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I love the NFL draft and have for years. It’s an event directly related to the game of football, but it’s all hope and very little disaster. No one gets hurt and no one really loses (except for Jets fans), and even if you don’t do well, you don’t really know it for five years. It is 100 percent plan and zero percent contact with the enemy. It’s great.
I don’t really understand it, though.
I mean, I understand the draft itself well enough—it’s people choosing teams, something we’ve done since we were kids at recess—but I find the cottage industry surrounding it gets more and more baffling every year. Draft prognostication, draft analysis, mock drafts, draft grades—if you think about it for even a second, none of this stuff makes any sense.
Teams choose players based on any of number of factors: their current needs, the game’s changing strategies, their future needs, the need to give a particular decision-maker some sense of autonomy and power… the list goes on. Teams dispatch an entire staff of travelling scouts and collect reports from them. They interview players. They refine their list again and again. They attend the NFL Combine. They argue with each other, and they stand on the table for their guys, and all that dramatic stuff. And, presumably, they also watch some analysis and look at what’s being written and watch the college games.
The information imbalance in this situation is staggeringly on the side of the team. Even the worst-drafting team of all time—maybe the Bengals of decades ago, with their legendarily small scouting department—probably knows more about the available players than any viewer, and they know how that player fits their team better than any commentator.
What I’m saying is that the teams probably know everything that you do, or that Mel Kiper does, plus a lot more. So when a highly touted prospect plummets down the draft, and your team—despite having an apparent need at that position—passes him up again and again, the odds are good there’s a reason for it. (Andrew Billings was an example this year.)
But pundits shake their heads and scold and issue scathing C-plus draft grades, and fans tweet angrily about how their favorite team left this perfect guy on the board. None of it makes any sense to me.
The local NFL team wound up catching a little of that kind of heat this year, in this case for taking a wide receiver in the first round when everyone knew—KNEW!—that they needed to use that pick to shore up the defensive line. That’s linear thinking: We are thin at defensive line, so we should draft to fill defensive line positions, regardless of all other considerations.
That approach leads to stasis, as you slot in decent-to-good players at your positions of need every time they open up, but never build a truly talented roster across the board. Second-year General Manager Scot McCloughan does things differently: You take the guys you believe will best contribute, regardless of position; if they’re good, you’ll find a way to use them, and the net result is a more talented roster across the board, even if you still have a nominal “hole” in your lineup.
It’s not a particularly flashy approach to the draft. In many ways it can be boring, and it can even seem disappointing, drafting a guy who may be buried on the depth chart in his rookie year. It draws neither effusive praise nor fiery condemnation from the chattering draft pundits. The overall response seems to be, roughly, “B-plus. Some promising players and some odd choices.”
But—and here’s the weird thing—that’s indicative of how the Pigskins seem to operate these days. Since McCloughan arrived, much of the praise has been focused on his player evaluation savvy. But credit also needs to be given to the holistic organizational change he seems to have implemented. For more than a year now, this team has kept the soap opera to a minimum. They’ve plugged the worst of their information leaks. They’ve made personnel moves that have ranged from “really good” down to “not-so-good-but-it-was-worth-a-shot.” Yes, they’ll need to win from September on, not just from March to June, but they’ve taken a big step: Basically, they’ve acted like a professional football team that has some idea of what they’re doing.
And that’s even more baffling than the eight trillion totally wrong mock drafts that accompany the draft every year.
Follow Matt Terl on Twitter @matt_terl.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery