The NFL Draft: Why Your Team Usually Blows It
I know the common rejoinder to opinions like this: "If you know so much about football why aren't you a coach or a GM? These guys are professionals who have been doing this all their lives and you are just the average backseat driver fan, etc."
The truth is that big time sports is ego-driven.
Becoming a coach or personnel guy at the highest level almost always requires a huge ego, as well as an "I am going to stick with what got me here" mindset. It becomes more about "winning my way" by validating a philosophy than just winning.
So, it becomes insanity, trying the same thing over and over again thinking that this time they will get it right, because the types of personalities willing to admit that they are wrong and try something else are those who generally don't become NFL owners, head coaches or general managers in the first place.
Case in point: the Houston Texans.
Their owner Bob McNair loves QBs, and doesn't think much of RBs, and offensive linemen. So, after he bought HIS TEAM, he takes David Carr, No. 1 overall, refuses to invest any high draft picks on RBs and OLs, and David Carr gets pummeled. Then, he trades a pair of second round picks and gives up a $40 million contract for Matt Schaub, while still not having an every down tailback or a good offensive line.
Results? The same.
The Texans could have simply pulled the trigger on either an OT or RB in the first round and made the playoffs long ago, especially last season when they lost no less than five games because they couldn't convert third and shorts, but McNair is more interested in being the guy to prove that you can win without investing much in RBs and OLs than in being just another guy who won the same way that the Cowboys/Redskins/Steelers/Giants etc. won their Super Bowls.
McNair has this attitude because he figures that it was being an innovative thinker that led to his becoming a billionaire so that he could buy the Texans in the first place. So yeah, the average fan CAN sit back and second guess guys like that. So here goes.
The Main Principle.
Football isn't like basketball where a team with the best three or four players—or a team with a superstar and role players—can win a championship. Even if you exclude special teams, football has 22 starters and 35-40 guys that are going to get major playing time. The goal is to get the best group of 35-40 guys that you can.
1. In the higher rounds, take the best player available instead of drafting for need.
(This is of course within reason..."the best player available" can mean "the best player at a position where I don't have a Pro Bowler or didn't use my No. 1 pick last year.)
The goal is to get the best 35-40 guys over the course of several years (let's say four), not (what you hope to be!) the best guy or two at a couple of need positions in a given year. This really isn't that hard to pull off.
If your team went 4-12, your team is so bad and you will be drafting so high that the best (or second best) player available will fill a need. If your team went 12-4, your team will be so good and you will be drafting so low that finding a rookie who will make a meaningful contribution at a need position is a pipe dream.
If your team went 8-8, you will have several glaring needs and a draft position that makes you pretty sure that you can fill it with a good player. However, Super Bowls aren't won with good players, but with superior players. So why let the best player that you can get pass you by just so you can fill a need?
Glaring, obvious holes should be plugged for 2-3 years in free agency with cheap contracts, guy a rookie drafted in the middle rounds coming off his first contract, or a once superior player looking for his last. Going with a stopgap gives you to time to fill that position with a "best or second best available player" high draft pick or with a big time free agency acquisition.
This is approach is seldom taken because coaches don't want to fill needs with average players. They want to fill needs with Pro Bowl players, and convince themselves that they can do so with their first round draft pick.
This is so with both the 8-8 team who feels that they are a player or two away from the playoffs and the 12-4 team who feels that they are a player or two away from the Super Bowl. What these teams often wind up with is reaches and outright misses in the critical first two draft rounds.
2. In the high rounds, take the sure thing, not the boom or bust pick.
The problem with failing on a high draft pick isn't "it's a wasted pick", because there is no difference between finding a Pro Bowler in the seventh round and finding one in the first.
Instead, the problem is: A) the money/cap space and B) having to wait the obligatory three or four years for a guy taken in the first two rounds to pan out before you can try to replace him because of A). You aren't going to sign a mid-level free agent to replace a guy that you took No. 11 overall two years ago.
So, since failing on a pick in the first two rounds sets you back, getting the 35-40 best players means succeeding on as many picks in that area of the draft as possible. Again, this isn't basketball where if you get Larry Bird one year and blow your picks the next two years you are still ahead.
Instead, in football over a three year period getting four-to-five very good players with only one or two whiffs is superior to getting two Pro Bowlers and four stiffs. True, you need to get the best players that you can, but it is still a numbers game. Not drafting for need is a way of reducing the chances of getting a bust, but going with the sure thing also increases those chances.
Also, it isn't as if the "sure things" don't often become Pro Bowlers. They do. The "sure thing" versus the "boom or bust" is rarely an average, steady player versus rolling the dice on a potential Hall of Famer.
Instead, it is the DE who you know will get you eight or nine sacks a year for 12 years versus the DE who will either pan out and get you 14-15, or totally fail and be out of the NFL in three years. In a numbers game, getting four sure things and two busts beats getting two boom players and four busts.
