Every year, the NFL Draft is a combination of the most optimistic and most exciting weekend of the season. On this weekend in late April, every team has the opportunity to improve themselves, even if they don’t draft in the top ten or even in the first round. The funny thing about opportunity is that it can easily give way to desperation. Bad teams, especially if they have a coach or GM who is one step away from the unemployment line, have a tendency to take this great opportunity and turn it into a screw-up so bad that Leon Lett would say “Wow, sucks to be them”.
Every year, there is always analysis of every pick during the draft, seconds after the pick is made along with analysis of every teams’ draft immediately following. I don’t think that it’s fair to judge a draft immediately following because the players haven’t actually had a chance to do anything yet. It takes a couple of years to see where the players that a team has drafted have ended up in the grand scheme of things. The only thing that can be judged is if a team has mortgaged their future to make a pick (or a risky pick).
I was watching a clip from a previous draft which showed the Jets’ draft screw-ups over the past thirty years, which are second only to the Bengals. It’s amazing how they could fit so many bad selections into a minute and a half. Out of all of the Jets’ first round busts, the one that baffles me the most is their first round pick in 1980, wide receiver Johnny “Lam” Jones. The Jets traded their #13 and #20 overall picks to the 49ers in exchange for their #2 pick in order to draft a sprinter-turned-football player. Now, this wasn’t the “sexiest” draft ever, but why would you trade two high draft picks for a project?
There has been a theory floating around for about the last forty years or so, mostly in Al Davis’ mind, that you can take Olympic-grade sprinters and turn them into wide receivers. I can see the logic behind it. Theoretically, they could beat any coverage, or become a dangerous kick returner. What it doesn’t account for though, is that receivers have to run precise routes and catch the ball. So much of the passing game is based on timing and precision, and just putting someone in whose main attribute is being lightning-fast isn’t enough.
Back to the draft. To me, there are two hard and fast rules of the draft.
Rule number one: Don’t draft a project in the first round. A first round pick should be a player that can be inserted in the starting lineup fairly quickly, if not in week one, at least by week six or so. When I say a “project”, I don’t mean someone who needs coaching in order to adjust to the system or to the professional game in general because all draft picks need coaching. I am talking about the player that has a multitude of raw talent, but is going to take years to play at an NFL level. First round draft picks should be NFL-ready now. That’s why they are so valuable.
Rule number two: Don’t mortgage the team’s future by trading up to draft a project, with a corollary of don’t trade up to draft a player with a heavily checkered past. The draft is already a crapshoot. I don’t see why GM’s further the risk by giving away key players or the rest of their high picks (rounds 1-4) for someone that probably is not going to pay off now. The only reason to trade up in the draft is to get someone who is going to generate enough wins to make you a playoff team today. Projects don’t have any immediate payoff. All players have some level of value, but is their potential value more than the potential value of the other three picks combined? The answer is an overwhelming “no”. As far as the corollary, this is a risky enough proposition; I don’t see why a GM would add undue risk for someone that is probably going to be picked up at 2:30 a.m. outside a nightclub on a Wednesday.
As far as the Jets picking Johnny “Lam” Jones second overall in 1980, it turned out to be a bad decision, but the Jets still made the playoffs in 1981, 82 (with an appearance in the AFC Championship game), 85, and 86. Jones was out of football by 1985, but he was by all accounts a solid citizen. At least his pick was bad because of a strategic error rather than the player’s personal demons.
We all like to think that we can fix everything. This is an admirable trait, but it really shouldn’t be acted upon in the first and second rounds of the draft. The buzzword that keeps getting thrown around to the point of nausea is “upside”. I can probably spin a scenario to where any player in the draft can make the Pro Bowl (if there is one). The idea isn’t to make a player fit your team or your system; the idea is to find a player that already fits your team or your system, and with a limited amount of tweaking. Most of us wouldn’t buy a car to use as a daily driver if we had to replace the engine, transmission, and wiring, so why do we think we can do it with football players? “Upside” is just a nice way to say that the team has to make a square peg fit in a round hole.
The other buzzwords that get tossed around every year are “reach” and “steal”. We all appreciate a good deal, like when we go to the grocery store and see that a sixer of Sam Adams is $3 off, but is getting a third round prospect at the beginning of the fourth really a steal? Or getting the projected twentieth pick at twelve a reach? If the pick fits the team’s needs, who gives a damn if a player is a little bit of a reach?
I love the draft because most years, I leave with the feeling that my team is better as a result (history shows otherwise). I just don’t think it’s fair to judge how well a team drafted for at least three years. Let’s wait until the players actually put on pads and a helmet before we determine if they screwed up or not.