Wednesday, May 14, 2014

2014 NFL Draft: What if....?

So the other day I put up my big board ahead of the draft and now that the draft is over we can see how that board would have panned out. For the sake of interest I chose two teams with a lot of picks, the 49ers and the Jets. Below are the results.

In the case of the 49ers the first list represents what would have happened if they had drafted (including their own trades) using my big board and taking the best player available at each spot;

49ers Big Board:
1 (30) - Jeremiah Attaochu, Outside Linebacker, Georgia Tech
2 (57) - Michael Sam, Defensive End, Missouri,
3 (70) - Gabe Jackson, Guard, Mississippi State,
3 (77) - A.J. McCarron, Quarterback, Alabama, 
3 (100) - Cassius Marsh, Defensive End, UCLA, 
4 (106) - Andrew Norwell, Guard, Ohio State,
4 (129) - Jeff Mathews, Quarterback, Cornell,
5 (150) - Jared Abbrederis, Wide Receiver, Wisconsin, 
6 (170) - Chris Borland, Inside Linebacker, Wisconsin, 
6 (180) - David Fales, Quarterback, San Jose State,
7 (243) - Jonotthan Harrison, Center, Florida, 
7 (245) - Marcus Martin, Center, USC

Which I think is a good draft. If you wanted to be especially pedantic about the issue of drafting three quarterbacks (which in fairness wouldn't be the greatest plan in the world) then it works out that you just take Fales off the list and bump the last two up, then add Shane Skov as pick 245 (who as it happens was signed by the 49ers as a free agent). 

Now this is where the "draft for need" crowd would have an absolute fit. Three pass rushers, on a team that has Justin Smith and Aldon Smith? Two guards on a team that has Mike Iupati? Two centers? Potentially three quarterbacks, or if you skip Fales and add Skov then two quarterbacks and two inside linebackers, on a team that has Colin Kaepernick and Patrick Willis?

Well, yes actually.

Aldon Smith is having his problems, to put it mildly, and Justin Smith is 34 years old. At a stroke you've just secured (you hope) the future of your pass rush for the next 5 years. You've also secured the future of the guard and center positions for the same. You've also acquired a shiny new wide receiver and linebacker to add depth, while making sure that your first answer to a Colin Kaepernick injury is not Blaine Gabbert.

That should be a win in anyone's book I think. But I did also post a second "adjusted" board, to take into account the fact that some players I rated highly would be drafted much later. The odd thing is that a draft using the adjusted board comes out looking identical, just with the players in a slightly different order, as demonstrated below: 

49ers Adjusted Board:
1 (30) - Jeremiah Attaochu, Outside Linebacker, Georgia Tech
2 (57) - Gabe Jackson, Guard, Mississippi State,
3 (70) - Michael Sam, Defensive End, Missouri,
3 (77) - A.J. McCarron, Quarterback, Alabama,
3 (100) - Jared Abbrederis, Wide Receiver, Wisconsin
4 (106) - Cassius Marsh, Defensive End, UCLA,
4 (129) - Andrew Norwell, Guard, Ohio State,
5 (150) - Jeff Mathews, Quarterback, Cornell,
6 (170) - Chris Borland, Inside Linebacker, Wisconsin,
6 (180) - David Fales, Quarterback, San Jose State,
7 (243) - Jonotthan Harrison, Center, Florida
7 (245) - Marcus Martin, Center, USC

But is this a truly fair representation? 

Errr, no. Not really. The first two major problems are that the 49ers drafted Marcus Martin and Chris Borland anyone, taking both in the early rounds. It's unlikely that if they hadn't been taken per my board that they would have lasted that long and been available in the sixth and seventh rounds. In all probability they would have been drafted by someone else.

And of course if I had taken Attaochu in the first round, that means he wouldn't have been their in the second for the Chargers to draft. What's to say they wouldn't have drafted Gabe Jackson instead and subsequently removed him from the board to be drafted by me at 57?

Out of interest then, to try and get a different outlook I tried a draft using the big board and the Jets picks. Other than a few changes near the end it actually comes out looking very similar to the 49ers big board.

Jets Big Board:
1 (18) - Jeremiah Attaochu, Outside Linebacker, Georgia Tech,
2 (49) - Michael Sam, Defensive End, Missouri,
3 (80) - Gabe Jackson, Guard, Mississippi State,
4 (104) - A.J. McCarron, Quarterback, Alabama, 
4 (115) - Andrew Norwell, Guard, Ohio State,
4 (137) - Jeff Mathews, Quarterback, Cornell,
5 (154) - Jared Abbrederis, Wide Receiver, Wisconsin, 
6 (195) - Jonotthan Harrison, Center, Florida,
6 (209) - Shane Skov, Inside Linebacker, Stanford,
6 (210) - Kelcy Quarles, Defensive Tackle, South Carolina,
6 (213) - Adrian Hubbard, Outside Linebacker, Alabama,
7 (233) - Isaiah Crowell, Running Back, Alabama State,

That's actually still a good draft I think, and this time only two quarterbacks and not three. But how realistic is this, if we're being absolutely honest and the picks were for real? Would I really sit there and draft two quarterbacks, let alone three? The answer is clearly no (unless there was no decent quarterback already on the team...)

The problem with producing a big board such as the one that I did for this draft is that it's missing two key elements; insider information and a team appropriate context.

The first element should be self-explanatory. NFL teams have access to a wide array of medical information, are able to interview players in person, and have access to a much better information network regarding possible draft positions. People often forget among the media hype and the media articles about how GMs and owners are trying to convince each other of who they're drafting (how many articles about "smokescreens" have you seen this year?) that actually most teams have a reasonably good idea about where certain players will be drafted.

