Dallas Cowboys Draft Strategies (Pt 1): BPA vs. Need

Every year around draft time entire rain-forests are felled to generate the paper needed to print out all the analysis about ‘team needs’ and which positions every franchise needs to address in the NFL’s Annual Player Selection Meeting.

Invariably, the discussion on boards like these tends to boil down to drafting the best player available or drafting for need. But there are many more draft strategies out there, some more successful than others.

Over the next couple of posts, we’ll look at different draft strategies and what they could mean for the Dallas Cowboys. We’ll also propose a mock that would account for each strategy.

A big caveat about draft strategies right up front: there is no one single "right" draft strategy. And while we will present one or two distinct draft strategies per post going forward, they are not mutually exclusive. What teams decide to do on draft day is usually an amalgamation of many different strategies based on talent available, needs, schemes the teams run, competitive situation and many more criteria.

If you’re not actually in the war room, you’ll have to rely on your observations after the draft to figure out what a team’s draft strategy may have been. Popular opinion has surmised that i.e. the Raiders always go for speed and size, the Patriots value football IQ, the Cowboys want powerful OL for their blocking schemes, Shanahan prefers athletic OL for his ZBS, Green Bay always goes BPA and Matt Millen always, always takes a wide receiver in the first round.

But please keep in mind that among the chief sources of information for any type of draft strategies are NFL general managers, who are lying, and owners, who are lying even more.

As to the mock drafts we’ll be doing in these posts, they are not going to be your run-of-the-mill type mock drafts where you simply get to pick your favorite player out of the blue, devoid of any competition. No, in order to account for other teams competing for the same talent, we are going to resort to technology. In this specific case, we are going to use Drafttek’s Online Draft Simulator (ODS) for our mocks. As a result, we’ll spend a lot of time in today’s post explaining the basics of the simulator.

Drafttek

Drafttek’s 2011 Big Board is developed and constantly updated based on Drafttek’s in-house player rankings and expertise, and is cross checked against other scouting sources such as NFLDraftScout.com, Pro Football Weekly and a few others.

The Drafttek 7-round Consensus Mock Draft (CMD) uses a computer model to generate a mock draft based on an algorithm that weighs the available players on a ranked "Big Board" against a matrix of team positional needs. These positional needs are defined by Drafttek’s network of team analysts.

Online Draft Simulator and team needs

Drafttek provides its computer model as a free online version called the Online Draft Simulator (ODS). Users can create their own mock drafts by changing team needs or inputs to create new mocks based upon their own views and preferences. Best of all, it's free and doesn't require signing up.

The ability to change team needs (Positional Priority Codes) is at the heart of how Drafttek.com's simulation models work. Seven different codes are used to describe the level of need at each position. For our purposes, we’ll limit the codes for now to four codes and only use the P3, P4, P5 and P9 codes.

  • Priority 3 (or P3): Team is in need of "Starting Caliber" talent at the position, but will not reach too much for it. Think of this as a "best player available at positions of need".
  • Priority 4 (or P4): Team is in need of "Depth" at the position, but will not reach for it.
  • Priority 5 (or P5): Team is in need of "Depth" at the position, and will address that need in rounds 4-7. P5 needs will be addressed in rounds 1-3 only if no higher priority needs can be filled.
  • Priority 9 (or P9): A P9 position will only be drafted once all other positions have been filled. The ODS program will then revert to a Best Player Available mode to select the highest rated P9.

The ODS also allows for some more advanced simulations with player lockouts, player grabs and multiple position codes, which I am not going to get into today. We’ll keep things simple for now by sticking with the four priority codes described above.

