Monday, December 7, 2009

On the NFL Draft and rebuilding through the middle picks

One strategy I've put to successful use in detailed football league simulators is trading down when I have a high pick. Typically a top 5-10 draft pick commands a large, star player type of salary, and the chances that said player turns out a bust typically makes such a contract a bad value even if by all other signals the player is fairly certain to at some point in his career provide that value.

One of two scenarios is often the case with top players in the NFL Draft:

- He played at a small school, so sure, he didn't have a great supporting cast and that's a testament to his ability to rise above it... but he also played mostly against weak competition.

- He played at a power school, so he got to play against some tougher competition, but he also had a supporting cast of some of the best players in college football, got to play mostly against inferior teams, and had coaching and a system conducive to success at that level.

In both cases, each star player is in for a shock against NFL defenses where every player on every team (yes, even the Browns, Chiefs and Lions) was himself a good player in college. Sure, many top picks step in and make an impact from day one. Many don't, though, and many never do.

Basically, a top 5-10 pick often does not add that much more value to your team than someone in the late 1st round. In fact, you can find talent that can likely contribute to your NFL team anywhere between the 1st and 5th rounds (admittedly, guys selected from the 5th round on are shots in the dark at best).

Thus if I had a top ten pick, I would try to trade it down and get 2-3 later picks, or maybe a pick or two and a useful player that fills one of my needs. I know that some have devised basic systems to equate the value of picks, so if you wanted to figure out exactly what you could get for it. There are GMs who would definitely value a top ten pick and offer what you're looking for: the best teams to target are those who acquired other team's picks and have a surplus of picks in the early rounds that would offset the loss of dealing you a pick or three.

For example, if I inherited a shit-fest of a team as the GM and had the 5th pick, I'd maybe try and swing a deal to a team jonesing for a player projected in that slot for... say... a 1st and 2nd rounder this year, and maybe even a 1st or 2nd rounder next year. If they offered a player I needed, I'd be okay with just a 1st and 2nd rounder, whether in this year's draft or next year's. Or if I had the 15th pick I'd consider flipping it for a late 1st rounder and late 2nd rounder.

This is a fine strategy if you're rebuilding, though many argue that a top 5-10 provides more bang for the buck and is worth keeping. Sure, that top pick might get you your next franchise player. And it might get you Ryan Leaf. On top of that, now you've got a star player but he's still surrounded by crappy talent. Instead of drafting that one top player, why not swap the pick to draft 2-3 decent college players and fill more of the many needs your rebuilding team likely has?

If I wanted to I could take the strategy a bit farther: If I had a 2nd round pick to burn, maybe an extra one acquired via trade, I'd look into trying to flip it in an otherwise innocuous deal for a 3rd and 4th rounder. If I had a disgruntled veteran, or a surplus of depth at some position, I'd try and flip those guys for picks as well. I could, along with getting an extra pick or two in the late 1st to 3rd round area, grow a set of picks in the 3rd to 5th round range, where I could load up on potential role players and rebuild the depth of the team, especially on the offensive line and the defense.

The best part about this is that, once you get past the first round, all of these players come cheap. The bonuses are minimal and most will gladly play for the league minimum, a huge advantage over the single 1st round draft pick that will want several million dollars in cap busting bonuses up front, aside from whatever money you need to pay your other picks. The more roster spots you can improve in an offseason for a low cost, the more money you keep free under the cap to sign or otherwise acquire a high impact free agent or four. It's Stars & Scrubs, NFL Style.

You could probably turn a 4-12 squad into at least a .500 team in one season this way, even with a ho-hum cast of incumbent veterans. It's best done with a Singletary-style philosophy of controlling the clock with the run and playing physical defense, though, as players that fit into such an effort-over-skill system are easier to find and develop.

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