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The Past And The Future
Sometimes you pay for the past. Travis Kelce’s remarkable, year over year consistency, Austin Ekeler’s prolific pass catching, Davante Adams’ consistent volume and red-zone work. And sometimes you pay for the future: Garrett Wilson’s upside in Year 2, Bijan Robinson’s massive potential as a workhorse back.
Every player’s draft slot reflects a combination of prior production from a younger version of himself that no longer exists and doesn’t count in the present year and future projected production that hasn’t yet happened.
Every player has *some* of both, or he wouldn’t be drafted — Wilson eclipsed 1,000 yards as a rookie with abominable quarterback play, for example, but he’s not going off the board early Round 2 to reprise last year’s numbers. And Kelce is still slated to be Patrick Mahomes’ unquestioned No. 1 target even as he turns 34 this fall. Put differently, no one’s drafting Tom Brady this year despite an impressive past.
You can draft teams that are mostly future oriented — a Bijan Robinson/Garrett Wilson/Jahmyr Gibbs/Travis Etienne start would be very future-heavy, while a Kelce/Adams/Keenan Allen/DeAndre Hopkins one would lean hard toward the past. There’s no requirement that your team be past-future balanced, and some people have biases one way or another. You hear people like me trying to draft the guy who will be on “next year’s magazine cover”, while others talk about not paying up until a player has “proven it.”
I’m not here to say one is definitively better than the other, but there are a couple things to keep in mind under this framework:
First, what someone has done in the past does not count for you in the present. Mike Evans has nine straight seasons with 1,000 yards, and that does not grant him a single extra yard in 2023. None of Kelce’s Hall of Fame-level greatness accrues to your team in 2023 if he gets hurt or falls off the aging cliff. It’s easy to look at last year’s numbers or the last three years’ averages, pencil them in (with some minor regression) and imagine you’re drafting that stat line when you take Ekeler or Kelce. You are not. You are drafting whatever they end up doing, after starting from scratch, in 2023.
Second, you really don’t know which young players, no matter how talented, grasp what it means to be a professional, the grind, the offseason, the travel, the new wealth and social connections. You can’t know in advance who has the discipline, toughness and genetics to withstand the rigors of the NFL. You know for sure Wilson with his pedigree and rookie production has the talent, but you can only guess about the rest. Kadarius Toney is talented too, but can’t stay healthy. Sammy Watkins looked like a massive prospect after his second year in Buffalo, but never did anything since. For future-oriented players — where you are paying for production levels they’ve never acheived — you are really in the realm of fiction.
Then there are players for whom the balance is roughly equal: Justin Jefferson, Ja’Marr Chase, CeeDee Lamb, AJ Brown, Patrick Mahomes, for example. Occasionally, you’ll have an Odell Beckham, who was once Justin Jefferson through three seasons, but usually these guys, who have both proven they’re pros, but pose no age-related risk, pan out provided they’re healthy and the offense of which they’re a part doesn’t entirely collapse.
While I love to try to imagine the guy on next year’s cover, I’ll try to grab past performance at what I take to be a discount. I paired Anthony Richardson with Kirk Cousins in BCL2, and I grabbed George Kittle late in Round 6 in BCL1. In some drafts, the future is expensive, while the past is available on the cheap, so you have to adjust.
But for me the most important takeaway from viewing players through this lens is to understand you are paying for two kinds of fiction: (1) That past performance realiably predicts future results for aging players in the most brutal sport; and (2) That players who have never done something can be projected to do it based on talent alone.
Realizing that frees me from consensus assumptions about players, so I can form my own reads, rather than simply drafting off of fictional stat lines that, to a great extent, inform ADP.