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good article on draft process

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good article on draft process

Post  Big_Pete on Fri Apr 16, 2010 7:09 am


The Endless Debate

The following article was written by my colleague, Gail Bahr, whose knowledge of the draft and its history is something I admire. Gail is in the process of putting the finishing touches on a couple of more pre-draft items that Iíll be running in the blog, so be sure to tune in as we count down to April 22!

Each year in the months leading up to the draft, fans, and media alike will engage in the same often contentious, always futile, discussion.

Is it better to draft to need or to take the best player available? Adherents of each position have nearly come to blows advocating for their viewpoint. However, the truth is that no single approach is ďbestĒ because the draft is a highly complex beast.

Teams have had success drafting the ďbest player availableĒ and those same teams have had some notable failures with the same approach. Teams have also had success drafting to need and again have met with disaster with the same method.

Obviously, the best-case scenario is to draft the best player available while at the same time filling an urgent need. That sounds good but rarely works out.

The Dallas Cowboys were one of the first teams to make use of early computer models to calculate the best athlete/player. They drafted to their calculations and for a while had many terrific athletes running around the field and, while all looked great in shorts, some couldnít play a lick of football. Though the phrase ďtrack guy in cleatsĒ originated at the combine, it applied equally well here.

Remember the Giantsí 1998 draft? With the 24th, they selected Shaun Williams from UCLA, a great athlete who breezed through combine drills wowing everyone in attendance. Williams was the consensus top safety in that draft and, though safety wasnít a major need that year, he was said to be the best player available on the Giants board, hence was too good to pass up.

What the Giants got with that pick, however, was a slightly better than journeyman safety who didnít start until his third season, who couldnít stay healthy, and who committed many bonehead penalties when he was on the field.

At an Olympic gymnastic event several years ago, a then-GM, flashing his Super Bowl ring, was asked if he would draft the best athlete available when his team picked that year.

He answered, ďNope. The best athlete Iíve seen all year is a 12-year old girl, but I donít think she can make the team.Ē

So perhaps the more conservative approach, which of drafting to need, is best.

The most cited or perhaps short-sighted example of this approach comes not from the annals of the NFL draft but the NBA when in 1984 the Portland Trailblazers needed a center and selected Sam Bowie, passing on the best player-athlete available, Michael Jordan, a guard. Even those who donít follow basketball remember Michael Jordan, arguably the best player in the history of the game, while Bowie is best remembered as the player who was selected by the much ridiculed Trailblazers over Michael Jordan.

Once in a lifetime, a player like Michael Jordan, one with the recognized ability to transform the game, will be available in the draft. In those cases any team fortunate enough to be in position to select this rare player is obliged to throw all other considerations out the window and pick him whether he fills a need or not. Players of this caliber are worth building an offense or defense around.

Linebacker Lawrence Taylor from North Carolina was such a player when he was draft-eligible in 1981. While not the most heralded player in the days leading up to that yearís draft, later reports indicated that he was the top-ranked player on all but two draft boards, and on those two boards, he was ranked second. Fortunately, for the Giants, it was one of those two teams that had the first pick in the draft Ė the New Orleans Saints, who selected RB George Rogers.

The history of the NFL draft is strewn with first round picks who were really needed by their teams yet who turned out to be colossal busts.

In 2004 the Oakland Raiders needed a left tackle to shore up their porous offensive line, so with the second overall pick in the draft, they selected Robert Gallery, the consensus best left tackle available that year. Itís now 2010, and Gallery has become a journeyman guard while the Raiders still need a left tackle.

Again reaching back into the Giantsí draft, in 1994 the Giants desperately needed a wide receiver that could stretch the field. Having the 24th pick in the first round, they selected Thomas Lewis from Indiana. Lewis didnít even turn out to be a quality third round pick.

(Side note for those who might be wondering if the 24th pick is cursed, the Giants also drafted Rodney Hampton from Georgia with the same pick in 1990, and he turned out to be pretty good.)

Giantsí general manager Jerry Reese weighed in on the issue recently when he said that he would take the best player on his board, but he is also very careful to say nothing definitive because no one knows the organization of the Giants draft board and Reese, like his predecessor Ernie Accorsi, holds concerns that another team eyeing that same player might try to jump ahead of the Giants to fill a need.

Popular wisdom is that all available players are on every teamsí boards, but even if thatís true, given the Giantsí needs, does anyone seriously think the Giants would take Oklahoma QB Sam Bradford in the very unlikely event that he was still available and the best player on their board when they picked?

More likely, the Giants draft board is weighted to positions of need, which would put Bradford, with all his ability, far down the board.

A review of recent Giantsí drafts seems to confirm the belief that the Giants draft the best player available at a position of need. Take for example the 2009 draft when the Giants most glaring need was at wide receiver. That year they selected Hakeem Nicks with their first pick.