Here’s how the team at Drafttek currently see the Cowboys team needs:

Offense Defense
P3 OT P3 CB, DE
P4 OC P4 DT, OLB, ILB, SS, FS
P5 OG P5  - -
P9 All others P9 PK

While you may have a minor quibble here or there, overall this does not seem to be too far off the mark. For all those of you screaming "Where’s the safety?" and "Why is guard rated lower than center?" please consider that this scenario assumes that a starting caliber safety and guard are likely to be brought in via free agency. Also, from a priority code perspective, a P5 increases in value to a P3 starting in Round 4, so the OG will have a higher priority than the OC in the rounds in which this position will likely be drafted. As for the safety, the folks at Draftek believe the value of the position is in later rounds (a PC way of saying this is a weak safety crop).

Interestingly, the highest priority code used is a P3, which tells us that the Cowboys are looking for starters at these positions, but would like to avoid reaching too far for a player. (P1 and P2 codes allow for a much bigger reach).

Essentially, the priority codes as defined above state that the Cowboys will follow a "BPA at position of need strategy" in this draft. They are looking for a tackle, end and corner, ideally in the top three rounds, and would like to add depth in the later rounds, particularly on defense. Which brings us to the first draft strategy, one that is used to some extent by all teams:

Strategy 1: "Best player available at position of need"

The Cowboys team needs as defined above, coupled with the Drafttek Big Board, and run through an algorithm that includes the team needs for the other 31 NFL teams, results in the following seven round mock draft:

1st Round 2nd Round 3rd Round 4th Round 5th Round 6th Round 7th Round
Player Nick Fairley, DE, Auburn Marcus Cannon, OT, TCU Brandon Burton, CB, Utah
Clint Boling, OG, Georgia, Ricky Elmore, OLB, Arizona DeMarcus Van Dyke, CB, Miami
Nick Bellore, ILB, Central Michigan
Reach/ Value +4 +0 -7 -35 -8 -27 -23

All three P3 codes have been met (OT, DE and CB), with the Cowboys even getting two corners. The Cowboys filled out a lot of their P4 needs in the later rounds, but missed completely on any safeties, which would now be a priority for free agency.

The Reach/Value number in the second row indicates how far below/above his position on the Drafttek big board a player was taken. In Nick Fairley's case, he was ranked fifth on the Drafttek big board at the time I was writing this. The Cowboys take him with the 9th pick, which results in a difference of +4. The Cowboys got very good value by getting the fifth ranked player with the ninth pick. Later in the draft, the Cowboys have to reach a lot to fill some of their need positions.

There is a significant difference between drafting for need and drafting BPA at a position of need. When drafting for need, you rank the positions in the order you need to get better at. For the Cowboys, this could arguably look like this (or a similar ranking):

           1st OT, 2nd DE, 3rd S, 4th CB

Drafting purely for need, the Cowboys would pick a tackle in the first round, a defensive end in the second, a safety in the third and so on. Almost without exception, that is not a good strategy. On the other hand, drafting BPA at a position of need means defining a list of positions you need to get better at and then when it’s your turn to pick, you choose the best available player at the positions on your need list. The opposite of drafting for need is BPA, which is our next draft strategy.

Strategy 2: "Best Player Available"

The underlying assumption of a BPA approach is that drafts are not a short term fix for a couple of team weaknesses, but that the draft is the cornerstone of long term franchise building and team strategy. Over the long run, BPA should in principle give you the best team possible, but injuries, free agency and draft busts can have a significant impact on this. The downside obviously is that a BPA approach does not address team needs. That is why God (with a little help from the NFLPA) invented free agency.

The thing that can drive fans and analysts nuts with BPA is that there never is any consensus on who exactly the BPA is at any given point. Each of the 32 teams have their own Big Boards with their own rankings, which do not match any of the generic Big Boards based on overall rankings put together by the Mel Kipers and Wes Buntings of this world.

Think of Sean Lee last year. It’s been pretty well documented that the Cowboys had a first round grade on Lee. The fact that he dropped all the way to the 55th pick is a good indication that not many other teams shared the Cowboys’ evaluation.

