Lesson Learned: Biggest Draft Mistakes in Past 5 Years and How to Avoid Them
Eighty NFL players drafted between 2013 and 2017 have made at least one Pro Bowl, but the majority of those Pro Bowlers were selected after the first round. That alone indicates that a lot of teams have made a lot of mistakes.
It's impossible for an NFL team to ace a draft, but that doesn't mean franchises can't learn from their (oftentimes shared and recurring) errors.
Let's dissect five draft trends or isolated occurrences from the last half-decade that we can confidently consider to be mistakes, noting the lessons that teams can take away from those blunders.
Luke Joeckel, Dion Jordan, Greg Robinson and Dante Fowler Were Top Three Picks
Lesson to be learned: Don't overvalue prospects just because they play premium positions
NFL front offices have become obsessed with those who play quarterback, those who protect quarterbacks and those who attack quarterbacks.
The first six picks of the 2013 draft were all either offensive tackles or edge-rushers; a pass-rusher, offensive tackle and quarterback went 1-2-3 in 2014; two quarterbacks and a sack artist were chosen with the top three picks in 2015; same deal in 2016; and a pair of defensive ends sandwiched a quarterback atop the 2017 draft.
Ndamukong Suh is the only player who doesn't play any of those three positions to be drafted first or second overall since 2010.
The problem is teams have been passing on higher-quality players at less vital positions in favor of flawed tackles and edge-defenders at the very top of the draft.
The 2013 draft class isn't pretty, but the Kansas City Chiefs, Jacksonville Jaguars and Miami Dolphins all probably regret taking tackle Eric Fisher, tackle Luke Joeckel and edge-rusher Dion Jordan, respectively, with the top three picks.
Fisher is a solid starter at left tackle for the Chiefs, but Joeckel's career might already be over after busting in Jacksonville and Dion Jordan is now a reserve in Seattle after recording just three sacks in Miami. None have sniffed a Pro Bowl.
Arguably the most valuable player from that class is center Travis Frederick, who went to the Dallas Cowboys 31st overall because nobody takes a center in the top half of the first round these days. But all of those teams would have been better off with Frederick, or cornerback Xavier Rhodes (25th overall) or wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins (27th).
Fisher and Joeckel always needed to add a ton of strength to become elite blind-side protectors, and the raw Jordan had to do the same. They were all projects, but they still went 1-2-3 because the class stunk and they played high-demand positions.
The St. Louis Rams made the same mistake taking offensive tackle Greg Robinson second overall the next year, despite the fact they could have taken great players at lower-demand positions (wide receiver Mike Evans, receiver Odell Beckham Jr., defensive tackle Aaron Donald (whom they were fortunate enough to select 11 picks later at No. 13), guard Zack Martin and linebacker C.J. Mosley, to name a handful).
The Ringer's Danny Kelly explored the dynamics of the failed Robinson pick last summer, noting that as the gap between the college and pro games widens, more offensive tackles are being drafted high based on "traits instead of game tape."
Robinson looked the part but had to develop his technique significantly, and the Rams had almost nothing NFL-related to utilize when evaluating him.
"Is this guy strong? Can he move? Can he jump? They're looking for amazing athletes with prototypical size and a salty temperament who can one day learn to do what's necessary at the next level," wrote Kelly of the difficulty of trying to assess college players at that position. "Teams call it projection, but with offensive linemen in particular, that 'projection' feels more and more like a euphemism for 'guessing.'"
A study conducted by yours truly in 2015 found that the safest first-round picks are typically safeties, linebackers and interior offensive linemen, but nobody wants to be safe in this low-patience era, and players at those positions don't usually move the needle.
Quarterbacks, pass-rushers and big blind-side maulers are the real needle-movers, which might explain why the Jaguars used three top-three picks in as many years on players at those positions. We've already touched on the Joeckel mistake, and we'll get to Blake Bortles later, but defensive end Dante Fowler Jr. has already failed miserably as a No. 3 overall selection in 2015 (he has just 12 sacks in two seasons and is dealing with off-field issues).
The Jags could have landed less sexy stars Leonard Williams, Marcus Peters or Landon Collins later in Round 1, but they gambled on an extremely raw pass-rusher in the top three and it backfired.
Did the Cleveland Browns make the same mistake drafting edge-rusher Myles Garrett first overall in 2017? It's still too early to tell.
