One of the mantra's that gets dragged out each year come draft time is the dogma of best player available. You hear GM's swear before and after the draft that this is what they have done, even though that best player available also happens to fit a glaring need for the team. Ted Thompson has the reputation of going with the best player available. He showed this in his first draft picking Aaron Rodgers when Brett Favre ended up having a few years left in the tank. This reputation continued with many other picks including A.J. Hawk (scoff all you want he was considered the best guy at the time and probably the best pick out of the top 5 that year), Jordy Nelson (we needed receivers like a hole in the head that year but it's worked out), Derek Sherrod, and Randall Cobb. The thing is though, I am not convinced that Thompson truly is really a BPA guy like his reputation would have you believe.
The best way of making this point is to give an overly simplistic, but fairly accurate, general description of how teams tend to draft. There are three basic philosophies that teams gravitate towards when approaching the draft: need, value, and BPA.
Need is a pretty clear concept. A team needs a certain position and they go out and get the best player they can get at that position. The Atlanta Falcons have used this philosophy in the past few years, and rather unapologetic about it too. This strategy is pretty good for plugging holes in the short term, but can create some long term problems. If you always tend toward a player you need then you may end up drafting a lesser player who fits a need and pass by an extremely talented player who plays a position you are already deep at currently. Doing this too long can lead to a team having average talent. It will also allow your 31 other rivals to pick those better players you passed up.
The other extreme is BPA. This practice is best for the long term development of talent on the team. When you get the best football player available to you, then you ensure competition and depth. Recently the best example of this is the Detroit Lions. Sure they have needed some more talent in the secondary but instead they got an extremely talented DT, even though they already had a great rotation there. They drafted a WR that projects as being pretty darn good...even though he's recovering from a nasty injury currently and will probably not be a major contributor in the short term as a result. Guys with job security follow this approach. It can leave the cupboard bare in the short term though.
The meeting point between these two positions is value. It's an elusive concept. In short it's trying to match the player's value with the draft pick's value and the team's need. Every team is trying to maximize its value in the draft. It's just that some teams are better at it than others. This is ultimately where I would place Thompson. I don't doubt that he will take the BPA when there is a clear break in the grades from others; but normally his picks try to maximize the value you given. The end result of a mixture of patience and shrewd trades that results in stocking a good amount of talent for our beloved Green and Gold.
Now the best way of thinking about how these three concepts relate is by picturing it as a spectrum. On one polar end is need, the other polar end is BPA. Pure value is that theoretical middle ground directly between the two that every team strives for....it's the zen, enlightenment, the zone, whatever you want to call it. Now every GM tends to be drawn towards one of the poles as a default setting and so the question of reaching that value point becomes a question of how much is he willing to push towards the other pole in order to achieve maximum value.
Hmmmm.....okay that's very convoluted. How about we look at two teams from this past draft and see how this worked out this past year.
This study will focus on the Green Bay Packers and the Minnesota Vikings. I chose these two teams because in the past they have had radically different methods of building the team. The Vikings have tended to be more of a needs base team and made moves based on the short term. The Packers have been more of a draft and develop BPA team. Both teams have striven for value and bucked from those tendencies in order to achieve value, but there is enough differing behavior in order to give a good contrast. Also helping this contrast is the fact that both teams were aggressive in trades in order to maximize the value of the draft.
For the purpose of this analysis I'm going to focus on the first three picks of the draft for each team. This makes the math easier (and prevents this from becoming a full out thesis). It also ensures that there are an equal number of actual players being compared rather than looking at each draft class as a whole (which had differing numbers due to the different needs in talent between the two teams). The first three picks of these two teams also happen to be in relative close proximity. Finally, and most importantly, these three picks also feature two trades to look at for each team. These trades were a critical factor for each team trying to get the best value they could and highlight the subtle differences between the two philosophies.
One last thing is going to be talking about metrics. Measuring this stuff is very difficult. Draft picks are essentially fungible and so it's hard to give a good objective measurement of its value. Similarly, the talent a player has is difficult to measure without seeing the player perform at the NFL level and comparing the value of each position against a totally different one. Much of this is based on subjective speculation and arbitrary grades. To control for this I am going to use the old school draft value chart (as given by Walter Football) and the prospect grades given by NFL.com and Profootball Weekly.
First things first, let's look at first three picks of each team. For each pick I'll also mention the players drafted around the player and their grades to further show the value at the time the pick was made. Numbers in bold are the NFL.com grade and numbers in italics are the PFW grades.
1. Matt Kalil (4th pick overall, grades: 94.0, 6.75). Drafted around: Robert Griffen III (95.0, 6.70); Trent Richardson (93.5, 7.50); Justin Blackmon (93.5, 6.60); Morris Claiborne (91.5, 7.00).
1. Harrison Smith (29th pick overall, grades: 84.5, 5.65). Drafted around: Kevin Zeitler (85.0, 6.01), Nick Perry (86.5, 5.80); A.J. Jenkins (78.7, 5.80); Doug Martin (86.0, 5.92).
