Best Player Available. Drafting For Need. You often see these philosophies debated this time of year. Sometimes a team is fortunate in that the clearly best player is at a position of need, particularly for teams at the top who have many needs. Sometimes, though, the philosophies go head to head.
I don’t think you can be 100% in either of these two ideologies, though I am a strongly leaning proponent of taking the best player available, even if it is not at a position of need. If you don’t have that philosophy, I think you run the risk as an organization of having your scouts not accurately assess players and provide what they think the next level wants to hear, if they have a sense of what the team has done recently and what the perceived needs might be. In fact, I think a good organization would separate out the scouting department entirely. In too many situations, a player starts to appear better because he plays a certain position of need, and the team convinces themselves that they are taking the best player.
I think this is particularly important at the top of the draft. Let’s do a thought experiment. Let’s say you have 10 positions (I know there are more, but play along), and among those, 1 will be a future Hall of Famer, 2 more will be pretty good multiple pro bowl type players for a long time, 3 will be solid starters, and 4 will be worthless. The positions they play are random, sometimes its the LB who’s really good, sometimes a QB, sometimes a DE. If two organizations had the same level of scouting prowess, but one only focused on its three biggest need positions, which will be better off in three years? Pretty clearly the one who was open to drafting any position. Even if the “need” team correctly identified the best prospect among the need positions, they would still miss out on the star in many years when he happened to play another position. This could be the difference between taking a DeMarcus Ware instead of a Carlos Rogers, or reversing in different years, a Troy Polamalu instead of a Ty Warren. Warren and Rogers aren’t terrible by any means, but getting the star player would have been a bigger upgrade over addressing a specific need. Early, I think you have to have the mindset that you draft players, not positions.
In later rounds, it becomes less of an issue. Scouting isn’t perfect, so the best you can probably do is tier players at different positions. Drafting for need is okay in the middle rounds because you will likely have similarly graded players, some at a position of need.
The exception to this is at the quarterback position, but then again, most teams taking quarterback do so for need and value is usually not there unless everyone bails, like with Aaron Rodgers. Every other position, you can work around this by playing a player along side his eventual replacement, building strength at a position, and making a trade later. Baltimore drafted Johnathan Ogden and put him at guard as a rookie when they had a pretty solid tackle in Tony Jones, and let him go to Denver the next year after Ogden showed how good he was. At quarterback, unless I am planning on needing an upgrade in the next year or two, I’m not taking that risk.
I have a feeling this year, the rich will get richer because the quarterback-needy teams will draft for need way beyond value. Sometimes, no amount of hoping and praying will turn a pumpkin into a carriage, so the best strategy may be to save your money and buy a nice reasonable used vehicle with a few miles on it. The most quarterbacks drafted in the first two rounds of a draft since the merger was in 1983 (all 6 in first round) and 1999 (5 in first and Shaun King in 2nd). Next were the five each taken in 2006 and 2007, and Jay Cutler is pretty easily the most successful of that group of ten passers, with either the unknown of Kolb or the uncertainty of Vince Young next.
I’m not one of those that always complain that this year’s QB class sucks, and I do suspect we will get a couple of NFL starters from this year’s group, but I don’t see anything to suggest this should be a historically large group other than demand. That means no value, and 4-5 teams that spend a pick on QB this year not ultimately upgrading the position at all, some of whom will actually trade multiple picks for the privilege. That means lots of these guys will be the next Drew Stanton or Kellen Clemens, and the rich (those with quarterbacks) will just get better value when they make trades as teams try to jump in front of each other. They should ask themselves if it’s not better to take the best player instead, and come up with a plan B once the lockout ends, until next year.
[photo via Getty]