NFL Draft 2012: 5 Strategies General Managers Can Employ on Draft Day
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One of the hottest-debated aspects of NFL draft analysis is the philosophy that various teams, sometimes tied specifically to the general manager, use in making their selections and trying to execute from their board.
Most of the time, if a pick hits and the player becomes successful during his rookie contract for his selecting team, the modus operandi by which the decision came about is questioned little if at all.
But as more thorough breakdowns are rendered, and the thirst for these reviews has grown proportionately with the popularity and coverage intensity of this event, the failing teams find themselves much more in the public and media crosshairs.
Like with most topics involving this much complexity, including unpredictability and the inherent chaos of human decision-making, the true answer is rarely one thing and one thing only, black and white.
Final draft-day selections by a single team more often reflect a combination of methodology, even as malleable as pick-to-pick let alone from one year to another.
Patterns and clear examples of different approaches do emerge, however, and as much from an illustrative and educational angle, as a predictive or critical one, this slideshow points out five such possibilities in an attempt to shed some light on what the thought process may be with certain NFL draft choices.
Best Player Available
Fairley's 2011 selection by the Lions was a case of BPA.
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Best player available (or BPA as it is commonly referred to) is probably the agreed upon draft strategy as the most superior approach to the exercise. And amongst some of my fellow NFL draft Twitter community, I was surprised recently at the intellectual snobbery that accompanies this assertion.
I find it both romantic and arrogant, not to mention a complete disregard for the historical lessons to be drawn from past drafts, to subscribe to the BPA approach. This article is a recent take that elaborates on the sentiments I have just put forth.
The proposition that, out of hundreds of diverse and variously qualified prospects, a single team is going to identify correctly which one will become the best player in the NFL from amongst the available remaining is as daunting and laughable as it reads.
To look at any, ANY, draft ledger beginning with 2011 and wind back to its infancy in the 1930s, or even from the advent of the digital age in the 1980s that is more identifiable with our current process today, is to realize the complete and utter futility in this.
Every year when undrafted free agents and Day 3 selections outperform and outlast their first-round counterparts, we are reminded of this. Even when comparing the order of players drafted at the same position, we are shown another example that predicting which single player is the best available is ridiculous. Moreover, it is impossible.
Choosing the best candidate for each draft selection is difficult enough when it can be narrowed down by some context of value or roster-specific significance.
This is why you work and trust your scouting departments and embark on the painstaking task of creating a big board and positional rankings. It is so your team's evaluation of each player against the overall market is clear.
Even successful turnouts of going with the best player available (Jason Pierre-Paul, New York Giants, 2010 and Nick Fairley, Detroit Lions, 2011) open the team up to precarious roster shortages in their wake. Both teams' respective general managers are notorious BPA-subscribers.
The Giants are defending Super Bowl champions and the Lions are in better shape than they have been in decades, which brings up the question of the fallacy in those selections. My issue is with sustainability and it being the general managers' primary focus to oversee a roster that has the best chance of being playoff-competitive every season.
In part due to selections like the aforementioned, both clubs have serious deficiencies along the offensive line and, in Detroit's case, in the secondary.
Having a great defensive line is a crucial priority to building an NFL roster, I agree, but both of these teams' units were already strong. These selections, though both players appear on their way to excellence, come off as greedy and short-sighted to me.
Which player makes more of a discernible impact on the Giants' and Lions' respective rosters, in the least during the life of their rookie contracts, Pierre-Paul or one of Mike Iupati, Maurkice Pouncey or Bryan Bulaga?
A clearer way to ask this may be: where lies the bigger drop-off, JPP to to Tuck, Umenyiora or Kiwanuka or from one of the previously listed offensive linemen vs. whom the Giants had to use in 2011 and likely the next two seasons also? I think it is pretty clearly the latter.
The same construction of questions applies to the Lions, Fairley, and any one of Mike Pouncey, Nate Solder, Prince Amukamara or Jimmy Smith from the 2011 draft class.
Ponder's 2011 choice converted the threat of need into reach.
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After reading the previous slide on the perils of employing the best-player-available tint to draft strategy, many readers may expect this writer to throw himself at the feet of its antithesis, need-based drafting, and conjure an elaborate defense of its merits.
In fact it is the opposite, traveling even further beyond the realm of misstep where BPA resides. True need-based draft choices often create even less draft value and productivity than ill-advised BPA elections. And this is hauntingly truer if the need and the board line up so as to create a moderate to significant reach at said position of need.
At least in the case of BPA, if the evaluation and decision is a sound one in terms of the player's overall ability, there remains a plausible opportunity for impact.
