Developing An Effective NFL Drafting Strategy

Howard HopperCorrespondent IApril 20, 2009

TAMPA, FL - JANUARY 30:  NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell addresses the media at the news conference prior to Super Bowl XLIII on January 30, 2009 at Tampa Convention Center in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Drew Hallowell/Getty Images)

The first round of the NFL draft is always full of surprises, because teams do not blindly follow Mel Kiper’s script for how the draft will go down.

The work that goes into the preparation of an effective drafting strategy is a complicated process that involves several distinctly different evaluations. Let's examine some of these analyses and processes, which include the following.

Player Ranking

This process is very straightforward. It involves ranking the prospects, regardless of position, from best player down. Prospects are ranked in a numerical order—from 1 to 500 for example—and are usually bundled into tiers. Each tier includes players with similar estimated contribution values.

The top tier on a team’s draft board includes the players identified as the top blue chip prospects, who are usually expected to make a significant, immediate impact if selected.

This year’s top tier is likely to include: Aaron Curry (LB, WFU), Jason Smith (OT, BAY), Eugene Monroe (OT, UVA), Michael Crabtree (WR, TTU), Matt Stafford (QB, UGA), and Brian Orakpo (DE/OLB, UT). Players on the top tier of differnet teams' draft boards will vary, based on their evaluations, perspectives and situations, such as their current quarterback situation.

Position and Player Evaluation

This evaluation first identifies the number of players currently on the roster in each position, and compares these figures against the number of players that the team would like to have in each position going into training camp, and eventually on the 53-man roster. Players will need to be added during the draft and free agent signings to meet the target roster numbers for any given position.

The second part of this evaluation examines attributes and performance of each player currently on the roster. This includes determining how well they perform in their position; identifying their strengths, weaknesses and style of play; documenting their success in game situations; and finally summarizing their overall contribution to the team. 

Analyzing Team Performance

In addition to evaluating individual player performance, an in-depth analysis of the team performance from the previous season needs to be conducted to identify the areas that represent strengths and weaknesses for the team. This is an analysis that is based on team statistics, supplemented by an analysis of team performance on individual plays.

For example, statistics may show that a team's overall rushing yards ranks tenth in the league, which is good. Statistics may also show that this team's ability to convert third and short rushes for first downs is only ranked 26th in the league, which is not good, and ,might be addressed through player acquisition. 

Identifying Unique Challenges

A forward-looking evaluation should be performed to identify challenges that face the team in the upcoming season. This may include factors such as being able to defend against certain players in your division, such as tall, athletic tight ends, or being able to successfully attack 3-4 defenses that you play frequently, perhaps with strong quick edge rushers.

Compiling The Data

All teams attend the combine and workouts, analyze hundreds of hours of tape, interview candidates, and perform the analyses described above in one fashion or another. This results in huge amounts of data being generated. But what do the teams do with the data once it is compiled?

Drafting Strategies

Teams take this data and use it as a basis for their drafting strategy. These strategies vary widely between franchises, and often are impacted by the criteria that the team management values most highly.

Some of the criteria used to develop draft strategies, good or bad, include a concoction of the following concepts:

    * Players move up and down your draft board based on their style of play, character     issues, injury history, past drug use, and other personal factors.

    * Take the best available player on your draft board, regardless of the team's position   needs.

    * Take the best available player in your most critical need position, regardless of whether players with higher rankings or in higher tiers are available.
    * Only select one player for each needed position on the team.
    * Only select players with agents who have a history of signings without lengthy holdouts.
    *  Select players based on their physical characteristics and performance as determined at the combine and during their school pro day workouts.
    *Select players based on their college football playing statistics
    *Focus on players at nearby schools.

Putting It All Together

The teams who consistently have successful drafts always seem to select players who fit in with the team philosophy and style of play. These players also provide key contributions that make the entire team better. These players do not necessarily have to be in a needed position.

It is interesting to note that most winning teams are not evenly balanced as far as being equally strong in rushing and passing, both on offense and defense.

For example, the Baltimore Ravens always have many need positions to fill on offense, but have been very successful in drafting defensive players that make their already formidable defense even better. Half of their first and second round selections in the past six drafts have been defensive players.

During their heyday, the Saint Louis Rams “greatest show on turf” teams had a high scoring offense and only a marginal defense. They continually added players to their offense, and seemingly ignored positions of need on their defense. The strategy was successful because, to beat the Rams, teams had to outscore them—not an easy task back then.

Who will be the winners and losers in the 2009 NFL draft?

Despite extensive analysis, some highly touted players will not achieve success in the NFL. Others who did not make the top of anyone’s draft charts will turn out to be perennial Pro Bowlers.

As far as team success in the draft is concerned, we all know the teams that are expected to do well in the draft, and also know the teams that can be expected to gack.

Will things change this year for these teams? Only time will tell.

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