“Draft for ‘Value’ or ‘Need’?”
by James MacPherson
The NFL Draft is one critical point where teams have the opportunity to build and improve their rosters for the upcoming season and seasons to come. It is a time where teams can turn their franchises around from being “losers”, to becoming playoff contenders, and eventually hoisting the Lombardi Trophy. If poorly executed, it can also be where a team sets itself back several years by failing to invest in the right draft picks. With only seven rounds, it is essential that teams take advantage and draft diligently and aggressively to get the best players possible, while filling specific needs at positions. Ideally, a team should draft players who fill “needs” at positions and carry the best “value”. However, what should a team do if they have a position need but the players available carry a lower grade than the round they are drafting? Should a team with their first round pick, draft a second-round grade player at a position they desperately need, and pass on other higher graded position players whom they may not need as much but carries an appropriate first-round grade?
Say that you are the General Manager of an NFL franchise. You are sitting in the War Room on Draft Day and will be faced with having to make split-second decisions with a Draft Board that is quickly and constantly changing. Unless it is the first pick and you hold it, you are always behind another team drafting and must act and react according to their pick. Your team is in dire need of an Offensive Tackle, for example, and you are sitting with the 11th pick in the first round. Team A drafts the first Offensive Tackle that you wanted, but you suspected they might. You have your Draft Board of players by position and grade indicating whom to draft next. Then Team B unexpectedly takes the second player you wanted; a choice you did not anticipate. You are still nine picks back. Do you make a move to trade up? Team Q just traded up ahead of you and took the third Offensive Tackle you wanted to take. Now there is a run on a position that you desperately need and all of the sudden, the first-round graded Offensive Tackles are all gone. Do you draft a second-round graded Offensive Tackle in the first round because you desperately need one, or do you wait and draft a first-round graded player at a different position. However, you have a franchise quarterback who took way too many sacks this past season. With the current run on Offensive Tackles, if you wait, you are now faced with the possibly of losing out on all of the second-round graded Tackles and, at best, getting a third-round graded Tackle. What do you do? These are the real questions facing NFL GM’s and coaches on Draft Day and teams are going over these exercises in their Draft Meetings, preparing for these scenarios. You are the GM. Do you draft “value” or “need”? The clock is ticking…
Let’s explore recent drafts to see if we can determine an answer. More specifically, we will examine the much-discussed Quarterback position. There are several “Quarterback-needy” teams in the 2014 Draft, including the Jacksonville Jaguars, Cleveland Browns, Oakland Raiders, Houston Texans, and the Minnesota Vikings, as well as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Arizona Cardinals. Should these teams draft for “need” or draft for “value”? For sake of argument, we need to determine the grade of this year’s crop of top Quarterbacks. This has been debated to exhaustion and the truth will not be known for years to come. However, one common evaluation was clear at the Senior Bowl and the NFL Combine from NFL coaches and executives; “There are no Andrew Luck’s…” in this year’s draft. In other words, there is no guaranteed to be number one overall pick, day-one starter, “…’hang your hat on’, for the next ten years…”, Franchise Quarterback. There are questions surrounding each of these Quarterbacks’ abilities and value. Recent mock drafts from NFL experts have as many as four Quarterbacks being drafted in the first round, while another mock draft from an NFL expert predicts zero Quarterbacks being taken in the first round. Let us assume a middle ground, and say there are two first-round graded Quarterbacks and two second-round graded Quarterbacks. I would rank them as follows: Blake Bortles (middle/late first-round), Johnny Manziel (late first-round), Derek Carr (early second-round), and Jimmy Garoppolo (middle/late second-round). After speaking with an NFL Quarterbacks coach from one of the named teams at the Senior Bowl, he said he is “…looking for ‘The Answer’, not just another guy who is pretty good…”. From what I have seen, Bortles and Manziel have the best potential to be “The Answer” and that is why I gave them the first-round value. I also watched Carr and Garoppolo in person at the Senior Bowl and they both threw the ball like NFL Quarterbacks in terms of accuracy, arm strength, and deep ball accuracy. I gave them both the edge over Bridgewater who struggled on film with his deep ball accuracy. Also, see both Carr and Garoppolo having higher ceilings in the NFL than Bridgewater.