The Bills Traded a First-Round Pick to Move into the Top Five for Sammy Watkins
Lesson to be learned: Don't trade up, especially for a player who isn't a surefire franchise-changer
Another way to look at this: Don't fall in love. Love makes you do silly things, like the Buffalo Bills did in 2014 when they traded their 2015 first- and fourth-round picks to the Browns to move up from the ninth pick to the fourth pick so that they could select wide receiver Sammy Watkins.
Few active superstar receivers are worth two first-round picks and a fourth-round pick, and yet Buffalo was willing to part with all of that in exchange for an unpolished, inconsistent, immature 20-year-old with potential off-field issues.
Trading up is often a bad idea. It's one thing to do it when you're desperately chasing a quarterback who you believe could turn your franchise around, but when's the last time a receiver did that? Has Odell Beckham Jr. turned the New York Giants into a Super Bowl-caliber team again? Did Dez Bryant put the Cowboys over the top? Did Calvin Johnson lead the Detroit Lions to a single playoff win?
The Bills were probably hoping Watkins could do for them what 2011 No. 6 overall pick Julio Jones did for the Atlanta Falcons (Atlanta also traded up big-time for Jones). But the Falcons haven't won consistently with Jones, and quarterback Matt Ryan was the league MVP in their most successful season during Jones' tenure there.
I won't use hindsight to my advantage to rag on the Bills for believing Watkins would have as much success as Jones, because he definitely had the makeup of a potential superstar receiver. But the draft is basically a crapshoot, and sacrificing a future roll of the dice is almost always a counterintuitive strategy in that game.
The Falcons got relatively lucky; the Bills rolled snake eyes.
The same year Buffalo traded up for Watkins, Joseph Stromberg of Vox cited a series of papers from economists Cade Massey and Richard Thaler which determined that "NFL teams ignore basic economics and draft players irrationally," pointing specifically to trade-ups like this one.
"Draft picks can be traded, and the success of any one player picked is highly uncertain," wrote Stromberg. "Because of that, their data says that in the current trade market, teams are always better off trading down—that is, trading one high pick for multiple lower ones—but many teams become overconfident in their evaluation of one particular player and do the exact opposite."
After becoming overconfident in their evaluation of Watkins, the Bills did the exact opposite. Now Watkins is playing for his third team in as many years, and Buffalo is still looking for its first playoff win this century.
Odell Beckham Jr. and Aaron Donald Were Both Passed on by More Than 10 Teams
Lesson to be learned: Don't become preoccupied with your "needs" or your scheme
The Bills' mistake in 2014 was magnified by the fact they could have stood pat with the No. 9 overall pick and still landed Odell Beckham Jr. or Aaron Donald, both of whom have become megastars. But while Buffalo misevaluated and overrated Watkins, several other teams with top-10 picks appear to have made the mistake of passing on Beckham and/or Donald (who were chosen 12th and 13th overall, respectively) because they weren't great fits.
Just look at the Lions, who had Beckham and Donald available to them in the No. 10 spot but instead took tight end Eric Ebron. Wanna bet Detroit would have gone in a different direction if Calvin Johnson and Ndamukong Suh weren't already on the roster? Who needs Beckham when you've got Megatron? Who needs Donald when you've got Suh?
But Suh lasted just one more season in Detroit, while Johnson retired abruptly just a year after that. Meanwhile, Ebron was cut this offseason after a disappointing four-year run there. The Lions could really use a Donald or a Beckham right about now.
The Falcons sure could have used a player like Donald or Beckham the last few years, but at the time, they had just signed defensive linemen Paul Soliai and Tyson Jackson to work with veterans Jonathan Babineaux, Corey Peters and Kroy Biermann up front, and Julio Jones and Roddy White remained the top two receivers. Plus, Atlanta's offensive line was a mess in need of a stalwart offensive tackle. Ergo, they drafted raw, short-armed tackle Jake Matthews sixth overall, passing on Donald, Beckham and another elite receiver in Mike Evans.
Might the Browns have considered Beckham in the No. 9 spot? Not with the flashy young Josh Gordon coming off a season in which he led the league with 1,646 receiving yards in just 14 games! Instead, Cleveland took cornerback Justin Gilbert, who is no longer in the league.
(You wonder if the Carolina Panthers or Cincinnati Bengals will soon feel the same way about passing on 2017 Defensive Rookie of the Year Marshon Lattimore (who went 11th to the New Orleans Saints) in order to address more dire needs with slow-starters Christian McCaffrey (eighth) and John Ross (ninth), respectively.)
