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Putting together an NFL Draft playbook, plus how it affects the Packers

We have mountains of historical trends to help us put together smart drafting strategies. We evaluate them at key positions of need for the Packers and figure out how to put them into practice with this draft class.

Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

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Not enough NFL front offices listened to classic 90’s R&B — they never learned the lesson not to go chasing waterfalls. Or, rather, outliers. That was how that TLC song went right? Too often teams make decisions in the draft based on an overconfidence in their own process. “We are the professionals, we trust our process, and that’s what we’re using.” But draft history tells us they’re wrong too often to believe that. It’s like an open relationship: It never works. I mean, people delude themselves into thinking it might ... but it might just work for us.

History, even the spotty, shoddy history of the NFL Draft, provides a roadmap for success if we follow and believe in historical probabilities. There’s this pesky matter of trust. Front offices tend to trust their own evaluations and do so to a fault. If we take a closer look, though, there are ways to increase the chances of hitting on players, both in terms of creating a strategy for drafting specific positions, and finding sweet spots in the draft where there might be maximal value.

Where the NFL gets it right

It turns out, there are even some positions where it’s prudent to trust your own scouts. A ground-breaking PFF study found the NFL tends to be pretty good at ordering offensive tackles, and first-round picks hit at a much higher rate than most. That tells us two important things: if a team likes an offensive tackle as a first-round pick, they probably are worthy of one. As a result though, banking on hitting on a player later in the draft turns out to be a fool’s errand. Sure, it can happen, but the chances fall significantly.

Cornerbacks follow a similar trend to tackles. Teams do extremely well drafting corners early, with a better-than-50/50 shot at drafting a reasonable starter in the first round and a pretty solid chance (around 40%) in the second round. After that, their effectiveness falls off.

When it comes to receivers, the NFL manages a reasonably good average ordering them and when they hit, these pass-catchers offer supreme value. What’s unique about receivers though, is even after the first round, teams have a better-than-50% historical hit rate of getting a reasonable starter in the second, and it’s over 40% in the third.

On the other hand, the league tends to be decidedly inefficient at ordering interior offensive linemen. The historical success rate of finding a decent starter came in at 36.9% in the first round, 36.6% in the second round, 33.9% in the third round, and 30.3% in the fourth round. In other words, it doesn’t actually make sense to believe that the guy your scouts believe to be G2 will be materially better than G6, so don’t waste high draft capital on players like that.

Don’t trust your scouting that much. Chances are there’s a guy who will be just as good a round, or two, or three later.

The same trend follows safeties and linebackers. While PFF also found drafting safeties may be an underrated idea by the amount of value they’re likely to create, the league has been inconsistent at evaluating and deploying them. Teams struggle the most to evaluate linebackers and taking one in the first round doesn’t make that much sense.

The Packers and the 2021 Draft Class

So how can we apply this to the Packers this season? The smart approach for Green Bay would be to prioritize cornerbacks and offensive tackles if possible. Not only does the evidence suggest they can be most confident in their evaluations at those positions, they also make up two of the most important spots for the Packers to address.

When Josh Norris wrote for NBC Sports, he found the short shuttle to be an excellent indicator for offensive line projection, with players putting up a 4.47 or better starting over 80% of their games. That’s remarkable.

He found a similar indicator with pass rushers and the 3-cone. Guys clocking in at 6.89 or better went on to start well over 60% of their games, regardless of what spot they went in the draft. That’s much higher than the hit rate overall for pass rushers. Let’s put them aside for now because the Packers are not only unlikely to draft a pass-rusher in the first round on the edge given their roster, but the only iDL worthy of a top pick, Christian Barmore, didn’t come close to qualifying here.

Offensive tackles who project near the first round and put together short shuttles 4.47 or better look like this:

  • Samuel Cosmi, Texas

That’s right. That’s the entire list. Christian Darrisaw didn’t test, so he could be in the mix and there are players like Tevin Jenkins, Dillon Radunz, Alex Leatherwood and Liam Eichenberg who are all 8.5 RAS athletes or better, but Cosmi is the only likely top-50 OT who meets these criteria. Most don’t see Cosmi as a first-round tackle or guard, which suggests Green Bay would be wise to avoid tackle early and instead attempt what it does best: try to hit on a flyer on Day 3.

Of course, that’s not to say none of those players will be good, and even without that short shuttle filter, the Packers can feel reasonably good about believing one of those guys can be a good player. It’s just not as high-confidence a proposition as it could be.

What cornerbacks might the Packers target?

That leaves the obvious position: cornerback. And to put a finer point on it, cornerback and then receiver, with that impressive second-round hit rate, a trend the Packers have contributed to in incredible ways going back through the Ted Thompson era.

