Gather round and keep listening
We’re less than a week away from the beginning of the NFL draft, when hordes of fans, and an unenviable subset of NFL general managers will forget (or ignore) many of the lessons of their forebears and – stubbornly convinced they know better than the pantheon of front office executives and coaches either in the Hall of Fame, or headed there – fail to learn from the past.
This piece is the second in an intentionally adamant treatise on a basic series of “dos” and “don’ts” in the NFL draft, finely honed by both past experience and the insights of NFL management staff willing to share their chestnuts of wisdom about the NFL draft based on decades of experience.
3. Thou shalt attempt to draft the best player available.
The amount of electrons spilled trying to divine exactly what “best player available” (or BPA) drafting really constitutes is astonishing to contemplate, so it should be fascinating to see if I can make the case for BPA when the community of fans (and drafting “experts”) have so much trouble agreeing on what it even is.
Fundamentally, drafting the “best player available” is not about simply selecting the next man up from some Platonic, objectively confirmed list of players as the draft rolls along. It couldn’t be, because, of course, no such list exists. However, each team has its own evaluation corps, including a battalion of scouts, and ranks all of the players in the draft according to their evaluations, on scale intended to reflect their relative talent levels. Michael Lombardi lays out the details of that board development in a recent piece in the Athletic:
The draft room has two boards, the vertical board, ranking the players from top to bottom at their position, then the horizontal board, which values the players’ talents related to other positions. Only after every draft-eligible player is graded can the formation of the horizontal board take shape. On draft day, teams can predict what decisions they may face and prepare accordingly. However, nothing ever goes as predicted, so those who can make quick decisions based on their superior knowledge of the vertical and horizontal board can come away with the best possible results.
Now, some teams have had notoriously poor talent evaluation – think, the Cleveland Browns until fairly recently – but those evaluation weaknesses are often magnified many times over by simultaneously drafting for need (see Commandment 4).
Drafting BPA is often best understood by what it is not – reaching on a player, either by trading up or standing pat, and taking him higher in the draft than his talent level merits. An excellent, though painful, example of the latter is Dan Snyder intervening over the objections of his talent scouts and coaching staff to grab Dwayne Haskins at #15 – QB was a definite position of need – rounds before he should have been taken.
Rarely are we presented with such transparent examples, but the drafting of Mitch Trubisky (Bears) , Clelin Ferrell (Raiders), and Andre Dillard (Eagles) are all star-crossed situations that seem grounded in similarly poor decision making processes. These mistakes happen all over the draft, every year, in many different ways that never garner the same degree of scrutiny that first round busts do, but they can be every bit as corrosive to effective team building.
If you think of the draft as the venue where you raise your team’s ceiling – and you should think of it that way – it becomes obvious why BPA makes so much sense, and why it’s generally how the best teams in the NFL approach the draft. Yes, it requires patience. And yes, it’s easier to do if your team is already good (i.e., has fewer needs). But, I’ve heard it said that BPA is a “luxury,” and my response to that is, “that’s how bad teams think.” You will never get to the “luxury” of BPA if you keep drafting for need.
Recently, Larry Holder of the Athletic did an analysis of the NFL drafts going back to the beginning of the Super Bowl era (beginning in 1966 and through 2018) to look at how frequently each team actually did draft the “best player available,” as determined by each player’s “weighted approximate value.” So, rather than a forward looking evaluation (e.g., who were the players assumed to be the best going into the draft), this was a retrospective analysis looking back at players’ relative, actual performance compared to their draft mates.
As an example of how this translates in practical terms, let’s look at the 2018 draft:
- Lamar Jackson – Pick 32 – 48 AV
- Darius Leonard – Pick 36 – 42 AV
- Fred Warner – Pick 70 – 33 AV
- Orlando Brown – Pick 83 – 30 AV
- Mark Andrews – Pick 86 – 24 AV
- Brad Bozeman – Pick 215 – 19 AV
- Andrew Wylie – UDFA – 19 AV
So, just as an example, had Wylie achieved an AV of 45, there would only be two players on this list. The best players on the board would have been taken in the first round and as an UDFA. It basically happened that way in 2004, when Eli Manning and Ben Roethlisberger were taken in the first and Jason Peters was the third most productive player from that class, as an UDFA.
I would encourage folks to check out the article (it does require a subscription to the Athletic), but I’ll cover the high points here. First, through this lens, over that 52 year timeframe, teams take the actual “best player in the draft” surprisingly infrequently. The top team (who I will reveal in a bit) – in terms of raw hits – only did it 12 times over that window (about once every 4 years). The top team, in terms of rate of hits though, has done it 9 times in a much shorter window (about once every 2 years).
