Opportunity cost is the idea that choosing one option prevents you from choosing competing options. For example, if I have $5 and I spend $5 on coffee then I can no longer spend that same $5 on a snack.
Related to the NFL, the draft is a perfect example of opportunity cost. As soon as you take a player then you are unable to select any other players until your next pick. Essentially, choosing the player you select is acknowledging you will not be selecting any similarly regarded players (unless teams have multiple picks in a short span).
For the New York Jets, their selection of edge rusher Will McDonald IV was largely criticized due to the perceived opportunity cost of his selection. The Jets were viewed as being in a “win now” window, so grabbing a developmental edge rusher when they already had several good edge rushers was viewed by some as a poor use of a resource. That pick could have been spent on a position where they needed a starter, such as at wide receiver or offensive tackle. However, passing on bad players is not a bad thing, as it’s better to draft a good player at a position that you don’t need than a bad player at a position that you do. With that in mind, let’s compare the PFF grades of McDonald to the 5 players taken immediately after him.
- Pick 15: Will McDonald IV (edge rusher, New York Jets): Overall grade of 71.6 on 183 snaps
- Pick 16: Emmanuel Forbes (cornerback, Washington Commanders): Overall grade of 50.9 on 482 snaps
- Pick 17: Christian Gonzalez (cornerback, New England Patriots): Overall grade of 80.8 on 209 snaps
- Pick 18: Jack Campbell (inside linebacker, Detroit Lions): Overall grade of 53.8 on 659 snaps
- Pick 19: Calijah Kancey (defensive tackle, Tampa Bay Buccaneers): Overall grade of 46.6 on 577 snaps
- Pick 20: Jaxon Smith-Njigba (wide receiver, Seattle Seahawks): Overall grade of 63.3 on 672 snaps
Basically, this list largely paints a picture of two kinds of players that were taken when the Jets picked at 15 and in the immediate picks that followed:
- Players who played a lot of snaps but did so poorly (grades under 52)
- Players who played few snaps but did pretty well (grades over 70)
For the Jets, McDonald fell into the second category. He didn’t play much, but he played well when he did. An argument can be made that this actually provides more value to the immediate team than the other options, since McDonald wasn’t actively harming the current team performance like other players were based on their PFF grades, even if McDonald wasn’t playing much.
In terms of players in this range that could have been a better pick than McDonald, one might be Christian Gonzalez, who had a grade of 80+. However, he plays cornerback, which is one of the few positions the Jets are arguably better off than edge rusher, and he also played very few snaps. The other is Jaxon Smith-Njigba, who falls outside of that dichotomy, with a grade of 63.3 that ranked 77th among receivers while playing over 600 snaps. This is probably best described as an “okay” performance in year one, but by no means does it imply a monumental miss by the Jets (at least in year one), as Smith-Njigba may wind up being outplayed by McDonald if McDonald can continue his performance while improving his snap count in year 2.
With all that said, there are obviously players who would have been a better pick than McDonald for the Jets. For example, the Jets could have used this pick on Los Angeles Rams wide receiver Puka Nacua, who went in round 5 but accumulated over 1400 yards this season. However, that isn’t really reasonable, since the pick would have been viewed as a massive reach at the time and was likely never considered.
Other players taken in round 1 may have been justifiable, but the list of players taken after McDonald and in round 1 that outperformed him is rather scant. Based on first year performance, the Jets may have been better off selecting wide receivers Zay Flowers (Baltimore Ravens; overall grade of 75.6 on 904 snaps) or Jordan Addison from (Minnesota Vikings; overall grade of 68.6 on 921 snaps) or tight end Dalton Kincaid (Buffalo Bills; overall grade of 67.2 on 699 snaps). However, those are the only three players that really jump out, implying that the pickings were a bit slim.
Given that, it is very plausible McDonald winds up being worth the players who were available and drafted in a similar range on draft day even though McDonald played sparingly in year one. This provides some context that may lessen the perceived bad value of the McDonald selection by many fans and analysts.