3. Draft for need in the middle rounds.
The idea is generally that you need top 12 draft pick ability to fill a need with a rookie. That is true...if you are trying to fill a need with a Pro Bowl caliber player. But as stated earlier, drafting for needs in the high rounds only increases the chances that you will reach for average players or draft busts (especially if the "need" is filled with a boom or bust pick).
The first two rounds of the draft and the big free agency contracts should be dedicated towards getting the best players that you can regardless of position.
Needs can, and should be filled with guys who are merely capable, and those can be gotten either as cheap free agents or in the draft's middle region (rounds three, four, and perhaps the top quarter of the fifth). That's where you can find specialists, role players, and guys who may be a bit small, a step slow, lack the "jump out of the gym" natural ability, but are very knowledgeable and skilled.
For example, it's where you look for the fifth year seniors who got great coaching and put up good numbers for college teams who run the same system that you do. You can take your All-American college CB who is a little short, WR who is a little slow, LB that is a little small, or OL that doesn't have elite mobility and plug them right in, and they can hold a spot for three years or maybe even longer.
Teams generally use the middle region of the draft for "developmental players", guys who have a ton of ability but are raw. The truth is that relatively few of those guys actually develop, often because the NFL lacks a minor league system or another practical system for developing talent.
Instead, the NFL is a "play right away" league, so there is no point in using picks that can go towards guys who can help you now on guys who need four years of coaching knowing full well that you don't have four years to put into a guy.
So, a team should dedicate their first two rounds looking for great players that they hope will contribute in a year or two, and the next two rounds looking for guys to play today.
4. The raw prospects with big time ability should go in the later rounds .
Granted many teams do this already, but not with any real strategy.
Some teams actually try to look for immediate help, guys that they will use as backups or on special teams for a couple of years, in this region of the draft. But the truth is that most teams are simply throwing away picks after the middle of the fifth round.
Instead, the later rounds is where teams should look for small college players (especially guys who weren't invited to the combine), guys who were obviously held back by poor coaching (i.e. players on bad teams), and players who are changing positions.
The NFL actually made this approach more viable by increasing the size of practice squads from five to eight. However, instead of taking advantage by going after off-the-radar players, most NFL teams simply get guys that they know have no chance of making a real contribution.
5. Don't get locked into looking for "guys who fit into my system" or "fit what we want to do."
Of course, you want complementary players...don't draft an immobile QB with a weak arm to go with two downfield WRs and a run-blocking OL.
Still, you find nonsense every year like teams' downgrading or passing up a guy who is great at two things, say an LB who is outstanding at stopping the run and rushing the passer, because "our defense needs the LBs to cover." Or, passing up a tailback who can run for 1600 yards a year because he isn't a good blocker or receiver.
In the NFL, getting guys who can run your system gets you to the playoffs every year. Fine. But winning Super Bowls requires guys who are so good that it allows you to impose your will on another team.
So, take the middle linebacker who will give you 150 tackles and seven sacks a year, and assign someone else to cover the RB out of the backfield. Or get the RB who will dominate a defense running the ball, and let the FB and/or TE do the blocking and catching.
The prevailing attitude is that you are better off with good players who fit your scheme than with better players who don't. The truth is that schemes should be designed around the best players that you can get.
That's what Bill Parcells did with Lawrence Taylor and Bill Walsh did with Ken Anderson and Joe Montana. A more modern example was Charlie Weis and the Patriots' modifying their offense when they exchanged Drew Bledsoe for Tom Brady, and you see the result.
Similarly, Tony Dungy and the Colts made the edge pass rush more prominent in the cover two defense when they got Dwight Freeney, and getting Troy Polamalu caused the Steelers to change their coverages and blitzes (who also became a more passing-oriented, explosive and risk-taking offense to fit the recent talent that they have acquired on that side of the ball).
So, it is because the vast majority of teams overestimate what they can actually accomplish in the draft that the same few teams wind up dominating year after year.
Every team talks about "building through the draft", but what they really mean is "winning by getting the guy that we want at the position that we most value", including teams that wind up using high draft picks at the same two or three positions year after year while continually neglecting other positions.
What if this approach results in having a ton of great LBs? Then run a 3-4 defense. A surplus of very good WRs? Then you ought to be able to win with an above average QB that you can get in a trade or free agency instead of needing a franchise QB. Have a bunch of good interior offensive linemen? Then get a big tailback in free agency or in the third round and play power football.
Having too many good players because you consistently get quality players in the draft is not a problem. Or if it is, I defy anyone to name the teams that have it.
Instead, not having enough good players because they keep trying to fill specific needs because A) the players don't pan out or B) because they fail to adequately assess their needs (and B. is bigger problem than you might realize because coaches, GMs and owners can develop tunnel vision or simply be stubborn) is usually the problem.
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