Team Building Notes for the NFL Draft

I wanted to just give you guys some notes to consider when watching the draft. When considering what your team should do with its draft picks, it’s important to understand some of the thoughts behind these picks and the things that impact the decisions a team should be making.

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The Browns and Drafting Two QBs

It would not be crazy to see the Browns draft two quarterbacks in the first four picks. The cost of these quarterbacks would be between three and four percent of the cap over the first four years of their career, which is a low rate for the quarterback position. As Jason found last year, only 35% of quarterbacks drafted in the Top 10 picks from 2002 through 2014 have graded out as “good,” while 20% of these quarterbacks have been “passable” and 45% of them have been misses. I don’t think they will draft two quarterbacks considering that they acquired Tyrod Taylor and signed Drew Stanton this offseason, so I don’t foresee them carrying four quarterbacks on their roster in 2018 as that would be unusual. So I don’t think they’ll do this now, but I’m just writing about this scenario because I’ve seen some NFL writers write this off as crazy. It’s not.

The 1989 Dallas Cowboys drafted Troy Aikman out of UCLA with the 1st overall pick in the draft, then drafted Steve Walsh with a first round pick in the supplementary draft that year, which meant they needed to give up their first round pick in the 1990 NFL draft, which ended up being the #1 overall pick after a 1-15 season. Making sure they had a quarterback was that important to Jimmy Johnson, Jerry Jones, and Co.

The key here is that they’re more likely to hit on a quarterback by taking two than taking one and this is a franchise that has needed a quarterback since 1999! They’re actually in a pretty solid place with the rest of the roster despite going 0-16 over the last two seasons. They’ve got talent on the defensive line, they have good young defensive backs, they’ve got a group of receivers that could be elite, Carlos Hyde and Duke Johnson are at running back, so they have an offense that a young quarterback can succeed with. They just need to make sure they have one now. They also have over $70 million in cap space still because they have had so many draft picks over the last few years that their roster is stacked with young players, so they have the money to spend in free agency at other positions. They also still have three second round picks in this draft, so there are three more picks where they’re likely to find a few starters to fill some holes. Solving the quarterback position is of the utmost importance for this organization and whoever doesn’t win the starting job could be traded for a high pick next year.

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Find Starters in the First 3 to 4 Rounds

This has become something that most pundits discuss during this time of year: the first three rounds especially are where a team must find starters and players that can replace guys that are departing in free agency. If you’re a team on the rise, then it’s very important to find starters in these rounds, starters at positions of deep need. If you’re a team that’s already a contender, say like the Vikings, and you have players like Stefon Diggs, Danielle Hunter, and Anthony Barr coming up on free agency, then it might be smart to use one of these top picks to prepare for the departure of whomever you feel you won’t be able to re-sign. Great organizations like the Steelers have historically drafted a position of need the year before they need it, so that when a veteran player comes up for a contract they can let him go, then replace him with the lower cost rookie contract player who they’ve given a year or two to learn and progress into the starting role.

The later rounds are where you take your shots in the dark on players with the potential to be starters. One way to find starters in later rounds is through making the right hiring decision at head coach and general manager, so that you have continuity and an organization that understands the needs of their offensive and defensive systems. When an organization does this, they understand the traits they look for in certain players, which can help them find a player whom others overlook like the way the Seahawks found so many great defensive backs in the late rounds of the early 2010s. Like how Belichick and his offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia find and develop great interior offensive linemen in the late rounds.

Throughout the draft teams should seek out players who have dropped in the draft due to things that have depressed their draft stock outside of their football abilities like an injury during a senior season after a very good college career, being used in the wrong system in college especially after a coaching change, or off the field issues that the player has shown some tangible proof are behind him.

I looked at an analysis by “One.Cool.Customer” from SB Nation’s BloggingTheBoys.com, which broke down draft success. He judged a successful pick as a player who becomes a “primary starter,” which is someone who has started at least eight games in at least one of the last six seasons, which was from 2010 to 2015 at the time of the article. This meant that even those drafted in 2014 and 2015 were judged off this, so a percentage of these picks likely became primary starters for the first time in the 2016 or 2017 seasons. By breaking it down this way, you can really see the probability and importance of drafting a starter in the first three rounds with such a drop off in the fourth and on.

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Know Where You Can Find Talented Players in the Draft for Each Position

Some positions have more draft success in later rounds than others, it’s important to note which positions should be drafted in the first or second round and which positions can be found later. For example, the Patriots have traditionally found their tackles in the first two rounds, while they’ve found interior offensive linemen later because they understand what they need for talent to match their system at interior later. This is likely mostly due to tackles being on an island blocking players one-on-one, while interior linemen can work in tandem, which can help overcome some of the weaknesses of these interior linemen. This may be why teams are more hesitant to draft interior linemen in the first or second round.

