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Why BPA leads to success, while 'drafting for need' is a short-sighted and failed strategy in the NFL

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NFL: Washington Redskins at Tennessee Titans Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

I want to start by acknowledging that I am a hypocrite

After six years of participating in Hogs Haven discussions, I am now guilty of writing comments and articles where I openly discuss drafting to fill voids in the team’s roster — a practice known as “drafting for need”.

I will spend most of this article sneering at the concept of drafting for need, and then — tomorrow, or later this week — I will come back with a comment or article in the where I say that the Redskins should target a specific position in the draft — maybe going so far as to say what round I think they should draft the position in. People will remember what I wrote in this article and say, “see, he doesn’t believe it!

Actually, I do believe in BPA.

But here’s the thing. To participate in the discussion on a fan blog like Hog’s Haven, you have to adapt to the drafting for need concept. The entire Mock Drafting industry — and, yes, it is an industry with real cash flows — is built on the idea that teams draft for need. Offseason NFL journalism almost wouldn’t exist if people didn’t discuss drafting for need.

I think drafting for need is a bad idea, and I don’t think NFL front offices should engage in the practice if they want to build a winning franchise.

But I’m not part of an NFL front office. I am participating in discussions on a fan blog, which is something entirely different.

Fans who want to talk about their favorite team 365 days per year need to make some accommodations, and one of those is to pretend that drafting for need is a good idea, and that front office personnel actually engage in it. It is an assumption or accommodation that allows real discussion about the future to take place. It’s a way to talk about the team in shorthand, and to carry on a useful discussion that everyone can participate in. The only real option is to boycott the discussion.

By way of example, let’s say that my friends want to talk about the joy they find in marriage and children over dinner. Me? I’m divorced and believe that monogamy is an artificial construct that is an unnatural state for human beings since we have the opposite of monogomy programmed into our DNA.

Over dinner, I can steadfastly repeat my position that marriage is unnatural, and in the process alienate all my happily married friends at the dinner table who want to talk about their wonderful spouses and children. A second option is stony silence and refusal to participate, but while I may avoid being boorish, I probably come off as rude or — at best — uninterested in the discussion.

Most likely, I will put on a brave face, smile and nod, and make a few comforting noises about how wonderful it is that my friends have love in their lives. I might even go so far as to suggest that I hope to someday have the same good fortune (though I’d almost certainly throw up in my mouth a little when I said it). This allows me to participate in the discussion, make my friends feel good, and not seem like some sort of stone faced asshat during dinner.

All it takes is a little accommodation.

I do the same thing when I join the conversation that revolves around drafting for need — something that I have adapted to more and more robustly during the years that I have been participating in the discussion here at Hog’s Haven.

But here’s the thing. I don’t believe that any good NFL franchise spends much time drafting for need. I just talk like I do in order to participate in the discussion.

Winning organizations are built on a different philosophy commonly referred to as BPA.

Best.

Player.

Available.

Who decides who’s “Best”?

So, the first thing to acknowledge about the BPA concept is that there is no single objective list of players anywhere that we can all point to as being the list — the one unquestioned source of who is better than whom. This makes any discussion of BPA problematic, as every single person can work from an individual, customized BPA list (usually referred to as a “board” or “big board”).

Each organization will spend time evaluating the draft-eligible players coming out of college and ranking them, and not all talent evaluators are created equal. Each organization will end up working from a somewhat different list, so the player that Jerry Jones identifies as the 10th best player in the draft is unlikely to be the same guy that Dave Gettleman has in that spot, and Howie Roseman will likely have yet another, still different, player ranked 10th.

There are those who will say, “yeah... that’s because they are ranking based on need! Each team is factoring in their roster needs to the rankings.”

I don’t believe that’s really it.

There are a number of reasons why different talent evaluators create different “boards” to list players from best to worst.

