As we approach the 2022 NFL draft, 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 fourth 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.
7. In the absence of a definite long term option at QB, use your top half of the first round pick to take the best QB (with a consensus first round grade) available.
Congratulations to MattInBrisVegas, whose recent, groundbreaking article, “BrisVegas Systems’ Draft Bot Finds Washington Some Franchise QBs,” inspired this addition to the Draft Commandments. His fairly simple algorithm, defined by the four decision points below, was wildly successful in hitting on top tier quarterbacks when applied to Washington’s drafts over the course of the past two decades.
1. Never Trade Up in the Top 10 (the inverse of Commandment #2, “accumulate more picks.”)
2. Do we have a pick in the top 15?
3. Are we set at quarterback?
4. Pick the best quarterback available if he’s not a reach
These simply guideposts yielded the acquisition of 6 high quality quarterbacks - including 3 certain Hall of Famers - in ten eligible drafts, a 60% hit rate, which is 20% higher than the league average for teams picking QBs in the top 15.
One of the key drivers of this new commandment is a elegantly simple notion: The importance of the quarterback position is so dramatically superior to any other position on the field, that there has to be a very good reason not to take one with your most valuable draft capital. A couple of years ago, shortly after Washington took an EDGE rusher with the #2 pick in the draft, Pro Football Focus wrote a fascinating piece entitled, “Why positional value matters in the NFL Draft.”
The central thesis of the article was that, when draft time comes around, almost everyone talks about “best player available,” but what they should really be talking about is “best value available.” And “value,” it turns out is essentially linked with “positional value.”
It’s universally understood that all positions are not equally valuable. No one, for instance, would contest that a punter is far less critical to team success than a quarterback. Where things get murkier, however, is how the relative importance of the rest of the positions on the field line up with each other.
PFF attempted to solve this issue of comparison by creating a “Wins Above Replacement (WAR)” metric, explained below:
“A few years back, our data science team took on the challenge of quantifying the value of the contributions each player on the football field makes over the course of a season based off of PFF’s play-by-play grading. They looked at how positive and negative performance impacts scoring and, ergo, winning in the NFL.
The result was PFF’s Wins Above Replacement metric (WAR). WAR has been a nearly universally accepted concept in baseball, but nothing had been attempted in the NFL. The basic gist is to try to measure how negatively a team would be affected should a certain player be lost, causing the franchise to go to the street to find a replacement.”
What they found was that, in terms of WAR, QB was 3.5 times as important as the next most important position, wide receiver. It was a full 9 times more important than EDGE rusher, making the selection of Chase Young look even more questionable, in retrospect. And, QB was 13 times more important than interior defensive linemen, on whom Washington has spent two fairly recent first round draft picks.
Incidentally, interior defensive linemen were the least important - non special teams’ position - that PFF found in terms of WAR. EDGE was the fourth least important. Over the past 5 drafts, Washington has invested 4 first round picks at those positions, and one more at the third least valuable position, linebacker.
Washington’s chief shortcoming over the past 20 years - other than the buffoon in the owner’s box - has been the appalling lack of even mediocre QB play. The draft is the best vehicle to secure a franchise QB, and Washington needs to start recognizing that fact. Sure, cross your fingers that Carson Wentz turns out to be the long-term savior, but also draft the best quarterback available as an insurance policy. It’s the best value available at that pick, by a longshot.
If Wentz works out, and the rookie looks promising, go ahead and consider moving the rookie for trade capital, or moving Wentz for draft capital. In either case, the team has great options.
As with all the draft commandments, however, this advice is not Washington-specific. It applies across the league. Until you’re sure you have your long term starter behind center, keep using your most valuable draft capital to acquire the most valuable players on the field: Quarterbacks.
As a final note, those familiar with my work know exactly how much I appreciate these concluding remarks in the PFF piece:
“Your “best player available” may not be close to the real “best value available” — and it’s value that wins championships.”
Stop worrying about first round safeties (defensive lineman) and wide receivers and start paying attention to the options at QB.
8. Don’t be afraid to use a late round pick to take a flyer on a top talent who has slipped.
Last year, when Washington traded up from its 2023 5th round pick with Philadelphia for the Eagles’ 6th and 7th round picks, I held out desperate hope that they were moving to select Tennessee’s uber-talented guard, Trey Smith, who had fallen in dramatic fashion in the draft because of concerns about blood clots in his lungs. Turns out, Washington was trading up for a long snapper, Camaron Cheeseman, and that Smith would be taken with the very next pick, by the Kansas City Chiefs.
Cheeseman would go on to have an unremarkable year - other than snapping to four different kickers, two of whom would eventually be fired for poor performance - and Smith would go on to be named to the Pro Football Writers All Rookie Team, one of the very few Day 3 picks to be so honored.
But, this isn't a piece cautioning about trading up for long snappers (that’s the province of Commandment #2). This directive pertains to recognizing late Day 3 picks (rounds 5, 6, and 7) for what they fundamentally are, throws at a dartboard. Washington is already intimately familiar with the potential benefits of this approach for Day 1 prospects, having had both Jon Allen and Montez Sweat slip to them in the later portion of the first round out fear that reported health problems - arthritis in Allen’s case, and an apparent heart issue in Sweat’s - that have both turned out to be unfounded at this point, could cut their careers short. But this also isn’t a piece advising the use of Day 1 and 2 picks on players with serious health concerns. That should be evaluated, in depth, on a case by case basis. This is about later round picks.
In 2018, the year Washington selected Daron Payne and Tim Settle, another highly rated defensive tackle slipped dramatically, again, as a result of fears about his heart. Michigan’s Maurice Hurst ended up being picked in the 5th round by the Raiders. Hurst has turned out to have a similar, though slightly more productive, career than Settle, and he hasn’t suffered any setbacks in play as a function of his apparent heart irregularity. Settle, himself, ended up being good value in the 5th, but a player like Hurst could have been an alternative option in the same range.
Jay Ajayi, the Boise State running back who fell to the Dolphins in the 5th round of the 2015 draft because of concerns about his knees, ended up having a relatively productive career, going over 1,000 yards from scrimmage in two separate seasons, collecting a Pro Bowl nomination, and eventually accumulating about seven times the “approximate value” for a player taken at his slot in the draft.
Of course, these gambles don’t alway pan out. Running back Marcus Lattimore, who had suffered two catastrophic knee injuries in college, was drafted by the 49ers in the 4th round of the 2013 draft. He ended up never playing a down for them. Interesting though, the downside was incredibly low. The average 5-year “approximate value” of player taken at Lattimore’s draft spot is 3.6, about what Washington got in one season from DeAndre Carter in 2021. Washington’s own Bryce Love, drafted in the 4th, suffered a similar fate.
A several year old piece discussing the relative risks and rewards of drafting injured players summed up this Commandment succinctly:
After the first round of the draft, floor and ceiling matter much more than current status. If a highly graded player keeps falling, NFL teams shouldn’t let pack mentality continue pushing him down—they should be the aggressors, especially if it’s a late pick at a position where they’re already not going to invest much anyway. - Rivers McCown
Which of these commandments do you hope Rivera and company will follow more closely?
This poll is closed
7. In the absence of a definite long term option at QB, use your top half of the first round pick to take the best QB available (with a consensus first round grade).
8. Don’t be afraid to use a late round pick to take a flyer on a top talent who has slipped.
Both of these.