Pitt defensive tackle Aaron Donald has been receiving a lot of positive press over the last few days at the Senior Bowl practices. His draft stock may have risen faster than that of any other player, and once the Senior Bowl practices are over, you can watch him rocket up all the meaningless mock drafts and big boards we study so intently. In some places, there's even talk that Donald may have moved up as high as the middle of the first round. Of course, some draftniks who know something about Donald's college production might phrase that differently, and say he slipped back into the first round where he belonged all along.
Two weeks ago, on January 8, the CBSSports big board had Donald ranked 53rd. Two days ago, he had already climbed to 36th. By next week, he'll probably be ranked somewhere in the first round.
I like Aaron Donald as a 3-technique prospect for the Cowboys. I love his ability to rush the passer, I'm impressed by his college production and I'm flabbergasted by his shockingly high production ratio of 2.54 over his last two college years. And while many think Donald is a bit small, keep in mind that he's just half an inch shorter and three pounds heavier than Warren Sapp when Sapp entered the NFL in 1995 at 6'1½", 285 pounds.
If the Cowboys like Donald as much as I do, they should draft him with their first-round pick. And I mean their 16th/17th pick, not some hypothetical-trade-down-scenario-pick somewhere in the 20s or 30s.
But wouldn’t the Cowboys be giving up too much value by taking Donald that high?
I don’t know. And I don’t care. In the draft, safe picks are usually good picks. String together enough good picks and you’ve built a contender. Get too cute along the way and chances are you'll get a lot of picks wrong.
And who says the Cowboys would be giving up too much value for Donald with their 16th/17th pick anyway?
Many people who follow the draft, and even those who do it professionally - sometimes I think: "Especially those" - often get caught in the value-maximization trap. A player was either a "REACH!!!!" or a "VALUE PICK!", depending on where that player was slotted on some imaginary Big Board that some guy with an internet connection made up to hit a publishing deadline, and which others then copied and rearranged slightly.
Yet the boards we rely on so much are not the boards the teams use to make their draft choices, far from it. We've learned that by looking at the two Cowboys draft boards that were leaked over the last few years. Yet even though we know that the team boards differ, often significantly, from the draft boards put up by self-styled draft experts, we will still cry "reach" and "great value" on draft day based on little more than Mel Kiper’s or Mike Mayock’s say-so.
Sometimes GMs get caught in a similar value-maximization trap.
Take Jerry Jones for example. In the 1996 draft, the Cowboys were already on the phone with DE Tony Brackens (whom the Cowboys were going to pick with the 30th overall pick) when the Redskins called and offered their 37th and 67th picks for the Cowboys’ 30th. A gain of 165 points on the Jimmy Johnson draft value chart in Dallas’ favor, and also a significant gain on the Harvard Trade Value chart. Jerry Jones naturally jumped at the offer.
Later, Jones was heavily criticized for the trade, which Jones tried to defend by pointing out the value the Cowboys gained in the deal. But Jones had fallen into the value-maximization trap, which had led him to place value over player quality. In the end, Tony Brackens collected 55 sacks and a Pro Bowl nomination, while DE Kavika Pittman (37th pick) only notched 10 sacks for the Cowboys and 18 over his entire NFL career, and center Clay Shiver (67th) lasted just three years in the NFL.
The purpose of the draft is not about optimizing some hypothetical trade value, like you would in an online mock draft simulator like Fanspeak's On The Clock, Drafttek's Online Draft Simulator, or first-pick.com. The purpose of the draft is to make sure you get the players you want, players that will be difference-makers for you, players that you think will give you the best chance of winning. If you believe you have identified the player that will make the most difference to your team, go get him.
If the Cowboys think Donald is their guy, take him. If they think they can address their D-line issues some other way, so be it, then get somebody else. But whoever "that guy" is for the Cowboys, go get him. Don’t get cute. Don’t get hung up on trade value.
Trade value does not win games.
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