To simulate a BPA approach with the ODS, I set all the Priority Codes for all positions to P4 (except the 4-3 defensive positions which I kept at P9). These settings ensure that the Cowboys will not reach at any position and always try to take the player with the highest value on their Big Board (in this case, the Drafttek big board). Here are the results:


1st Round 2nd Round 3rd Round 4th Round 5th Round 6th Round 7th Round
Player A.J. Green, WR, Georgia Mark Ingram, RB, Alabama Luke Stocker, TE, Tennessee
Virgil Green, TE, Nevada Henry Hynoski, FB, Pittsburgh Stanley Havili, FB, USC Alex Henery, PK, Nebraska
Reach / Value +6 +22 +14 +27 +29 +38 +76

Going strictly by the Drafttek board, this would be the Cowboys BPA mock draft. A receiver, a back, two tight ends and two fullbacks ... that might be a little rich. Which goes to show that a pure BPA approach is a myth. But before you laugh this off completely, consider the following: last year the Patriots drafted not one but two tight ends, one in the second round, one in the sixth. Overkill? Not for the Patriots. Combined, these two rookie tight ends recorded 16 TDs in 2010.

Think of the teams you usually associate a BPA approach with. The Patriots. The Colts. The Packers. The Steelers. Perhaps the Eagles. Maybe a few more. What do all these teams have in common? Over the last few years, they usually haven’t had that many holes on their roster. They had the luxury of mostly following relatively stringent BPA approaches, whereas most teams drafting in the top 15 every year do not have that luxury. Instead, these weak teams must address very specific needs or holes in their rosters and have to resort to at least a ‘BPA at position of need’ strategy, if not an outright need strategy, to fill those holes.

A risk of drafting for BPA is that you could end up focusing more on getting value than on getting quality players. Applying the draft value chart to the mock draft above shows that this mock gained 1,533 points by picking players lower than where they were slotted on the Drafttek Big Board. A.J. Green for example was third on the Drafttek big board at the time I was writing this (Drafttek change their big board, team needs and mock drafts weekly). 3rd is the equivalent of 2,200 points on the draft value chart. The Cowboys get him with the ninth pick (1,350 pts) for a "gain" of 850 points.

The total point "gain" of 1,533 pts is the equivalent of the 7th pick in the first round. Not bad at all. I spent quite some time while writing this post tweaking, fine-tuning and cajoling the ODS input to finally reach this number, and sometimes GMs get caught in a similar value maximization trap

Take our own Jerry Jones. In the 1996 draft, the Cowboys are on the clock with the 30th pick of the first round. The top rated player on the Cowboys board at that point was one of the top DE’s in that draft, Tony Brackens. BPA says pick the guy. But the Redskins called and offered their 37th and 67th picks for the Cowboys’ 30th. A gain of 165 points in Dallas’ favor. Jerry Jones jumped at it.

In the end, the players chosen with the extra picks didn’t work out well for the Cowboys and Jones was heavily criticized for the trade. Jones tried to defend his move by pointing to the value of the third rounder, but his mistake was that he in essence placed value over player quality. Sadly, it wasn’t going to be the last time (Read a more detailed version of the story in the BTB Archives).

But before we all start bashing Jerry, here’s another example taken from before Jerry's time about the dangers of drafting for need instead of BPA, courtesy of Wikipedia:

In the 1979 draft, the Dallas Cowboys were placed just ahead of the 49ers. The Cowboys' draft strategy through that time was to take the highest-ranked player on their draft board at the time of their selection, regardless of position. When the Cowboys' turn came up in the third round, the highest rated player on their board was Montana. However, feeling that the quarterback position was in excellent long-term shape with Roger Staubach and Danny White, and desperately needing a tight end, the Cowboys went off their strategy and drafted Doug Cosbie. The 49ers took Montana.

I’m sure there are countless other examples of what can go wrong when you stop following BPA, just as there are examples where another draft strategy led to success. With the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to figure out what the right strategy would have been. In the war room during the draft you do not have that luxury. Make sure your draft board is in order, stick to it and don’t start getting too smart for your own good.

In the next post, we’ll look at how bad contracts can drive draft day decisions.

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