In 2012, the Cleveland Browns had two first-round picks. They drafted Trent Richardson with the #3 pick and 28-year old Brandon Weeden with the #22 pick. Sitting at the #22 pick, Cleveland saw three Quarterbacks come off the board: Andrew Luck (Indianapolis Colts #1), Robert Griffin (Washington Redskins #2), and Ryan Tannehill (Miami Dolphins #8); all legitimate first-round grades. Cleveland reacted by drafting for “need” with Weeden, perhaps out of fear of missing out on a quality Quarterback. However, Weeden was believed to only carry a second-round grade at best, according to NFL.com. Cleveland had a need at Quarterback, but by over-drafting Weeden in the first round, they missed out on a real first-round value pick. The term “over-drafting” is used to reference a draft pick who is selected in a higher round than his estimated value. Cleveland had needs at Offensive Line, Defensive Line and Wide Receiver and could have drafted the higher grade OT Riley Reiff, OG David DeCastro, DE Whitney Mercilus or WR Alshon Jeffrey (a second-round pick, but carried a first-round grade). Weeden likely would have been available in the high second round with Cleveland’s 35th pick, and if he were not, they could have still picked up a Quarterback in the second or third round with Nick Foles (second round grade/third round pick) or Russell Wilson (third round grade), but would have had to trade up ahead of Seattle to get Russell Wilson in the third round. Here is an example of a team NOT taking advantage of their first-round pick. However, Trent Richardson was at least first-round graded player. Cleveland was fortunate to receive a do-over when they traded Richardson to Indianapolis in 2013 for a first-round pick (#26) in the 2014 NFL Draft. As a General Manager, it is advantageous to draft a first-round graded pick because even if he does not work out, you may still be able to get compensation for that player in a trade. This year, Cleveland has two first-round draft picks at #4 and #26 and I would argue they will NOT choose a Quarterback unless it is a first-round grade in Bortles or Manziel. They also have a high second round 35th pick. With it, they could also fill their Quarterback need with either Johnny Manziel, if still available, Derek Carr or Jimmy Garoppolo.
In the 2013 NFL Draft, there were five Quarterback-needy teams with the Buffalo Bills, New York Jets, Oakland Raiders, Kansas City Chiefs and Arizona Cardinals. There were also no “Andrew Luck’s” in that draft. Only one team drafted a Quarterback in the first round. Not since 2001 had only one Quarterback been drafted in the first round. With a thin Quarterback class, teams instead chose to draft “value” and not “need” and avoided over-drafting a Quarterback who was not a first-round grade. Buffalo drafted E.J. Manuel in the first round with the 16th pick after trading down from the #8 pick with St. Louis. Manuel, however, carried only a second-round grade at best and Buffalo over-drafted him in the first round. Buffalo could have sought a better first-round value and still probably drafted Manuel in the second round. They also had needs at Wide Receiver and could have drafted Pro Bowl WR Cordarelle Patterson or WR Deandre Hopkins in the first round as both were available and carried first-round grades. They had an opportunity cost of not receiving a first round value for their pick. This was a similar situation facing the Cincinnati Bengals in 2011. They needed a Quarterback and Wide Receiver. They drafted A.J. Green in the first round, then Andy Dalton in the second round, both in accordance with their draft grades thus maximizing the value of their draft picks. Cincinnati drafted wisely as both were big contributors in their rookie years and helped Cincinnati improve from 4-12 in 2010, to 9-7 in 2011, and a playoff appearance. Buffalo, however, did not improve their record as a result of the 2013 NFL Draft, finishing 6-10 in 2013, the same as in 2012. Manuel also missed six games due to injury. The “jury is still out” on Manuel who still had a decent year, throwing more touchdowns (11) than interceptions (9), but he will have to improve to prove he was worth a first round pick.
In 2013, the New York Jets also needed a Quarterback and had two first round draft picks. They were thought to draft Geno Smith, who carried a second-round grade. Instead, New York wisely drafted CB Dee Milliner and DT Sheldon Richardson, both first-round grades, with their first round picks. They were fortunate to receive good return on their investment, with Sheldon Richardson earning Defensive Rookie of the Year honors and Dee Milliner receiving Defensive Rookie of the Month honors for December at the end of the season. Geno Smith had an up-and-down rookie year but still led the Jets to an improved 8-8 record, up from 6-10 in 2012, and finished the season with two wins and zero interceptions in the last two games. The New York Jets resisted the temptation of over-drafting a Quarterback in the first round, which they needed but the value was not there. They were disciplined and patient enough to get real first-round graded picks for other needs and still get their Quarterback in the second round, which helped contribute to their immediate success this season and perhaps in seasons to come.
