Need or best player available? It's the big question every team has to answer during an NFL draft. Usually, what a general manager tells you he wants is the opposite of what he'll choose.
That's how it went for Scot McCloughan and the Washington Redskins this year. He wisely used his 10 picks to address obvious areas of need for a rebuilding roster consistently undone by weaknesses at very specific positions.
His main emphasis was naturally the offensive line that surrendered 58 sacks in 2014. McCloughan added three players, two of which have excellent chances to start as rookies.
But Washington's new team-builder also made room for a pass-rusher to improve a pressure defense that registered a mere 36 sacks a year ago. Two more picks went on bolstering the depth for a secondary reinforced during free agency but threadbare further down the depth chart.
In fact, McCloughan's entire draft haul could be read as a checklist for every position of need he inherited when he arrived at Redskins Park. Inside linebacker depth was needed and checked off once McCloughan tabbed Martrell Spaight in Round 5.
The offense lacked a true power-style back, as well as one capable in pass protection. Third-rounder Matt Jones ticks both boxes.
Washington's struggling quarterbacks needed a sure-handed slot receiver capable of providing big plays on third downs; the return game also needed the same explosive potential. Enter pint-sized wide receiver Jamison Crowder, a smart choice in the fourth.
Sticking with the special teams, the coverage units received a much-needed boost when physical wideout Evan Spencer was taken off the board in Round 6.
The theme from Washington's 2015 draft was clear: McCloughan didn't waste a single pick not answering needs.
What made that approach stand out was how it went against the new GM's predraft words. McCloughan told anyone willing to listen and believe him—and there were plenty who did the latter—that he would target best players over needs.
That priority was supposed to come at the expense of positions. He made that clear when discussing the possibility of even selecting a quarterback, per Zac Boyer of The Washington Times:
In [San Francisco] and Seattle, we understand that we’re not a real deep roster, so let’s not just focus on a certain position. Let’s focus on the best player, because we’re not just talking about Year 1. We’re talking about Year 3 [and] Year 5.
Shortly after he arrived in D.C., McCloughan talked up the best player available approach, standard GM speak ahead of a draft. In fact, he was as explicit as he could be about avoiding making selections based on need, per ESPN's John Keim:
I’m never under the assumption that you draft for need. You draft the best available football player on the board. You know people say, ‘Well, if you have this and this, why would you do that?’ Because, you know, in the long run, they are the ones who will help you win the most games.
Talk about the proverbial smoke screen. The clouds well and truly cleared once McCloughan made his first pick for Washington.
All his talk of avoiding need for the best on the board looked redundant as soon as offensive tackle Brandon Scherff was announced as the draft's fifth overall selection.
Taking Scherff was an obvious concession to the biggest need on McCloughan's roster, namely, the need for better play along the offensive line. As the Outland Trophy winner, the award given to the best lineman in collegiate football, Scherff should immediately answer that need.
He was picked with two obvious concerns in mind. The first involves bolstering last season's 19th-ranked rushing attack.
A player B/R NFL Draft Analyst Matt Miller dubbed the "best run-blocker in this draft," Scherff will be a major and immediate help:
But the main reason for taking Scherff is to help halt the alarming regression of quarterback Robert Griffin III. Since being drafted second overall in 2012, Griffin has gone from Offensive Rookie of the Year and a playoff quarterback to one beset by injuries, dreadful mechanics and barely hanging onto his job.
The team's plan to insert Scherff at right tackle, per Mike Jones of The Washington Post, is intended to give Griffin more time to make reads and accurate throws.
That was the biggest need facing the Redskins this offseason. Selecting Scherff was McCloughan choosing the best player available who would answer the primary need on the roster.
But not everybody agreed with the approach Washington took on draft day.
Specifically, not everybody agreed with the decision to opt for Scherff over dynamic defensive tackle Leonard Williams. He slipped down the board and was there for the Redskins to take at No. 5.
But instead, McCloughan made the safer pick. It was a choice that certainly raised the ire of NFL Media columnist Adam Schein:
I like Brandon Scherff. I thought he would go to the Giants with the ninth overall pick. But Washington? At No. 5?? With Leonard Williams still on the board?!?!?
What is this, amateur hour?
I understand the value of a great offensive line. I raved about the Cowboys wisely plucking Zack Martin last May -- and then voted for him as Offensive Rookie of the Year in January.
But in no universe is Scherff the fifth-best player in the 2015 NFL Draft.
If the 'Skins truly craved him, they should've found a way to trade down. And if they couldn't ... pick a superior player!
The Redskins absolutely blew it.
Strong stuff, but plenty would agree given the more immediate impact a disruptive force like Williams could make as a rookie. A lineman who can blow up a running game and consistently crush the pass pocket is something of a rarity, so therefore should always merit strong consideration in a draft room.
