As we get closer to this month's NFL Draft, we are bound to hear more and more opinions about the best strategy with which to attack the Draft. Everybody has their own view on things. I personally disagree with a lot of the conventional wisdom when it comes to the Draft. Below are some theories out there that I find faulty. I also provide some examples attempting to prove that point from the NFL and the NBA. (I know the NBA is a different league in a different sport, but it is the other league where you pick players who play immediately on your team so there are applicable lessons. The NHL and MLB have different drafts because their picks are usually years from contributing.)
As always, this is just my opinion. I am sure many of you will disagree with some if not all the points I am making, but hopefully we can spark a good discussion below.
Positional value should be a primary consideration when you pick a player.
Positional value exists, but I think it is vastly overstated. There are a couple of positions where it matters. A top quarterback is way more valuable than a top player at another position. A top quarterback can give you a productive offense even when you have a bad run game, offensive line, and receivers. No other position can touch the impact. There are also certain specialty positions such as fullback, kicker, punter, and long snapper where almost every good player was either taken in the late rounds or undrafted.
As far as the other positions go, positional value matters, but probably not as much as people make it out to matter. The Draft is your one shot to consistently add top level players. You might be able to add one or two in free agency, but there you are bidding against other teams. The top dollar these players command and the salary cap prevents it from being a consistent lifeline.
Top tier talent makes everybody else better regardless of position. A great running back means you do not have to block as well and forces safeties up, making the passing game easier. A great wide receiver means your quarterback has to be less accurate with his throws in order to get completions and safeties have to play back, opening up the run game. A great offensive line means running backs can run through gaping holes, quarterbacks don't have to deal with pressure, and wide receivers have more time to get open. A great safety allows a defense to get more aggressive up front since the safety can cover the back in case things go wrong. A great cornerback gives the pass rushers more time to get to the quarterback. A great pass rush means the corners have to cover for less time. A great run stopper means the safeties can help more in coverage. You can go on. Great players make the job of others a lot easier.
Do players impact the game a bit more at certain positions than others? Yes. Is it better to have a great player at a higher impact position than a great player at a lower impact position? Yes. Is it better to have a great player at a lower impact position than an average to good player at a higher impact position? Yes. Will you ever complain if you end up with a great player at a lower impact position? Not even a little.
The last two are important to remember. Just because you see a wide receiver and a guard both on the board, it does not mean the wide receiver will have a bigger impact in the NFL. The guard might be a great player, and the wide receiver might be ordinary. Even if the wide receiver turns out to be really good, you will never regret passing on the wide receiver if the guard is a top level performer.
NFL Draft Example: Back in 2005, the Patriots drafted guard Logan Mankins in the first round. Some say taking an interior lineman in the first round is a waste. Should they have gone with a skill position player? The skill players who went in the second round were Reggie Brown, Mark Bradley, J.J. Arrington, Eric Shelton, Roscoe Parrish, Terrence Murphy, and Vincent Jackson. Is there a single player you would take over Mankins? Jackson seems like the only one who would have an argument. Even so, has any Patriots fan ever lost sleep because they took Mankins over Jackson? No, because Mankins turned out to be a stud.
NFL Draft Example: A year later, the Jets took a center, Nick Mangold, late in the first round, which was almost unheard of. Who was the next skill player to go? Chad Jackson to New England, a monumental bust. Thank goodness positional value didn't play a role in this thinking. Greg Jennings and Maurice Jones-Drew went in the second round. Has anybody ever complained about the Jets taking Mangold even so?
You should focus on your specific needs and take a player at a need position no matter what.
The Draft isn't about just the coming year. You aren't looking to fill holes. You are looking to add premium talent that will serve as the foundation of your team for the next decade. There is a difference between something not being a hole and something being a strength. Something that isn't a hole today might be one next year. If you have added premium talent to a position, it will not be a hole for a long time.
NBA Draft Example: It's the most famous example. In 1984 the Portland Trail Blazers became so convinced they needed a center that they passed on Michael Jordan, the greatest basketball player ever, to take an injury-prone project, Sam Bowie. There might not be a player who impacts a football game the way Jordan can impact a basketball game, but this shows the damage this thinking can bring.
NFL Draft Example: Back in 2007, the Arizona Cardinals were in desperate need of offensive line help. Joe Thomas went off the board before they picked so they addressed their need by taking Levi Brown. They passed on Adrian Peterson. Why wouldn't they? Arizona had Edgerrin James. Six years later, Arizona still needs offensive line help. They took Brown because they were so focused on getting a tackle. Just getting a tackle wasn't good enough, though, because Brown wasn't a quality tackle. They have also been searching for years for a consistent running back. Bet they want that pick back?