Our own Washington Redskins managed the feat 5 times (about once a decade), with Kirk Cousins (2012), Champ Bailey (1999), Keenan McCardell (1991), Mark Schlereth (1989), and Darrell Green (1983). That 3 of those players – all during Washington’s 30 year wander through the desert – did or will play most of their careers on another team could hardly be more fitting.
I think it will surprise very few people who the teams at the top of this – admittedly – unconventional exercise are: The Steelers (12), the Colts (10), the Patriots (10), and the Cowboys (10). Collectively, those teams account for 19 Super Bowl wins during that 52 year period, nearly 40% of the victories, which is incredible.
The most interesting team to me, however, is the one that has hit nearly twice as often as the Steelers – the Ravens. In 22 short years, they hit on the best player in the draft 9 times (Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Terrell Suggs, Marshal Yanda, Ricky Wagner, Jackson, Brown, Andrews, and Bozeman). That’s incredible, and while it is surely a testament to Ozzie Newsome and Eric DeCosta’s talent scouting genius, it’s also very much a reflection of their incredibly sound drafting approach: Get more picks and use those picks to take the best players on the board when your picks come up. Do those two things, and good things will happen.
The Ravens(Ozzie Newsome and now Eric DeCosta) do the draft well. They draft guys who were productive CFA players. They don’t get fooled by combine #s or wowed by pre-draft interviews. They just focus on who were the best, most productive college players. They don’t overthink it. https://t.co/jywolVUvg0
— Larry Krueger (@sportslarryknbr) October 30, 2020
Bonus content: The Dallas Cowboys haven’t taken the BPA since 1992 (Jimmy Smith and Darren Woodson).
The player personnel strategy of wishful thinking and hoping people play above their obvious talent cap is a big reason this team has been stuck in mediocrity for almost 3 decades.
— Robby Greene (@robbytherealtor) April 23, 2021
4. Thou shalt not draft (primarily) for need.
Commandment 4 is really the flip side of Commandment 3, but it deserves its own exploration as well, because it is borne of its own set of poor general management decisions. Filling needs should not be the primary goal of the draft. Full stop. If you’re a talent-starved team with holes all over the roster, I have good news and bad news. The good news first: If you accumulate picks and take the best talent on the board at those spots, chances are, in 2-3 years, you’ll probably have a solid core of players to build around. The bad news? Your team is likely to be pretty ugly to watch over the next couple of years. Think “Washington, circa 2017.”
Chances are, you’re not going to have enough draft picks early on – even drafting BPA – to incidentally fill all of the needs on your roster. In that case (and all cases), use moderately-priced free agents to fill your needs in the short term, while you keep drafting well in subsequent years to raise the ceiling of those individual positions with the best players on the board.
DO NOT sign free agents to record setting deals – ala Landon Collins – while you are still very much wandering through the wilderness. You may think it will put more fans in the seats, but more likely than not, once the ill-conceived plan goes sideways (and they nearly always do), fan confidence will be even lower than it had been previously. And, you’ll be stuck with an albatross of a contract for a player getting outperformed by a 7th round rookie as your team actually rounds the bend to relevance. Don’t…do…it. Ever.
Now clearly, positional “need” is a lens that should be considered with draft picks. If two players are deemed roughly equal talents, at positions of equal importance, and one occupies a position of greater need, then draft him. Do not, however, go into the draft saying, “I need a QB, an LB, and a S, so we should focus on those positions on Days 1 & 2.” That’s what bad teams do…..every year.
What good teams do is what Ron Rivera and company did this year. They go into the offseason looking at their roster and the free agents they’re losing and they say, “what needs do we have?” In Washington’s case, they accurately said “QB, WR, (and with the loss of Ronald Darby), CB.” They filled all of those holes in free agency with competent (or better) talent on very reasonably-priced contracts, eliminating the draft day desperation that plagues more poorly run teams. That they didn’t do so at LB actually suggests to me that they aren’t nearly as worried about the position as many fans are.
How will we know which teams are drafting for need? It’s going to be most apparent with the QB grabbers. We can be virtually assured of two things: 1) At least 5 QBs will be selected in the first round of the draft; 2) It would be very unusual for more than 3 of those QBs to go on and have any long term success in the NFL. I’m fairly comfortable saying that the lack of an adequate option at QB is the foremost driver of poor draft behavior in the NFL. Ridiculous trade ups, the wasted investment of years of time in a QB who was fundamentally overdrafted, the missed opportunity to add impact contributors to the roster elsewhere immediately. This, in my estimation, is why Rivera’s signing of Ryan Fitzpatrick was his most important move of the offseason. I’ve said it elsewhere, but it’s “stupidity insurance.” The draft is where the smart teams feed on the stupid ones year after year.