Winning organizations are built on a draft philosophy commonly referred to as BPA.
The idea behind BPA is that, when the team goes on the clock, the right decision is to draft the best player available.
People will point to flaws with the BPA strategy, but this year, the majority of NFL fans who have an opinion about the draft, and what the Redskins should do are either declaring themselves for “value” or “BPA”.
People who argue for value typically argue that the Redskins should do one of two things:
- Draft Tua because quarterbacks are more valuable than other positions, due both to their huge impact on a team’s ability to win games, and the salary cap difference between a signal caller on a rookie contract and those on veteran free agent deals.
- Trade down, because the draft value chart over-values the first 50 to 60 picks in the draft; trading down increases the value a team gets out of the draft pick and increases the number of bites of the apple.
People who argue that the Redskins should draft Chase Young at #2 overall have one simple argument — he is the best player available in the draft. Period.
Really, at the top of the first round, the only consideration that usually tops BPA is the incredibly high premium that quarterbacks carry. If a team with an early draft pick needs a quarterback, that team typically drafts one, even if the consensus is that there is a better player available. Knowing the incredibly high cost of trading up, the majority of trades into the top positions in the draft are for quarterbacks.
Otherwise, the top five or ten picks in the draft usually see competent front offices drafting the best player available because this is where the transformative players are. The further we move into the draft, the less differentiation there is between players, and team needs become more and more important — in those later rounds, GMs will find themselves looking at a small pool of players who are rated roughly the same, and selecting the one that best meets the team’s needs.
But in those top 5 or 10 slots, where there may be huge gaps in talent or potential between one player and the next best, outside of the pursuit of franchise quarterbacks, Best Player Available is the winning strategy.
We know that the Redskins have huge needs at tight end and offensive line, and significant needs at cornerback and possibly linebacker. Relative to these positions, the need for another pass rusher like Chase Young is only moderate, and may even be less pressing than free safety or wide receiver.
But that doesn’t matter to anyone who is touting Chase Young. He is, they will tell you, the best player in the draft. The Redskins simply can’t not draft him.
I’ve heard the phrase, “no-brainer” used more than once.
In short, then, the argument to draft Chase Young is an endorsement of the BPA philosophy.
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.
- Durability matters. There are very few people that aren’t named Todd Gurley or Ezekiel Elliott who will argue against the idea that running backs are inherently less durable than other position players on average, simply due to the punishment they take. This is positional durability. Of course, individual players can have specific durability issues due to their history of injury in college that may cause teams to lower the player’s perceived value relative to other players available.
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. Four or five 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.
This year, broad consensus exists on the nation’s best player. A few people will argue that Isaiah Simmons or Jeff Okudah, or maybe one of the quarterbacks is the best college football player in the draft, but most pundits agree that it’s Chase Young, the pass rusher from Ohio State.
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.
Drafting the best player available adds talent to the team that can probably be relied on for years.
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.
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.
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 strong safety or perhaps a defensive tackle. The GM thinks, “We’ve got a twenty-six-year-old safety” or “I’ve got two all-pro defensive tackles” 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 safety tears his ACL, or the defensive linemen 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 rotate your defensive linemen more frequently to keep them fresh, you can play a strong safety as a SAM linebacker 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. Even if the player leaves in free agency, high quality players sign high dollar contracts that qualify for compensatory draft picks, allowing the team another bite at the apple in another draft.
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 season. 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.
Chase Young is the case in point in 2020.
The first round is where the transformative 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 will certainly 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.
At any point in the draft -- but particularly as the draft progresses into the third day — teams can choose from among 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 that fills a roster hole.
This is the concept of blending BPA with 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.
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.
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.
If you’ve been arguing that Chase Young is the obvious pick at #2 overall, I’d say that you’re making the argument for BPA too.
What should the Redskins do with the #2 overall pick?
This poll is closed
Draft a quarterback
Draft a tight end
Draft a cornerback
Draft a safety or linebacker
Draft a wide receiver
Draft the best player available
Trade down if they can get 2,600 points (or more) in value