If you make a trade where you get a lot more picks than you give up, you win the trade.
Getting a lot of picks isn't necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes you win a trade when you can get a lot of picks. Not always, though. Sometimes you give up a sure thing elite talent, and you aren't able to capitalize by picking up enough lower level talent with the picks you get in return.
NFL Draft Example: Two years ago, people were floored by how much Atlanta gave to Cleveland to move up from 26 to 6. The Browns got two first round picks, a second round pick, and a fourth round pick. They used those picks to land Phil Taylor, Greg Little, and Brandon Weeden. The fourth pick was used as a throw in pick for Trent Richardson. Atlanta got Julio Jones. Would you rather have Taylor, Little, and Weeden or just Jones? I'm taking Julio Jones by a mile. (No, Richardson doesn't count. They would have found another pick to throw in for him. That one pick wasn't making or breaking their pursuit of Richardson.)
NFL Draft Example: Last year people were amazed that the Redskins gave up three first round picks to St. Louis to move up to number two. Now Washington looks like the big winner. They got a franchise savior at quarterback, Robert Griffin III. St. Louis traded their 2012 first rounder and ended up with an even lower first rounder, a second rounder, and a fifth rounder. They took Michael Brockers, Isiah Pead, and Rokevious Watkins. What would you rather have, Griffin or Brockers, Pead, Watkins, and two first round picks with Sam Bradford as your quarterback? I'm taking the franchise quarterback.
That position isn't a hole. We can't take a player at that position.
Again, there is a difference between something being a strength and something not being a weakness. If you can turn a position where you are solid into a position where you are great, it does at least as much for your team than turning a position where you are bad into one where you are solid. In fact, it probably does more. You can find adequate players for a reasonable price on the free agent market. You seldom find great players there and almost never for a reasonable price. A position might not be a hole today, but it will be sometime. You want to be prepared for that day.
NBA Draft Example: There were many reasons the Detroit Pistons took Darko Milicic over Carmelo Anthony in the 2003 Draft. One was that they already had Tayshaun Prince to play small forward. Ten years later, the Pistons are one of the least talented teams in the league, and Anthony is the best player on one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference. I know the rebuttal. The Pistons won the championship in 2004 with Prince, granted. Would Melo have stopped them from winning that title? That's a tough sell. Wouldn't they have been in much better shape the next four years when they reached the Conference Finals each time, just falling short? Couldn't one of the least talented rosters in the NBA today use an All-Star type player? You bet.
NFL Draft Example: The Giants had Justin Tuck, Osi Umenyiora, and Matthias Kiwanuka in 2010. They had bigger needs, but they still took Jason Pierre-Paul in the first round. They viewed him as the biggest difference-maker. That pick looks good so far.
NFL Draft Example: Back in 2005, the Packers were coming off a division title. They had Brett Favre at quarterback. They took Aaron Rodgers because they saw a franchise quarterback. In the short term, maybe taking somebody at another position would have helped them the next year. By picking Rodgers, they were able to maintain top level quarterback play after Favre retired. They might have been a bit better in 2005, 2006, and 2007, but they would have been up a creek after that had they said, "We already have a quarterback." Now they figure to be contenders for a long time.
That pick is such a reach. That pick is such a steal. Just look at the mock drafts.
Writers write mock drafts, and fans tend to take them as gospel. NFL teams don't use mock drafts to construct their draft boards. Their process is more thorough than that of any media member. If the top player on your board is there, you should take him right there. Who cares what some writer thinks? If you have a player highly rated, odds are another team does too. The reverse goes for highly hyped players who fall. Tom Brady was viewed as a late round pick in 2000. If you put two current general managers into a time machine to the day of that Draft, tell me they both wouldn't be doing everything they could to trade up and take Brady with the top pick no matter how the 2000 press would lambast them.
NFL Draft Example: Remember how Da'Quan Bowers fell to the Bucs in the middle of the second round in 2011, and some fans thought they had a steal because of some mock draft in the past where Bowers was the top pick? The teams obviously knew something.
NFL Draft Example: How about how most people had Bruce Irvin as a second to third round pick last year? The Seahawks took him in the first round. People got on them. He led rookies in sacks. Had they not picked him in the first round, the Jets might have.