Leading up to the first selection, the hype is on the "skilled" positions such as quarterback, running back or "edge rusher." But most of this smoke is misguided tripe. The NFL has made the running back position a mere commodity. Running backs get burned out quicker than most positions so teams now have RB squads to carry the ball during the season. Most GMs figure they can find a quality back in the 4th round of any draft.
The "edge" rusher is the bling for defensive stat coaches who look to the "sack" as the key to a strong defense. The sack is an overrated marker. A good offensive tackle can neutralize an edge rusher, who is usually a thinner, quicker version of the defensive end. A great sack machine can have 15 in a season, but in reality that is probably less than two percent of the player's defensive snaps. Most edge rushers only look to sacks, so the other 98 percent of the time they are a non-factor.
The most focus in pre-draft mocks is the quarterback position. It is still the glamour spot on any team. Every owner wants a "franchise" quarterback to be the "face of the team." It is said that without a franchise QB, a team cannot win a Super Bowl (but tell that to Doug Williams.) Columnists admit that teams "overvalue" the quarterback position in the first round of the draft because quality, pro-ready quarterbacks are harder to find. The reason is simple: colleges are not running pro-style offenses. If a college education is supposed to prepare young men and women for their careers, college athletes does not prepare QBs for the pros because college coaches are all about winning to retain their huge salary and benefit packages. That is why some teams will reach to the lower college ranks to pick a Carson Wentz, who played a pro-style offense in college.
Another reason why QBs get picked in the first round is that the CBA allows teams to keep a QB an extra (5th year) under the rookie contract. Teams rarely put a rookie QB in charge of the offense so they use the first professional year for training and development. But there is another school of thought: baptism under fire. Some old coaches believe that it is better to put a rookie into battle right away so he can learn at "game speed." The biggest difference between college and pros is that in the NFL the opponent is bigger, faster and more skilled than college competition. The more reps a player gets against that talent level, the quicker a team will know whether their player is going to make it.
The scouting consensus is that none of the top 4 QB prospects is "worthy" of a first round selection. But everyone concedes that at least 3 QBs will be drafted in the top 15. If teams stuck with their internal valuations, all the quarterbacks would fall to the second round - - - and if a team needed to draft one, that would be the place to do it. Part of the reason for over-drafting a QB is to appease fans of bad teams. Drafting a new QB means that there will be competition at the most important position on the field. Competition should bring out the best in a player. But some front offices have taken competition out of the equation. The Bears never brought in a new, young QB to compete with Jay Cutler. The team did not want a "quarterback controversy." Cutler was their QB, period. As a result, the Bears did not draft a successor to Cutler. The position languished under Cutler, but it was reasoned that Cutler still had "potential" to get better. He never did. Now, the Bears have the third draft pick - - - and the team is still uncomfortable in selecting a QB.
Many teams tell us the overriding strategy on their draft boards is to select "the best player available." This strategy can lead to mismanaging resources and overdrafting a position of strength. Teams are supposed to use the draft to make their teams better. To improve the overall talent pool. If a team is in desperate need for a cornerback, select a cornerback - - - not a running back who has better "numbers." Old school scouts and GMs scoff at the Combine as being an irrelevant side show. Who cares if a offensive line man can dead lift a Mack truck twenty times if he is a traffic cone when it comes to pass protection. How high a man can jump, his 40 yard dash time, his "wing span" and cone drill time is meaningless because an NFL game is not made of those drills. The only thing a good general manager should ask is "can this kid play football?" Does a prospect have the football IQ to adapt to the professional level? Does he understand the fundamental concepts of the playbook? Does he understand his role and assignments on the field? You can tell the quality of the NFL product has diminished because there are so many "combine heros" on the field who do not know what they are doing - - - especially glaring in the secondary when a free safety is running around like he is trying to herd cats.
Draft boards are closely guarded secrets. Sports media tries to find ways to get scoops on how their local team plans to draft. But most of the dialog is misinformation. If a team thinks Player X is the best player on their board, they will not hype him so some other team will take him before their pick. Likewise, some teams will say a player with off-the-field issues will not impact his status on their board, when in fact some coaches and GMs will eliminate that player totally from any consideration. The Commissioner's complete discretion in player discipline has made some teams extremely uncomfortable in drafting drug users or domestic abusers because of potential long suspensions for a second offense.
There is also misinformation from the clubs who continually state that the "prime" rounds are in the middle. But this philosophy makes little sense. If you value third round talent more than first round talent, then you should always trade your highest picks for multiple middle round selections. It is a method of covering for first round mistakes or blunder picks, such as picking an injured first rounder who never makes it on to the field.
In 2011, SB Nation did a review of the 2000-2007 drafts for all pro selections. The results contradict the middle round philosophy.
Round 1: In each of these years, 31 players were taken in round 1. Out of those players, 13, 16, 10, 13, 15, 10, 13, and 10 in years 2000-2007, respectively, have made the Pro Bowl. In only one year did at least half the players drafted in round 1 eventually become Pro Bowlers. The average for the 8 yrs is 12.5.
Round 2: Again, 31 players were drafted in round 2 in each of these years. Those becoming Pro Bowlers number 5, 11, 4, 6, 2, 5, 6, and 5, for an average of 5.5 per year. This is less than 1 in 5 players drafted in this round. Again, 2001 appears to behave been a banner year.
Round 3: The numbers in round 3 are: 1, 3, 2, 2, 6, 2, 0, and 0, for an average of 2.0, or less than 1 in every 15 players chosen (note that compensatory picks make the number of players chosen in rounds 3-7 higher than 31).
The average for Round 4 was 2.375, for round 5 it was 1.625, for round 6 it was 1.5, and for round 7 it was 0.75.
The author's conclusion was the odds of finding that Pro Bowler are not that good, even in the first round (40%) And the odds of finding quality talent after the first round drops significantly as the second round is only 20%, the third round 6.7%. It shows how important it is to address your biggest need(s) in the first round or two. The odds are that your team will not pick a pro bowler in any round of the draft.
If you look at it objectively, even the best GM over a seven year draft cycle will only pick 6 pro bowl quality players or around 12% of total picks. An average GM over the same time period may only select 3 pro bowl quality players.
So, an NFL team needs to draft their primary, urgent needs each and every draft cycle; not the best player available but the best player at the position of need available. If you bet on the best player but he will not play because of a current starter is a veteran, then what is the point of stockpiling talent? And that does not help the problem positions on the team.
Drafts get screwed up because the nature of the clock and GMs, coaches and owners who disagree in the war room when they are on the clock. For years, commentators would wait for a team like the Raiders to pick someone out of the blue which would have a cascade effect across the rest of the NFL teams. That is part of the drama of the draft that NFL executives like to see.
But year after year, teams drafting lower in the order like the New England Patriots, seem to find more talent than the lowly Cleveland Browns. But the Pats do not necessarily draft or sign the fastest, strongest or more impressive Combine stars. They draft football players.