In the weeks following the Senior Bowl and Combine each draft season, the very top of the draft begins to take shape. In short, the players to whom almost every team would assign an elite grade, like cream, rise to the top. In a typical year there are usually about 6-8 of these "blue-chip" players. Of course, not all of them turn out to be NFL superstars, but an increasingly high percentage end up becoming perennial Pro Bowl-caliber players. One of the reasons they do so is simple: they are simply more athletically gifted than their astonishingly talented peers. In a league filled with the world's top athletes, they possess off-the-charts production and/ or measureables.
For NFL teams, acquiring one of these players is a top priority. In the most recent FanPost of the Week, BTB member PhilipKDick discussed the obsolescence of the old Jimmy Johnson "draft pick value chart," suggesting that shrewd teams would trade down, because doing so favors the squad trading back and acquiring more picks. I find this a sound strategy (heck, New England has been profiting from this exchange for years now), with one important exception: if there is a blue-chip talent still on the board. One needs to look no further than the 90s Cowboys to understand that good players help you to not lose games; blue-chippers change games by making plays. Therefore, they are more valuable than the combo platter of two good players. Consider: would you rather have one Troy Aikman or two Steve Buerleins?
How does one acquire such game-changers?
Occasionally (as with Dez Bryant last year), a blue-chipper will fall due to a perceived deficiency but, for the most part, the only guaranteed way to grab one of these guys is to have to have one of the top picks in the draft. Teams lucky enough to possess such a pick are usually loathe to trade out of this range and miss out on an elite talent--this is one of several reasons that there has been very little movement at the top of the draft in recent years. And even when there is a blockbuster trade at the top (think of the Michael Vick for Ladainian Tomlinson swap in 2001 or the Eli Manning-Phillip Rivers switcheroo three years later), it involves teams in the top five.
In fact, in the past ten drafts, going back to 2001, there has been a total one trade involving a top-five pick (other than the two above mentioned swaps): in 2009, the Jets leveraged a trade up from pick 17 to nab Mark Sanchez at # 5. In that time span, there have also been five trades involving picks in the 6-10 range ( a trade of picks # 6 and # 8, for example). Other than the Sanchez exchange, however, the type of trades wherein teams move significantly up or down the board typically begin when the picks get to double digits, usually in the 11-14 range. The point here is that teams at the top of the draft are unwilling to trade too far away from the elite talent. For every draft, therefore, its important to determine where this line falls: how many blue-chippers does a given draft boast?
A good exercise--and one the Cowboys' war-room has already considered, I assure you--is to determine who those top players are and where they might fall. The problem is that its extremely difficult, if not impossible, to build a consensus about who the top players are in the 2011 draft. There have been multiple stories recently claiming that scouts are seeing the top of the draft differently; because grades on players are varying, often wildly, from team to team, there is very little agreement when it comes to slotting the first few players. With no universally agreed-upon consensus, how can it be determined who the blue-chippers are? How deep is the group?
Let's try to create a list of the players that, by a consensus derived from draft sites, scouting reports, etc., appear to be at the top of most draft boards. I looked at about twenty different big boards and came up with this working list of elite players, seven of them in total. Again, this is not my list, but one gleaned from a wide array of scouting and draftnick-ing types:
DT: Nick Fairley; Marcell Dareus
DE: Robert Quinn; Da'Quan Bowers
WR: A.J Green
LB: Von Miller
CB: Patrick Peterson
Dallas sits at pick # 9 which, assuming they can't trade down, very well could put them into a quandary. If all these guys are taken, and they can't trade back, they run the risk of paying elite money for a red-chip talent. But what if one of these guys does in fact fall to them? Would they take him no matter what position he played? How many of these guys other than Peterson and Fairly fit both the Cowboys' schemes and an area of need? If A.J. Green is available, do they pass on his top-of-the-draft skillset to nab a player at a position of need?
I think its this quandary that has them reportedly asking USC for more game tape on Tyron Smith. If I'm the Cowboys' braintrust, I'm hoping that Smith can show me enough to come in within shouting distance of blue-chip level. Otherwise, things could get a little sticky come draft day.
Note: the other option, of course, would be to trade down, provided they could find a willing trading partner. Later in the week, I'll look at the most likely partners for a first-round trade.