Denver Broncos Draft Strategy Part 2 - Brian Xanders

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Welcome to part 2 of this series of posts. Today I want to briefly examine Brian Xanders and his drafting/scouting experience with the Atlanta Falcons. Though he worked at various levels within that organization for over a decade, I will be emphasizing on the Falcons drafts from 2005-2007. I will also cover the 2009 draft.

We will skip the 2008 draft as I felt that Xanders was shut out more by Shanny's insiders and his focus was likely mostly on salary caps and budgeting. His main talent is in, well, finding talent. The Josh McDaniels/Brian Xanders team has all the look of a powerhouse in the making. A juggernaut if you will.

The two experienced vastly different views of draft philosophy. Josh McDaniels witnessed the Bill Belichek "I need this, so let's draft this", where the Falcons during Xanders tenure tended to see things like this, "We need this, but let's draft that". My meaning is, McDaniels learned to draft based on need, while Xanders' Falcons went with talent.

In 2009, we saw a sort of hybrid of those two philosophies. In some cases, Best Player Available (BPA) took precedence over true team need(Knowshon Moreno wasn't considered a need at the time, but could you have imagined 2009 without his services?). In my study of McDaniels, I came to realize - through the help of Jeremy Bolander, that I would not get very far in my understanding of the Broncos draft strategy without looking at Brian Xanders.

In many ways it is easier to determine McDaniels' positional needs than it was trying to determine which players Xanders would decide were best fits for what McDaniels was after.  This where where most of my subjective assumptions will come into play.

The Patriots drafts during Josh McDaniels tenure (2001-2008) looked like this: Richard Seymour, Daniel Graham, Ty Warren, Vince Wilfork, Ben Watson, Logan Mankins, Laurence Maroney, Brandon Merriweather, and Jerod Mayo. With maybe one exception(Maroney), the Patriots did not miss on one first round draft choice. In an era where the draft is, at best, a crapshoot, the Patriots hit pay dirt nearly 100% of the time.

In parallel, the Broncos drafted the following players during the same time period: Willie Middlebrooks, Ashley Lelie, George Foster, DJ Williams, Jay Cutler, Jarvis Moss, and Ryan Clady. Talk about a mixed bag of hits and misses. The Broncos during this time probably reflected more of the norm in the NFL than the Patriots perfection. However, the Broncos were able to remain competitive, while the Patriots went on to win Championships.

What does that have to do with Brian Xanders? Well, I wanted two examples to serve as a backdrop when I run through the list of first rounders for the Falcons from 2001-2007. Here are the Falcons first round picks during that time: Michael Vick, T.J. Duckett, DeAngelo Hall, Michael Jenkins, Roddy White, and Jamaal Anderson. The Falcons too had a mixed bag of hits and misses and their success in the league reflects that.

The real point here is that the Broncos and Falcons both drafted "skill" positions rather than "trench" positions most of the time. This is the parallel I was trying to point out.

I consider a "skill" position to be QB, RB, WR, CB, S. While "trench" positions are OL, TE, DL, and LB. Of the nine first round picks the Patriots had during this time frame, they drafted seven trench players and two skill players, while the Falcons and Broncos during this period combined to draft just five trench players(many of which were busts) and eight skill players.

The Patriots looked towards free agency for skill players during this stretch and used high draft picks for their trench players.  This strategy made them the undisputed dynasty of the 2000's.

Another thing to take note of is that the Patriots drafted with an obvious long-term strategy in mind, while it is hard to make sense of the Broncos draft strategy during this time period. Those of us who watched Mike Shanahan suspect that the Broncos drafted from year to year and from need to need. There was no long-term draft strategy - at least not until the very end of Shanahan's tenure.

