Every year, NFL experts scramble to make up imaginary mock drafts to satiate the hunger of fans (and some less effective teams) everywhere. There are some big rules that every mock drafter has to follow. Rule number one is to try and emulate the mindset of the team picking, and rule number two? To pick the best player available. Everyone preaches that “the good teams” always pick the best player available. I don’t necessarily believe that, and here’s why.
Nobody Actually Drafts the Best Player Available
This season, the Arizona Cardinals had the first overall pick, and they already had a quarterback on their roster. Most draft experts and scouts said Nick Bosa was the best player in this draft, with a few outliers saying the likes of Quinnen Williams and Ed Oliver belonged in the conversation as well. That didn’t stop them from taking Kyler Murray with the number one pick.
There’s obviously an argument to be made for bad teams making bad picks, as well. If you’re consistently drafting well, you probably don’t find yourself with the first overall pick very often, and conceivably, picking need over talent could sabotage your team’s success.
But then you take a look at the draft histories of successful teams and see a trend of drafting need over the “best player available” pretty consistently. And we can track this by looking at the last few Super Bowl Champions.
The 2017 Philadelphia Eagles
The Philadelphia Eagles were only a year removed from trading up to draft Carson Wentz when they won Super Bowl LII. I don’t know about you, but in a draft with Joey Bosa, Ezekiel Elliott, Jalen Ramsey, Xavien Howard, and Michael Thomas, was Wentz the best player available? Or did the Eagles need a franchise quarterback, so they went up and drafted their guy?
The 2015 Denver Broncos
It’s hard to nail down what the draft process was for the Broncos leading up to this Super Bowl, because so many of their impact players came in free agency. Emmanuel Sanders, Peyton Manning, DeMarcus Ware, Aqib Talib, T.J. Ward, Chris Harris (technically as a UDFA), and Brandon Marshall (the linebacker) were all free agent signings. Though if we’re being honest, it was the superhuman efforts of Von Miller that pushed this team to a Super Bowl, and at #2 overall, he was both a team need and the best player available.
The 2013 Seattle Seahawks
Pete Carroll could write a book about overdrafting players based on need. Over the last nine years, they’ve only drafted five players in the first round, and they’re all head-scratchers. Bruce Irvin is the most established of the first round picks, joining raw offensive line prospects James Carpenter and Germain Ifedi, tailback Rashaad Penny, and L.J. Collier, an edge rusher from this year’s class. None of the players I just mentioned had a first round grade coming out of college. Not one.
Curiously though, they’ve only missed the playoffs twice during that span.
The 2012 Baltimore Ravens
In hindsight, Joe Flacco’s career in Baltimore was a curious one. He never became everything they wanted him to be, but he did set all their passing records and deliver a Super Bowl Championship. Say what you will about Flacco, but despite the fact that he never had consistency on his offensive line, at offensive coordinator, or a real receiving corps, he did deliver an iconic Super Bowl run.
But don’t tell any experts from 2008 that. They thought that the Purple and Black reached when they selected Flacco with the 18th pick. Going back this far, it gets pretty hard to find draft grades that haven’t “mysteriously” disappeared. But calling the reason the Ravens won this Super Bowl a reach is a pretty strong indicator that, believe it or not, draft grades are almost always horrible.
The New England Patriots of the 2010’s
You may have noticed a team or two missing in there, but that’s because the New England Patriots won three Super Bowls during that span, and it seemed silly to revisit the same roster over and over. Bill Belichick and the Patriots are big advocates for drafting need over best player available.
In 2018, they addressed needs at offensive line and tailback with Isiah Wynn and Sony Michel in the first round. The year before, they used a second round pick on Cyrus Jones, a corner that could essentially only play in the slot.
Add names like Malcom Brown, Dominique Easley, and Jamie Collins, and the Patriots have a pretty solid history of drafting for need over the actual best player available. If the Patriots, who have fewer holes than anyone, prefer to draft needs instead of the best player on the board, who are we to say they’re wrong?
The Trevor Lawrence Theory
If the Kansas City Chiefs ends up with the first overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, and Trevor Lawrence becomes everything we think he’s going to become, would they select him? Absolutely not. Why? Because they have Patrick Mahomes, who I can’t foresee collapsing between now and then.
Maybe Kansas City’s defense is still putrid, so they trade down or they go out and take an edge rusher or a corner instead. But even if Trevor Lawrence is obviously the best player in the draft class, it’s almost an absolute certainty that the Chiefs wouldn’t take him.
Even if the powers that be in Kansas City think Lawrence could end up being better than Mahomes, they wouldn’t take the risk, because nobody actually drafts the best player available. They draft the best player available that fills a need.
The Bottom Line
That’s why you’ll see mostly passers and pass rushers going in the top five instead of offensive linemen and punters. Certain positions mean more than others, and a lack of depth at any of them could cripple a team. That’s why quarterbacks have gone first overall in 14 of the last 19 drafts.
So maybe it’s funny that the New York Giants selected Daniel Jones, but only because we don’t think Daniel Jones is gonna pan out. If Jones ends up being a passable quarterback, then it wasn’t such a bad decision to take him that high (don’t see that happening).
So next year, when the draft rolls around, please spare me the “best player available” argument, because nobody actually does it. And if they do, they’re not winning Super Bowls, so maybe we shouldn’t take their advice too seriously.