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Ron Rivera & Martin Mayhew will need a disciplined approach to player selection to succeed in the draft this weekend

Washington Football Report

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The head coach and general manager of the Washington Football TeamWashingtonFootball.com

Winning organizations are built on a draft philosophy commonly referred to as BPA.

Best.

Player.

Available.

The idea behind BPA is that, when the team goes on the clock, the right decision is to draft the best player available.

People will often argue that the BPA strategy, like a unicorn, doesn't really exist, but last year, the majority of NFL fans who had an opinion about the draft, and what the Redskins should do with their #2 overall pick were either declaring themselves for “value” or “BPA”.

The "value" argument

People who argue for value typically argued that the Redskins should do one of two things:

  • Draft Tua because quarterbacks are more valuable than other positions, due both to their huge impact on a team’s ability to win games, and the salary cap difference between a signal caller on a rookie contract and those on veteran free agent deals.
  • Trade down, because the draft value chart over-values the first 50 to 60 picks in the draft; trading down increases the value a team gets out of the draft pick and increases the number of bites of the apple.

BPA

People who argued that the Redskins should draft Chase Young at #2 overall had one simple argument — he was the best player available in the draft. Period.

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DE Chase Yound, Ohio State Buckeyeselevenwarriors.com

Really, at the top of the first round, the only consideration that usually tops BPA is the incredibly high premium that quarterbacks carry. If a team with an early draft pick needs a quarterback, that team typically drafts one, even if the consensus is that there is a better player available. Knowing the incredibly high cost of trading up, the majority of trades into the top positions in the draft are for quarterbacks, whose scarcity and positional value usually trumps other considerations.

Otherwise, the top five or ten picks in the draft usually see competent front offices drafting the best player available because this is where the transformative players are. The further we move into the draft, the less differentiation there is between players, and team needs become more and more important — in those later rounds, GMs will find themselves looking at a small pool of players who are rated roughly the same, and selecting the one that best meets the team’s needs.

But in those top 5 or 10 slots, where there may be huge gaps in talent or potential between one player and the next best, outside of the pursuit of franchise quarterbacks, Best Player Available is the winning strategy.

We know that the Redskins – going into last year’s draft -- had huge needs at tight end and offensive line, and significant needs at cornerback and possibly linebacker. Relative to these positions, the need for another pass rusher like Chase Young was only moderate, and was far less pressing than free safety or wide receiver.

But that didn’t matter to anyone who was touting Chase Young. He was, they would tell you, the best player in the draft. The Redskins simply couldn’t not draft him.

I heard the phrase, “no-brainer” used more than once.

In short, then, the argument to draft Chase Young is an endorsement of the BPA philosophy.

The past year of football proved the philosophy right.

Who decides who’s “Best”?

So, the first thing to acknowledge about the BPA concept is that there is no single objective list of players anywhere that we can all point to as being the list — the one unquestioned source of who is better than whom. This makes any discussion of BPA problematic, as every single person can work from an individual, customized BPA list (usually referred to as a “board” or “big board”).

Each organization will spend time evaluating the draft-eligible players coming out of college and ranking them, and not all talent evaluators are created equal. Each organization will end up working from a somewhat different list, so the player that Jerry Jones identifies as the 10th best player in the draft is unlikely to be the same guy that Dave Gettleman has in that spot, and Howie Roseman will likely have yet another, still different, player ranked 10th.

There are those who will say, “yeah... that’s because they are ranking based on need! Each team is factoring in their roster needs to the rankings.”

I don’t believe that’s really it.

There are a number of reasons why different talent evaluators create different “boards” to list players from best to worst.

  • Teams value different things. One team may prioritize perceived character over on-field performance. One scout may believe that players from big schools who have faced top tier competition have a competitive advantage, while another scout believes that raw athletic ability is more important. The range of possibilities is enormous, and is a key reason why teams don’t all have the same board.

  • Not every scout & personnel executive is created equal. I like to think of the NFL draft as analogous to the stock market — the information is out there and accessible to all of us in pretty much the same form, but some people are more adept at understanding what it all means and picking winners. To people who don’t really know what to look for, picking stocks seems akin to ‘reading tea leaves’, but it is clear that some people (see: Warren Buffett) understand how to analyze stock market investments better than others. Some scouts and some organizations are better than others at evaluating the information available on players.