Another key thing to note from the list below is that defensive linemen can be found in the fourth round with a pretty high rate of success. One way this applies to this year is the Giants. They seem to be either in a position to go with a quarterback, Saquon Barkley, or a defensive end. Considering Eli’s age, it’s best for them to go with a quarterback to try and find his replacement. While they need help at running back, that’s a position teams tend to shy away from drafting so high and Bill Barnwell has a good tweet on the lack of success in teams even drafting the best running back in the class in the top 10 pick here. JJ Zachariason from NumberFire has a great article on this as well. Considering the way that teams pay running backs, it’s clearly a position that’s not heavily valued, so why use a top pick on that position? Instead, use that top pick on a position that you can get a great value at. Kevin Cole pointed this out a few months ago, while the Cowboys got Ezekiel Elliott and he’s been great for them, would they have been better served drafting Jalen Ramsey and seeing him have massive success on a contract at three percent of the cap, while his market value is probably closer to eight or nine percent of the cap. Where they’d be getting a deal on Ramsey, Elliott is actually one of the most expensive players at his position. Speaking to the defensive end, I’d rather spend my pick on a quarterback who’s going to save me money and lead me into the future then bet on a defensive end with one of my two third round picks.

Another position worth noting is tight end in a very deep class for the position. Considering the talent there and the history of success in middle rounds, this is a position you want to make a bet on in the middle rounds, while spending your top pick on another position of need that has less likelihood of draft success in these later rounds. Say you need a left tackle and a tight end, use that first round pick on a tackle and use the second rounder on a tight end.

Table C from Chapter 10 of Caponomics:

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Draft Back-Up Quarterbacks

We saw last year the importance of having a competent back-up quarterback with the Vikings and Eagles making it to the NFC Championship game with their third and second string quarterbacks. You need a competent back-up in case of injury, but this also insures you against being held ransom and having to pay a quarterback 12% of the cap if he’s not elite. For example, wouldn’t you love to have a quarterback so you could’ve moved on from Blake Bortles this year if you were the Jaguars? What about the Bengals with Andy Dalton or the Cardinals now that Carson Palmer retired? Always be prepared at the quarterback position just like you are at every other position and treat quarterbacks the way you do other positions with the ability to move on if the price is too rich for what you think a player is worth.

I’d do what Belichick did with Jimmy Garappolo and draft a quarterback in the second round whenever I find someone who has the potential to develop into a starter. As we’ve seen with Sam Bradford with the Eagles, Jimmy G to the 49ers, and all of the Browns quarterbacks that were traded this offseason, quarterbacks always have draft value, so you can always move them if you need to and still get back draft capital. In this draft, I’d target Mason Rudolph in the second round. Pro Football Focus has had some great analysis of him this offseason and they think very highly of him—here’s an article detailing that and he’d be about one percent of the cap for most of his deal, a great price for a developing quarterback.

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Most Importantly: Compile an Excess of Draft Picks

This should be pretty obvious, but teams that have more draft picks tend to acquire more starters. Teams that acquire more low-cost starters tend to have more success as these players are low-cost on their rookie contracts, then the teams have the opportunity to extend them at a lower rate than they would be in free agency. This also keeps them within the system they’ve played in during the first four years of their career, which increases their probability of future success.

Here’s a graph that illustrates the correlation between having more draft picks and winning more games:

The reason the Browns are in such a good position to make a jump right now is because of the amount of low-cost starters they have on their roster, which gives them a young core of talent they can rely on, which then gives them extra cap space to spend re-signing the players they want to keep and for signing free agents. They can also let players who they don’t want to keep leave in free agency, which then will lead to compensatory picks in the future. So having success in the draft leads to draft picks in the future, which creates a cycle of positive cap consequences. Belichick will trade away soon to be expensive second contract players like Brandin Cooks, Chandler Jones, and Richard Seymour to gain draft picks rather than overspend because of this same principle, low-cost talent is more valuable to building a complete roster than spending more than you want on any one player.

As you can see from the list, four of the six teams with the best winning percentages of this era are in the top six in terms of average number of picks: the Patriots, Packers, Eagles, and Steelers. The other two teams are the Colts thanks to Peyton Manning and the well managed Broncos who also had the benefit of Peyton Manning for four seasons.

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Hit Doubles, Don’t Swing For Home Runs in the First Round

This is a principle from the Ravens front office: basically, go after players in the first round who are surefire starters, rather than trying to bet on a player with a high ceiling and a low floor. It’s better for organizational stability to have this philosophy, rather than a philosophy of chasing whoever you think is the most talented, but who hasn’t proven it on the college level. As an example in this draft, the double would be a Josh Rosen or Sam D’Arnold, while the swinging for a home run would be a Josh Allen.

Zack Moore is a writer for OverTheCap.com and author of the recently released book titled, “Caponomics: Building Super Bowl Champions,” which is now available on Amazon. You can follow him on Twitter @ZackMooreNFL. 

Questions about this article? Reach Zack Moore on Twitter at @ZackMooreNFL