Now that the Denver Broncos are through the exciting part of free agency, eyes have moved to the NFL Draft. Thanks to the Russell Wilson trade, George Paton is headed into his second draft as general manager without a selection in the first 63 picks. He also has a franchise quarterback. Those two factors should impact his strategy this season.
Last year around this time I shared my four core philosophies that I believe smart teams follow in the draft. It seems like a perfect opportunity to dust those off and offer some new thoughts based around the reality Denver finds themselves in at the beginning of the Wilson era.
Rule #1: Every pick is a lottery ticket.
For years, NFL teams, media, and fans overrated draft picks, and it makes sense. The entire NFL landscape buys in on the draft as a sort of marketplace for hope. Theoretically, if a general manager is simply better than the rest of the league at identifying talent, he can acquire star talent for relatively cheap rookie contracts. Seems simple enough, right?
The problem centers on how picks are valued. History continues to show that draft return is mostly random. Two summers ago 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 of 2021, 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. The NFL Draft is a crapshoot because the human element, player development, and injury risk inherent in the game of football makes it impossible to accurately predict what will happen to each prospect over the course of many years. There’s no secret sauce that completely eliminates this reality from the process, even if fans and media often subscribe to the belief that certain GMs and teams are better at it than others.
The Vikings landed Justin Jefferson because the Eagles drafted Jalen Reagor. https://t.co/SjWEEGGV5B— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) April 1, 2022
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.]
A draft pick is valuable because of the possibility is represents and no pick is a guarantee. NFL teams seem to be catching on to this, which makes this offseason fascinating. We’ll probably never know how much the Los Angeles Rams’ Super Bowl win influenced things, but their approach to first round picks seems to have spread around the league. Eight teams have traded out of the first round of the 2022 draft, including the Broncos.
What remains to be seen is how those teams approach the rest of their picks. Les Snead’s “%@#% them picks” shirt has become a bit of a meme, but the Ram’s general manager also makes a point to play out the compensatory pick process so L.A. constantly has extra picks to support their stars with cheap depth across the roster. This is something the Broncos have not done under George Paton to date.
This is great: #Rams GM Les Snead says his children got him a mug with the popular "F*** them picks" meme on it.— Ari Meirov (@MySportsUpdate) November 3, 2021
(Snead then went on and explained that the team does value draft picks and they're expecting to get 5 compensatory picks this year.) pic.twitter.com/l9K10kSC0x
Rule #2: Russell Wilson means Paton shouldn’t overdraft a backup QB.
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, including Russell Wilson, who currently counts for $24 million against the Broncos’ cap. Meanwhile last year’s first overall pick, Trevor Lawrence, will count for just $8,362,156 against the Jacksonville Jaguars’ cap in 2022.
Hypothetically speaking, if Lawrence can reach Wilson’s level of play in his second season, his contract will afford the Jaguars a tremendous advantage the Broncos won’t receive from Wilson’s. He’d be providing a similar level of play for about a third of the cost, and that $15,637,844 in additional cap space is more than Von Miller, D.J. Jones, and Randy Gregory’s current contracts will count against the ‘22 cap.
The potential financial advantage a rookie contract quarterback provides makes it more beneficial to swing on quality QB prospects the last 10 years than at any other point in NFL history. If the pick is a “hit,” the team has what amounts to an extra $15-20 million to build a Super Bowl contender. Broncos Country is watching this up close in the AFC West, where Patrick Mahomes and Justin Herbert have afforded their teams a tremendous advantage when it comes to team building.
In reality, a Herbert or Mahomes is extremely rare. While it could be interesting to one day look back at Paton’s first draft to evaluate if he erred in passing on Justin Fields and Mac Jones, he elected to take Patrick Surtain II because he did not believe either would become a franchise quarterback. Should a prospect fail to develop into a league average starter, the benefits of a rookie contract QB is impacted by the developmental phase and the costs of a quality supporting cast necessary for their success.
The Broncos traded for Russell Wilson in part because there’s been 107 quarterbacks drafted since Wilson in 2011, and yet the 33-year-old remains one of the 10 best in football. Paton can reasonably assume Wilson will continue to provide similar play to what he’s done over his career to this point. This allows the Broncos to plan around a known commodity with the assumption that Wilson can continue to provide very good to elite quarterback play over the next three or four years, while Jacksonville’s plan in 2022 centers on evaluating if Lawrence can actually reach that level of play.
Wilson’s play, durability, and age means Denver should have their starting quarterback for the foreseeable future. That combined with decades of NFL data should compel Paton to avoid using anything but a late round pick on a quarterback prospect this year. This may sound counterintuitive when the Broncos employ one who has developed into a future Hall of Famer, but Wilson is an outlier.
Rule #3: Go into the draft with realistic expectations about the picks.
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:
- The first 100 picks in every draft tends to have to notably better return than the rest.
- Moving from the backend of the first to the second round makes sense.
- Third round picks are extremely valuable.
- Sixth and seventh round picks tend to provide little more return than a minimum salaried veteran. For this reason, they’re typically more valuable as trade chips than selections.
This is especially relevant for the start of the Wilson-era Broncos because they currently do not have an early pick in either of the next two drafts. Following the Wilson trade, the Broncos’ first pick is at 64, late enough that it isn’t realistic to expect an early starter from the upcoming class. It should also be noted that Paton has said multiple times that he aims to have 10 picks in the upcoming draft. Tankathon currently has the Broncos with eight. To get more, they’ll either trade players or move down from one of their earlier selections. NFL history suggests it would be a mistake to slide down too far if Paton is only collecting late day three ammo in return.
There is additional historical analyses by Riske that suggest some positions such as offensive tackle and edge rusher do need to be considered early if a GM expects to land a starting caliber prospect. As I’ve written previously, the Broncos do have pronounced needs at both positions. It’s unlikely Paton finds a real long-term solution to either need with a second or third round pick this year, much less a later round selection, though one can surely hope.
Rule #4: Don’t overdraft low-impact positions.
“Running backs don’t matter” is a rather tired meme at this point and the NFL largely agrees based on the fact RBs make on average the least of any position group in the league. There is a larger point to the phrase that warrants a little examination because of how it impacts the Broncos this year. 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
- Long snapper
- Y Tight end
- Box safety
I believe in this rule because of opportunity cost more than anything. In an NFL where the cap is real, it makes sense to consider positional value in the early rounds. Exceptions exist, but by and large drafting a player such as Saquon Barkley with the second overall pick is going to look foolish really quickly. This is currently part of the debate around Notre Dame safety Kyle Hamilton, who is considered one of the best players in the 2022 class.
The fact is other teams will overdraft low impact positions in the first 63 picks and that’s to Paton’s benefit. Every time a general manager takes a running back or linebacker is a selection they didn’t use on a position such as offensive tackle or edge rusher. It’s also notable how NFL history shows some of the positions above remain shaky investments further down board. The numbers suggest fullbacks and specialists shouldn’t be drafted at all, and only rarely reward investments above the sixth round.
Positional value is real. https://t.co/dUWHLHWI1c— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) April 1, 2022
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