Miami Dolphins

May 12, 2014

Dolphins GM Dennis Hickey thinks outside the box drafting small-school players

Dolphins general manager Dennis Hickey, using an analytics approach, selected five players from small schools in the NFL Draft.

Baseball innovator Billy Beane is the dean of advanced analytics in pro sports. But the lesson of Moneyball was less about numbers-crunching and more about thinking differently and valuing the undervalued.

So maybe the data-driven Dennis Hickey is on to something. Because the Dolphins general manager’s first draft defied conventions in the way Beane’s have for the Oakland Athletics for more than a decade.

Hickey stunned the NFL personnel world this past weekend by drafting five non-Football Bowl Subdivision players — including four on Saturday alone.

While his peers were poaching the high-revenue conferences for talent, Hickey took unknowns from the Big South, Pioneer, Missouri Valley and Big Sky conferences.

It’s a high-risk approach, one that was met with raised eyebrows within the NFL personnel community. But Hickey has proven in his short time in Miami that he isn’t going to keep doing something just because it’s the way it’s always been done.

Most notably, Hickey has created an analytics department in Dolphins headquarters, but has been intentionally short on details when asked for them.

Was his draft strategy a reflection of his outside-the-box approach? If it was, as some believe, he isn’t saying.

“We were judging the individual players,” Hickey said late Saturday. “It just kind of happened that way.

“Again it’s important for us, whether it is small school, big school, whatever, is to evaluate the player, scrutinize him, evaluate him fully from a medical standpoint, from a player evaluation standpoint, from a character standpoint and make a decision based on that player.”

But if it was simply by chance that five of his eight picks hailed from small schools, it’s quite an statistical anomaly. Of the 256 players selected from Thursday through Saturday, two-thirds came from the five power conferences.

And only 26 played outside of the Football Bowl Subdivision.

Five of those small-school draftees are now Dolphins: offensive lineman Billy Turner (North Dakota State); cornerback Walt Aikens (Liberty); linebacker Jordan Tripp (Montana); receiver Matt Hazel (Coastal Carolina); and defensive end Terrence Fede (Marist).

Many of these players have something else in common: they were projected to go far later than when the Dolphins took them. One personnel executive said that their draft was an “overall” reach, calling it a “strange draft.”

Another classified it as a needs-driven draft that was largely non-distinguishable, filled with guys who aren’t character risks. (After the team’s 2013 bullying scandal, that’s not a surprise.)

Hickey did leave one need largely untouched this past weekend: linebacker.

Dannell Ellerbe and Philip Wheeler both underperformed the big contracts they signed last season, but Hickey went all of free agency and the first four rounds of the draft without addressing the problem.

Hickey did grab Tripp in Round 5, but he’s viewed as more of a special teams contributor, at least to start.

That’s the perception most all of these FCS draftees will have to overcome beginning next week, when they report for rookie minicamp.

But again, perhaps that’s why Hickey took them. Where others saw risk, he saw value.

“When you’re looking at a small-school guy, sometimes they get scrutinized [harder],” Mark Dominik, Hickey’s former boss at Tampa Bay, told SiriusXM NFL Radio Sunday morning. “Because you’re saying, ‘Who are you actually playing at Liberty or who are you actually playing at North Dakota State or Montana or Coastal Carolina or certainly Marist What’s the competition like?’ 

“You’re kind of beating them up a little harder and putting them through the process more.”

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