  • Prejudice exists. This takes many forms, and may be linked to the first idea in the bullet point list (Teams value different things). The decision-maker may believe that offensive players bring more value than defensive players, or that wide receivers have less value because rookie contracts are 4 years long, but it takes three years for most receivers to develop. A scout or GM may prefer players from his alma mater, or believe that players from a particular conference are inherently superior.

  • Salary cap can drive draft decisions. One of the common arguments against the Brandon Scherff pick back in 2015 was that it was a poor use of draft resources to take a Guard at #5. The idea here is that an option exists to sign a free agent instead of drafting a player. Free agent guards are relatively cheap while quarterbacks, cornerbacks, pass rushers, left tackles and wide receivers are relatively expensive. The draft can be a tool for acquiring cheap talent (under the current CBA). A team might prioritize high-dollar skill positions in the first round over positions like guard or nose tackle simply for the salary cap implications.

  • Durability matters. There are very few people that aren’t named Todd Gurley or Ezekiel Elliott who will argue against the idea that running backs are inherently less durable than other position players on average, simply due to the punishment they take. This is positional durability. Of course, individual players can have specific durability issues due to their history of injury in college that may cause teams to lower the player’s perceived value relative to other players available.

During the actual draft, strategies that are contract-driven and not directly linked to player rankings may play out. For example, the value of the 32nd pick may be much higher to an organization than the 33rd pick because the former comes with a built-in 5th year option, while the latter does not. Conversely, if a team saw a player as a bit of a gamble at that point in the draft, the 33rd pick might be a better position, since that player contract will not be guaranteed, while the player picked at 32 could carry significant guarantees. These kinds of practical business considerations can drive teams to swap draft positions, and may lead a team to stray from their draft board for reasons other than ‘need’.

  • Gut-feeling is a real thing for talent evaluators - sometimes scouts and GMs think that everyone else has got it wrong. In financial and currency markets, this is the concept that underlies arbitrage. A guy who believes that the rest of the market has mis-valued an asset can acquire that asset at less than market value, and create an instant profit.

Why not draft for need?

Once a team starts drafting for need, they are behind the curve; they are drafting players to fill holes in the roster. In other words, they’re expecting guys to come straight from college and play immediately because the front office didn’t have the foresight or ability to construct a deep and talented roster. It’s the scotch-tape and bubble gum solution.

Teams that draft for need have to push rookies onto the field whether they are ready or not.

I’m not saying that rookies should never be expected to start in the NFL, or that it’s wrong to start a rookie if he comes to camp and earns the job. What I’m suggesting is that teams that draft for need are pretty much anointing their early round draft picks on the day they are selected. Everyone knows the rookie has been picked to fill a hole in the roster. It’s his job. It’s not even ‘his job to lose’, because there’s no one to take it away from him. Not good.

Drafting for need is reactive, rather than proactive.

Drafting for need means that the front office is focused only one year ahead. Basically, the franchise is asking the question: What position(s) do we need to fill in order to compete this year?

The problem is that the organization may leave better players on the board in the effort to draft a guy that they think will make them competitive in September.

The front office should be asking the question: Which player available will have the strongest positive impact on the franchise for the longest number of years?

That’s the guy you choose.

Instead of drafting for a year, teams should draft for a decade

Ten years later, people will remember and complain about the fact that the team’s GM left an all-pro on the board to pick a tight end because the OC needed him to ‘complete’ the scheme. However, if the GM passes on that tight end to select the best player in the draft, no one will ever bemoan the fact that the team couldn’t execute its full scheme because they didn’t have the right tight end for the system; they’ll be thrilled to have the all-pro talent for the next ten years.

If you doubt this, just thing about Chase Young, and Washington's need for tight ends and offensive linemen last year.

Drafting for need puts a team in a bad cycle that’s hard to break out of. The team will leave talented players on the board year after year as they chase the ephemeral ‘complete’ roster.

Drafting the best player available adds talent to the team that can probably be relied on for years.

Why does BPA work?

The Best Player Available philosophy works because NFL rosters are not machines with standard parts that can be ordered from a factory; there is no perfect source of replacement parts available.

Rosters are comprised of human beings, and the BPA philosophy builds the most talented, deepest, most stable and most flexible roster possible for the franchise. Year by year, the team gets stronger.

