That time of year is upon us. Not just spring and the sounds of the world coming back to life after a long winter. It’s the time of year that you can also hear the sound of pundits lining up to offer their opinion on the current NFL draft. It is no doubt an exciting time. It signifies that (hopefully) football is about to make its yearly return to the main stage. If you listen closely you can hear the rumble of Jets fans beginning to boo. After all, this is also the time of year that all fans become draft experts.
As Mel Kiper, Jr. and Todd McShay are busy readying ammo for this weekend, a question arises that is as old as the draft itself. Should a team draft based on need, or should they take the best player left on the board?
While that question may seem simple, I can assure you that NFL front offices don’t think so. As fans, a draft bust means we have to wait another year for a coveted draft pick to save a floundering franchise. As an owner or GM, it means sinking many millions of dollars into a paper shredder. The point is, while it may seem like an easy decision from the outside, there’s much more that goes into these selections than the average fan will ever know.
While contemplating the question at hand, I found myself going back and forth on the answer. If you draft for need, the player drafted may not be developed enough to come in and fill that need right away. If you draft the best player available, that player doesn’t necessarily improve your chances of winning. If a team is loaded at wideout, and then drafts the best wideout on the board, how much better did they really become?
You must find a balance between the two parts of the question. I know that seems elementary, but Bill Parcells made me see it a little differently. In his book Finding a Way to Win: The Principles of Leadership, Teamwork, and Motivation, Parcells explains how he always took heat for his draft picks, particularly while in New York. His philosophy was to draft the player who gave his team its best chance to win immediately. Think about that for a second. Just because a team may be thin at a particular position, doesn’t mean it needs to draft for that position. On the other hand, drafting the best player available doesn’t seem logical if he doesn’t fit a team’s system. Parcells explained that knowing they were in a division with Dan Marino meant that they better be able to stop the pass, so he looked to draft guys that could do so.
This philosophy was clearly evident in the 2006 draft. Most expected the Texans to take Reggie Bush with the top pick, but instead they drafted Mario Williams. The Texans front office knew that to beat Peyton Manning in the AFC South they had better be able to get some pressure on him. While Reggie Bush is certainly electrifying, and would’ve provided a spark to the Texans organization, he wouldn’t have been able to disrupt Peyton in the pocket. Think about how this applies to other scenarios in the league. If you have to beat Adrian Peterson, you better draft defensive tackles or inside linebackers. If you have to get past the Ravens or Steelers, you better be looking to draft a quarterback that can handle that task.
The bottom line is that the answer to a seemingly simple question isn’t always so simple. The solution changes from team to team, and the pressure on front office folks to get it right is palpable. Would you want to be the one to draft the next Tim Couch?