In 2008, safety was an urgent need and Kenny Phillips was selected first. The year before that, needing a cornerback, the Giants selected Aaron Ross.

In fact, the one exception where the Giants went more for value than need was in 2006, when they drafted DE Mathias Kiwanuka with the 32nd pick. Though defensive end was not a compelling need, it was rumored at the time that some in the organization felt Kiwanuka would be a perennial Pro Bowler and was simply too good to pass up. So, he was drafted with the comment, ďYou canít have too many pass rushers.Ē

It turned out that you could because, in an attempt to get all their best players on the field, Kiwanuka was switched to linebacker the next year, a position he played until breaking his fibula at Detroit. Heís since been moved back to defensive end where new defensive coordinator Perry Fewell will need to figure out a way to get Kiwanuka, Osi Umenyiora and Justin Tuck onto the field in pass rushing situations.

Maybe a sound guide in handicapping the draft is productivity as a college player. Though the logic is hard to refute, that approach doesnít always work either.

The 2002 draft included two highly productive, dominating college players. One was the left tackle from Miami, Bryant McKinney, who was all but inducted into the Hall of Fame before he ever played a down in the NFL. The other was defensive end Dwight Freeney from Syracuse, an outstanding college pass rusher who led the nation in sacks the prior season.

Freeney made a career of taking over and dominating games until Syracuse played Miami, when McKinney engulfed Freeney and prevented him from making a single play, leading draft experts to wonder if Freeney was too slight to make it in the NFL.

Fast-forwarding to the present, Freeney is widely acknowledged as one of the top defensive ends in the game. McKinney, on the other hand, is having an up-and-down career with the Vikings.

There are still other considerations.

Perhaps a player remaining on the board is the best available at a position of need but is not thought to offer good value with that teamís pick. Should the team instead take a player who is on every draft pundits ďbest player still availableĒ list even if they donít particularly need him? Or do they select the best player at the position of need before someone else does? Should they try to trade down, gambling that the teams moving ahead of them will not trigger a run on the position causing them to lose out entirely?

Then there is the fact that no team can afford to tie up too much of its salary cap in one position, though that too has been tried. Remember back a few years when Detroit always took the best player available as long as he was a wide receiver? Detroit is still recovering from the years of draft drought.

In some cases, the best athlete on the board or the best player of need has skills that donít ideally fit into the scheme used by the selecting team. Should the team take him and try to change his game or pass on him for someone who better fits its scheme?

Remember Glenn Dorsey, the outstanding defensive tackle from LSU? In the 2008 draft, the same things were said about Dorsey as are being said this year about Nebraska DT Ndamukong Suh.

Dorsey, a prototypical 4-3 defensive tackle, was the fifth overall selection in his draft class, but has done little to justify the pick. However, thatís more the fault of Kansas Cityís then-GM than Dorsey, who is now listed on Kansas Cityís official roster as a defensive end.

Recognizing too late that at 6-1 and 297 lbs. Dorsey was not stout enough to play the nose in a 3-4 scheme, he was moved to a position that he also isnít suited to play. The truth is that Dorsey was an inappropriate selection for a team with a 3-4 defensive scheme.

Coaches at times take a liking to one particular player. In 2002, it was widely reported, perhaps incorrectly, that then-Giants head coach Jim Fassel wanted Ron Dayne with the 11th pick, over the reported objections of others in the organization who wanted to select Shaun Alexander. The Giants got Dayne, and the Seahawks a Pro-Bowler.

Finally, there is the combine, the official source of measurables, the results of which are more heavily considered by some teams than by others. Although total dependence on the combine drills and their scientific model of the correct measurables for each position hasnít been successful, every year some player who underachieved throughout his college career will dazzle at the combine and be selected ahead of another guy who doesnít look that great in drills but was a playmaker throughout college.

OT Bruce Campbell from Maryland had an outstanding combine in February, but looks ordinary on film. Campbell will probably go high based on his combine performance while perennial Pro Bowlers Sam Mills and Mike Singletary were considered too short to be effective in the NFL.

Another more recent example is provided by the Pittsburgh Steelers, who drafted safety Troy Polamalu in 2003 despite conventional wisdom that a safety needs to be 6-0 to effectively play the position.

Everyone who watched Polamulu play in college agreed that he was a dynamic playmaker and a game-changer. However, when he measured a scant 5-10 at the combine, some draft gurus shook their heads sadly and pointed out that many excellent college players just arenít NFL material. Uh-huh.

Ultimately, the correct answer to this on-going debate is that there is no single correct answer. Each draft and each pick in the draft must be carefully weighed, with most teams relying on a variety of sources.

The truth is that each team in the NFL has made great selections and each has had its share of first-round busts. It is the permutations that are what send general managers to unemployment lines.
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