By now, I’m sure you know I’m talking about the New England Patriots.

This is one of those articles you'll want to read even if you're not particularly interested in the Redskins.

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10 Responses to “WP: Rebuilding with Moneyball for Football”

  1. Anonymous says:

    As a fan of the Vikings it sounds like this article was written for that team as well (and probably a lot of other teams). The Vikings are holding onto a lot of old, injury-prone veterans, paying them increasing amounts of money for declining play, trading away draft picks for bad players, and blowing tons of cap space on superstars (Adrian Peterson and Jared Allen) and mediocre free agents.

    They seem afraid to enter rebuilding mode, afraid to let any of their once-good players leave, and always coming up with short-term fixes with long-term consequences.

  2. thehurt says:

    The inherent difficulty from an NFL (and more generally, a pro sports) perspective is that the most marketable players are the overpaid veterans. From a competitive standpoint, they might not help a team win anymore, but they can still help the team make money on merchandising and marketing. When the Mariners brought back Ken Griffey, Jr., for example, it wasn't about being competitive. They paid him a lot of money because they could sell his jerseys again, put his face in TV commercials and on billboards, and the casual fan would pay to watch Junior play again. The NFL is no different - not all owners care about winning. Sometimes immediate profitability is much more important to the people in charge.

  3. Jonathan says:

    With the rookie cap system in place, draft picks are going to become even more valuable.

  4. James says:

    That's for sure, Jonathan. The Falcons made a huge mistake in what they gave up for Julio Jones.

  5. Jim Glass says:

    Yes, the Patriots have had more draft picks than any other team in recent years. Belichick has a degree in economics and has long understood "moneyball football" better than anyone else (though Jim Schwartz is coming on).

    But the snag is, they haven't used the draft picks very effectively. That's why their D has fallen to the bottom of the league, in spite of BB having gained his initial fame as a purported D genius, and why the whole team has become a one-dimensional "Brady & Friends" show. Brady was not one of the extra picks collected by the Pats in recent years -- and where would they be without him?

    I estimated the success of each team's drafts over the last five years by totalling up how they've all done by the PFR.com "approximate value" metric. The Pats were at a mediocre lower-middle of the pack, 23rd, in spite of all their extra picks. In fact the team that had used the *fewest* picks -- the Jets, who repeatedly trade away picks to move up, and who seem to be the "anti-Pats" in every way -- had done significantly better. Though that was due entirely to the Revis pick, a trade-up gamble that paid off hugely, but the kind of thing I wouldn't trust to repeat.

    Here's how the Pats recent draft picks on D have turned out. For the record, the team that came out as doing best in the draft was the Packers, who were the #4 team by number of picks.

  6. Anonymous says:

    I loved this post. If you think about it the Dallas Cowboys became the team of the 90's just this way. The trade of Hershel Walker to the Vikings was just this. It gave them the currency (extra draft picks) that they used to aquire a huge amount of the talent that got them 3 Super Bowls. And they lost their way when the started trading draft picks for veteren players to try to stay competitive instead of using those picks to aquire younger players that could sustain the success.

  7. Anonymous says:

    Ah the pete carroll approach.

  8. DrewH says:

    Green Bay follows a similar model although they haven't been accumulating the draft picks much of late.

  9. Anonymous says:

    Take away Tom Brady from the Patriots and they are mediocre. They were lucky getting Brady. It wasn't a plan, just dumb luck.

  10. Anonymous says:

    anonymous above... dumb luck getting brady? so them having more draft picks didn't increase their chances? scouting didn't help? Brady was the only player that led to wins? Brady had average talent around him? Trading away Drew Bledsoe and having faith to put Brady in at the right time didn't help? Using the draft picks from Drew Bledsoe didn't help? Having tons of draft picks before Drew Bledsoe was drafted to help him lead team that Brady inherited didn't help? Brady would have succeeded under any other coach in any other system in any other offense in any other situation? How come Cassel and Hoyer have done very well when Brady was out? you obviously are antipatriots, but 32 other teams were looking at the same tape and didn't grab Brady. Brady saw no great increase in physical height, strength, agility or anything else since college relative to any other player.

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