The most classic examples of these reach blunders occur at the quarterback position when a team has failed to develop an internal solution over a period of several years. The Minnesota Vikings a year ago will serve as our case study.
After missing on their evaluation (second round) of Tarvaris Jackson in 2006, and to some degree failing to put him in a better situation to succeed (either developmentally or systematically) based on his relative improvement in Seattle last year, the Vikings delayed the problem with a three-year run led by Gus Frerotte and Brett Favre, justifying this somewhat by qualifying for the playoffs in two of those three seasons.
But instead of reaping the benefit of Jackson's continued development the previous two years behind Favre, the 2011 approach was to discard him and begin anew with Donovan McNabb as the stop-gap and, in my opinion, a sizable reach for Christian Ponder 12th overall in last year's draft.
Despite fairly visible evaluation markers from 2010 in Washington that McNabb was no longer starter-capable, they wasted 2011 on him rather than extend Jackson on a deal similar or cheaper than the two-year, $8-million one he agreed to in Seattle.
I even argue that getting a full-season look at Joe Webb would have been the superior football operations decision over McNabb. At least find out what you have in-house with a fairer sample of games and continuity than the spot work he has seen thus far.
The 2011 Washington Redskins made a similar mistake with its commitment to Rex Grossman, a known failing commodity, over a full term of John Beck, which of course led to the recent events of the monster haul it gave away to secure the rights to Robert Griffin III.
DeCastro would be a wise outcome for Dallas at 14.
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After discussing the two most nominally recognizable draft strategies, best-player-available and need, which both probably qualify as extreme and detrimental in their purest forms, we arrive at what I believe is the only true optimal approach.
The combination of the two philosophies allows an organization to attack roster needs with some functional practicality while also compromising little, if at all, in terms of overall talent and integrity to its board.
How does this work? By limiting the potential selections at each pick to the few players that are most highly-rated within a team's rankings, but who also project to a position of need, there is a much better opportunity for a natural intersection of adding quality and addressing roster health.
It may require the team to leave its single most highly rated player on the board, if he plays a position/role that is already in good standing, but also does not pin a team down to only the most dire weakness on the roster.
I will examine the Dallas Cowboys' 2012 first-round situation at pick 14 against the context of what may be their biggest needs agreed upon internally as an example. Obviously, I have no actual insider knowledge of Dallas' draft discussion, so there is a hypothetical quality to the specifics I outline, but the points are a valid demonstration of the combo philosophy at its finest.
Let us say that heading into the draft, the Cowboys biggest positional needs are, in no particular order: cornerback, safety, offensive guard and five-technique defensive end.
When it comes time for them to make their selection, the best players available on the board at those spots could be: Stephon Gilmore, Mark Barron, David DeCastro and Quinton Coples with the wrinkle that Dre Kirkpatrick is also in the conversation because there is some thought to his projectable value at both corner and free safety.
However, Trent Richardson, who they rated as the fourth-best player overall in the class, has also surprisingly fallen to them at this pick.
Note: I realize that it is highly unlikely that Richardson gets out of the top six. And if he did, would become a likely trade-up target for someone later in the round prior to the 14th selection.
Despite the unlikelihood of his descent, it makes for a good example because Richardson is such a unanimously regarded prospect overall. The combo philosophy, and what I believe is easily the most prudent course of action, is to leave Richardson alone (assuming that no suitable trade-down option materializes either) and instead focus on the four or five aforementioned prospects that also address a discernible need.
The focus of the discussion leading up to and during their time on the clock then is about which of Gilmore, Barron, DeCastro, Coples and Kirkpatrick is highest on their board overall and becomes the ultimate choice for them at 14.
For me it would be DeCastro but in illustrating the point, and how the combo philosophy operates on a superior level to either BPA- or need-based decisions alone, this detail is irrelevant.
The Bucs have executed the double dip each of the last 2 years.
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Moving past the examination of overarching draft philosophies from a macroeconomic level, the next two slides take a gander at strategic moves within a specific class that general managers sometimes use as a function of playing the draft.
This first one is called the double dip, when an NFL organization decides that it either likes two players enough at the same position to select them in successive rounds and/or that its deficiency in said area of the roster is weak enough so as to justify the repeated use of resources.
This is not my favorite ploy, inherently, but I am also not completely opposed to it. In specific situations when the perceived talent based on a club's internal evaluations lines up with a position that demands a complete overhaul and/or immediate depth, it can be defensible.