As far as cornerbacks are concerned, we need more than just “draft them in the first round” because how do we decide who that ought to be? Plenty of players go in the first who have no business going in the first. PFF found their coverage grade to be a sticky metric projecting to the NFL even if you don’t like them. Taking likely top-75 corners to account for some variance, we’re looking at this group of players. Grades over 80 are extremely good.

  • Caleb Farley 90.5 grade (2019)
  • Greg Newsome II 83.8
  • Asante Samuel Jr. 82.8
  • Paulson Adebo 82.1 (2019)
  • Ieaftu Melifonwu 79.3
  • Tyson Campbell 75.4
  • Eric Stokes 73.4
  • Benjamin St. Juste 72.6
  • Kelvin Joseph 70.6
  • Aaron Robinson 64.7

For Green Bay, they also prioritize top-flight athletes, while eliminates Samuel Jr., and potentially Campbell. A poor 3-cone and some attitude questions around Joseph likewise puts him in question. Back surgery kept Farley from training, but he’s hyper-athletic on tape (maybe not sub-4.3 like his doctored training video, but still fast fast). We will keep him here for now.

So how would these players fit for the Packers? Let’s add yet another filter: zone grade. With the Packers likely set to assimilate into the Vic Fangio zone-heavy approach, we can look for guys best suited to that scheme.

  • Caleb Farley 91.9
  • Paulson Adebo 86.4
  • Greg Newsome II 85.0
  • Ifeatu Melifonwu 75.5
  • Benjamin St. Juste 69.3
  • Aaron Robinson 67.5
  • Eric Stokes 65.2

Stokes graded below average in zone coverage but extremely well in man coverage, which could make him a poor fit for the Packers. Robinson played almost exclusively in the slot at UCF and may profile best as a safety at the next level.

That leaves just five players to target for Green Bay. Medicals must come back clean on Farley and Newsome, while Adebo and Farley opted out of 2020, which could make Melifonwu the cleanest Packers fit at the top of the draft. For me, Farley, Newsome, and Melifonwu are all legit first-round type talents and make sense as targets for the Packers. Adebo or St. Juste offer fallback options at 62, but the data suggests Green Bay can be aggressive in targeting their guy, believing in their own evaluations and banking on the best talent they can grab.

Get one of those guys in the first if possible.

What about the wideouts?

Receivers have incredibly accurate statistical indicators. I wrote about them last year and the numbers are striking. Heading into 2020, 52 WRs put up 1,000-yard seasons in the last 5 years. Of the 50 who actually played WR in college, a mere five had a below-average Dominator Rating. Check out the older piece for a further explanation of what that means. Furthermore, only four had a below-average Breakout Age.

Think of it this way: the younger a player is when he starts being really good and the bigger share of his team’s offense he generates, the most likely he is to be a good player in the NFL. This makes sense, but teams often fall for the pure measurables like in the case of Henry Ruggs.

If the Packers are focused on a cornerback (or can’t find one they like early), receiver offers value for this team. Let’s use those two metrics and players projected to go between 20 and 100 to find potential targets in either the first or second. Their Dominator percentile and Breakout Age percentiles are in parentheses.

  • Rashod Bateman (88th, 95th)
  • Terrace Marshall (92nd, 86th)
  • Elijah Moore (92st, 83rd)
  • Tylan Wallace (93rd, 84th)
  • Tutu Atwell (75th, 92nd)
  • Rondale Moore (72nd, 99th)
  • Amon-Ra St. Brown (60th, 93rd)
  • Cade Johnson (89th, 53rd)
  • D’Wayne Eskridge (89th, 52nd)
  • Dyami Brown (56th, 69th)

Players like Kadarius Toney, Nico Collins, and Amari Rodgers miss out here, though it’s an otherwise stacked class. That, in itself, should be instructive to us. There are a scant few top cornerbacks and a slew of quality receiver options. Get one and worry about the others later.

This list however, won’t be as big for the Packers, a team who doesn’t draft undersized receivers. That likely eliminates Atwell, Eskridge, and both Moores, with Johnson on that Randall Cobb-esque borderline. I wouldn’t be so sure about that in the Matt LaFleur era though. Guys like the Moores and Eskridge in particular have succeeded in Shanahan-tree offenses. If the only detractor is “they’re short,” that might be enough to get them in the mix. You’ll see why they may expand their list in a second.

Historically, Green Bay also cares about agility times, preferring a 7 second or better time. St. Brown ran slow (4.61). Marshall didn’t do agilities, but his overall athletic profile (9.76) puts him squarely in play for the Packers. Wallace tested as a sub-average athlete overall, but his change-of-direction came in better than expected. So that leaves them with the following list.

  • Rashod Bateman
  • Terrace Marshall
  • Dyami Brown
  • Tylan Wallace

Yeah, not a long one (don’t say it). I think keeping Rondale Moore (9.32 RAS) and Elijah Moore (8.68 RAS) in mind make sense.

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