Signing veteran signal-callers through free agency or trade:
There are other options for Quarterback-needy teams to fill their need at Quarterback besides the draft. Teams may find a veteran quarterback via free agency or trade. Seeing the somewhat weak Quarterback draft class in 2013, Kansas City went out and signed veteran Alex Smith through a trade with San Francisco for a second-round pick. This provided Kansas City with some insurance against having to find a Quarterback immediately in the draft. Smith proved to be a wise pickup and worth the second round draft pick as he led the Chiefs to the playoffs and an 11-5 record, which was a vast improvement over 2-14 in 2012. Arizona, also in dire need of a Quarterback, traded Oakland Raiders for veteran signal-caller Carson Palmer, which included a swap of Arizona’s 2013 sixth round draft pick plus a conditional 2014 pick for Oakland’s 2013 seventh round draft pick. The sixth round pick plus the conditional pick proved to be worth it as Palmer had a solid year guiding the team to an improved 10-6 record in 2013, up from 5-11 in 2012, and just missed making the playoffs. Oakland also traded with Seattle for veteran Quarterback Matt Flynn. However, signing a veteran Quarterback does not always work out and has its risks. In Oakland and Matt Flynn’s case, this situation did not work out. However, signing him still afforded Oakland the ability to draft positions they valued and needed while not being forced to draft or over-draft a Quarterback in the 2013 NFL Draft.
So let’s examine what the Quarterback-needing teams have done leading to the 2014 Draft? These teams again are Jacksonville, Cleveland, Oakland, Houston, Minnesota, Tampa Bay and the Arizona. Jacksonville recently re-signed veteran Chad Henne and Head Coach Gus Bradley said “would likely be their starter even if they draft a quarterback”. Cleveland still has Brian Hoyer who they seemed please with even though he is coming off ACL surgery. Oakland traded to Houston a sixth-round pick for veteran Matt Schaub. Houston signed veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick. Minnesota re-signed veteran Matt Cassel. Tampa Bay signed veteran Josh McCown. Arizona still has Carson Palmer but will need to find a replacement some time soon. These moves all seem to signal that, much like in 2013, Quarterback-needing teams are addressing their need by signing or trading for veteran signal callers, and not putting themselves in a position of having to draft or over-draft a potentially lower grade Quarterback. Teams are also in position where, if they do draft a guy they think is “The Answer” or eventually will be, they do not have to start him right away if he is not ready. Having said that I still think it is likely these teams will still draft quarterbacks as Jacksonville, Houston, Cleveland, and Oakland have all flown in many of the top rated quarterbacks to work out privately and also interview.
Another option for a team who wants to get a first-round grade Quarterback is to trade up, or even possibly trade down in the draft. The Washington Redskins, in 2012, traded up with the St. Louis Rams, from the number six pick, up to the number two pick. They needed a Quarterback but also saw great value in the #2 pick to draft either Robert Griffin III or Andrew Luck, and gave up three first-round draft picks plus a second-round draft pick. I would argue neither one of those quarterbacks was worth three first-round picks plus a second-round pick. It was also pretty clear, Mike Shanahan’s job was on the line in Washington in 2012, and he needed a top quarterback no matter what. The Redskins graded both Quarterbacks highly enough and were aggressive in going after RG3 or Andrew Luck, who they needed and valued as a top first-round pick. However, with the quarterback values being middle to late first round, you may see a top team trade down with another team and still get Bortles or Manziel AND get additional draft picks. Houston was heard to be shopping out the number one pick. If another team really values that number one pick and is hungry enough to make a trade for it to grab say DE Jadaveon Clowney, you may see that still happen.