  • Teams value different things. One team may prioritize perceived character over on-field performance. One scout may believe that players from big schools who have faced top tier competition have a competitive advantage, while another scout believes that raw athletic ability is more important. The range of possibilities is enormous, and is a key reason why teams don’t all have the same board.
  • Not every scout & personnel executive is created equal. I worked for years in the financial services industry, and today I manage my own stock portfolio in an effort to self-fund my retirement. I like to think of the NFL draft as analogous to the stock market — the information is out there and accessible to all of us in pretty much the same form, but some people are more adept at understanding what it all means and picking winners. To people who don’t really know what to look for, picking stocks seems akin to ‘reading tea leaves’, but it is clear that some people (see: Warren Buffet) understand how to analyze stock market investments better than others. Some scouts and some organizations are better than others at evaluating the information available on players.
  • Prejudice exists. This takes many forms, and may be linked to the first idea in the bullet point list (Teams value different things). The decision-maker may believe that offensive players bring more value than defensive players, or that wide receivers have less value because rookie contracts are 4 years long, but it takes three years for most receivers to develop. A scout or GM may prefer players from his alma mater, or believe that players from a particular conference are inherently superior.
  • Salary cap can drive draft decisions. One of the common arguments against the Brandon Scherff pick back in 2015 was that it was a poor use of draft resources to take a Guard at #5. The idea here is that an option exists to sign a free agent instead of drafting a player. Free agent guards are relatively cheap while quarterbacks, cornerbacks, pass rushers, left tackles and wide receivers are relatively expensive. The draft can be a tool for acquiring cheap talent (under the current CBA). A team might prioritize high-dollar skill positions in the first round over positions like guard or nose tackle simply for the salary cap implications.

During the actual draft, strategies that are contract-driven and not directly linked to player rankings may play out. For example, the value of the 32nd pick may be much higher to an organization than the 33rd pick because the former comes with a built-in 5th year option, while the latter does not. Conversely, if a team saw a player as a bit of a gamble at that point in the draft, the 33rd pick might be a better position, since that player contract will not be guaranteed, while the player picked at 32 will be fully guaranteed for 4 years. These kinds of practical business considerations can drive teams to swap draft positions, and may lead a team to stray from their draft board for reasons other than ‘need’.

  • Gut-feeling is a real thing for talent evaluators - sometimes scouts and GMs think that everyone else has got it wrong. In financial and currency markets, this is the concept that underlies arbitrage. A guy who believes that the rest of the market has mis-valued an asset can acquire that asset at less than market value, and create an instant profit.

While I don’t want to rely too much on fantasy football comparisons, most fans have participated in fantasy drafts and understand that players have a generally understood value. One way to build a successful fantasy team is to be able to spot mis-valued players. Three or four seasons ago, Melvin Gordon was coming off of micro-fracture surgery and most fantasy owners thought he was finished as an NFL running back. I believed that he was headed for a top-5 fantasy season. I drafted him earlier in the draft than any other owner in my league would have considered him — leaving running backs on the board that they believed were much more valuable. Gordon finished that season as the #6 running back in my league, and I got the last laugh. In a similar situation, I drafted Kelvin Benjamin relatively early coming off of an injury. He played lights out in the first two weeks of the season before essentially disappearing from the Panther offense, and I looked foolish. I still think that I can out-evaluate other fantasy owners in preparing for the draft and setting values on players. My fantasy draft board is always dramatically different than the default option.

In summary, I won’t say that teams never factor need into their draft decisions; they do. I believe that the difference between organizations that draft successfully over any 10-year period and those that don’t is that the successful teams avoid (or at least minimize) drafting for need by relying on the BPA philosophy, while those franchises that continually draft for need are much less successful on the field.

Why not draft for need?

Once a team starts drafting for need, they are behind the curve; they are drafting players to fill holes in the roster. In other words, they’re expecting guys to come straight from college and play immediately because the front office didn’t have the foresight or ability to construct a deep and talented roster. It’s the scotch-tape and bubble gum solution.

Teams that draft for need have to push rookies onto the field whether they are ready or not.

I’m not saying that rookies should never be expected to start in the NFL, or that it’s wrong to start a rookie if he comes to camp and earns the job. What I’m suggesting is that teams that draft for need are pretty much anointing their early round draft picks on the day they are selected. Everyone knows the rookie has been picked to fill a hole in the roster. It’s his job. It’s not even ‘his job to lose’, because there’s no one to take it away from him. Not good.

Drafting for need is reactive, rather than proactive.

Drafting for need means that the front office is focused only one year ahead. Basically, the franchise is asking the question: What position(s) do we need to fill in order to compete this year?

The problem is that the organization may leave better players on the board in the effort to draft a guy that they think will make them competitive in September.

The front office should be asking the question: Which player available will have the strongest positive impact on the franchise for the longest number of years?

That’s the guy you choose.

Instead of drafting for a year, teams should draft for a decade.

Ten years later, people will remember and complain about the fact that the team’s GM left an all-pro on the board to pick a tight end because the OC needed him to ‘complete’ the scheme. However, if the GM passes on that tight end to select the best player in the draft, no one will ever bemoan the fact that the team couldn’t execute its full scheme because they didn’t have the right tight end for the system; they’ll be thrilled to have the all-pro talent for the next ten years.

Drafting for need puts a team in a bad cycle that’s hard to break out of. The team will leave talented players on the board year after year as they chase the ephemeral ‘complete’ roster.