3. Josh Robinson (66th pick overall, grades: 75.7, 5.70). Drafted around: Dwayne Allen (84.2, 5.75), Trumaine Johnson (83.5, 5.75), Ronnie Hillman (69.2, 5.39), DeVier Posey (71.5, 5.25).
1. Nick Perry (28th pick overall, grades: 86.5, 5.80). Drafted around: Whitney Mercilus (86.0, 5.75), Zeitler (see above), Smith (see above), A.J. Jenkins (see above).
2. Jerel Worthy (51st pick overall, grades:84.5, 5.95). Drafted around: Kendall Reyes (84.0, 5.90), Isiah Pead (76.7, 5.51); Zach Brown (85.0, 5.70); Devon Still (84.2, 5.65).
3. Casey Hayward (62nd pick overall, grades: 73.7, 5.60). Drafted around: Kelechi Osenele (83.0, 5.35); LaMichael James (73.5, 5.58); Rueben Randall (86.0, 5.97); Dwayne Allen (84.2, 5.75).
Now the first thing that this exercise shows us is that each team did a pretty good job of finding value. Generally the grades from both websites match well with where the player was taken and who was taken around him. So neither team really did something out of the norm. It's also interesting to watch the Perry, Smith, and Worthy picks together since all three players have similar grades and were taken in the same part of the draft.
Where things get interesting is with the trades....
1. Vikings give: #3 pick overall. Total points given up: 2,200 points
Vikings receive: #4, #118, and #211 overall. Total points received: 1,865.
Players these picks turn into: Kalil (94.0, 6.75) and Jaruis Wright (68.7, 5.37).
The numbers lie here. The chart tells you that the Vikings got taken a bit by losing so many points. The reality is that the Vikes got the Browns to blink and give up extra picks just to ensure getting Richardson. The Vikings took the player they were probably going to take anyways and really get good value.
2. Vikings give: #35 and # 98 overall. Total points given up: 658
Vikings receive: #29. Total points received: 640.
Player this pick turned into: Smith (84.5, 5.65).
Here is where that tendency shows itself. The Vikings needed a safety and the FO and coaching staffed loved Smith (at least by the accounts that I have read). As a result they pull the trigger on a trade to move up and ensure they get their guy. Not a bad decision, but not that this is NOT MOTIVATED BY VALUE. This is a need decision which resulted in pretty good value, not great value, but pretty good.
1. Packers give: #59 and #123 overall. Total points given up: 359 points.
Packers receive: #51 overall. Total points received: 390 points.
Player this pick turned into: Jerel Worthy (84.5, 5.95).
This is where you can see the ridiculous value that TT got in this past draft, especially when compared to the Smith trade the Vikings made. Here the Packers got more points via the trade chart (so they had to give up less than what the pick was theoretically worth), and they got a player who was graded for a higher draft spot. Heck, they got a player who was graded as high as what the Vikings took (PFW actually graded him higher) than the player the Vikings took 22 spots earlier. Did he fit a need? Absolutely, but I don't think that TT pulled the trigger on this deal because he was desperate to get Worthy specifically. Rather he made a shrewd deal and selected a player who fit the spot very well.
2. Packers give: #90 and #163 overall. Total points given up: 166.2 points.
Packers receive: #62 overall. Total points received: 284.
Player this pick turned into: Casey Hayward (73.7, 5.60).
How this trade could be described as anything but a fleecing is beyond me. The trade point difference was so good that TT went back for a victory lap and traded to get #163 back...and still got near equal points in that trade too. Hayward is an interesting pick here. His grade value is a bit lower than a comparable pick for the Vikings (Robinson). I would imagine that the main difference between this grading difference is due to a high tangible for Robinson (speed) and a high intangible for Hayward (ball skills). So it could be argued that there was a reach here, or that TT didn't get great value out of his trade. I don't know if I buy the argument, but it could reasonably be made. Even if you do buy into that argument though I would point out that this trade was clearly NOT MADE FOR NEED. With Davon House coming back from injury, Tramon Williams healing up, and Sam Shields getting his head on straight the Packers did not need a corner. That's not even counting on Charles Woodson coming back. Really what the Packers needed here was a safety or interior lineman. Yet, Thompson went with the guy he thought would be the right value in this position and made the move to get him. Once again this points to value being the central motivation for Thompson's moves, not need.
You can go through Google and pull up many articles calling this past draft a need draft. You can probably find even more comments from fans and arm chair GM's echoing this and poking fun at Thompson for trying to sell us on the idea that he just selected the BPA again this year. I don't agree with this thought though. As it can be seen, I don't think that the board just ended up the way it did for the Packers. Thompson wasn't passive to be sure, but he was always striving for the best value and the best player available to him to fill out this roster. He moved to the right spot in order match the right value of pick to the right value of player....AND meet the short term needs of this team.
That's zen boys and girls.