Ricky Williams: Bad Pick vs. Bad Trade?

Synopsis: In general, higher draft picks perform better than lower draft picks. That statement obviously doesn’t tell you anything new. However, have you ever wondered how much better? Fortunately, pro-football-reference.com has developed a proprietary statistic to quantify a player’s value. Called Weighted Average Value (WAV), the statistic can be used to rank all-time greats as well as to determine all-time busts. Furthermore, it can be applied to evaluate trades involving future draft picks. For instance, the Saints gave up draft picks totaling an expected WAV of 175 in order to get the rights to Ricky Williams. You probably already know that the Saints made a bad decision. After reading this post, you’ll learn how bad.


The 2014 NFL season started three weeks ago. As of now, the headlines have been dominated by rookies.

  • Taken by the Raiders with the #36 overall pick, Derek Carr has started every game at QB. 
  • #1 overall pick Jadeveon Clowney had to undergo surgery after suffering a knee injury in Week 1.
  • Blake Bortles, the 3rd overall pick, will be making his first start next week. Of note, the Jaguars previously claimed that he would be backup all year.
  • As the 14th overall pick, Kyle Fuller has come out strong for the Bears defense with a league-leading three interceptions. Furthermore, he received NFL Defensive Player-of-the-Week honors in Week 2.
  • Late 1st round pick Teddy Bridgewater has replaced Matt Cassel under center in Minnesota. To be fair, that story has been overshadowed by the child abuse allegations involving Adrian Peterson.
  • Meanwhile, the most hyped member of the 2014 draft, Johnny Football is still waiting for his shot.

Otherwise known as Johnny Manziel

Clearly, these rookies have a lot of time to prove their worth. In contrast, many hyped picks from previous drafts already have failed to live up to expectations. In honor of those players, my first countdown includes a ranking of the Top 10 NFL Draft Busts.

I fully understand that numerous sites already have rankings of NFL draft busts. In my mind, too many lack sufficient quantitative analysis. They tend to focus on salacious off-the-field headlines instead of on-the-field failures. In contrast, I hope to provide a thoughtful analysis based on well-defined criteria. Using ESPN programming as a guide, I’m shooting for content and tone that’s a blend of 30 for 30 and OTL instead of First Take. Alternatively, imagine a blend of CBS Evening News (Cronkite, not Rather) and 60 Minutes instead of TMZ. If you’re unfamiliar with any of these programs, you’ll miss out on certain cultural references. Regardless, the analysis should stand on its own.

Before describing my criteria, I need to give due recognition to pro-football-reference.com. In particular, that website aggregates the statistics I needed to evaluate the players. Founder Doug Drinen even created a statistic that can be used to summarize a player’s career in one number. Known as Weighted Average Value (WAV), that stat has some flaws. Furthermore, it doesn’t have the same robustness or popularity as Wins Above Replacement (WAR) has for baseball. Still, it’s the best statistic I’ve seen to put all players (QBs, RBs, WRs, Linemen, etc.) on one scale.


As a starting point, the following table provides a ranking of the All-Time Best NFL players based on WAV.

Player WAV
Peyton Manning 177
Tom Brady 164
Jerry Rice 159
Ray Lewis 159
Reggie White 157
Brett Favre 155
Fran Tarkenton 149
Bruce Smith 147
Dan Marino 145
Rod Woodson 141

Purely based on regular season stats, WAV favors longevity over clutch or peak performance. As such, players like Joe Montana (WAV of 123) and Jim Brown (WAV of 108) don’t show up on the list. Overall, I’m impressed that one statistic can be used to create the previous Top 10 list of all-time greats.

As shown by the following table, WAV also can be used evaluate the value of a draft pick. Of note, I analyzed every draft since 1997. However, I excluded drafts after 2005 since those players can still add to their career totals.

Round Average WAV
1st Round:  Picks 1-10 55
1st Round:  Picks 11-20 40
1st Round:  Picks 21+ 35
2nd Round 30
3rd Round 20
4th Round 15
5th Round 15
6th Round 10
7th Round 10

Not surprisingly, higher draft picks produce more on average. At the same time, certain high picks fail to deliver (i.e. busts) while certain low picks over-deliver. The table shows that teams generally use their draft picks productively.

More interestingly, the table shows that production declines very quickly at the top and only gradually at the bottom of the draft. Relative to a Top 10 overall pick, other players underperform by the following percentages.

