The economists looked at each player's probability of making the roster, his number of starts, and his likelihood of making the Pro Bowl. They found that higher picks were better than lower picks on average and that first rounders on average post better numbers than second rounders, who in turn post better stats than third-round draft picks, and so on.
The problem was that they weren't that much better. Even looking position by position, the top draft picks are overvalued. How much better is the first quarterback or receiver taken than the second or third quarterback or receiver? Not much. The researchers concluded the following:
• The probability that the first player drafted at a given position is better than the second player drafted at the same position is only 53%, that is, slightly better than a tie.
• The probability that the first player drafted at a position is better than the third player drafted at the same position is only 55%.
• The probability that the first player drafted at a position is better than the fourth player drafted at the same position is only 56%.
In other words, selecting the consensus top player at a specific position versus the consensus fourth best player at that position increases performance, measured by the number of starts, by only 6%. And even this is understating the case, since the number one pick is afforded more chances/more starts simply because the team has invested so much money in him. Yet teams will end up paying, in terms of both players and dollars, as much as four or five times more to get that first player relative to the fourth player. Was Manning really 50% better than Rivers and twice as good as Roethlisberger? You'd be hard put to convince anyone that Manning is appreciably more valuable than Rivers or Roethlisberger; in any event, he's certainly not twice as valuable.