1. Synergy

When you put a machine together, it is just the sum of its parts. When you build a team, it can be more or less than the sum of its parts. Bringing the right kind of people into the group is important. Leadership, teamwork, hard work, intelligence, stamina... these are all factors that matter more than putting a warm body who plays the position of need competently.

2. Injury

One of the strongest arguments against drafting for need is the randomness of injuries in the NFL. The positions of need in April, when the draft is held, may not be the same as those in September or December.

Let’s consider a hypothetical scenario: The player on the board when the team’s pick comes up is a strong safety or perhaps a defensive tackle. The GM thinks, “We’ve got a twenty-six-year-old safety” or “I’ve got two all-pro defensive tackles” so I don’t need another one. He passes the best player on the board to take the pass-catching tight end that he needs.

In Week 2, the safety tears his Achilles tendon, or the defensive linemen are lost to bicep & pectoral tears. Suddenly, the team has a new position of need that would have been covered if the team had taken the best player available.

Of course, those injuries may not occur, but if you draft the talent and you don’t need him, options are available. You can rotate your defensive linemen more frequently to keep them fresh, you can play a strong safety as a SAM linebacker OR you can trade a player from your roster for more draft picks.

The fact is, drafting for need isn’t just moving from the decade-long view to the season-long view — drafting for need is really trading down to a month-long view, because no NFL roster survives a 17-week season intact.

3. More roster stability

Something I don’t usually hear discussed is that the BPA philosophy leads to more roster stability. What I mean is that great players stay in the league longer and don’t have to be replaced as often. The team gets less roster ‘churn’, and by not drafting for need, they don’t need to draft for specific roster holes as often. Even if the player leaves in free agency, high quality players sign high dollar contracts that qualify for compensatory draft picks, allowing the team another bite at the apple in another draft.

Drafting for need means compromising — taking the best player in the position where the roster is thin instead of the best player, period. The result is that the team may take the 4th or 5th best guy on the board instead of the absolute stud that they should have taken. The guy that they pick plays 5 seasons in the NFL and then is replaced, while the ‘stud’ lasts 8 or 9 years. Choosing the best player available in this example gives the team 3 or 4 years of play out of that draft pick that they wouldn’t have gotten by drafting for need, meaning that the team isn’t burning a draft pick 6 years from now to fill a new roster hole.

BPA results in better, deeper, more stable rosters.

4. Talent, talent, talent

Scheme is important, but in the end, talent triumphs as long as it is paired with personal characteristics like work ethic and love of the game.

BPA fills the roster with talent and creates more options for the coaching staff than drafting for need.

It’s the concept of drafting for a decade instead of drafting for the season. Teams with top talent start with an undeniable advantage, and increase that advantage every year.

What will Washington do this weekend?

So, with an understanding that drafting the best player available is the goal, what can we expect from the Washington Front Office brainstrust when they are on the clock this weekend? Are they more likely to use the BPA approach or draft for need?

Plugging roster holes in free agency

The first clue to finding the answer to this question lies in the state of the roster before the draft. In other words, does the front office have a roster with specific holes that have to be filled in the draft? If the team either is very good and has no obvious roster holes, or is very bad and is so full of holes that almost any draft pick will strengthen the roster, then BPA is an easy philosophy to embrace.

The issue comes when a roster has between one and three glaring needs. When this happens, the tendency if for decision-makers to ‘reach’ for a player, using a high (or relatively high) draft pick to get a player of less talent than the pick deserves. Consider this comment from former Falcons GM Thomas Dimitroff:

In the 2012 draft, we didn't have a first-round pick because of the Julio Jones trade and desperately needed to find center Todd McClure's heir apparent. We selected Peter Konz in the second round -- a definite overdraft that didn't pan out -- and that misguided pick was the beginning of a bad draft for us. From the 2012 draft, I learned there is great importance in drafting for need, but you can't let need override the overall research and intuitive draft prep.

Washington’s current depth chart has them in a situation where, if they had to play the NFL season with the roster they have today, they would be competitive, with perhaps two exeptions.

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Washington Football Team depth chart at 28 April 2021Bill Horgan

First, the team is clearly missing a weakside linebacker (WILL), and probably needs at least one other linebacking upgrade. Secondly, the roster has only one proven tight end; the team may not need a top-of-the-draft addition, but at some point in the middle rounds, they need to acquire a proven player who can be a reliable backup to starter Logan Thomas.

