It’s a copycat league.
That statement is repeated over and over throughout the year when analysts discuss the NFL. It is only partially true, though.
It definitely applies to coaches. If a coach watches film and sees another team do something that works, he will happily copy that scheme.
It doesn’t apply as much to general managers. In spite of mountains of evidence proving these are sure bets to construct a poor roster, NFL teams constantly do things like spending big on overpriced players at the start of free agency, paying too much to keep their own replaceable, mediocre players, and undervaluing the importance of Draft picks.
The Patriots have applied pretty basic economic principles to roster building for two decades and like 28 teams are completely baffled by it.— Kevin Clark (@bykevinclark) March 12, 2019
Let’s forget about copycat league cliches for a second. Apply some common sense instead. When one company dominates an industry for close to two decades, wouldn’t it be smart for the other companies to start using the same techniques?
There are numerous reasons the Patriots dominate the league. At the top of the list are an immortal quarterback and the greatest head coach of the Super Bowl era. Their willingness to (ahem) bend the rules also helps.
Somewhere alsoon that list is their approach to player acquisition, particularly as it pertains to the Draft.
The Jets aren’t that far away from being a very good football team. It’s a pretty amazing thing to think about. The Jets have gotten almost all of their big decisions wrong for close to a decade, but they still aren’t that far away.
That is the nature of the NFL. There isn’t a big gap between most of the teams in this league. Most teams are like the Jets, within shouting distance of being very good.
The NFL Draft is the most efficient place for teams to make big gains. Every year teams are given an opportunity to bring in young, star level talent. Unlike veteran stars, these players cannot choose another team, and their wages are well-below star level rates for at least four years.
If you would like an example of the impact a big Draft class can have, just look at the New Orleans Saints.
It is difficult to conceptualize, but as recently as two years ago things were not looking great for the Saints. They were coming off three consecutive 7-9 seasons. There were questions about whether Sean Payton’s era had run its course. The coach was frequently linked with other potential job openings. Drew Brees was still great, but it wasn’t clear the Saints could put a great team around him before he retired. The team was consistently in a salary cap crunch, making it difficult to import outside talent that could move the needle.
In 2017 the Saints drafted Marshon Lattimore, Ryan Ramczyk, Alvin Kamara, and Marcus Williams. Due in no small measure to the success of that class, the Saints have followed with two very successful seasons. They fell short both times due to fluke plays, but they easily could have won the Super Bowl both years. New Orleans will again enter 2019 as one of the favorites to win it all.
A grand slam class like that combined with the expected growth of Sam Darnold would likely vaunt the Jets to legitimate Super Bowl contender status for a window of three to four years.
While fans might dream of a similar perfect haul to what New Orleans had two years ago, those dreams are simply not realistic. The Saints’ class was historic. Getting four impact rookies with four picks was an anomaly.
Exploring New England’s methods shows how the Jets or any other team can at least increase the odds of hitting in the Draft.
Recently, I explored New England’s Draft record over the last decade. Two things stood out.
First, the Patriots had a lot of whiffs in the Draft.
Mike Maccagnan gets a lot of grief for picks between rounds two and four like Devin Smith, Lorenzo Mauldin, Bryce Petty, Christian Hackenberg, Juston Burris, ArDarius Stewart, and Chad Hansen. Maccagnan isn’t the only general manager who has some really bad Draft misses in this territory, though.
Bill Belichick is one of the greatest minds to ever be part of the National Football League. Let me take you through some of his Draft selections.
In 2010 he used a second round pick to select Jermaine Cunningham.
In 2011 he used a second round pick to select Ras-I Dowling and a third round pick to select Ryan Mallett.
In 2014 he used a fourth round pick on Byran Stork.
In 2015 he used a fourth round pick on Tre’ Jackson.
You might say, “Wow, maybe Belichick isn’t much better than Maccagnan.”
I don’t think you’d be right, though. The fact even Belichick has such ugly misses shows the unpredictable nature of the NFL Draft. Just think about it. You are projecting how kids mostly between 20 and 23 years old are going to turn out after coming to the NFL. You have some data at your disposal to help make educated guesses, but this is an incredibly inexact science.
I would argue the lesson here is that the Draft is so inexact that even one of the football’s most brilliant minds has some ugly misses. How could any team’s GM be overly confident in his abilities?
That brings me to the second thing about New England’s recent Draft record that stood out. Belichick builds himself a margin for error.