Of course, it's also possible the Falcons and Browns passed on Donald because Cleveland ran a 3-4 defense and Atlanta was in the process of transitioning from a 4-3 to a 3-4. The 6'1" Donald was arguably better-suited for a 4-3 defense, and he had been almost exclusively linked to teams with 4-3 defenses ahead of the draft.
If the guy is good enough, you adapt your scheme to him. And if he's truly exceptional, he'll dominate regardless of scheme.
The Rams drafted Donald and he excelled immediately as a 4-3 defensive tackle. But when Los Angeles made the switch to a 3-4 in 2017, the four-time Pro Bowler had his best season yet while earning his first Defensive Player of the Year award.
Everybody Overlooked Telvin Smith and Deion Jones
Lesson to be learned: Don't sweat size
A total of 143 players came off the board before the Jaguars selected linebacker Telvin Smith in the fifth round of the 2014 draft, even though in hindsight Smith should have been a first-round selection. Four years into his career, the Florida State product has 452 tackles, seven interceptions, 6.5 sacks and four forced fumbles and is coming off a Pro Bowl appearance at the age of 26.
A total of 51 players came off the board before the Falcons selected linebacker Deion Jones in the second round of the 2016 draft, even though in hindsight Jones should have been a top-10 selection. Two years into his career, the LSU product has 244 tackles, six interceptions and two defensive touchdowns and is coming off a Pro Bowl appearance at the age of 23.
Good players are overlooked in every draft, but the mistake teams appeared to make with Smith and Jones (and to a lesser extend Aaron Donald, for that matter) is they discounted those players based on their size. At 6'3", 218 pounds and 6'1", 222 pounds, respectively, Smith and Jones are two of the smallest linebackers in the NFL. But they're also two of the best young defensive players in the league, along with undersized and underdrafted front-seven defenders Eric Kendricks (taken 45th overall in 2015), Kwon Alexander (taken 124th overall that same year) and Donald (taken 13th overall in 2014).
Time and again, "undersized" players have defied expectations by making up for that lack of size with drive, range, speed and playmaking ability. But teams continue to pass on players out of fear they won't be able to hold up at the next level.
In less than a week, we'll find out if 6'1", 236-pound Georgia linebacker Roquan Smith will become the latest victim of that stigma, because Smith has top-10 talent but lacks top-10 size.
Manziel over Carr, Lynch over Prescott, Trubisky over Watson
Lesson to be learned: Be better at evaluating quarterbacks
It's that simple, right?
Teams still don't know how to predict with any accuracy which quarterback prospects will succeed and which will fail, which is why seven quarterbacks, including first-round bust Paxton Lynch, were selected ahead of 2016 Offensive Rookie of the Year Dak Prescott. It's why Blake Bortles and Johnny Manziel were first-round picks ahead of Teddy Bridgewater and Derek Carr in 2014. It's why Mitchell Trubisky went second overall and Deshaun Watson went 12th overall in 2017.
Don't even get us started on the year Robert Griffin III, Ryan Tannehill and Brandon Weeden were first-round picks, and Russell Wilson, Nick Foles and Kirk Cousins were mid-rounders. That deserves its own essay but is thankfully beyond the five-year sample we're using for this breakdown.
The lesson above is tongue-in-cheek, but the real message here might be that a team in need of a franchise quarterback would be best served swinging the bat as often as possible. Let's all stop pretending we know who'll pan out and who'll bust.
It would have seemed pretty silly for the Browns to have taken Manziel with the No. 22 pick, as well as Carr with the No. 35 pick (one spot ahead of Oakland), but they would have essentially doubled their chances of finding a new franchise quarterback, and Carr's presence would have made it easier to forgive and forget the Manziel selection.
That doesn't mean the still-quarterback-hungry Browns should use both of their top-four selections on quarterbacks this year, but doing so isn't as wacky as many believe. The only way it would backfire is if both signal-callers became busts, but in the Browns' current state (also known as rock bottom), that might not be any worse than drafting one bust along with Saquon Barkley.
That remains a far-fetched scenario regardless, but the Browns should at least strongly consider drafting a second quarterback in a later round, just as the Washington Redskins smartly did with Robert Griffin III and Kirk Cousins in 2012.
Teams have to learn that they aren't smart enough to correctly and consistently identify future franchise quarterbacks, and then they either have to learn to start rolling the dice more or find a new way to evaluate entry-level players at the game's most important position.