Otherwise, the Washington Football Team looks to be in a good position to sit in the draft “war room”, pay attention to their “big board” and, for the most part, take the best player available.

But will they? Do the decision makers value BPA?

To answer this question, let’s take a look at some history and recent quotes from some of the WFT decision-makers who will be in the war room on Thursday, Friday and Saturday.

Martin Mayhew, General Manager

Martin Mayhew is Washington’s first true General Manager since Scot McCloughan was pushed out of the position in 2016. He previously filled the GM position with the Detroit Lions from 2008 to 2015.

In 2012, with the Lions, the team had gotten ten wins in the previous season and were feeling pretty good about the roster. At that time, Mayhew was asked about his draft philosophy and his response was clear:

“Our (draft) philosophy, we talk about it pretty much every year, we’ll take the best player available,” said Mayhew. “What we don’t want to do is reach for needs at specific positions - bypass good players to reach for a need. In the history of the draft, I’ve seen a lot of mistakes doing that, and we don’t believe in that.”

That's a pretty strong statement in support of the BPA philosophy, and a good indication of which way the new front office is likely to go.

Marty Hurney, Executive Vice President of Football/Player Personnel

Marty Hurney is from the DMV areas, having been born in Maryland, and actually started his NFL career with the Washington Redskins in the 1990s, but is best known is the former two-time General Manager of the Carolina Panthers (2002–2012, 2017–2020) who was hired along with Martin Mayhew in January this year.

In a 2018 article, Hurney – in a piece fairly similar to the Thomas Dimitroff article from this week that I quoted above -- had a lot to say about what he had learned about being a GM. For some context, Hurney had developed a reputation for doing very well in the first round (Thomas Davis, Cam Newton, and Luke Kuechly), but also had a reputation of doing poorly with later round picks:

“We’ve talked a lot about when you get to the second round,” Hurney said before leaving for Indy. “We might have leaned toward need more (in the past), but if you keep that first-round philosophy (of best available player) in the second and third rounds, then you’d like your top three-round picks to come in and if they don’t start in their first year at least fill a role and contribute.
“Keeping that philosophy after the first round – that’s something I’ve been going through in my mind.”

This offers strong evidence that Hurney, like GM Martin Mayhew, has a strong, if new found, commitment to BPA, and will be seeking to avoid reaching to fill positions of need. This is good news for a franchise that has had a lot of trouble making good picks in the second round in recent years.

Ron Rivera, Head Coach

Earlier this month, Rivera talked about his approach to the draft, focusing on how the team’s decisions in free agency create flexibility in the draft:

“I think what our front office did and what we were able to do in free agency really helped us,” Rivera said during a Zoom media session on Friday. “I think we freed ourselves up because of what they did.”
“I think [front office executives] Martin [Mayhew] and Marty [Hurney] and their guys really helped put us in a position where we’ve got to really look at drafting best player available, but always keeping in mind what we feel the true need is,” Rivera said.

Rivera appears, in this statement, to give priority (or is it mere lip service) to BPA, but tosses in the part about “keeping in mind the true need,” whatever that is supposed to mean. I assume he’s talking about positional need here, though I suppose he could just as easily be referencing things like leadership, salary cap impact or positional value.

In general, coaches tend to over-value short-term positional need when it’s time for the draft, whereas general managers – at least in theory – are supposed to be more focused on longer-term talent acquisition. Typically, coaches serve at the pleasure of the GM in the NFL. Washington’s “coach-centric” structure may have a built-in flaw here if Rivera is tempted to overrule the other members of the triumvirate when the team is on the clock, worried more about who will cover tight ends coming across the middle in Week 3 than whether the next draft pick will make the team stronger for the next decade.

The evidence indicates that the Washington front office has done a good job of setting up the roster to minimize the motivation to draft for need, but with a couple of obvious roster holes, the possibility is still there. Hopefully, the combined experience of Mayew and Hurney will be enough to (i) identify the best player available to draft, and (ii) convince Ron Rivera of the wisdom of sticking as close as possible to the BPA philosophy.

I think that the 2020 draft argues that Rivera is clear-headed enough to largely follow the BPA philosophy, which gives me confidence that the franchise will come out of this weekend with a significantly upgraded roster – one that should be good enough to see them into the playoffs for the second consecutive season.

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