It's not as if the Redskins didn't toy with the idea of taking advantage of Williams' relative fall. Mike Jones of The Washington Post detailed the process:
But when McCloughan provided further context, the real motivation for selecting Scherff became clear. He emphasized the priority judgement he made between Scherff and Williams, per NFL.com's Conor Orr: "Going into this thing I knew we needed some help up front on the offensive side and it was too good of a bang for the buck to not get Brandon there."
There's the ode to need again. It makes sense because the arguments for taking the alleged best player available over need just don't stand up.
NFL Media analyst Elliot Harrison applauded the New York Jets' decision to take Williams off the board one spot after Washington picked. This is despite the AFC East club currently boasting front-line stars Sheldon Richardson and Muhammad Wilkerson.
Harrison reached into fairly recent history for an example endorsing the pick: "Minnesota had two 1,000-yard receivers in Cris Carter and Jake Reed in 1998, but that didn't stop the Vikings from scooping up Randy Moss with the 21st overall pick. Going BPA will never go out of style."
But that argument overlooks a fundamental difference between the Vikes of '98 and Washington's current vintage. Entering the 1998 season, the Vikings had made consecutive trips to the playoffs, they already boasted a strong roster.
Strength at most positions gave Minnesota the luxury of taking a player they didn't really need, but one who would still make an impact. Losing teams don't have that luxury, particularly those mired in losing the way the Redskins are.
Of course, believers in the BPA model of drafting would say rebuilding teams need talent everywhere. Following that rule should be the priority of a new general manager tasked with reversing fortunes.
But that's merely a surface-deep argument. Look a little deeper and it becomes rather vacuous.
The reality is not much really separates losing teams from those who consistently compete for the playoffs. Usually it's longstanding problems at key positions, problems allowed to go unchecked, that condemn a franchise to losing games regularly.
For instance, the Cleveland Browns have been strong at certain positions since re-entering the league in 1999. They've notably had good players along both the offensive and defensive lines.
Cleveland's current roster boasts defensive stars such as cornerback Joe Haden, yet the Browns stay in a losing mode because they've failed to answer their biggest need. Without a competent quarterback, Cleveland remains rooted to the bottom of the AFC North.
Of course, the Browns have used several high draft picks trying to solve their problems under center. Drafting for need makes sense, but it still demands taking the right player.
Perhaps a better example of the folly of going BPA is provided by the Detroit Lions. It's been a theme of several drafts, but was most obvious in 2011 when the Motor City franchise added D-tackle Nick Fairley even though they already had Ndamukong Suh at the heart of their defensive front.
For various reasons, boasting arguably the most talented D-tackle tandem in football did little for the Lions. It did little because picking Fairley didn't solve Detroit's deep problems in the secondary. Nor did it answer issues in the running game.
Both were more pressing needs and represented issues that still trouble the Lions today.
That's why McCloughan did the right thing by putting needs first. Fixing those things that annually undermine a team is the quicker route to a return to winning.
Stacking talent on top of talent is just a one-way ticket to an unbalanced roster and an inconsistent team. Just ask the Lions.
Make no mistake, after watching dire offensive line play undermine the quarterback position for four of the last five years, the Redskins had to use a top pick on a premier prospect at the position.
Without that, there would be little use for a marquee receiving corps featuring DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon. The former was added last offseason, even though Garcon had established himself as a record-setter.
All that talent stacking achieved was a 4-12 finish and the 26th-best scoring offense in the NFL. The fact that the team's passers weren't allowed to stay upright long enough to get the ball to downfield playmakers had more than a little to do with those numbers.
No matter who's at receiver, Washington's quarterbacks need time to get them the ball. By the same token, new O-line coach Bill Callahan has a lofty reputation, but he can't work with nothing.
Callahan built the Dallas Cowboys line into a physically dominant unit, but those results came from coaching first-round talents such as Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick and Zack Martin.
Similarly, even after taking the necessary step to retool the secondary in free agency, McCloughan still realized the new recruits needed the help of a stronger pass rush. Hence, the decision to use a second-round pick on Preston Smith, a pressure specialist who logged nine sacks in 2014, per CFBStats.com.
It's a complementary dynamic any team that wants to win must have on both sides of the ball, but it's one that can only be created by consistently fixing areas of need.
McCloughan scored major points for doing just that in both the draft and free agency, according to B/R NFL Analyst Chris Simms:
McCloughan smartly answered the biggest needs he faced when he took over. That meant drafting Scherff and giving Griffin two weapons, Jones and Crowder, who possess the niche skills he couldn't lean on during the last two seasons.
Now the Redskins are likely to boast a better, more balanced offense. That's great news for a rebuilding defense.
Most of all, though, it's great news for a franchise that's been undone by too often snatching so-called "best players," either on the veteran market or via the draft. But those quick fixes haven't been enough to compensate for the deeper problems.
Making those problems his priority was the best move McCloughan made for his first draft.
All statistics and rankings via NFL.com.