Now that the season is over, the NFL Draft is the next premier event coming up in April. The Combine that normally takes place in Indianapolis has been cancelled once again this year because of COVID protocols, but that isn’t stopping the league from moving right along. Teams will have to evaluate incoming college prospects once again without the benefit of seeing them workout in person outside of private pro days, Zoom conference interviews, and looking back at college game tape. There’s no time to waste complaining about said circumstances, and front offices still have the same expectations to nail their draft picks to stay employed.
With the more difficult circumstances, the following is an NFL Draft Manifesto to make it a bit easier for guys who need a little bit of guidance when making their picks on draft night. These 8 rules are based on successful patterns or recurring terrible mistakes we’ve seen in the past that can be avoided.
- If you’re trading up, he better be “the guy”
Draft capital is highly-valuable given how big of a toss-up it is; you need every chance you can get to acquire a game-changing player. So if you’re going to eliminate valuable chances of getting more talented guys on your roster, whoever it is you’re trading up for better be someone special that you don’t want to miss out on. You can’t afford to overpay for a project or an unknown quantity. A tragic example of this is the Chicago Bears trading up for Mitch Trubisky in 2017, giving up THREE PICKS to move up just one spot. Trubisky wasn’t even a proven commodity coming out of college, starting in only 13 total games, but the Bears still thought he had some promise over guys like, oh, I don’t know, Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson..
2. Unless they’re legal issues, don’t read into the unrelated red flags
“He’s got an ugly girlfriend.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Ugly girlfriend means a lack of confidence.”
This is a scene of dialogue between barbaric-thinking scouts of the Oakland A’s in the movie Moneyball as they decide not to sign a player. Year after year, we hear all these stories from talent-evaluators as to why a player shouldn’t be drafted that have nothing to do with play on the field, and it becomes a narrative surrounding the player. Just last year, all leading up to the draft, there was excuse after excuse made to not draft Justin Herbert out of Oregon. People said he’s too introverted because he was an academic scholar who read books instead of having social media accounts. They claimed he was immature because he grew up in Oregon his whole life with his family and then went to Oregon, so he hadn’t experienced the “big stage” outside of his hometown. You know who won the Offensive Rookie of the Year Award in 2020? Los Angeles Chargers QB, Justin Herbert, who was selected 5th overall and was the 3rd quarterback taken in the draft.
We’re already hearing it again this year with incoming prospect Zach Wilson out of BYU because he wasn’t voted a team captain amongst his peers, as if not having captaincy takes away from him being a Heisman candidate all last season.
The only caveat to this rule is if there are recurring legal problems.. those not only are character problems and potential locker room disruptors, but are also often recurring behaviors. Some guys have all the talent in the world but don’t have the work ethic to escape the temptations of life that make them a liability.
3. Invest in the offensive line. It’s worth it.
We just watched a Super Bowl where Patrick Mahomes was running for his life from the Tampa front 7 because he was missing 3 out of 5 projected starting offensive linemen. Russell Wilson is THE MAN in Seattle, reaching two Super Bowls and rarely complaining or speaking out, and he and his team just released a statement about how he was unhappy with the offensive line and is tired of not getting protected, taking the most sacks of any quarterback during his time in the league.
You’re not going to get a flashy applause from the fans on draft night because it’s not a “sexy” skill position pick, but taking a solid offensive lineman completely opens up your offensive scheme. Your quarterback has more time in the pocket and can suddenly throw to his second or third read rather than having to force it to his first. Now, you can establish the run game with a blocking scheme, which sets up play-action passes for the quarterback. It’s a whole new world when you don’t have 300-pound Vita Vea in your face every down!
In terms of value, my favorite selection of the last decade has been the Colts trading up to draft All-Pro Guard out of Notre Dame, Quenton Nelson at #6 overall. Indy finally came to the realization that they should probably protect Andrew Luck after he was taking an absolute beat down week after week that left him injured and eventually into unfortunate early retirement, but the Nelson pick completely turned the future of the Colts around, and now they’re known as the premier protecting team that can give any quarterback all the time in the world.
