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NFL Draft Dos and Don’ts

If the Broncos follow these guidelines, they’ll “win” the NFL Draft.

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Now that George Paton has brought back Kareem Jackson and signed Kyle Fuller, the list of pressing needs on the Broncos roster is down to one or even none if you believe in Drew Lock. That the Broncos new general manager did this and managed to hold onto $26.2 million to $29 million in salary cap space speaks to his acumen and foresight. With nine picks in the 2021 draft, Paton has a chance to build a competitive roster this season and lay the foundation for the future.

The Broncos can win from now on again.

With the NFL Draft quickly approaching, I thought it time to go over some of my general beliefs about the draft. Keep in mind that my sharing these isn’t to criticize wherever Paton goes on draft day. We may just disagree. Paton has worked in the NFL since 1997. I’ve obsessed about the NFL since 2003. Over that time we’ve both had a chance to see a ton of drafts, study front office management, and dissect NFL trends and analytics.

Rule #1: Every pick is a lottery ticket.

Excluding the Los Angeles Rams, NFL teams tend to overrate draft picks. In their defense, so do most fans and media members. It’s easy to do so, as each and every NFL draft presents itself as the best way to acquire star talent for a relatively cheap rookie contract. Great drafts can quickly propel a bottom feeder to playoff contender if the new talent lands at impactful positions. There’s little question about the importance of the draft itself.

The problem remains in how we value picks. History continues to show that draft return is mostly random. Last summer Benjamin Ellinger wrote a piece about draft efficiency from 2010-2019 over at Football Outsiders. I can’t recommend it enough, but this is the long and short of it:

What this all tells me is that drafting well is a lot of luck, mixed with some skill and an extra layer of a random “jackpot” on top (the one or two later-round picks each draft that become unexpected Hall of Famers).

In February, Pro Football Focus’ Timo Riske dug into historical draft return from 2006-2020 and came to a similar conclusion:

It’s generally notable that draft success doesn’t solely describe the performance of the scouting department. It is surely confounded by the coaching staff’s ability to develop young players and the synergy between the scouting department and coaching staff, as identifying scheme fits is just as important as identifying pure talent.

Of course, all this doesn’t mean that there aren’t any differences between teams and their scouting departments when evaluating draft prospects. It does mean that the statistical evidence for the existence of significant differences is fragile, to say the least.

In addition to the studies above, Richard Thaler also found evidence that draft picks in and of themselves are overrated.

What may surprise you about the data above is that NFL general managers are well aware of it and have been for at least a decade. After factoring in the differences between rounds and how they influence a return, as well as undrafted free agents, Bill Polian considered a .640 “hit rate” on draft picks good in 2011:

“I think you have to divide it into top 12 and bottom 20. If you’re in the top 12, it ought to be in the .640 range. That’s about 4.5 guys on average per year out of the seven. You measure that at the end of three years and what you are measuring is whether or not those guys become winning players, guys that contribute to wins. Bottom 20 is .571, that’s four out of seven…

“You either make it or you don’t. We’ve been above the .570 mark when you count collegiate free agents like Melvin Bullitt who come in and play, and they count. So we’ve been above the .570 mark. This past year we could get close to the .640 mark drafting 31st but it’s early.” [See box for my breakdown.]

An NFL Draft pick is valuable because of the possibility is represents. Even the first overall pick isn’t a guarantee. Remember that.

Rule #2: If you don’t have a QB, you should be looking.

The NFL is a passing league and no single player can impact an offense like a franchise quarterback. Because of the way rookie contracts are set up to provide cost control for the first four years of a player’s career, finding an elite quarterback provides an enormous advantage towards roster building. 17 quarterbacks average more than $20 million a year, while last year’s first overall pick counts for $8,225,033 against the cap in 2021.

The extra cap space a rookie QB contract provides makes it is easier to build a supporting cast. Think about the advantage an extra $12 million could provide. Only two players on the Broncos’ current roster count for more than that against the cap.

Quality stability at quarterback provides an immense return on investment through the capital saved towards chasing replacements over the course of the player’s career. It’s no longer strange to see NFL quarterbacks play into their late 30s and beyond anymore. One draft pick providing 10+ years of stability means all the extra firsts can be additional lottery tickets to bolster other parts of the roster.

Beyond the mathematical advantage, a good starting quarterbacks is extremely difficult to acquire outside of the NFL draft. We saw this during free agency this year with Dak Prescott staying in Dallas, which left Ryan Fitzpatrick and Cam Newton as the best available options. On the trade market, Carson Wentz cost the Indianapolis Colts a third and a conditional 2022 second round pick after the worst season of his career. The Seattle Seahawks turned down a potential Russell Wilson trade that would have netted them three first round picks, a third round pick, and two players. NFL teams aren’t able to trade more than three drafts in advance.

Rule #3: If you aren’t chasing a QB, consider trading down.

If draft picks are mostly coin flips, it makes sense to collect extra lottery tickets. However, there’s obvious caveats that do need to be considered. In 2019, OvertheCap’s Jason Fitzgerald wrote about how salary data should influence draft pick value. To summarize his findings:

  • Moving from the backend of the first to the second round makes sense.
  • Third round picks are extremely valuable.
  • Sixth and seventh round picks provide little more than a minimum salaried veteran.

Still, there are additional historical analyses by Riske that suggest some positions do need to be considered early, such as offensive tackle and edge rusher. When you factor in scarcity and the advantage four cost-controlled years mean at certain positions, they warrant early consideration. The strength of an individual draft class must also be taken into account and weighed against the current and future needs of the roster.

Rule #4: Don’t overdraft low-impact positions.

“Running backs don’t matter” is a meme at this point, but there’s a larger point to the phrase that deserves fleshing out. Due to the way NFL teams currently allocate cap resources, an overabundance of talent, or both, the following positions should rarely if ever be drafted in the first round:

  • Running back
  • Off ball linebacker
  • Kicker
  • Punter
  • Long snapper
  • Fullback
  • Y Tight end
  • Box safety

First round draft picks under the current CBA provide an NFL team with a fifth year option that allows additional cost control. There are a number of different tiers which can influence the final number, but to put it simply, the eventual cap figure is built off the average salaries of top players at a prospect’s position.

In the case of running backs, linebackers, safeties, and tight ends, there are exceptions to the rule, but they need to be vetted carefully. Is the prospect’s ceiling so exceptional that he warrants passing on a player at a more valuable position for the next five years?

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DENVER BRONCOS Projected trade: The Broncos trade the ninth pick, 40th pick, and 152nd pick to the Falcons in exchange for the fourth pick. The Broncos aggressively bolstered their secondary in free agency, re-signing safety Justin Simmons to a long-term deal while adding cornerbacks Ronald Darby and Kyle Fuller. Those moves give head coach Vic Fangio a strong chance to field a high-end defense in 2021. Pair that with a young, talent-packed offensive skill group, and the Broncos seem like they’re a game-changing quarterback away from contention. That’s where this move—and Fields—comes in. With a strong arm and rare athleticism, Fields has the talent to put Denver over the top.

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