The NFL draft is almost here. It’s time for every NFL general manager to gather their tools, lace up their work boots and put on a hard hat.
General managers are in the construction business: Their job is to build a franchise, one that stands tall and serves its function, year after year, with little maintenance.
To do this, managers need to maximize the value they get with their picks, address positions of need, inspire fans to rush to the team website to order new jerseys and—as a bonus—garner great draft grades from media types on Monday morning.
Draft grades are often way out of touch with football reality. However, part of putting together a winning team is looking like you're putting together a winning team. A general manager who repeatedly earns high marks in April is usually the last to take heat for failed performances.
How can a general manager win the 2013 draft and help build his roster into something special? The same way every construction manager does: follow the blueprint.
Know the Team
A general manager can’t just know the on-paper strengths and weaknesses of your starting 22 or rostered 53. They have to understand exactly what all of those players do well and why they’re on the roster. Personnel executives need to understand their coaching staff, what they're trying to do on the field and what types of players they covet.
General managers have to know their own team, too. They have to know the strengths and weaknesses and tendencies of each executive and scout in the cabal that watches and grades pro and college players for the franchise year-round.
Effective teams don’t just look at “holes” in the starting lineup and target rounds where they’ll draft those positions. They understand who is already on the roster, where they are in their career and how much they’ll be able to contribute two, three or four years down the road.
At positions that require more physical or mental development, like quarterback, cornerback or offensive line, it’s wise to draft ahead of need. The Green Bay Packers, for instance, plucked Aaron Rodgers from the green room well before Brett Favre hung up his cleats.
It put them in the ugly situation of having to force out a legend, but that's not as ugly as having to hitch their franchise to whatever quarterback fell to them after Favre left the building.
Know the Board
Every NFL draft class has different strengths and weaknesses.
Some are loaded with sure-fire superstars at the top of the board, and some (like this one) have none. Some draft boards have weak second rounds, and others (like this one) will have players with the tools to make an impact lasting well into the third round.
Some seasons, where a general manager’s team has the most desperate (immediate or long-term) need isn’t necessarily where the class has strength. Reaching for a prospect who isn’t good enough to “fill the hole” beyond his rookie season is not just wasting one pick, it’s wasting two: the first pick, and the one spent to replace it.
Former Detroit Lions CEO Matt Millen was famous for drafting bust wide receivers in the first round. This really wasn’t so bad; in theory, Charles Rogers, Roy Williams and Mike Williams could all have played together had they worked out.
Millen’s bigger crime was reaching for mediocre linebacker prospects to fill the "hole" at middle linebacker. The Lions cycled through second-round draft picks Teddy Lehman and Jordon Dizon, as well as free agents.
The "hole" wasn’t filled until Millen’s successor, Martin Mayhew, signed free-agent linebacker Stephen Tulloch in 2011.
Trust the Board
NFL general managers (and other front office executives) get in the biggest trouble when they don’t trust their draft board. Ineffective executives tend to shoot from the hip in reaction to what’s happening.
When a fantastic prospect falls to you, as happened with the New Orleans Saints and top-10 running back prospect Deuce McAllister in 2001, you have to trust your board.
It didn’t matter to the Saints that they had traded away their entire draft to take tailback Ricky Williams just two years prior. They had a player way up at the top of their draft board fall to them, and to ignore the incredible value he represented would mean they might as well have not made a draft board.
Too often, personnel executives try to put their stamp on the process in the “War Room” on draft day, rather than work hand-in-glove with the people who spend all year watching and grading the prospects. The inevitable results: players who don’t fit, don’t pan out and don’t stay healthy.
Go Get the Right Players
Many fantasy football leagues, after decades of mimicking the NFL draft, now use an open auction to allocate players to teams.
The NFL draft is set up specifically to make it harder for the best teams to put together rosters exactly as they want them; the first-come-first-served selection process and worst-to-first draft order are designed to make sure poor teams get good players.
In order to truly win the draft, a general manager has to know the team, know the board, trust the board and go get the players that fit. In 2008, the New England Patriots desperately needed an instant-impact middle linebacker and had only the No. 7 overall pick.
Their problem? The only player who fit the bill, Jerod Mayo, was projected to go in the mid-teens.
Bill Belichick and the Patriots traded back just a few spots, to No. 10 overall, picking up an extra third-round pick. There, they took Mayo—the eventual Associated Press Defensive Rookie of the Year. Though the Patriots were smart to trade back, the important thing is that they got their man in Mayo—and nobody cared where he was drafted.
Don't Reach for Need, Reach for Want
The Patriots didn’t just draft an inside linebacker a few spots ahead of his consensus range, though—they drafted the inside linebacker, the one on whom they were absolutely sold. If there had been several prospects they liked, they might have traded down further and picked up more value.
If there had been none, they likely wouldn't have drafted an inside linebacker at all.
This is the difference between going and getting "the right player" and "filling a hole." One will likely be an impact player for years to come; the other is a warm body who may or may not be an improvement over the warm body you already have.
No roster is without holes, not even Super Bowl-winning rosters. Get enough of the right impact players at the right positions, and the other positions won't matter.
This season, it's rumored the Buffalo Bills might draft quarterback Ryan Nassib with the No. 8 overall pick—a hefty reach, according to most evaluators. But if head coach Doug Marrone, who coached Nassib at Syracuse, is convinced he is going to be the next Drew Brees, snagging him with the No. 8 overall pick isn't a reach—it's a steal.
Winning in April, Winning in December
Reaching for need will help a team win in April, when the fans and mock drafters have their say on how every team did. If your team drafted one of every major need, they'll earn high marks from many pundits.
Knowing the board, trusting the board and being aggressive in getting the right players helps a team win in April, too. A solid crop of quality players who fit the system will always be welcome, even if the approach lets apparent needs go unaddressed.
The teams getting "B" draft grades instead of "A" grades, though, are often the teams who win when actual football is played.
When it comes time for the owner to take stock of the front office, it's wins on the field that determine whether a general manager has won the draft.