There are less and less game-changing offensive linemen around the league; it’s one of the most-difficult commodities to come by. If you’re in a position to spend big on arguably the most important investment in the game, it’s worth it.
4. Skill players come at a dime a dozen
You can find high-level production from wide receivers, tight ends, or running backs in the third round or lower nowadays.. there’s no reason to spend big on positions with so much replicable talent throughout the draft when used the right way. Even the top-tier talents are seemingly interchangeable now, too, just look at last year’s crop of receivers taken, for example: Henry Ruggs taken 12th, Jerry Jeudy taken 15th, CeeDee Lamb taken 17th, Jalen Raegar taken 21st, and Justin Jefferson taken 22nd. Naturally, Justin Jefferson had the best season out of all of them despite being the 5th receiver taken.
5. Have a sense of value
This should go without saying, but you probably don’t need to take a kicker in the early rounds or reach for a player that no one else is high on but you. Yes, we’re talking about you, Roberto Aguayo, the kicker who the Bucs got in the SECOND ROUND and waived after a year.
6. Find someone who can rush the passer or lock down a receiver
The two most important elements in building a defense. There’s two reasons the Rams had arguably the best defense in the league last year, and their names are Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey. They may be paying them an ungodly amount contractually, but having to have opposing teams game plan around preventing Donald from bludgeoning the quarterback along with Ramsey taking away his #1 receiving option as a shutdown corner changes the landscape of the game. In the draft, you can never buy too high or have too many of these premiere positions given their value if they end up becoming a quality starter.
7. If you’re drafting a quarterback, CATER TO HIM
It’s well-established that the best way to turn your future around is to draft a franchise quarterback, especially now with so many playing at an elite level on their cheap rookie deals that you can invest the remaining cap space on the team surrounding him. That being said, you can not just draft a quarterback for the sake of drafting a quarterback. The infrastructure around him is just as important to his success as he adjusts to the league. That means the weapons, the play-calling, and the scheming needs to be set up for him to do well rather than just sticking him on the roster and expecting him to make magic happen. This is also how the wrong guy gets selected in the first place just because he’s highly-touted by scouts. Take Lamar Jackson and the Baltimore Ravens, for example. Picked 32nd overall and the 5th quarterback taken in his draft, but do you think he’d be the dynamic MVP in an offensive system like the Pittsburgh Steelers, where Big Ben just stands stagnant in the pocket waiting to chuck it to an open receiver each down? Not a chance. Baltimore knew he had a different skillset with speed like no one has ever seen, so they changed their entire game plan into the Lamar Jackson offense; they have a plethora of designed run plays for him behind a solid offensive line, a stable of running backs to pound the ball alongside him, and run-pass-option plays to throw off the defense since his legs are such a threat. Baltimore found everything Lamar does better than everyone else and made it their focal point rather than just hoping he fits in to what the coaches have always done.
Yes, drafting a quarterback is the best way to give a struggling team a bright future, but know who you’re getting, why you’re getting him, and what you plan to do with him.
8. Know where you’re at as a franchise
There’s nothing more important than self-evaluating your chances in the landscape of the league. Sometimes you’re the current state of the Los Angeles Rams, where you trade away all your future draft capital for big time players like Jalen Ramsey or recently acquired quarterback, Matt Stafford; they feel their timeline to win a Super Bowl is now, so they went for it. There isn’t a sense of a need to get more talented young guys who will develop down the road when a championship could be in the works in the now.
Where teams mess up is when they improperly evaluate themselves and you end up like the Houston Texans, who thought they could win with Deshaun Watson alone as they gave away all their draft picks in the process, so now, as a terrible team, they have no way to get better through the draft since all their picks are gone, and the situation is so egregious that even Watson wants out.
Humility is an absolute necessity when approaching the draft. If you’re close to taking the next step, maybe that’s when you make the move to be aggressive and jump up a few spots. If you take a look in the mirror and realize you’re not close to contending at all, play the long game and realize it may be time to start rebuilding; it’s much better to do this than to pretend you’re just a defensive end away from a Lombardi. Be honest with yourself to save yourself from long-term cap or draft turmoil.