Every year at this time there are smokescreens and debates leading up to the point teams make each of the 256 selections starting on Thursday night. We’ve officially seen every mock draft scenario known to man, now that MNChiefsfan has illustrated some of the different draft strategies in this feature.
Everyone on Twitter and blogs has an opinion about what players THEY want for their favorite team and what their team SHOULD do with each of their picks … but who really understands HOW teams make their picks?
I’d contend we know much less than we think we do. Best Player Available is what every GM claims to use as their strategy. It seems simple enough … make a list of the best players in the draft, pick the highest rated player on your list when it’s your turn. Makes good, logical sense. After all, why in the name of all things holy would you pick a player that ISN’T as good as others available when you pick? If it were that simple, the draft wouldn’t be that interesting. Hell, teams wouldn’t even have to show up … it’d be like those Fantasy Football leagues where your buddy got wasted and passed out, and his team was selected on Auto Draft. Every team would end up with good players, and some would probably do better with this method than whatever they actually use (ahem, Raiders, Browns).
Obviously, it’s not that simple. Teams have different methodologies for determining their rankings. They don’t listen to Mel Kiper or NFLDraftscout.com. They have professional scouts out there watching games, meeting players, talking to personnel people, and helping build their teams’ boards. A great example of how this process works for one team comes from this podcast on NFL.com.
Daniel Jeremiah is an NFL analyst and former NFL scout with Baltimore, Cleveland and Philadelphia. In his podcast, he talks about how Baltimore came to a consensus on who to draft. It’s definitely worth a listen, but I’ll try to summarize briefly: The scouting department spends the offseason building their board. They’ll come up with a list of 10 players that are most likely going to be their pick in round one. Each scout is then required to evaluate each of those players independently, and they reconvene to vote / rank those 10 players to determine the pick. This process ensures that there are multiple eyes on each prospect, and that there’s a consensus on the pick. He also mentions a process by which each scout can put a red star or a black dot on the draft card. A red star indicates a player they absolutely want on their team, and a black dot is a player they absolutely don’t want.
What Jeremiah illustrates is the process of building a board, using input from regional scouts and other members of the personnel department, coming to a consensus, and making the pick. I believe that most teams use a similar process, with their own nuances and their own people of course.
I believe that each team has a "board" that ranks all available players in the draft, but they may exclude players that don’t fit their scheme, or that have a medical or conduct issue that makes them too risky to be worth a draft pick. This leads to a ranking that may vary widely from team to team, and it may be vastly different from the prospect ranking boards we see on public websites.
For example, Arizona has only 130 players on their board, and in other years only 120. So it’s clear they have eliminated a good number of draftable prospects. (this article has some other quotes from the Cardinals GM that illustrate some of the points I’m making here).
I believe that "fit" is a very important factor in building a draft board. Some players are just not a fit for every scheme. You could have a player that is only a 4-3 DE or 4-3 LB, or only a zone blocking OL, or only a cover two CB … these players might not fit what the Chiefs coaches want or need. Coaches have specific skill sets and / or body types that they are looking for in order to execute their specific playbook. While some fans will say "you take a good player and find a spot for him" or "he’s good enough to change the scheme around him" … I don’t believe this is something teams are willing to do unless you’re talking about a once-in-a-lifetime talent. Then again, most once-in-a-lifetime talents aren’t limited to such specific roles or schemes.
Every team also has needs … and need IS a factor on draft day. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m fully aware of what happens when teams "reach for need" in the draft. Many GMs have been fired by ignoring their evaluations and trying to fix their roster by plugging in players of need, especially in round one. But to say that ANY team completely ignores need and ONLY drafts "BPA" is a fallacy. If teams didn’t consider need, and just took the consensus best player available, they could end up with an unbalanced roster.
For example, let’s say the Chiefs ignored needs and at pick 18 they drafted OLB Randy Gregory. Now, they have Justin Houston, Tamba Hali, Dee Ford and Gregory at the position. We could justify the pick by saying "Depth is great, and those guys won’t be around forever, BPA rules!" But then what happens in the second when Shane Ray is sitting there at the top of the board … do you take another OLB, just because he’s the "BPA"? What if Hau'oli Kikaha is sitting there in the third as the "BPA"… do you take another? My point is that NFL teams MUST have some element of need that factors in their decisions or their rosters could get really stupid and GMs would get fired, living and dying by BPA.
