Study gives thumbs up to trading down

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John Jeansonne Newsday columnist John Jeansonne.

Jeansonne has been a reporter in Newsday’s sports department since 1970 and has covered 11 Olympic Games and ...

Cade Massey's "favorite story" from the NFL draft's first night Thursday involved the 25th pick, and not because of Denver's surprising trade up the pecking order to claim overexposed quarterback Tim Tebow.

What Massey loved was that Baltimore, under the radar of endless razzmatazz over Tebow's hybrid skills, quietly handed over that No. 25 pick - its only one in the first round - in exchange for three lower choices (Nos. 43, 70 and 114) that will maximize expenditures.

"What Baltimore did was hard to do, but extremely prudent," Massey said. "There they are in the first prime-time draft, all this pressure to make a splash, and they completely cool their heels."

It was precisely the tactic that Massey, a Yale University professor of organization behavior, has been espousing for a half-dozen years with a regularly updated study done with University of Chicago business professor Richard Thaler.

Their work is titled "The Loser's Curse: Overconfidence vs. Market Efficiency in the National Football League Draft." It documents how teams, granted the draft's earliest picks based on past on-field failures, "keep on paying all this money and locking into mediocrity," which punches holes in the league's parity theory. "Big holes," Massey argued.

Battalions of experts, with their mock drafts, offer overwrought analyses of the enormous possibilities in those first half-dozen or so picks, while to Massey: "The No. 1 pick is a great pick. But only to trade away. Because there are a lot of suckers out there.

"Consider what the Rams didn't do, the trades they turned down. Sam Bradford might be a fantastic quarterback for them. But they turned down a gold mine to keep him. There were reports that the Browns would trade up and give up all of their picks this year - and in 2011 - just to move up six spots. Are the Rams that sure about Bradford?"

Massey's research, he said, is proof that nobody can be that sure.

"I studied decision-making," he said. "I'm interested in the fact that people think they can do things better than they can. It's classic overconfidence. You think the world has this narrow range of possibility, when the range is really quite broad."

In examining the NFL draft, which Massey has followed since his childhood in San Angelo, Texas, he and Thaler concluded that the best value in the draft comes somewhere late in the first round and into the second round - right around that 43rd pick Baltimore got in the Tebow deal. The first few players chosen most likely "are the best players in the draft," he agreed, "but they're not that much better than the ones after them.

"The chance that a player is better than the next one taken at his position is 52 percent. That's basically a coin flip.

"San Diego could've sat where they were [in 28th place] and taken Jahvid Best [the Cal back who wound up being the third running back taken, by Detroit at No. 30]. It's a big bet that Ryan Matthews [of Fresno State] is better. A big bet. You're paying a lot to choose one over the other."

In compiling "tons of data and a variety of new tests" for their updated study, Massey said he and Thaler spoke with several NFL teams, some of whom "listen and nod in January, but when things warm up in April, find it harder to pay attention to what we're saying."

It is human nature at work, Massey said, "this classic thing where you're good at one domain and it makes you think you're good in another domain. Overconfidence is a fact that gets us in trouble."

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