We’re less than a week away from the beginning of the NFL draft, when hordes of fans, and an unenviable subset of NFL general managers will forget (or ignore) many of the lessons of their forebears and - stubbornly convinced they know better than the pantheon of front office executives and coaches either in the Hall of Fame, or headed there - fail to learn from the past.
This piece is the first in an intentionally adamant treatise on a basic series of “dos” and “don’ts” in the NFL draft, finely honed by both past experience and the insights of NFL management staff willing to share their chestnuts of wisdom about the NFL draft based on decades of experience.
1. Thou shalt not draft offensive skill positions (other than QB) in the first round.
Best to start at the beginning: The first round of the draft. Effectively taking certain positions off the board is the simplest way to maximize value in the earliest phases of the draft. Thankfully, the most obvious element of this commandment: Don’t take RBs in the first round, is already becoming conventional wisdom. We’ve come a long way from 1999, when Mike Ditka traded all his draft picks to take Ricky Williams 5th overall.
That doesn’t mean teams don’t still make similar mistakes though: Todd Gurley was taken 10th and Melvin Gordon was taken 15th in 2015, Ezekiel Elliott was taken 4th in 2016, Leonard Fournette was taken 4th and Christian McCaffrey was taken 8th in 2017, Saquon Barkley was taken 2nd in 2018, Josh Jacobs was taken 24th in 2019, and last year, with the Chiefs taking Clyde Edwards-Helaire 32nd.
This is the point at which some of you, impressed by thousand yard seasons, Pro Bowl accolades, and flashy breakaway highlights ask how on earth I can deride the names on that murderers row of running backs.
Here’s how I can do it: Running backs are an abundant commodity, and you don’t spend precious resources (i.e., high draft picks and cap space) on abundant commodities. Of that group of RBs, exactly two (Jacobs & Gordon) were in the top 10 rushing leaders in 2020. That’s the same as the number of players on that list taken in the 5th round or later (Aaron Jones (5th) & James Robinson (UDFA)).
Perhaps even more important than that, however, is that you don’t need a top RB to have a successful NFL team. The Super Bowl winning Buccaneers’ top back, Ronald Jones, was the 12th leading rusher in the league. The Chiefs top back was Edwards-Helaire, who finished 19th, just ahead of Washington’s Antonio Gibson. Of the 10 top RBs last year, only 4 of them were on playoff teams.
To add insult to injury, teams feel obligated to overpay first round RBs because they’ve already invested so much. Todd Gurley was given an extension after his rookie deal that paid him an astonishing $13.5M/year (he was cut 2 years into that deal); The Chargers, wisely, didn’t extend Gordon, but he ended up holding out briefly, before learning from Leveon Bell’s hold-out debacle the year before; Elliott received a 6 year extension after the 4th year of his rookie deal, at an average of $14M/year; McCaffrey’s recent 4-year extension has an average value of $16M/year. All in all, that’s an awful lot of money sunk into running backs whose teams miss the playoffs more frequently than they make them.
So, running backs aren’t nearly as important to NFL success as they’ve been in decades past, it’s eminently possible to get a “good enough” one in the third round or later, and drafting one in the first round tends to force poor decision making when their second contracts come up. Hard pass.
I’ve written in the past about why it doesn’t make particular sense to draft a WR early. In fact, no sooner had I written about it than Bill Belichick took his first WR in the first round, bust N’Keal Harry, who the Patriots have been shopping this offseason.
We should avoid the allure of falling in love with WRs who dominated the college game and produced smoothly-edited highlight reels, instead mining the college ranks for players with adequate athleticism, but - more importantly - great fundamentals, such as understanding how offenses work, route running, and ball control. These guys can be, and routinely are, found later in the draft, after the “shiny objects” have been taken off the board rounds earlier.
MattinBrisVegas’ piece on drafting WRs earlier this offseason is really the icing on the cake, concluding that you’re actually more likely to find the best WRs in the second round, likely after the athleticism junkies and Combine warriors are off the board.
