Position of need or best player available?
That's the "question of the hour" these days among the NFL media and fans. It's our very own "Lady or the Tiger?" conundrum, as we get to ask the question, yet never really learn the answer. The power is taken from our hands to make the decisions, and even once the choices are made, we can only guess whether we were right or not.
Every team says the same exact thing: We got the best player on our board.
Bully for them; we just know it's not true.
This is the dynamic that drives instant draft analysis. It's why a site like "The Big Lead" can look back in 2014 and laugh that Mel Kiper gave the Seattle Seahawks a "C-" for the draft that brought them defensive pass-rusher Bruce Irvin, linebacker Bobby Wagner and quarterback Russell Wilson. Bleacher Report even gave them an "F" for that same class.
It's this dynamic that lauds a team for landing "value" in a player without really asking why he fell in the draft.
Without this question, we couldn't process the draft in any sort of way in which the Mel Kipers, Todd McShays and Mike Mayocks of the world have taught.
What if I told you that the question is a lie?
Moment of truth time: I don't know everything about every NFL draft prospect.
Whew, that really felt good to get off my chest...
Seriously, though, no one does. It's why NFL teams have entire departments devoted to the process, and even they don't know everything.
Even ignoring—for a moment, only a moment—all the biases, errors, preconceived notions and flat-out wrong assessments that are made by everyone (including—heck, especially—me) during this process, there's the simple truth that there is just too much for one man, or numerous men, to watch.
It's why "draft stock" is a thing—even if the media screws the whole thing up. The draft is not a horse race (note: The media will make anything a horse race if you let them—Bridgewater 2016! Woo!). It is not as if every single bit of information leaking out to our thirsty little mouths from December to May flips boards upside down as people make it seem.
No. Instead, stock is simply how the board adjusts as teams learn new things, get to players they have not done due diligence on before, re-assess situations and make final evaluations higher up the organizational food chain.
If the area scout and director of scouting both liked "player A" better than "player B," but "player B" was more impressive at the combine, in interviews and at his pro day, maybe the general manager asks them to go back to the film. All of a sudden, "player B" looks a lot more appealing.
That's draft stock.
Trust that NFL team boards probably look somewhat closer to what Mayock and company have in May than they ever did months earlier. It may take someone in the media—with other duties and far more makeup to apply—more time to watch a prospect, but teams aren't as late to the game.
In reality, the media spends the entire draft season catching up, and does so—rather reliantly—on their contacts in aforementioned front offices. As much as I respect the opinions of and am rather awestruck at times by the mastery of some of the draft's best prognosticators out there, it's no trade secret that they all move players up and down their boards by reliable information just as much as their own scouting acumen.
So, when a player is a "reach" on draft day, the question has to be asked: On whose board?
If a player is a reach on Kiper's board, my board, your board or anyone else's on Pinterest, that doesn't mean a whole lot to the team that selected him. Opinions can be different, and that's OK. No team is ever going to admit to reaching on their own board, because they don't.
Oh, don't get me wrong, teams might eschew a player they know is better, but that's a player they've already told themselves they either don't want, don't need or certainly don't value as highly. That's not a reach, because that's exactly how teams set up their boards.
If You're Looking For Something, You're Going to Find It Eventually...Unless You Don't
Let's pretend for a moment, just you and me.
It's October, the NFL season is well underway, and the two of us are jamming to some Creedence Clearwater Revival as we drive around central Texas to the next of our countless visits this season on our scouting trail.
My cellphone rings. You snap at me (mad, no doubt, that I threw your Miley Cyrus CD out of the window 100 miles back). "Aren't you going to get that?" you bellow.
I pick up, and it's our boss—the Director of College Scouting. He informs us that the organization has soured on our quarterback situation after the four-interception stinkfest from the week before. The wins haven't piled up nearly as high as the losses in recent years, and we're looking at a top-10 draft pick once again.
As we walk up to the practice facility, neither of us even know the kid's name, but we see the tight spiral he just threw and proceed to watch a fantastic showcase of a great arm. Sure, we're not drafting this guy in the first round, but heck, maybe we can steal him later on.
The trip goes on, and every stop is the same. Sure, we believe we're doing our job the same as we were before, but now we're looking at quarterbacks in a new light. Now we need a quarterback, so doggone it, we're going to find one.
After the season, we stand side by side and fight for our guys to make the short list. So does every other scout from all over the country, and our team's list of 750 draftable prospects "magically" has 75 quarterbacks on it.
How did that happen?
It happens every year with every position and in a number of different ways. The head coach hates kids with "daddy issues," so we find reasons not to like the perfectly good linebacker prospect whose dad just got remarried. Last year, the offensive coordinator shot down every receiver under six feet, so we don't rank them as high this year, because we aren't going through that fight. We've had the same two starting guards for five years, don't need 'em...don't watch 'em.
None of it is intentional, but it happens.
It happens in the media too. Each year, we learn more and more about the process, but we still enter it with all of our own personal baggage, and there's less of a collaborative effort when it's one media guy trying to "draft" for 32 teams versus a whole department of scouts drafting for one.
If your favorite team has a player ranked two rounds higher than a talking head, or even another team, it shouldn't be a surprise, and it doesn't mean they're wrong. It also doesn't mean that a handful of other teams weren't sitting there waiting to pull the same trigger.
Then again, it doesn't mean they're right either. That intent to find something doesn't always mean you'll find it. Sometimes that gold is really just the fake stuff. You'll have to see how everything plays out.
This Isn't a Fantasy Team
Time is the operative word here.
I love putting mock drafts together because I realize they're just scenarios that could happen but mathematically almost assuredly won't. Even the most "accurate" mock draft prognosticator is wrong far more than he's right, and that's only the first round.
Nostradamus and Miss Cleo together couldn't handle this nonsense.
For me, the best part of putting together a mock draft is envisioning what a team could look like. Maybe it's the pairing of a final offensive weapon with an already high-powered offense. Maybe it's a bookend pass-rusher for a team that already has a fearsome foursome up front. Maybe it's a punter in the third roun—
IT'S NEVER A PUNTER IN THE THIRD ROUND!
Teams do this too. They contemplate what could be if the draft lands their way. They definitely don't lock themselves in. Instead, they come up with a number of plans they would be more than comfortable with.
It's not always a position of greatest need. Sometimes, it's about strengthening a strong point even more in order to scare the pants off the other teams in the division. Drafting a rookie lineman to shore up a shaky line might fill the biggest hole, but adding a final piece to an already devastating defense might be the better move.
If the draft is always about plugging up the dam, it's impossible to define the team as anything but a collection of players that were simply needed at the time.
That goes against how many of us think of building teams. We run our fantasy squads or teams in Madden with the short term in mind. That's our experience that has shaped what we value.
"I am sick of watching so-and-so get burnt like a freakin' bagel out there each and every week and if they don't draft a cornerback in the first round this year I'm gonna throw my TV out the window!"
Maybe the team does draft a cornerback, or maybe so-and-so gets another year because he's 24 and cornerbacks typically need a couple of seasons to acclimate to the game. Or, maybe the team knows he played all last season with a partially torn tendon.
Whatever it is, the people running the team have a whole different set of values that shape how they look at the draft. By "they," I mean that every single person in the room has a completely independent set of values that mesh together in perfect harmony...or something like that.
In 32 different war rooms, that harmony works differently—all of them almost completely independent of one another and certainly from the media noise that permeates the process for you and me.
A reach is never a reach for the team we think is reaching. At least, it's not at the time. Most of the time, teams miss just as much on the players we think they're getting value on because those teams are just as wrong as we are.