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The All-Purpose Guide To Grading An NFL Draft

Shortly after the draft talking head will assign letter grades to the unknowable. This guide will separate what you can know from what you cannot.

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It’s stupid to grade a draft until we’re about 3 years out, so I write this with the caveat that it’s not perfect at all, just less stupid. There will be exceptions to every rule and if you want to snarkily mention counterexamples in the comments, just understand that I have already thought of them, smartypants. This is a general guide based on observed draft best practices and there will always be times to flip the script and go counter to it, but most of the time, you shouldn’t. Let’s get down to business.

1. If your team took a running back high, they probably had a bad draft.

Yes, I know Eddie Lacy was a relatively high pick, and that outside of last year he’s been pretty good, but generally speaking running back is the least valuable position and even hitting on a star does not necessarily justify the pick. James Starks has been nearly as productive as Lacy over their shared time at a fraction of the cost, and the later rounds of Lacy’s draft featured useful backs like Latavius Murray, Theo Riddick, Zac Stacy, and Andre Ellington. More importantly, Travis Kelce went just two picks after Lacy. Tyrann Mathieu went just 8 picks later. Keenan Allen just a few picks after that. I know who I would prefer to have on the team.

Eddie was an outlier for the Packers, who had the excuse of being completely loaded at the time, but there are teams that routinely go high for what has become an antiquated position, especially for old-school "every down" backs. Ezekiel Elliott is expected to go early and I’ve heard rumors that a team may trade up for him. That team will probably have a bad draft.

2. If your team traded multiple picks to move up a few spots, they probably had a bad draft.

There is a time to do this, as the Packers did in 2009 for Clay Matthews, but generally speaking it’s a terrible idea, and the more picks you give up to move up, the worse it is. The Eagles have already had a terrible draft, and given that their pick is dependent on what the Rams do with the first pick, it could be total disaster. The Browns on the other hand, have already had a brilliant draft. The Titans also fleeced the Rams, who have only 5 picks in the entire draft (the lowest of any team along with Atlanta), and outside of the first overall pick, they don’t pick again until the 4th round. While landing a true great at the quarterback spot can make or break your team, the Rams aren’t exactly one player away from greatness, and the risk associated with Goff and Wentz is substantial. The Rams will have trouble plugging several other holes while gambling everything on one pick, while the Browns and Titans will be able to add stars as well as cheap depth all over the place, and in the case of the Browns, will likely have a high enough pick to go after a first round QB next year if they choose (or Paxton Lynch this year).

Trading away your draft is almost always a bad strategy, which brings us to…

3. If your team had a lot of picks, they probably had a good draft.

With the caveat that a 3rd round pick is obviously more valuable than a 5th round pick, having more entries in the raffle is almost always better than having fewer. As good as NFL scouts are and as sophisticated as most NFL front offices have become, there are virtually no sure things in the NFL draft. All of the scouting in the world will merely reduce errors to a certain point. Having more picks increases your chances of striking gold on at least a few players. A good GM will understand that he will not bat 1.000, and do what he can to maximize his chances. Running a good draft is much more about understanding positional scarcity, scheme fit, and the wants and needs of your rivals than having a crystal ball to predict which of these guys will be good. You will make mistakes, and having more picks means the mistakes hurt you less.

4. If your team picked a player early in the draft at a position of non-need, they probably had a good draft.

Many prognosticators say things like "x player will go to the Packers because they need help at that player’s position." If the best player available happens to play a position of need, that’s great, but most of the time drafting a player to fill a specific hole results in a team reaching, and wasting value. Good teams will often end up with drafts that are befuddling on paper, but the fact is that turnover is so frequent, and injuries so common in the league, that taking the best player available regardless of position is almost always the right move. Conversely…

5. If you read some analysis stating that a team "took care of all of their glaring needs" it’s quite likely that they had a bad draft.

Hopefully that team just lucked into exactly what they were looking for, but this is usually the sure sign of a team who reached for talent rather than letting it come to them. Phil Emery made a habit of this in his tenure with the Bears, and it crippled the base of the team for years. I miss Phil.

That’s really all there is to it. You will see guys like Mel Kiper and their ilk grading teams based on grading the players they selected, but that is a fool’s errand. As if Mel Kiper knows more about these players than an NFL team with a fully funded scouting and analytics department. Always remember that in general, compared to the actual team evaluators, the ESPN talking heads are basically idiots, and have no business grading any draft in such a fashion. I like Mel Kiper’s 2005 Packer draft grade as an example of everything wrong with most draft grades:

  1. Kiper gave the Packers’ 2005 draft a C. While it is true that there were a lot of misses in that draft, the hits more than make up for it, and it shows a total lack of understanding of relative positional value.

  2. Kiper gave the draft a C despite praising the Rodgers pick. It’s reasonable to not predict him as a future hall of famer, but if you liked Rodgers as a prospect, getting him at 24 should at least look like a great value to you.

  3. Kiper thought Nick Collins was a reach in the 2nd round. I maintain that Collins would have been a Hall of Famer but for his injury.

  4. Kiper criticizes the Terrence Murphy pick by praising Murphy, but stating that they "didn’t need a receiver." He was wrong about Murphy, and wrong to criticize the selection based on apparent need.

  5. He liked Marviel Underwood in the fourth, who never amounted to anything, while criticizing the Poppinga pick not based on talent, but on scheme fit, as if Kiper understands such a thing as well as the Packer front office. Poppinga was by no means an All-Pro, but he provided solid depth at linebacker for many years, which is a reasonable return for a late fourth round selection.

  6. Overall Kiper hated the draft because the Packers didn’t get enough defensive help.

How wrong was Kiper? On just about every level he was mistaken. Players he liked like Murphy and Underwood busted out of the league. Collins on the other hand was amazing and was a key cog in their Super Bowl. In hindsight Rodgers and Collins alone make this draft a solid A+, and the criticism he does levy makes no sense. The allegedly stacked Green Bay receiving corps that should have made Terrence Murphy unnecessary struggled mightily in the following season. Brett Favre had one of his worst years tossing 18 TDs and 18 picks, Greg Jennings missed several games, and Ahman Green actually ended up 2nd on the team in receptions. Ruvell Martin, Bubba Franks, and Green played huge parts in the passing game while only Donald Driver provided any kind of downfield threat or explosiveness. Kiper criticized the lack of defensive help, but defense was not the Packers’ problem in 2006 as they finished 11th in DVOA, and while they gave up a fair number of points, the poor performance by the offense put them in some terrible spots. On a play by play basis they were actually quite good.

The fact is that Kiper and his ilk are trying to play an impossible game. To do his job well does not just require a working knowledge of the prospects, it also requires an expert knowledge of each NFL teams’ scheme, financial situation now and in the near future, positional valuation, UDFA targets, and loads more. Kiper and McShay and everyone else who plays this game hold themselves out as experts when it is simply impossible to be a true expert in this field.

When you are watching the draft this weekend it’s fun to look at the players your team picks and think about what could be. I get that and football is supposed to be fun. Just don’t put too much stock into the cocky guys on TV who think they know the business of prospect evaluation better than the teams making million dollar investments.