As with WRs, I’ve written about tight ends before. Suffice it to say, not only are almost none of the top tight ends in the league first round picks, nearly all the best tight ends take at least a year or two to come into their own. Most teams are looking for first round picks to contribute immediately. The instances of first round TEs being able to do so is vanishingly small.
So, long story short, take these positions off your first round board. Sure, grab a wide receiver in the second, and perhaps take a tight end or running back in the third (or later), but don’t you dare think about taking one on Day 1.
Dave Gettleman has not traded down one single time in 8 NFL Drafts as a GM. His reasoning?— Giants Videos (@SNYGiants) April 22, 2021
"I've tried to trade back. I'm not getting fleeced, I refuse to do it. If somebody wants to make a bad trade back, god bless 'em" pic.twitter.com/3oWE1dLDn1
2. Thou shalt always be looking to accumulate more picks, particularly on Day 2.
Dave Gettleman’s “insights” notwithstanding, the best general managers in the league understand the simple math of the draft: More picks, particularly in the relatively early part of the draft, represent more chances to “hit” on players, which is important, given the fundamental uncertainties of talent assessment, even among the best people in the world at it.
We look at the draft as, in some respects, a luck-driven process. The more picks you have, the more chances you have to get a good player. When we look at teams that draft well, it’s not necessarily that they’re drafting better than anybody else. It seems to be that they have more picks. There’s definitely a correlation between the amount of picks and drafting good players. - Eric DeCosta, Ravens GM
There’s a certain intuitive obviousness to it, yet it seems that very often the egos of talent evaluators - ala Gettleman - get in the way of the way of thinking dispassionately about the odds.
If everyone in the NFL is missing out on half their draft picks, the only way to increase your odds is to get more picks, especially in the second to fourth rounds, where you generally find the best values (cost versus talent). It’s simple math, but it’s amazing how few NFL minds understand it. - Michael Lombardi, former front office executive for several SB winning teams
Gettleman, given his self-satisfied defense of standing pat, is a good, concrete example to explore here. In 2020, Gettleman took Andrew Thomas (T), considered by some to be the most “pro ready” tackle in the draft, at #4 overall. One year in, Thomas’ performance has him behind the tackles taken at #10 (Jedrick Wills) and #13 (Tristan Wirfs), either of whom could easily have been had by the Giants with a slight trade back that would have likely netted them at least another Day 2 pick.
In 2018, Gettleman used the #2 overall pick on Saquon Barkley (bad idea: See the first commandment), and three years out, the RB is the 15th most productive player from that draft (and not even the most productive RB (Nick Chubb)).
This year, Gettleman has the #11 overall pick, and the Giants are projected by most outlets to take one of the highly ranked WRs in the draft. If that’s their need, and they intend to draft for it, sticking at #11 will very likely represent an evaporation of value for them.
Bill-in-Bangkok did a very nice job covering this topic a couple of years back:
NFL personnel executives, according to the 538 article, overvalue the top 50 picks in the draft because they feel that the closer they are to #1, the better chance they have of hitting a home run.
They are right about the relationship — top draft picks perform better — but they misjudge the degree of difference and, thus, the value of those picks.
All that having been said, if your talent evaluation is trash, very little of the rest of these sort of intra-draft machinations are likely to mean much. Thankfully, in Washington, the scouting has been very solid for the past several years.
This is the exact reason why the “trade down to get more swings at the plate” debate really depends on who is taking the swings.— Brett Kollmann (@BrettKollmann) April 22, 2021
If you’re giving Chris Grier or Chris Ballard more swings, sure trading down is ideal. If it’s not a good evaluator tho? Ehhhh just take Julio. https://t.co/cQVcnZrJ2i
Which of these commandments do you hope Rivera and company will follow more closely?
This poll is closed
1. Don’t draft offensive skill positions (other than QB) in the first.
2. Always look to accumulate more picks.
Neither, I hate them both.