My hope is that the merging of Xanders' skills of finding talent and McDaniels long-term focused mind will equate to a future dynasty. In 2009, we saw the first steps in this long term goal setting. Selvin Young and Andre Hall were not long-term answers, so in comes Knowshon Moreno and Correll Buckhalter. We need a 3-4 defense to win championships, so let's pick up a converted DE in Robert Ayers. Our secondary isn't likely to be around in 3-4 years, so let's pick up three defensive backs. Oh and let's not forget the power run game. Come on down Richard Quinn and Seth Olsen.

The 2009 draft, in my mind, was the perfect merging of BPA and Need strategies. Though the jury is still out on whether these players will become starters or busts, the philosophy deployed was perfect.

To better understand this, I examined Xanders' draft tendencies with the Falcons during his last three seasons (2005-2007).  My assumption that he tended to draft BPA most of the time was false, as was my belief that he preferred skill positions over trench positions.  The conclusion I came to is that he seems to prefer pure athleticism over everything else.

For example, the 2005 draft was supposed to be the year of the wide receiver.  Roddy White was ranked 6th best wide receiver and the last expected to be drafted in the first round.  He ended up being the 5th wide receiver taken that year at #27.  Braylon Edwards, Troy Williamson, Mike Williams, and Mark Clayton all were selected before him.  The first three were Top 10 picks.  However, the Falcons had taken Michael Jenkins in the first round the year before and though I am not a Falcons fans, I am certain they had more pressing needs at the time than another first round wide receiver.

Xanders and the Falcons front office must have known that Roddy White was a unique talent.  At the time, he was somewhat raw in certain areas, but considered a fantastic athlete with a very high ceiling.  The Falcons may have had other areas of need, but talent overrode that in this case.  In fact, in many cases in the first round, talent overrode pure need during Xanders' final years in Atlanta.  I also noticed in later rounds, positions of need were nearly always filled.

Here is a brief run down of Falcon draftees near the end of Xanders tenure there.

Common Traits for Offensive Trenchmen(OC, OG, OT, TE, FB):

 

  • Thick frames with room for additional bulk
  • Solid footwork and balance
  • Good quickness off the line
  • Preference for drive blockers

 

Common Traits for Defensive Trenchmen(NT, DT, DE, ILB, OLB):

 

  • Good pass rushers
  • Excellent quickness
  • Solid tackling abilities
  • Thicks frames, room for additional bulk
  • Speedy, agile, and highly athletic prospects
  • Linebackers tend to have poor pass coverage abilities

 

Common Traits for Offensive & Defensive Skill Positions(QB, RB, WR, CB, SS, FS):

 

  • Athletic frames with good bubbles
  • Room for growth in body mass
  • Deep threats(WR) & solid tacklers (DBs)
  • Excellent speed and quickness
  • Tough, physical style players
  • Good work ethic

 

There wasn't a very large pool to work with, only three drafts, but I took as much as I could and condensed it into attributes I found repeated frequently.  Without knowing exactly what kind of authority Xanders had within the Falcons organization on draft day, it is quite impossible to draw any conclusions from this information.  However, when you stack it up against the 2009 draft you can begin to see where Xanders put his stamp on the team.

What does this mean for the 2010 Broncos draft and beyond?  I think it means one must look at the potential long-term strategy of McDaniels and take note that each previous draft will affect the next years draft.  Makes sense, though it appears few teams make use of such common sense(cough, Crazy Al, cough).  However, you must look at the pure talent on the board at all times.  Need will sometimes be trumped by pure talent. 

We saw this in last years' draft with Robert Ayers.  Many fans hated the pick, as there were more polished players on the board.  Though when you look at the way Xanders sees a prospect, you will realize that out of all the DE/OLB the Broncos could have taken at that time, Ayers easily has the highest ceiling in potential.  It may take two or three years, but this kid will make a difference for the Broncos defense.

It is easy to lose focus of the long-term in today's instant gratification society, but I happen to like the methodical, farsighted approach to the draft that McDaniels and Xanders have employed thus far.  It is a delicate balance though and coaches are always under pressure to win now, so hopefully McD and Xanders can buy time in free agency in order to build a dynasty through the draft.

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