To quote Donald Rumsford, our late unlamented Secretary of War: In any situation there are the things we know, the things we don't know, and the things we don't know that we don't know. In this post, I'm going to argue that unknowns are the key to the draft, and that managing those unknowns suggests trading down--especially this year.
In draft season, it sometimes helps that I'm not too smart at football. It makes it more possible for me to step back and realize the number of things that we don't know. We don't know who is going to make it at the next level--none of the draftees have been playing against NFL competition. We don't know who is going to contribute their first year--it's impossible to predict ahead of time who progresses more and less quickly. Even more, we don't know who will be injured.
Of course, informed people--people who know way more than I do--can make good guesses at the best draft value. When those guesses turns out right, it is tempting to think that this expert "knew" the best pick for Dallas to make. But this outcome is offset when other experts--people who understood the game just as much--would have gone a different direction. Again, these other experts can look like they "knew" the best pick if they turn out to be right.
Where there is a certain degree of consensus, I have nothing against gambling that the consensus is right. Most draft analysts, not just a couple, thought Claiborne was a top-5 pick, a worthy investment of very valuable draft currency, because of his possibility of contributing true game-changing pass defense. I have nothing against taking that gamble, knowing that he might not, after all, out-perform a mid-range draft pick or FA pickup. That's life--not every effort to improve at a given position is going to pan out, and everyone knows it.
On the other hand, what if there isn't a consensus? In this draft, once we get past the first 5-10 picks, we no longer have just a few players who (according to the combined opinion of those most qualified to judge), will make the greatest possible impact. Instead, we have a widely varying set of possibilities, each of whom is arguably just as likely to help our team as another.
In other words, if we "miss" Donald and take Hageman, it is just as possible that Hageman will out-perform Donald at the NFL level. Yes, Donald has some explosiveness that is perceptibly better than Hageman's, but it isn't clear to anybody (including the experts) that this will translate to the next level. And Hageman has some qualities (size and strength) perceptibly better than Donald's. If we "miss" a first-round DT and take a safety in the first round, it is just as possible that the combination of a really good safety plus a 2nd/ 3rd round DT will help our team just as much as that Donald/ Hageman would have helped our team. Conversely, if we "miss" Pryor and Clinton-Dix, it is just as possible that Wilcox or Matt Johnson will take the next step and provide an excellent complement to Church, while a 1st-round pick at another position (O-line or D-line) will help us more in the long term.
I am not trying to suggest that these choices--Donald vs. Hageman, Pryor/ Clinton-Dix vs. lineman--is so completely balanced that there is no way to make one decision over the other. If we had to choose one of these at our 16th/17th spot, we would have to look at all the good reasons--advanced by smart people--to take a safety, or to take Donald, or to take Hageman, or to go DE (Ealy/ Ford) or even O-line (Martin). And then we would have to try to decide which is best.
But we do not have to choose one of these at our 16th/ 17th spot. We can trade down. And when we do, we have almost as much chance of being "forced" into a better decision as we do of being forced into a worse decision. Plus, we get the extra pick.
On draft day, if by some strange chance we get a chance at Mack or Barr or any other player that we are reasonably sure according to general consensus is likely to be a measurably greater game-changer than others who will be available later, then of course we take that player. But most likely we will be looking at a field where there are half a dozen legitimate choices, each of which might (or might not) be the best value. And if that's the case, we don't need to be afraid of trading down.
Currently, the CBS board has Ealy, the top-rated DE, on the board at 17. I'm fine with taking him. I'm fine with taking Donald (22 on the CBS board). I'm fine with taking Clinton-Dix (19), Nix (18), and--if still available--Martin (12) or Mosley (16). I also think Ford (21), Hageman (26), and Pryor (28) would be reasonable picks at 17. So if 5 or 6 of these names are still on the board--along with other names that will surely appeal to other teams, perhaps some top-rated QBs or WRs--I don't try to weight the pros and cons. I punt, and trade down.
A trade down means that we are drawing more numbers in what is, when all is said and done, an unpredictable lottery. The only reason not to do it is that we are afraid of missing someone we know is special, and would otherwise take. But this year, in the mid-range, there is no single name we know is special. There are a lot of worthy possibilities--and there is little risk in trading down before taking our shot at whichever of these possibilities will still be available then.