The most prominent recent example is the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in both 2010 and 2011 in a decisive commitment to overhaul its defensive line in a single 12-month period, theoretically infusing star power and youth into this unit.
In 2010 with the third (first round) and 35th choices (second round), the Bucs tabbed defensive tackles Gerald McCoy (University of Oklahoma) and Brian Price (UCLA). They followed this up last year in 2011 with consecutive selections in the first two rounds to bookend their sophomore tackles with defensive ends Adrian Clayborn (1-20 out of the University of Iowa) and Da'Quan Bowers (2-19 from Clemson University).
Two other similar plays occurred within the 2011 draft itself when the New England Patriots took running backs Shane Vereen (2-24, University of California) and Stevan Ridley (3-9, Louisiana State University) with consecutive day-2 picks.
As unorthodox as what Tampa Bay did over two drafts in a row, I was thoroughly unimpressed with the Patriots' use of the double dip on a position of so little value, especially at this point in the draft when potential starters at more crucial positions, let alone likely depth, can be attained.
The St. Louis Rams, though, probably took the dunce's crown (a personnel team that disintegrated this offseason with the firings of both its general manager and head coach) when it turned in draft cards on possession receivers in three rounds straight (two through four no less) in the inanely misguided mission of getting second-year quarterback Sam Bradford "more weapons."
Tight end Lance Kendricks (2-15, University of Wisconsin), Austin Pettis (3-14, Boise State University) and Greg Salas (4-15, University of Hawaii) were the results of this triple dip chicanery.
Any single one of them would have been an arguably appropriate pick, although Kendricks and Pettis were both overdrafted in my opinion, but all three precluded the Rams from adding players at other core positions that could become starters or important depth pieces at a key point in the process.
The Patriots' Way
Is Belichick a draft ninja or outsmarting himself?
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Bill Belichick's annual trading down and hording of picks has become synonymous with New England Patriots draft strategy during his time as the lone top personnel man there following the departure of Scott Pioli to Kansas City.
Belichick is revered as a genius in most circles, both football operations within the NFL and analytically by the media surrounding it, and there is a tremendous intellectual argument for the practice that he has practically made an art form.
More picks bunched together in one area of the draft, especially when a shelf of plateaued talent exists, absolutely increases both the volume and success percentage with regard to selection bounty.
Similarly, trading a second-round pick in a given current year in exchange for a first-round pick the following season also tends to be a net gain. This is an especially shrewd and forward-thinking move when the Patriots have often already been armed with a second selection in that same round.
It effectively allows them to still add a targeted player at a high point in the draft while also creating a stockpile of value and opportunity for the future.
Several static factors play into such consistent flexibility. Due to the Patriots' overall on-field success, Belichick enjoys nearly unparalleled job security, meaning perceived missteps from all of this draft dancing (and there have been some) do not parlay into questions about his credibility.
This same success over the years has also consistently situated the Patriots' natural draft choices late, often very late like this year (31st as the Super Bowl runner-up), locating them in higher-traffic areas of perceived talent bars on the board.
Why take a guy at at 31, for instance, in the 2012 process when he might still be there at 37 and swapping those six rungs on the ledger nets New England an additional fourth-round choice this year or perhaps a 2013 third-rounder?
As stated above, when the music stops, a player does have to be chosen and like every evaluator in every sport on the planet, even Belichick and the Patriots are not exempt from missing sometimes. And it can be either on the front end with the player it passes on by dropping down or with whom it finally does decide to hone in when they do take a turn.
The most stinging misstep on this dance stage is likely from 2009 when, after trading down with Baltimore from 23 to 26, it elected to move out of 26 with Green Bay for a trio of day-2 selections. The Packers used that pick on Clay Matthews, who has since been one of the most valuable defensive players in the NFL, while a youthful stalwart pass-rusher remains a top need for the Patriots even three years later.
The relevant current question becomes what will New England do next week? It is armed to the teeth with five choices in the first three rounds, including two firsts and two seconds.
This serves the dual purpose of granting them the flexibility to move down and still collect a lot of high-round talent and/or package a couple of those choices together and move back up to target someone it covets. And either or both of those maneuvers could easily occur more than once in the first three rounds.
With clear needs that center around the defensive line, perimeter pass-rush and the secondary, and a board that is shaping up to be plentiful at those positions late in the first round, will 2012 finally be the year that Belichick stands pat and scores two prospects in the first stanza?
I would not bet on it. My money is on them taking the defensive player highest on its board at 27 and then dealing out of 31 to an early/mid-second-round team too nervous or motivated to sit tight on its target.