Why does BPA work?

The Best Player Available philosophy works because NFL rosters are not machines with standard parts that can be ordered from a factory; there is no perfect source of replacement parts available.

Rosters are comprised of human beings, and the BPA philosophy builds the most talented, deepest, most stable and most flexible roster possible for the franchise. Year by year, the team gets stronger.

1. Synergy

When you put a machine together, it is just the sum of its parts. When you build a team, it can be more or less than the sum of its parts. Bringing the right kind of people into the group is important. Leadership, teamwork, hard work, intelligence, stamina... these are all factors that matter more than putting a warm body who plays the position of need competently.

2. Injury

One of the strongest arguments against drafting for need is the randomness of injuries in the NFL. The positions of need in April, when the draft is held, may not be the same as those in September or December.

Let’s consider a hypothetical scenario: The player on the board when the team’s pick comes up is a pass rusher or perhaps a left tackle. The GM thinks, “We’ve got two pass rushers” or “I’ve got a 26 year old all-pro left tackle” so I don’t need another one. He passes the best player on the board to take the pass-catching tight end that he needs.

In Week 2, the left tackle tears his ACL, or the edge rushers are lost to bicep & pectoral tears. Suddenly, the team has a new position of need that would have been covered if the team had taken the best player available.

Of course, those injuries may not occur, but if you draft the talent and you don’t need him, options are available. You can play the newly drafted O-lineman at guard or right tackle, you can use your new pass rusher by rotaing your rushers to keep them fresh, OR you can trade a player from your roster for more draft picks.

The fact is, drafting for need isn’t just moving from the decade-long view to the season-long view — drafting for need is really trading down to a month-long view, because no NFL roster survives a 17 week season intact.

3. More roster stability

Something I don’t usually hear discussed is that the BPA philosophy leads to more roster stability. What I mean is that great players stay in the league longer and don’t have to be replaced as often. The team gets less roster ‘churn’, and by not drafting for need, they don’t need to draft for specific roster holes as often.

Drafting for need means compromising — taking the best player in the position where the roster is thin instead of the best player, period. The result is that the team may take the 4th or 5th best guy on the board instead of the absolute stud that they should have taken. The guy that they pick plays 5 seasons in the NFL and then is replaced, while the ‘stud’ lasts 8 or 9 years. Choosing the best player available in this example gives the team 3 or 4 years of play out of that draft pick that they wouldn’t have gotten by drafting for need, meaning that the team isn’t burning a draft pick 6 years from now to fill a new roster hole.

BPA results in better, deeper, more stable rosters.

4. Talent, talent, talent

Scheme is important, but in the end, talent triumphs as long as it is paired with personal characteristics like work ethic and love of the game.

BPA fills the roster with talent and creates more options for the coaching staff than drafting for need.

It’s the concept of drafting for a decade instead of drafting for the year. Teams with top talent start with an undeniable advantage, and increase that advantage every year.

In an ideal world, free agency would come after the draft

The draft shouldn’t be used to fill roster holes (teams shouldn’t draft for need). Teams should fill roster holes via trades and free agency.

In an ideal world, the college draft would occur before the veteran free agency signing period. In that case, teams could focus on BPA during the draft, then use free agency to fill holes (sign players for need) once the draft was completed.

Unfortunately, under current CBA and long-standing league practice, the draft follows free agency and that is extremely unlikely to change as the current situation maximizes free agent value, and the NFLPA worries more about its current members than it does about future members.

If teams could wait until after the draft to fill roster holes, veteran free agents would lose a certain amount of leverage that they don’t want to give up, so I fear we’re stuck with a less efficient system.

The current system causes teams to panic and draft for need. General managers, under pressure from coaches and the fan base, and with just minutes to decide the future of the franchise, opt to fill immediate needs instead of taking the long view.

The best teams, however, hold their water and follow the board most of the time. They understand the temporary and ephemeral nature of roster needs; they understand the impact that unpredictable injuries will have on the roster; they understand the benefits of better talent and increased roster stability that come with drafting based on the best player available.

BPA is most critical in the first round

I’ve heard theories that are in direct opposition to what I believe. Some people think that the first round is where you draft for need (find an immediate starter for this season!), and that you can switch to a BPA philosophy in later rounds. That’s exactly backwards.

The first round is where the generational players are usually found. No, I’m not suggesting that great players can’t be found in later rounds or that great players can’t be found among the undrafted free agents. Russell Wilson, Tom Brady and Tony Romo, among many many others are proof that talent evaluation is in part a crap shoot. But like craps (or nearly any form of gambling) some bets are more likely to pay off than others, and grabbing a guy with great on-field skills, athleticism, measurables, a seemingly good attitude, character and love for football in the first round is probably going to work out more often than not.

