April has arrived. All in all, it's a pretty bland month - that is unless you're familiar with a little tradition we know as the NFL Draft. With the big day seemingly just around the corner, everyone wants to know who their favorite team will take, or, conversely, who will take a chance on their favorite collegian. Around here, it largely means we're talking about pick number fourteen.
The result, as we've all been watching, reading, and writing, is an overwhelming array of "what-if" scenarios. Contextualizing these are the two prevalent draft philosophies: take the best player available, or target a position of need.
It sounds simple enough--until you try to make, and defend, those key personnel decisions.
Take the Best Player Available
Purists of this faction insist that teams should take the all-around best player available. To imagine this, let's assume that a given draft website has an entirely accurate big board, that has the players listed in order of their objective value to any NFL team. If every team followed a pure BPA approach, the order of the draft would mirror the order of this imaginary board. For the Cowboys, this means that we consider drafting Trent Richardson, Luke Kuechly, or even Ryan Tannehill, should they fall to us and be deemed the overall most valuable player.
Benefits: This strategy has the obvious advantage of increasing the talent (perhaps more accurately: the value) of the roster. If you find that you already have a very good player at that position, you have the option of trading the veteran, or the newly acquired talent, in order to ultimately construct a better football team.
Risks: There's a popular theory circulating throughout the football community--the "O-Ring Theory." This is, essentially, the belief that a defense, like a sealed system in an engineering environment, will fail at its weakest link, the O-Ring. Extending this line of thinking, the offense is expected to expose this weakness repeatedly, effectively destroying the defensive scheme and gaining control of the game. The same theory applies to offensive weaknesses (particularly along the line). How does that tie in? Well, let's say that your O-Ring was in your secondary. After free agency, you still haven't upgraded that position (or worse, you've regressed). When your pick comes along in the draft, and you take the future all-pro running back (to add to your current stable of very effective runners), are you truly helping your team? When taking the best player available, you risk entering the season with notable holes on your roster.
Target a Position of Need
In contrast to the best player available approach (thankfully, otherwise this wouldn't be very interesting), the position of need strategy focuses on filling any holes on the team - raising the floor of the roster, if you will. In order to execute this strategy, the team looks at its worst players, and asks, "how much better can we get than this guy?" In the case of our Cowboys, how much better can we get than Frank Walker? Than Phil Costa? Keith Brooking? Bradie James? All of these players saw significant time in the lineup. If you look at the players in the draft, when you're on the clock, and measure the improvement they represent over the players you believe need to be replaced, you're on your way to targeting positions of need.
Benefits: Going back to the aforementioned O-Ring theory, the position of need philosophy is an attempt to blur the lines with respect to the team's weakest links. Targeting a position of need allows for a greater potential upgrade than the best player available, especially when the BPA is at a position of strength. A lack of obvious weaknesses also helps the team before even taking the field. Without the dreaded O-Ring, the opposition has to prepare a balanced, less opportunistic gameplan. Additionally, the opposing offense will be forced to expend a greater number of plays to feel out the defense, looking for weaknesses. In Valley Ranch, having a relatively even talent floor will prevent our coaches from scheming around our weaknesses (extra protection on passing plays, or conservative safety play on defense, for example).
Risks: When admittedly reaching for players that are objectively less-talented solely because of the position they play represents a huge risk for a front office. Coaches, including our own Jason Garrett, sing along to the tune of "football players play football on Sundays." Aside from the obvious, this expands to mean that good football players find their ways onto the field. There's seldom a case where you couldn't use another good player. Sacrificing this (expected) potential goodness in favor of a particular positional familiarity is a peculiar strategy for any reasonable investor. Would you rather have a good player at some position, or a bad one at a particular position (probabilistically speaking)?
When the Two Come Together
To refer to another as solely believing in one philosophy or the other is bordering on libelous. The inherent flaws in both systems require an effective General Manager, whether in the living room or the war room, to strike a balance between the key tenets of each. It is very important to maximize the value of each of your draft picks. It is no less important to appreciate the strengths and deficiencies of your team.
What's important to me? Every position has an inherent value, which varies from team to team. Offensively, it's difficult to argue that the quarterback is not the most valuable player (ie, the best possible quarterback is more beneficial to the team than the best possible running back). Other decisions are not so cut and dry. From 1 to 54 and beyond, every position on the roster (and even those that fade in and out of existence, such as Kickoff Specialist) needs a value. Assigning these values is the first key.
What do I already have? Going over the current roster, each player should be graded on a scale (independent of the previous positional grades) from 0 to 100. Consider this grade for each year remaining on the player's contract, as well as for each position he might fill (contingencies, in the NFL, are inevitabilities).
What can I get? Now, with the draft class, assign values for each prospect, at each position they might fill, for the expected length of their rookie deals. This is where the ability of your scouting department shines through, especially as they're expected to forecast the development of these young athletes.
Who do I take? With all these numbers, determining the selection is relatively simple. For each available prospect, subtract the value of the player on the roster currently filling that position from the value of the prospect at that position. Calculate the differences, also, within the re-ordered depth chart. The sum of these differences is the factor of improvement (relative to perfection) that the prospect represents. Multiply these improvements by the values associated with the positions in question, and you have a solid number value of that prospect for your team. The highest number resulting from these calculations represents the best available player, as determined relative to need. The considerable margin of error in the scouting process results in the seemingly random outcome of draft pick success, but don't be fooled into thinking that the process doesn't matter.
That was a lot of math, wasn't it? Let's go through an example, then, for clarification.
Now, let's say an inside linebacker in our scheme has a value of 75 points. A running back, then, might be valued at 60, due to the relative ease with which teams have been replacing them lately.
To grade our guys, I'll arbitrarily assign Dan Connor a 70 (as a slightly above average second ILB), and Felix Jones an 80 (a starting caliber back who's a more than capable backup and change of pace). For sake of brevity, assume that both of their contracts will expire after next year (2013). As neither of them is all that old, we'll expect them to remain at the same level next season. Their average values, then, are 70 and 80, respectively.
Now, we'll project grades for the rookies. Luke Kuechly will likely start off as about an 80 (viewed by many to be an instant starter at MLB, he'll be exceptionally skilled for a second ILB). Trent Richardson, a physical beast by all standards, playing a position that has the best chance for immediate success (outside of kickers, perhaps), will start off as an 85 (likely to start for most teams around the league, having him as a backup is a luxury few could enjoy). I'll project Kuechly and Richardson both to reach 90 in their second seasons. This puts their average values at 85 and 87.5 over the next two years.
Now, we calculate the differences, or expected improvements, that each player represents. Kuechly (85) minus Connor (70) equals 15. Richardson (87.5) minus Jones (80) equals 7.5. Multiplying by their positional values, Kuechly (15 times 75) gets a value of 1125 points. Richardson (7.5 times 60) gives us 450 points. The 14th overall pick is worth 1100 points, making Kuechly a slight value, and Richardson a wasted pick.
My numbers here are entirely hypothetical, and, no doubt, the systems vary from team to team. I exhausted myself just generating values and making calculations for these two (intentionally simplified) scenarios. Can you imagine how much work the scouting departments are going through, even as you read this? It's overwhelming at least, as anything other than a full-time occupation.
What's your draft philosophy? How would you change mine?