We have only known John Idzik has a general manager for just over one calendar year, but it is safe to assume that he operates without concern of his decisions getting blasted in the media—a trait that will lend him well as he continues to rebuild the New York Jets.
Almost a year removed from his first offseason as a general manager, the picture is starting to clear up for the Jets. Expectations are higher as team needs are starting to become more defined with cornerstone players beginning to mold into shape.
The Jets have not exactly been a model of consistent winning under Rex Ryan, but they have been consistent in how the team's strength has so favored the defense.
After fielding the 25th-ranked offense in the league, there will be a public push for the Jets to use their top draft pick on an offensive player. With the pending departure of wideout Santonio Holmes, the inability to develop WER Stephen Hill, the pending free agency of tight ends Jeff Cumberland and Kellen Winslow and the inconsistency of quarterback Geno Smith, the volume of boos will be at an all-time high in Radio City if the Jets go defense in the first round.
As if the Jets do take an offensive player with their first pick, it should not be because they need help on offense—it should be for no other reason than the chosen player is the top player on their draft board.
Using the Draft to Build a Team
While it resembles free agency in terms of offering a team the opportunity to upgrade their roster, the draft is not merely "free agency part two" featuring unproven college players instead of current professionals. Both are different channels of talent acquisition and should be approached with different expectations of immediate and long-term gains.
Idzik himself said it best when describing how the draft and free agency should be approached as a means to build a team:
Idzik said the #Jets look at free agency as a need-based operation, draft is strictly talent-based.— Conor Orr (@ConorTOrr) April 30, 2013
In other words, the draft is used to build the program; free agency is used to supplement it. Managing both properly is essential to long-term success, but neither operation can be used as a sole means of solving immediate roster issues.
Why is the draft a poor means to go about filling immediate roster holes? Simply put, it is too risky to rely on unproven players to contribute right off the bat. A promising projection of a draft prospect has no bearing on how that player will perform at the next level, no matter how dominant they were in college.
As much as NFL personnel men would like to pretend they could predict the future of how a 22-year-old will react to playing in the biggest sports league in the country, it is simply impossible to know for sure until the ball is kicked off in early September. There are too many factors at play—moving to a new city, adapting to a new lifestyle, the speed of the game, etc.—to predict how a player will perform at the next level.
The Jets most recently learned this lesson the hard way with their top choice from last year's draft, cornerback Dee Milliner. Milliner was the top cornerback taken in the draft, but it was not until December that he began to play anything like the ninth-best player in his draft class, and it took three trips to the bench before he found his sea legs.
Based on the way he finished the season (three interceptions in three games), signs point to Milliner developing into a longtime starter at cornerback. For a rebuilding team like the 2013 Jets, this result is just fine.
The 2014 Jets, however, cannot afford to wait for their top draft pick to take his time adjusting to the NFL.
Fill Needs Before the Draft
One good way to determine how well or poorly a team will perform in a given season is to count the number of rookie starters on the opening-day depth chart.
Why? Because a rookie's presence indicates a roster hole. Because no one knows exactly how a rookie will perform in the NFL, relying on one to start means that the position was pretty wide open to begin with (with a few exceptions, of course).
As Idzik said, free agency is the avenue teams should use to fill roster holes, given the relative predictability of the performance of each player. Sure, free agents are prone to "bust."
The smartest teams realize the benefits of filling needs prior to the draft, eliminating the need to "reach" for prospects during the draft. When a team chooses an inferior talent for the sake of adding a body at a certain position, they are ultimately diluting the overall talent level of the roster.
The idea of rookies making a big impact in their first season is a relatively new phenomenon. It was not long ago when it was customary for rookie quarterbacks to sit on the bench and learn for a season or two, even when they were taken first overall, like Carson Palmer. Now, top rookies are expected to start and contribute early and at a high level.
Players who do not produce within a year or two are looked upon instantly as failures (Stephen Hill). The developmental process for young players has all but evaporated—which may not be a good thing.
From a general manager standpoint, the primary goal is to acquire as much talent as possible. "Filling holes" may be the neat way to go about things, but having a good enough player at each position does not win championships.
If it means raising the overall talent level of a team to strengthen an already-strong position at the cost of another, taking the more talented player will always win out over "solving" a positional problem.
By following this simple-yet-overlooked rule, Idzik may have saved his successful debut draft from being another setback in the Jets' rebuilding efforts.
Case Study: Sheldon Richardson
The Jets learned firsthand of how sticking with the age-old plan of selecting the best player available is the best way to go about sustaining success in the NFL.
On the clock with the 13th overall pick, the Jets faced the decision of drafting tight end Tyler Eifert or Sheldon Richardson. With one (mediocre) tight end with somewhat-extensive playing experience on the roster in Jeff Cumberland, adding a first-round talent at the position to boost one of the worst offenses in football seemed like a no-brainer.
The Jets, however, thought much more highly of defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson as a player. Despite the fact that he was a defensive player and the Jets had used their last two first-round picks on defensive lineman in past years, Idzik took the better player.
Richardson went on to win Defensive Rookie of the Year. Eifert finished his solid-yet-unspectacular rookie season for the Cincinnati Bengals with 39 catches for 445 yards.
The Jets are now enjoying high praise for their decision to go against the grain and take a second defensive player in the first round (after Dee Milliner), but the decision was not seen in the same light by those conducting immediate, surface-level analysis.
Would Eifert have been a bad pick? No. The Jets did (and still) need a tight end, and Eifert would have been the best tight end on the roster in 2013.
However, championship teams were not build on picks that were "not bad." Thanks to Idzik's decision to select Richardson, the Jets are armed with one of the best defensive lines in the game, giving them a decisive edge in the trenches every time they take the field.
The Jets can always get a 450-yard tight end in free agency or even later in the draft. Sheldon Richardsons come around only once in a while.
Finding a Balance
Taking the best player is always the top priority, but it is not the only priority. Of course, there must be some balance in the variety of positions selected in the draft. After all, coming away from the draft with seven centers will hardly yield many wins, no matter how good those players are.
Where the Jets (or any team) can focus their attention on meeting quotas at each position is more in the middle rounds. The risk of passing on a greater talent is lower, but there is still enough talent available to find starting-caliber players. Wait too long, and a team is playing with fire by trying to fill a last-minute hole with a player who would barely make most rosters.
However, when it comes to the first round, finding an elite player who can be a part of the organization over the long haul is the top priority. If the player happens to also fill an immediate need, it is a mere bonus.
So far, Idzik and the Jets have abided by this rule. Doing so has brought them immediate success and has set them up nicely to build for the future.
Now, they must be careful not to let their own success make them believe that they are above the basic principles of drafting.