- Paul Kuharsky, ESPN Staff Writer
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Rarely is there a discussion of draft philosophy with an NFL decision-maker in which best-player-available isn’t a key component.
Rarely is there a first round of the NFL draft in which teams stay exclusively true to that thinking.
“I think everybody says that,” Titans general manager Mike Reinfeldt said. “But at some point need enters into the equation, too. Earlier for some people than for others.”
If you are truly a BPA drafter, you cast needs aside early on and stock your team with high-quality players. Over the course of time, you hope things balance out naturally or you allow what’s available to sort of steer what you’re built to do.
But if you have three drafts in a row when a defensive lineman is identified as the best player available, can you take him all three times when you go on the clock in the first round? Are you willing to be a defensive-line heavy team? Do you have the patience and resolve to wait on addressing the quarterback and cornerback positions that are gaping holes on your depth chart?
Indianapolis Colts vice chairman Bill Polian hit best-player-available home runs with receiver Reggie Wayne in 2001 (when there were defensive needs) and tight end Dallas Clark in 2003 (defense was the issue again). But he’s also seen quality and need coincide and made the right call with running back Edgerrin James in 1999, when he needed to replace Marshall Faulk, who had been traded.
Polian strives to be a BPA drafter.
Why do people who say they abide from that thinking stray from it?
“I think you face three temptations,” Polian said. “The first is that you overvalue positions, i.e. quarterback, and so you try to create someone. Secondly, and it ties together, if you have a need you tend to overvalue players at that need position. It’s just human nature. And then third, you may try to reach, which is the same as overvaluing a player, because you’re trying to hit a home run. You say, ‘Well, if we hit on this player, boy does he have upside.’ And many times the upside doesn’t pan out.
“This is where draft management comes in. You’ve got manage the process much more than you manage the board. The thought is that there is some magic that goes into managing the board on draft day. There isn’t. The real hard work is managing the process and getting the board up. Once the board is up, you should stay with it.”
Whether they spell out how they operate or not, not everyone believes in an all-out best-player-available strategy.
Staying true to a draft board that was set through weeks of intense discussions is important. But teams take different approaches when setting those boards.
Those approaches don’t fit in tidy little boxes, of course. But as I’ve tried to classify draft strategy, I’ve locked in on three that a smart scout outlined.
This is the best player in the draft, this is the second-best player in the draft, this is the third-best player in the draft all the way through every player they deem worth a draft pick. When it’s your turn, you pick the best player still there.
These are guys who fit our team, guys whom we want when our picks come up. They fit our system and culture. Regardless of talent they are the guys who best suit our football team. These 110 or 101 or 96 players, as we order them, are best for our football team.
We’re going to put these guys at this position, because the position is more valuable, above these guys, who are at a less valuable position. Examples: We want left tackles as opposed to strictly guards. Cornerbacks who can flex into safety or play the slot have more value than a strong safety. We want the pass-rushing outside linebacker who can play inside in a pinch over strictly a downhill inside guy.
This scout said he thinks the Bears typically operate off a board ordered strictly by talent. The Packers have very specific traits they want in their players -- they want corners who are at least 6-feet tall, they might take one who’s 5-11 -- so they often follow the second style. The Patriots often lean to position value.
Any of it can work. The best-player-available mindset is often spoken of in sacred tones, but it’s hard to argue against the track records of the Packers and Patriots if they don’t stick to it.
“You can argue that a position need becomes so great that it might negate or overwhelm drafting just the best player at a position that doesn’t impact the game as much,” Reinfeldt said.
All four talk about best player available, but how have AFC South teams worked?
Polian’s gone against the grain with perceived needs pretty regularly. But overall he has been able to devalue some positions in the draft -- offensive line, linebacker -- where the Colts are willing to be smaller than most teams and feel they have position coaches who can help mold effective players.
Reinfeldt’s top picks, Michael Griffin, Chris Johnson, Kenny Britt and Derrick Morgan, have filled need pretty effectively. He allows for a lot of input from assistant coaches and traded up for a second-round pick to get a guy in tight end Jared Cook whom the team loved.
Jacksonville GM Gene Smith’s first two drafts have been top-heavy with offensive and defensive linemen, as he clearly wanted to start with foundation building. It certainly appears that he’s taken the best available players at an area the team is prioritizing and he got four quality starters in Eugene Monroe, Eben Britton, Terrance Knighton and Tyson Alualu.
Gary Kubiak has the strongest voice among coaches as he works with GM Rick Smith in Houston. The Texans' draft strategy is tough to peg. The top of the last three drafts have certainly addressed needs. The most recent first-rounder, corner Kareem Jackson, struggled badly in his first season.
I think BPA tends to be everyone’s dream. But as with so many dreams, things go off script when it’s time to execute in reality.
Ideally, if the best player available isn’t a guy you need, you can trade back with someone who does need him, and draft in a position where BPA and need line up better. But that presumes two things -- that another team sees the value of the player in question the same way you do, and that it wants him enough to deal up to get him.
If you trade down out of this scenario and do so for less than trade-chart value, I pledge that I will not write that you didn’t get enough in exchange for the pick.
Reinfeldt said it’s important to be conscious of noise.
External pressure in the form of media consensus or a concerted push for a player or position can sway some decision-makers, but shouldn’t. A coach or scout making a super strong case for a guy can’t be given more weight just because he’s pressing the issue.
“You’ve got to be true to the scouts and your own evaluation,” Reinfeldt said, echoing a popular maxim. “Then in the long run you’re going to have success. But it can be a hard thing to do.”
Said Polian: “I’ve always believed that if you pass a blue[-chip] player to take a need, then you’ve made a mistake. We’ve tried not to do that. On occasion we may have. But we work very hard to try to avoid it. It is a temptation, but you need to work hard to try to avoid it.”
However you do it, it’s about your ability to judge and project.
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter if you deem him best available, if you decide his position is more valuable or if you see him as an ideal fit for your operation.
The questions that need to be answered are simple ones.
Does he turn into a productive player for you? And is the method you used for selecting him one you can repeat with success?
15hEric D. Williams