There’s a reason I mentioned those five specific busts New England has selected. The Patriots can view all five rounds in which those players were picked as a success because they had multiple picks and hit on at least one.
That 2010 second round also netted them Rob Gronkowski (immortal tight end) and Brandon Spikes (decent starting linebacker for a stretch).
That 2011 second round netted them Shane Vereen and third round netted them Stevan Ridley (decent running back duo).
That 2014 fourth round netted them James White (great pass catching back) and Cameron Fleming (valuable backup offensive lineman).
That 2015 fifth round netted them Trey Flowers (good pass rusher) and Shaq Mason (excellent interior offensive lineman).
Yes, I think the Jets have clearly had some evaluation issues in their recent Drafts. You don’t pick a bottom tier college quarterback like Hackenberg in the second round unless there are problems with your process.
But I would argue the bigger problem is that the Jets have left themselves with too small of a margin for error by not stockpiling extra picks.
Since Maccagnan was hired, the Jets have never picked more than once in the first round of the same Draft. That isn’t uncommon. Teams are hesitant to trade first rounders. But the Jets also haven’t picked more than once in the second, third, fourth, or fifth rounds of the same Draft either.
Hackenberg was a terrible pick, but for all we know the Jets might have had Cody Whitehair just below him on their board. Had the Jets owned another pick in that second round, maybe they also could have gotten the Pro Bowl center.
Stewart was a clear swing and a miss, but is it possible the Jets were deliberating between him and James Conner?
I can’t tell you how highly the Jets actually valued Whitehair or Conner. But if the Jets had picked either player with an extra selection, the whiffs on Hackenberg and Stewart would sting far less.
When you don’t acquire extra picks, you put all of your eggs into the basket of a single player. That is risky for reasons that go beyond performance. You might end up with somebody like Devin Smith who fails through no fault of his own simply because he cannot stay healthy.
Too frequently I hear people describe a general manager’s Draft record by talking about the percentage of picks he gets right, but percentages are meaningless. It is about how many quality players you actually bring to your team.
If Team A hits on its one second round pick, its hit rate is 100%.
If Team B hits on one of two second round picks, its hit rate is 50%.
In the end, both teams are essentially in the same place, though. They both added one quality young player. Team B’s general manager just made his odds much easier. He only needed to hit on 50% to get a good player out of that round.
For further proof, take a look at some of those New England rounds. There are rounds where the Patriots hit on two of three picks. That gives them a 66.7% hit rate. But I’d rather add two quality young players out of three than going one for one. The rate of success might be lower, but the actual impact of two good players instead of one is far more relevant.
One mechanism the Patriots use to acquire extra picks is off the table. New England has made use of the league’s compensatory pick system which awards bonus Draft selections to teams that lose more than they gain in free agency.
It isn’t practical a team still building like the Jets to sit out free agency just to acquire an extra pick or two.
The Jets can start to change their trajectory by getting into the habit of trading down, though. Again, when you have multiple picks a bust hurts a lot less.
Utilizing this strategy requires discipline. Trading down is seldom a popular strategy. The big names are at the top of the Draft class. Passing up a chance to add one of them is certain to lead to criticism.
It also can be enticing to trade Draft picks for veteran players. A pick is an unknown commodity. It is merely an asset to acquire a player who might be good. A veteran is a proven commodity.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting every trade of a pick for a player is a bad idea. But I do think that when a team trades a pick for a veteran, it should try to replenish the well and replace that lost pick with a trade down.
In a vacuum, trading a fourth round pick for a quality starter always makes sense. Odds are that starter will provide you with more value than the player that pick would be used to select, who could be a total bust.
But this ignores the cost of failing to pick effective players in the Draft. What happens when a roster lacks the type of young, cheap talent found only through quality Draft picks? Take a look at the 2018 Jets, and you have your answer.
At long last the Jets (hopefully) have a quarterback to build around.
The team was active in free agency. Maybe you loved all of their moves. Maybe you hated all of their moves. More likely, you viewed it as a mixed bag (some good, some bad) like most of us.
One thing I would say for certain is this. Free agency was the appetizer. Hopefully the Jets added some quality supporting pieces, but the Draft is the main course. This is the opportunity for the team to build a young championship core to go with Sam Darnold and Jamal Adams.
Again, this team isn’t that far away. If Mike Maccagnan wants to get the Jets to that contender status and become the league’s next great general manager, he would be wise to start trading down and stockpiling extra picks.