The Seattle Seahawks Model:
The NFL is a copy cat league and who better to copy than the recent Super Bowl Champion Seattle Seahawks, who dominated the Super Bowl with the best Defense in the league and stopped Peyton Manning and the most prolific Offense in NFL history. In addition, they also stopped most other top NFL Quarterbacks in what has been known as a “Quarterback League”. They were the second youngest team to ever reach the Super Bowl, had the best Defense in the league, they had depth at positions, were 4th in the league in rushing, and had a solid Quarterback who made good decisions. I would look for teams to draft using this formula. Build a young team. Build a solid Defense. Build depth. Have a good run game, and find a Quarterback who makes good decisions. It is also far easier to find great defensive players in the Draft, than it is to find a great Quarterback. In 2013, as previously mentioned, the Kansas City Chiefs and Arizona Cardinals followed a similar formula and had two of the biggest turnarounds in the NFL under new head coaches and General Managers. After finishing 2-14, Kansas City did not go out and draft their Quarterback but traded their second round pick to get veteran Alex Smith who was a good decision maker. They had a great defense (tied 5th in the league in points per game 19.1 in 2013) and were in the top 10 in rushing. Kansas City finished 11-5 and made it to the playoffs for the first time in three years. The same can be said for the Arizona who finished 5-11 in 2012. They went out and signed veteran Carson Palmer, they played great defense (ranked 6th, signed Karlos Dansby and drafted Tyrann Mathieu), were okay running the ball, and finished 10-6 in 2013 in the toughest division in the league, and just missed making the playoffs. Arizona was also one of only two teams to beat Seattle, and the only team to beat them at home, ending their 14-game home winning streak.
Drafting “value” at Quarterback:
With the large group of Quarterbacks in this years draft, NFL executives and coaches have stated that there is “value” to be found even in the later rounds. Teams will likely be willing to draft a Quarterback even if they do not need a Quarterback, because of the value and depth they can add to their Quarterback position. There are not enough great quarterbacks in the NFL and teams may try to find the next Russell Wilson or Tom Brady. And speaking of the Patriots, this was a team who had a starter with Tom Brady and did not need a Quarterback in 2011, but saw value in QB Ryan Mallett, who originally had a first-round grade but slipped in the draft to the third round due to a report leaked he had a history of drug use in college. Like New England, if teams see greater value in the later rounds at Quarterback than they do at other positions they should draft a Quarterback who is worth the value. A team cannot have enough great players and in the NFL the backup Quarterback position can be crucial. An example of this would be backup Tom Brady stepping when Drew Bledsoe got injured to lead the team to a Super Bowl, or Curtis Painter backing up Peyton Manning in 2011 and led the team to 2-14 record. This can also be said for any other position in the draft.
In the 2014 Draft, I think there may only be two Quarterbacks to be selected in the first-round which would be: Blake Bortles and Johnny Manziel. I also expect teams will try adopt the Seattle Seahawks model of drafting Defense. Seattle is still the team to catch and beat in the NFL and I also would anticipate Offensive Lineman as well as some top Wide Receivers being selected early in the draft for teams to keep up with and outpace Seattle or other top defenses. Jacksonville, Houston, Oakland, and Cleveland will likely all draft quarterbacks early, and maybe even draft more than one. These four teams have all held private workouts with a lot of quarterbacks. Will the large crop of quarterbacks, I also expect a lot of value quarterbacks to get taken later in the draft, especially if teams can get great value for their late round picks. Look for a couple quarterbacks like Aaron Murray and Zach Mettenberger to rise and possibly get taken early, as well as some late round value picks with Connor Shaw or Keith Wenning.
Hindsight is 20/20 and it is easy to second guess a team’s decision and draft picks. Not every first-round pick works out and it is unpredictable and uncertain which draft picks will be “busts”. However, what a team CAN control is that they determine accurate player grades relative to other players in the draft through their evaluation process. They CAN also control not reaching and over-drafting players based on need. The NFL Draft is about drafting VALUE, period. If it comes down to “value” or “need”, teams should draft value. You cannot have enough great players on your team. Teams that also have position needs they are unsure if they can fill in the draft should sign veterans through free agency or trades. Teams should also be aggressive and be willing to trade up or down in the draft to get the best players they can. Furthermore, if a team happens to miss on a draft pick like Cleveland did with Trent Richardson, but drafted them according to their draft grade, they may still be able to get some compensation through a possible trade with another team. Either way, drafting for “value” is always the best option for teams in the NFL Draft.