Whether it has been in regards to position value or position scarcity, we have discussed the philosophy of ranking draft prospects in great detail of late. My article on why selecting the best player available is not always a viable draft strategy was a bit polarizing, with excellent arguments arising on both sides of the debate.
Another reason I think it is sometimes efficient to bypass the best player available is due to risk. In the first few rounds of the draft, teams should be looking to select players with high floors, i.e. low-risk players. If you have the first overall draft pick, for example, the upside of that prospect is naturally limited (relative to his draft spot). He’s supposed to be the top player in the draft, and outside of a Peyton Manning-esque career, he probably won’t surpass the hype. Simple statistics.
Of course, there’s also the fact that “missing” on a top-10 pick can really set a franchise back. Not only have you not strengthened your team, but you have also basically thrown away quite a bit of cash. For those top five or so teams, especially, it is imperative to hit on their pick. Thus, minimizing downside, for them, is more important than maximizing upside.
It is the middle and late rounds of the draft when a team should seek upside. Those players cost little and, if they don’t work out, it isn’t incredibly detrimental. Without that upside, though, the player holds little value. Why select a player in the seventh round you know won’t ever be anything more than a special teams player?
The Cowboys have been up and down with this “high floor” drafting strategy of late. I thought they did a fine job last year in selecting Dez Bryant and Sean Lee early. Bryant’s upside is of course outstanding, but the ‘Boys did their homework to find out Bryant really wasn’t as risky as many believed. He loves football, and despite some concern about his work ethic, I, for the life of me, cannot envision a scenario in which Bryant doesn’t rise to an elite level of play.
Note that a high floor doesn’t necessarily preclude a high ceiling.
While I wasn’t initially thrilled with the Lee pick, it’s pretty obvious it was the “safe” move. Lee might not possess All-Pro ability, but the Cowboys knew he is going to work his tail off to be a heck of a player for years. He simply won’t allow himself to become a bust.
Later in that 2010 draft, the Cowboys rolled the dice with Akwasi Owusu-Ansah, Sam Young and Sean Lissemore. The book is still out on these players, but all of them have the upside to potentially be starters in the NFL.
Dallas didn’t have an early pick in 2009, but in 2008 they selected Felix Jones, Mike Jenkins and Martellus Bennett in the first two rounds. Despite all players being early contributors, it’s pretty easy to see that each holds a lot of risk.
I really didn’t like the Jones pick in particular when it happened (even though I find Jones to be a very talented player) because of the low floor Jones possessed. I much preferred the selection of Orlando Scandrick in the fifth round—an area where gambling on upside is an efficient strategy.
It is the way in which one defines “best player available,” however, that determines the emphasis which must be placed on risk. If one simply means a list of the draft’s most talented players, then risk must be implemented into draft decisions after the fact. A superior draft tactic, in my opinion, is creating rankings which already take risk into account. I’d presume most organizations already do this.
Thus, draft day can be made simple. If the idea is to acquire the best player available with risk as a consideration, the team can simply view its board and select the highest player, knowing they already factored risk into the rankings.
Taking all of this into consideration, I have ranked the top 40 players from my 2011 Big Board, according to risk...
Riskiest 2011 Draft Prospects: The Top 40
1. Cam Newton, QB, Auburn
- Ultimate boom-or-bust prospect.
2. DaQuan Bowers, DE, Clemson
- Growing concerns about knee could lead to draft day free-fall.
- Work ethic.
- Brain tumor will scare off some teams; didn’t play football in 2010.
5. Taiwan Jones, RB, Eastern Washington
- Lack of elite competition.
- One arm much shorter than the other.
7. Titus Young, WR, Boise State
- Work ethic, attitude.
- Obvious concerns about weight control and general work ethic.
9. Graig Cooper, RB, Miami
- Never “the guy.”
- Takes plays off and produced for just one season.
11. Aldon Smith, DE, Missouri
- Where does he fit?
- Limited to 4-3?
14. Marvin Austin, DT, UNC
15. Justin Houston, OLB, Georgia
16. Ben Ijalana, OT/OG, Villanova
- Lack of elite competition.
- Can he maintain athleticism with increased weight?
- Lack of elite speed?
20. Derek Sherrod, OT, Mississippi State
- Zone-blocking only?
- Others disagree, but I think he possesses versatility in a 3-4.
- Does he fold against top competition?
- Safe for a quarterback.
- Upside not incredible, but I view him as free safety/cornerback.
30. A.J. Green, WR, Georgia
31. Mark Ingram, RB, Alabama
- Low upside due to lack of speed, but still relatively safe.
32. Gabe Carimi, OT, Wisconsin
33. Julio Jones, WR, Alabama
- Silenced concerns about speed at Combine.
34. J.J. Watt, DE, Wisconsin
35. Akeem Ayers, OLB, UCLA
36. Cameron Jordan, DT, Cal
37. Mike Pouncey, C/G, Florida
- Ability to play free safety limits his “bust” potential.
40. Marcell Dareus, DT, Alabama