The media likes to emphasise the comments of owners and the like that have been made publicly, and to speculate back and forth about such comments, largely for financial reasons, i.e. because it makes things reported in the press seem more important. In reality teams scouts and personnel people will meet informally on a fairly routine basis with their counterparts from other teams at the senior bowl, combine, pro days etc. And you'd better believe that they share notes on certain people, meet up to have dinner with old friends who they got into scouting with etc. 

It might even be as harmless as sharing a few comments on the sideline, but let's be clear; teams clearly demonstrate through their behaviour a certain advanced degree of knowledge relating to what other teams are planning. If they didn't then it's doubtful the Browns would have been as confident as they were to trade back from their first pick and then wait until their second pick in the first round before taking Manziel. They obviously had a degree of information available that led them to believe that nobody would make the move for Manziel before that.

The second element, "team appropriate context", is a little more difficult to explain but basically boils down to building a draft board while knowing the precise team that you're making it for.

So let's take the 49ers for example, their roster, their coaches etc. If you were putting together a board specifically for them then likely it would look different to the big board I produced the other day. It's questionable for example whether a player like Michael Sam would actually make that board. 

I say that because Sam was a 4-3 defensive end in college, whereas Vic Fangio's defense is a 3-4 base scheme. Sam would likely have a much more difficult transition to the NFL if he was required to switch to a new position (outside linebacker) and there would have been other players on the border who would have been a better immediate fit.

Take two players like Jeremiah Attaochu and Anthony Barr for example. Attaochu was at the top of my board, but he played as a defensive end for Georgia Tech during his final year. Yes, prior to that he'd been an outside backer, but most of his best work was done as an end. Anthony Barr on the other hand played strictly as a stand up, pass rushing outside backer for UCLA. For that reason I'd probably put Barr ahead of Attaochu if I was putting together a board specifically for the 49ers. Players like Dee Ford would also move down for the same reason as Attaochu, having played as a 4-3 defensive end for Auburn. 

Would I still want McCarron as a quarterback, even with Kaepernick? Well - my views on Kaepernick aside - yes, but not as early as he would have been taken using my general draft board. Under those circumstances I might have said "right, if he's still there at the bottom of the fifth, then we pull the trigger". Which he wouldn't have been in the end. In which case you go after someone like Mathews or Brock Jensen in the undrafted free agent period.

And contained in that paragraph is one of the key differences between a general draft board like my own and a team specific board. That difference being "... if he's still there at the bottom of the fifth...". The reason this is important is because typically most teams will have a specific set of targets that they're after, certain players that fit their scheme and who they like, both on and off the field. On top of that, they'll have a good idea about where they plan to draft these players if they're still available.

When coupled with their more intimate understanding of where each player is valued by the other teams it serves to help teams put together a board that is much better tailored to their specific situation. Based on this understanding you might look at that 49ers draft again and using my board as a starting point say Marqise Lee in the first round instead of Attaochu, then target some combination of Gabe Jackson, Chris Borland, Chris Watt and Cassius Marsh in the second and third rounds, perhaps put off targeting someone like Abbrederis until the 4th or 5th, this kind of thing.

The other flaw I would say that exists in my big board versus one drawn up for a specific team is that I only jumped back onto my blog after the combine had ended and so I was in a bit of a dash for time to finish up studying each group and then get the big board produced literally the morning before the draft. If you were working for a team then clearly you would have far more time available than this.

Not only would that increase the amount of games that could be watched, but one disadvantage I have is not having access to the coaches film and not having access to footage of some of the more obscure draftees, with a few exceptions. That would expand the size of the pool of potential players to look at.

Over time what you would expect a team to do is to start narrowing the pool of players down based on their film study, with scouts, coaches and other personnel staff all throwing their own favourite players into the hat. Critically they would have a lot more time to assess the final composition of the board, whereas mine had to be somewhat chucked together using my previous notes.

This leads to a situation where the difference between some players on my board, especially those who are close together, is often not all that great. With more time and with a refining process taking place whereby lots of staff are able to pitch in their individual opinions and the list of potential candidates is whittled down, you would expect a board to go from being the large, somewhat haphazard arrangement that I ended up with to something smaller and with a bit more clarity in places, where certain players are clearly marked as being early round targets and others are deemed less of a priority.

There still would exist a degree of uncertainty about what makes the guy at number 5 (Aaron Donald) better than the guy at number 6 (Anthony Barr) for example, especially considering they played different positions and as such are not easily compared side by side. But by this point the team would at least be clear that these were first round targets, whereas Chris Borland and Jarvis Landry etc were second rounders.

The final aspect would be personal bias. Ultimately someone has to be the decision maker and the reality is that person's bias would come to the fore at the critical moment. If you're the ultimate decision maker then it's absolutely natural that you'll be drawn to certain players over others. You'll have "your guy", the person you really, really want to be on your team. 

If you take my board as an example despite placing Attaochu, Dee Ford, and Zach Martin at the top, I was really drawn to Odell Beckham Jr. If I'd been picking for a team and Beckham Jr was still on the board, as well as Ford and Martin, I'd have had a difficult time passing over the LSU wide receiver. And as time went bye and I watched more and more of his games, even just incidentally (such as when examining Bradley Roby), I became more and more interested in Jared Abbrederis as his route running is just so exceptionally crisp and refined.

I can't say for certain that I wouldn't have been tempted to just chuck the board out of the window when the time came to pick and gone with my gut instinct. Certain players just draw you in and the more you sit and think about it, or the more games you watch, the more and more you buy into that particular player.

In other words building a draft board is an ongoing process. And unlike those of us with other things they have to be getting on with during the year, teams scouting departments and draft analysts can spend the entire year effectively putting together their draft boards, constantly assessing and reassessing each player, moving people up and down their boards, finding out new information and studying their own team for strengths and weaknesses as they go.

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