The National Football League held its annual draft of college players over the weekend, giving life to the dreams of some 250 young men and providing football junkies reason to spend two days glued to ESPN. Whereas no sane person would want to watch a weekend’s worth of, say, live coverage of human resources directors extending offers to wannabe administrative assistants, the NFL Draft has become a major television sports event.
It’s also a prime example of how even the most extensive vetting of job candidates does not guarantee accurate personnel selection. The average NFL draftee has been evaluated more thoroughly than candidates for just about any other job. Pro scouts attend his games. Tapes of his college games are viewed over and again by NFL general managers and coaches. He probably was an invitee to the NFL Combine, a multi-day meat market where likely draftees are put through a variety of drills, tests, and interviews. Teams that have a special interest in a player may invite him to a private workout. After all this, the draft itself is more of a crapshoot than one might think.
Although early round picks do, on average, perform better than late round picks and undrafted free agents, some top draftees turn out to be massive underachievers or complete busts. Looking at the key position of quarterback, we see many first-rounders who failed as NFL players: Ryan Leaf (San Diego Chargers), Cade McNown (Chicago Bears), and Akili Smith (Cincinnati Bengals) are three guys who were supposed to lead their teams to glory, and they all flopped. By contrast, a skinny sixth-round pick named Tom Brady would become one of the league’s top quarterbacks and lead the New England Patriots to three Super Bowl championships.
To diehard NFL fans, this is old news and part of the league’s lore: Star selections bomb out, while some at the bottom of the pickings make the team and even become standouts. But those in the field of employee relations would be well-advised to look at the NFL Draft as a prime example of how imperfect even the most extensive of personnel selection practices can be.