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How to talk about draft prospects, sensibly

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Everyone wants to figure out who the best prospect is. But that's easier said than done, and you have to go to considerable effort to avoid falling for nonsense explanations.

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are going to have to figure out what they're going to do with the number one overall pick. That's going to be complicated: they need a quarterback, and help along the offensive line. But there's no offensive lineman worth a top pick, and are the available quarterbacks good enough?

The Bucs will spend the next five months figuring this out. They're going to go through an exhaustive process with much more information than we have, and it's going to take them a lot of time. But many people have already made up their minds and seem to know with a surprising degree of certainty what the Bucs should do. But if we want genuine answers, we need to be thorough and avoid the easy way out. So how do we do that?

Ignore simple explanations

We've seen and are going to see a lot of simple explanations about the quarterbacks  in the draft. Simple explanations like "spread quarterbacks never succeed" or "he's just a winner" or "no one with that many turnovers can be a good quarterback" or "pro-style is better than spread."

I get why those simple explanations are popular. They're easy, they make for clear-cut answers, and they reinforce existing convictions. Things that do that tend to be popular -- but they also tend to be nonsense, or at most overly simplistic and not to be applied when you're making important decisions.

It's telling that these objections tend to be very vague, and leave the actual method of failure unanswered. Spread quarterbacks never succeed? Well, Drew Brees was a spread quarterback. Cam Newton seems to be doing okay. Colin Kaepernick isn't great but he's certainly not terrible. And I know plenty of pro-style QBs who failed miserably. Or did you mean read-option quarterbacks? So, again, Cam Newton's doing fine. Russell Wilson runs a ton of read-option. RG3 had a spectacularly successful rookie season.

Quarterbacks who throw a ton of interceptions never succeed? Well, Matt Ryan threw 19 interceptions as a senior. Andrew Luck throws picks every game. Peyton Manning has had all of one NFL season with fewer than 10 interceptions.

Instead of going with simplistic explanations, we should be digging deeper. If you think read-option quarterbacks get injured a lot, ask the question: why does that happen? Do they simply get hit more? Well, why doesn't Russell Wilson get hit a lot? And what about quarterbacks who get injured a lot while staying in the pocket? What's the specific attribute that some of the quarterbacks who get injured a lot share? What's the attribute that differentiates them from everyone else, and does it apply to the prospect you're scouting? And is it something that can be fixed in the NFL?

Similarly, if a quarterback is throwing a lot of interceptions the important question isn't "does this mean he can't succeed," because that question is unanswerable. Instead, ask which attribute is leading to those interceptions. Is he too aggressive? Inaccurate? Miscommunication? How do these attributes translate to the NFL? Is this something you can live with, is it something he can fix?

Don't just stop at the first simple explanation you come across. That's lazy, and it's not an honest evaluation. Evaluate the entire prospect, instead of his circumstances.

Draft prospects ares not their system. They are not their statistical production. They are not their win-loss record. They are not even their production in specific circumstances. Draft prospects are players with many different skills, attributes and the ability to learn and adjust. And the only way to come close to an understanding of any prospect is to evaluate all of those skills, attributes and to factor in the possibility of progress and adjustment.

Fight the narrative

I have a dislike for narrative explanations for a similar reason: those narratives have a tendency to be used to explain things they can't explain. They're a way to encapsulate complicated matters into small, digestible explanations that don't actually have any analytical use.

Eli Manning is the perfect example of this nonsense. When his team wins, he's a quiet, unflappable quarterback who isn't affected by the emotional pressures of the game. When his team loses, he's a poor leader who can't fire up his players and who doesn't care about winning. On the other end of the spectrum, Philip Rivers is a petulant child when he yells at people while losing. He's a fiery winner when he yells at them while winning.

The reality is that leadership comes in many forms, and the best leaders know how to motivate each individual in different ways. Some people respond to screaming, others clam up, for yet other it works for a while before they tune it out. Some people respond to quiet leadership by example, while others ignore it. Some people respond to serious conversation and private corrections, while others respond to public pressure.

There's no one-size-fits-all leadership, and much of what happens behind closed doors is much more important than what happens in public where we can see it. Leadership narratives often sound good, and they can be very convincing. But they're analytically useless. That is not to say that leadership isn't a thing, but leadership comes in many different forms and judging quarterbacks' leadership skills based on how much and when they're screaming on the field is an exercise in futility.

Dealing with cognitive biases

One problem is that human beings love narratives, and they change their minds very, very rarely. Instead, they tend to incorporate new information that affirms their narrative, and ignore new information that contradicts it.

This is why people who love Marcus Mariota will emphasize his attributes, and neglect to talk about how well he'll be able to learn a new system in the NFL. It's why people who love Jameis Winston will try to blame everything but him for his interceptions while continuously talking about his playing in a pro-style system. It's why people explain away some off-field issues, and not others -- and it's why most of the people doing so in Jameis Winston's case happen to be FSU fans.

You can see the confirmation bias in effect in how new information fits into people's narratives. Tim Tebow's one of my favorite examples. When he won a playoff game, that was an affirmation that he just wins -- and the people buying into that conveniently forget that he was completely obliterated by the Patriots just a week later.

The narratives surrounding Peyton Manning and Tom Brady work similarly, with Bill Barnwell demonstrating how the order in which things happened created these narratives. When Peyton Manning couldn't win a playoff game, he was a choker. When he started winning them, people started saying that that was just the result of everyone but Peyton Manning -- conveniently ignoring that his losing previously wasn't always because of him, either.

That's what tends to happen when people encounter new information: instead of seeing how it affects their beliefs, they tend to look for ways in how it can affirm their beliefs -- or at least be ignored if it can't be spun. These problems affect everyone, and trying to correct for those issues is very difficult.

But there are ways to counteract these biases. Matt Waldman often talks about this in the context of scouting. One way to do this is to try to construct a systematic approach to scouting that doesn't leave a lot of room for these biases.

This has to be done at a point before you've made up your mind, and should be checked over time against success rates to see how good your approach is -- otherwise, you run the risk of constructing a system that specifically reinforces your preconceived notions.

For instance, if you happen to like Jameis Winston and your systematic approach focuses on pro-style systems, you may have just replicated your pre-existing conviction. Similarly, if you like Marcus Mariota more and create an approach that emphasizes college-level production -- same problem.

Let's be better

The draft is an inexact science. No team consistently selects quality players. Every team selects busts and failures, and no player comes into the NFL fully-formed. There is no such thing as a "sure thing" and there's a risk to every player.

We're going to see a lot of narrative nonsense over the next five months. People will continue to grasp for simple explanations. Let's try to be better -- let's try to grasp every prospect with nuance. Please. For everyone's sake.