So, I think it’s safe to say that it isn’t just BPA, and we know it’s not just need. I’ve coined the term "Roster Awareness" and I think it applies to every NFL team. They want to get the best players on their board, but they MUST do so with some level of awareness in regards to their roster.
I believe that GMs and personnel departments must ask themselves the following questions:
- Who do we currently have under contract? Whose contracts are expiring next year?
- How many can we ultimately keep at a given position?
- Who is on the roster that we can "upgrade"?
- Is the prospect likely to be an upgrade over the guys we already have?
- Are there any specific skill sets that our coaches tell us are missing from the current roster?
Self-scouting and knowing the roster are key elements in building draft strategies. From this process, you can bet that GM’s have a "shopping list" of positions and specific skill sets that they hope to add in each offseason. They do their best to check needs off of their list during free agency, and head into the draft without GLARING needs…but, come draft day, they have specific spots they are hoping to fill.
Fans may try to rank team needs as WE see them, and think "We HAVE to take a WR in round one!" But NFL teams may see their needs differently. They may know more about a young guy on the roster ready to step in and contribute, or they may have a free agent in mind that is waiting by the phone to sign after the draft. Or sometimes the fan’s scapegoat may not be seen as a problem by the team. Fans don’t see what goes on in practice, we don’t know the exact assignment on each play, and so we may not get the full picture of who is "good" and who isn’t.
So while I believe that NFL teams have higher and lower priority needs, I don’t believe that priority always matches up to what round they take a certain position. For example, the Chiefs need a center. Fans and media may automatically give them Cam Erving in round one because he’s the consensus best player at what many believe is the biggest need.
However, the Chiefs may look at their roster and the available draft picks and think: "We like Eric Kush as our starter but we’ll also add another center in the mid rounds for depth." When the team looks at another position in round one, fans may panic and say "We need o-line!" Mel Kiper might say "That was a mistake for the Chiefs to take a cornerback when they are desperate for o-line help" … until the team adds Shaq Mason or Mitch Morse in round four as was their plan all along.
Whoever the Chiefs pick, I can guarantee you Dorsey will say "He was the best player available on our board". And even if he wasn’t the best player on the boards we all see, I believe that Dorsey will stick to HIS board. I also think that Dorsey likely uses a process similar to what Daniel Jeremiah detailed above and the Chiefs have likely settled on the player they want to pick at each spot in the draft. This brings about a situation that could be frustrating for fans … the "falling" value pick. Every year there are guys that EVERYONE thought would go at the top of round one that are still waiting for their name to be called by the end of the round. The reasons aren’t always known to the public, but there’s usually some issue (again, be it medical or conduct related) that teams all are aware of. That said, sometimes there isn’t a big "red flag"… teams just may have other players ranked ahead of him.
My theory is that teams generally had their pick in mind and stick to it, ignoring the "falling" player in the process. Just because they didn’t expect him to be available, doesn’t mean that they are going to abandon their draft strategy to catch a great "value". Teams (rightfully so) stick to their boards and their process and take the player they’ve vetted and agreed upon. That said, I do think that teams will eventually say "We had a first round grade on that guy, and now it’s the third round… at this point we have to make the pick, even if we had another player in mind." But within the first round, I think that most teams have a pre-determined pick and they stick with it. As you get later in the draft, teams have less certainty about who is going to be available, so they likely are more willing to deviate from their plan if it’s warranted.
My overall conclusion is that the prevailing draft strategy for John Dorsey (and most NFL teams) is BPA on the team’s own board at a position of need or future position of need that fits their scheme.
Said a different way: "BPA with roster awareness." Teams build their own, independent boards by trusting their scouts instead of prevailing opinions. They make a list of players and / or skill sets that complement their existing roster and improve their team. They eliminate players from the board that don’t fit their schemes. Then they pick the Best Available Player at each pick in their draft based on the board and "shopping list" they have compiled.
So when you hear that a team "reaches" on a player, or you hear that they plan on drafting the "best player available regardless of position or need" … take that with a grain of salt, and think about all of the work that goes into building a draft strategy for an NFL team. It’s not Auto Draft…. And it’s not OUR board.
Bonus metaphor for my fellow investment people: The NFL draft is an inefficient market, driven by supply and demand with a small number of participants trading on insider information using widely disparate proprietary valuation models to complete their own diversified portfolios, which leads to transactions at prices that look surprising to the general public.