In addition, in the 1st round, there can often be huge differences in talent from one pick to the next; these differences become less and less clear as we get to later rounds of the draft as players become more and more ‘average’. In fact, at some point later in the draft, there may be several players on the board at the same time who have the same effective grade. At the top of the draft, it would be unusual to have more than two or three players whom the team evaluates equally.

Band grading

At any point in the draft -- but particularly as the draft progresses into the third day — there may be several players who have identical grades, or grades that are so similar as to be identical for all practical purposes.

At this point, the draft board should be segmented into “bands” or “tiers”.

Basically, players with similar grades will be grouped, and when a team selects a player, they don’t simply pick the single highest-rated player off the list, they select a player from the several that sit grouped together in the highest band remaining on the team’s board.

This is the concept of blending BPA with need.

Let’s say we get to the 4th round, and it’s our turn to pick a player. We look at the board and see 5 guys who have nearly identical grades. There’s really nothing in our scouting that says that one player will clearly have an advantage over the other four in terms of his positive impact on the organization. In that case, you look at the 5 players in the top remaining band and probably take the one who fills the team’s immediate positional need.

In this case, immediate positional need is the “tiebreaker” between players who are otherwise undifferentiated in the team’s scouting.

Reductio ad Absurdum versus Appeal to Extremes

Reductio ad Absurdum is a form of logical reasoning that is validly used to disprove a fallacy by following it’s reasoning to an absurd conclusion. It is a valuable form of philosophical debate.

Example

I am going into surgery tomorrow so please pray for me. If enough people pray for me, God will protect me from harm and see to it that I have a successful surgery and speedy recovery.

Explanation: We first assume the premise is true: if “enough” people prayed to God for the patient’s successful surgery and speedy recovery, then God would make it so. From this, we can deduce that God responds to popular opinion. However, if God simply granted prayers based on popularity contests, that would be both unjust and absurd. Since God cannot be unjust, then he cannot both respond to popularity and not respond to popularity, the claim is absurd, and thus false.

Appeal to Extremes is a fallacy which erroneously attempts to make a reasonable argument into an absurd one, by taking the argument to the extremes.

Example

There is no way those Girl Scouts could have sold all those cases of cookies in one hour. If they did, they would have to make $500 in one hour, which, based on an 8 hour day is over a million dollars a year. That is more than most lawyers, doctors, and successful business people make!

Explanation: The Girl Scouts worked just for one hour -- not 40 per week for a year. Suggesting the extreme leads to an absurd conclusion; that Girl Scouts are among the highest paid people in the world. Not to mention, there is a whole troop of them doing the work, not just one girl.

I’ve seen the BPA argument attacked before by those who employ the Appeal to Extremes fallacy. Specifically, they will construct an argument where one player is graded at 4.91 and the next is graded at 4.90. In a BPA system, they argue, the team is forced to draft the first player, or it is drafting for need. Alternatively, one might ask what happens if the BPA on the board is a defensive tackle for 6 consecutive picks; wouldn’t the team be forced to draft 6 defensive tackles?

There is a level of practicality in everything that humans do, and scouting prospects is included in that. For all practical purposes, one-one hundredth of a point in a scouting grade is not truly significant. These two players would fall into the same scouting ‘band’, to use the parlance I have employed above. We all know that a team wouldn’t draft six consecutive players at a single position; that doesn’t invalidate BPA as the correct draft strategy.

This is part of the reason why I suggest that BPA has the most relevance in the first round, and decreases in relevance as the draft progresses. At the top of the first round, teams may have a single player, or perhaps two, as the clear BPA. By the 5th round, they may have a dozen players graded in a band.

I’m certainly not arguing that a mathematical grade is blindly followed without a speck of common sense applied. I’m saying that when the organization clearly believes one player is the best available, he should be selected, regardless of whether he fills a current position of need.

Drafting for a decade trumps drafting for the year —- at least it should.

Poll

What should the Redskins do with their 15th overall pick?

This poll is closed

  • 3%
    Draft a quarterback
    (8 votes)
  • 3%
    Draft a wide receiver
    (8 votes)
  • 1%
    Draft a tight end
    (3 votes)
  • 1%
    Draft an offensive guard
    (4 votes)
  • 17%
    Draft a pass rusher
    (36 votes)
  • 0%
    Draft an inside linebacker
    (2 votes)
  • 0%
    Draft a cornerback
    (1 vote)
  • 0%
    Draft a free safety
    (1 vote)
  • 70%
    Draft the Best Player Available
    (147 votes)
210 votes total Vote Now