  • 30-35% for subsequent 1st round picks.
  • 45% for 2nd round picks.
  • 55% for 3rd round picks.
  • 70% for 4th and 5th round picks.
  • 80% for 6th and 7th round picks.

In essence, the chart supports the intuition that the best players go early. Based on WAV, the total value of draft picks from the first two rounds exceeds the combined total value from the last five rounds.


Based on WAV, a 6th or 7th round pick provides similar value. Basically, drafts picks from the last two rounds can be considered crap shoots. They generally result in unproductive players who never see much, if any, playing time. However, they do occasionally become superstars. History shows us that teams simply don’t use 6th round picks more productively than 7th rounders.

The expected value from a 4th and 5th round pick marginally exceeds the value of a 6th or 7th round pick. Then again, picks from the first three rounds produce a lot more.

  • One 3rd round pick offers the same value as two late-round picks.
  • One 2nd round pick produces as much as three late-round picks.
  • A 1st round pick can produce more than four to six late-round picks.

Arguably, a team could should use this chart to evaluate a potential trade involving future draft picks. For example, GM Mike Ditka could have calculated the estimated cost for his draft-day trade for Ricky Williams. Of note, the Saints gave up their entire 1999 Draft (plus a 1st and 3rd rounder in 2000) to draft the Heisman-winning running back. Specifically, the Saints gave up the following picks.

  • Two 1st round picks worth a combined WAV of 85.
  • Two 3rd round picks worth a combined WAV of 40.
  • One 4th, 5th, 6th, and 7th rounder worth a combined WAV of 50.

By giving up these picks, the Saints moved up from their 12th pick to Washington’s 5th pick. In essence, they traded picks worth a WAV of 175 for a pick with a WAV of 55. In order for the trade to add value, Williams would have needed to match the career of Peyton Manning. Any team gladly would have given up those picks for a guarantee of getting a player like Peyton Manning, or Tom Brady for that matter. Unfortunately, no player comes with a guarantee.

Despite some bumps in the road, Ricky Williams actually had a very productive career. In fact, he finished as a Top 30 all-time rusher with over 10,000 yards. His total WAV of 77 exceeded the average WAV for a Top 10 overall pick by 40%. Still, it didn’t come anywhere close to the 175 needed to make the trade worthwhile.

Ricky Williams getting married to Coach Ditka

Ricky doesn’t look too happy.  How stoned did he have to be to get into that dress?

Imagine the following scene.

  • It’s around 4:00 am at an off-strip casino in Las Vegas.
  • You’re playing blackjack at a $10 minimum table with one other person.
    • That person happens to be drinking an Old Style and smoking a cigar.
  • At that particular table, the dealer stays on soft 17.
    • Players can double down after splitting.
    • Players also can re-split aces.
  • Neither of you wants to get accused of counting cards so both of you exclusively play $10 hands.
  • You get two aces sitting at first base and your late-night/early-morning companion gets an 8 and a 3.
  • Meanwhile, the dealer has a 4.

Before telling the dealer that you’d like to split your aces, your new friend makes you an offer.

  • If you trade hands with him, he’ll cover the minimum bet for your next hand (worth $10).
  • Additionally, he offers two chances to bet $4 on red or black at the roulette table (worth $8).
  • Furthermore, he’ll give you four pulls at a $1 slot machine (worth $4).  

You quickly do the math and realize that your and your friend’s hands don’t differ too much. As a reminder, the dealer’s showing a 4. Your expected payout from splitting two aces is $5.83. His expected payout from doubling down on an 8/3 is $5.76. If you’re willing to lower your expected payout by 7 cents, this guy will give you $22 worth of additional bets.

At the same time, you realize that your buddy might really make out if he re-splits aces and gets four blackjacks. With those odds being 1 in 2,000, you hopefully take the offer and say, “Thanks Mike.” After all, that’s exactly what Ditka did to trade for Ricky Williams. Of course, the numbers from the story would need to be multiplied by 1 million to be more accurate.


In Williams’ rookie season, the Saints finished with a 3-13 record. Clearly, the running back didn’t prove to be the equivalent of four blackjacks on re-split aces. As a result, the team fired Ditka. Two years later, Williams wore out his welcome in The Big Easy as well. He went on to have a productive career with the Dolphins, but the Saints didn’t benefit.

The whole episode proved to be another example of the Peter Principle. Specifically, the theory states that business managers rise until they prove their incompetence. In football, it could be renamed the Mike Motif. Of note, Mike Ditka and Mike Holmgren were great head coaches who failed in the front office.


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