The NFL Draft kicks off next week from Las Vegas. As picks are announced, we’ll all make assessments on which teams reached, who got steals and how the seven-round marathon could affect the landscape of the league going forward.
A few years from now, most of us will look back at our takes and wonder what we were thinking. How could we have missed that the wide receiver who went in the third round was going to be the best in the entire class? Why didn’t we see the red flags with the first-round pass rusher who underachieved?
It’s all part of the fun. In mid-April, everyone has strong takes. Then the careers play out, and it becomes clear just how hard it is to accurately make these projections.
Success in the draft isn’t about nailing every pick. It’s about giving yourself the best chance for success and finding even the tiniest edges over your competition.
With that in mind, here are 10 commandments teams could follow when approaching the draft.
1. Don’t be overconfident in your ability to evaluate talent
We should know by now that the draft is hard — really hard. Every team’s fan base can point out their GM’s worst misses. Tom Brady lasted until the 199th pick. Russell Wilson went 75th. Aaron Rodgers was 24th. Patrick Mahomes went 10th. Davante Adams 53rd. Aaron Donald 13th. We could go on and on and on. Take a look at the first-round picks from 2015 to 2019 (players who have had at least three years in the NFL). Well more than half of them would not be considered above-average starters. A recent study by The 33rd Team showed that just 31% of first-round picks sign a second contract with the team that that drafted them.
That doesn’t mean NFL teams are doing a terrible job. It means there are a bunch of difficult-to-project variables in play, and the draft is all about making decisions under uncertainty. Teams who approach the draft with that understanding and account for the uncertainty in their process will have an edge over the ones that fool themselves into thinking they’re really good at picking players.
Every year, we see players picked in the 20s who end up outperforming players picked in the top five, or undrafted free agents winning roster spots over fourth-round picks. Yet every year, once draft season rolls around, teams convince themselves that they’ve identified “safe” or “can’t miss” prospects when the truth is those labels are pretty much meaningless.
Teams that believe they are better than their peers at identifying talent are more likely to make bad decisions in the draft. Teams that do everything they can to develop a smart, efficient process but still realize they’re going to miss on evaluations will be better set up for success.
2. When in doubt, draft for volume
One way to account for the uncertainty: pick more players than your peers. There are no guarantees, but if you know you’re likely to miss on a certain percentage of picks, then increasing the total number of picks you have will offer a better chance for success.
Baltimore Ravens GM Eric DeCosta has called the draft a “luck-driven process” and has spoken openly about the idea that getting more swings is the way to go. In the past five years, the Ravens have had 45 picks — tied for fifth-most. Compare that to a team like the Chicago Bears that has had 31 (third-fewest) during that span. It’s not apples to apples because the total number doesn’t account for how high each of the picks were, but generally speaking, the Ravens have had 14 more chances than the Bears to hit on players.
I’m guessing right now, some of you are yelling at me: “BUT WHAT ABOUT THE RAMS, TOUGH GUY? THEIR GM LITERALLY WEARS AN ‘F THEM PICKS’ T-SHIRT!” You’re correct about that. The Rams have not had a first-round pick since 2016.
But guess what? Even without those first rounders, they’ve still had 45 picks in the past five years — tied for fifth most. You know what’s a smart thing to do when you want to trade away your first-round picks for veterans? Stock up on picks later in the draft. That’s precisely what the Rams have done.
Again, picking more players doesn’t guarantee anything. And picks in the early rounds should be weighted differently than picks in the later rounds. But drafting for volume is a smart, big-picture philosophy when looking to maximize draft success.
3. Only take big swings when targeting a QB
Quarterback right now is all about upside. If you’re looking for competency, you can find it at a relatively inexpensive cost. Teddy Bridgewater signed with the Miami Dolphins for $6.5 million. In the past two years, he ranked 16th in TruMedia’s Expected Points Added (EPA) per play metric. He can give you perfectly mediocre quarterback play. And any team could have had him this offseason. Even now, any team could trade for Baker Mayfield or Jimmy Garoppolo.
Competency at quarterback is easier than ever to find, and it’s never mattered less. Because if you don’t have a top-level guy, you’re going to have difficulty achieving sustained success, which is what every franchise is chasing.
Teams in the quarterback market should ask themselves two questions when evaluating a quarterback prospect:
- What is the prospect’s upside?
- How likely is the prospect to reach that upside?
Coaches and general managers have to worry about job security, and they’re often operating under the (usually accurate) assumption that they’ll get just one shot to draft a quarterback. That can make them risk-averse. But missing on a quarterback evaluation in the first round isn’t what cripples a franchise. It’s sticking with the quarterback for too long or paying a mediocre QB high-end money that is problematic.
At some point, you have to take a swing. Remember, Mahomes went 10th. Josh Allen seventh. Justin Herbert sixth. It’s not like all of those quarterbacks were viewed as sure things. But I bet every one of their draft reports included the word upside. There was always the thought that the best version of those quarterbacks could be special.
Owners should encourage their coaches and GMs to aggressively pursue (within reason, of course) high-ceiling quarterbacks. Hitting on one is the quickest way to become a Super Bowl contender. And if you miss, you move on and try again.
Meanwhile, big swings for non-quarterbacks can rarely be justified. And by big swings, I’m talking about trades that involve something like giving up a first-round pick or multiple Day 2 picks.
This goes back to the first rule: Don’t be overconfident in your ability to evaluate talent. Even if a prospect checks all the boxes for you, don’t be fooled into thinking he’s a sure thing. And with non-quarterbacks, the upside usually isn’t going to be big enough to justify the cost.
4. Properly assess the abilities of your coaching staff
For some reason, NFL teams love to treat college programs like they’re rec league flag football operations. They’ll go on and on about how college wide receivers didn’t run a full route tree or how cornerbacks never lined up in press coverage or how offensive linemen didn’t take true pass sets.
Can those observations have merit? Sure. But there are a lot of really good college coaches who are excellent teachers. And the NFL is not a meritocracy. Coaches don’t get to the pros because they’re the best in the world. They get there for a number of reasons, including luck, politics and timing.
Teams will often point to a prospect’s lack of production and say things like, “Wait until he gets in our building and our coaches get their hands on him. We believe his best football is ahead of him.”
That might be true. Or it might not be true. That’s why it’s really important to evaluate the coaching staff’s track record. Is there a specific assistant who has a history of developing project-type prospects? Where has the staff done the best job of developing players relative to their draft slots? Teams need to be careful and realistic when the key to their evaluation is better coaching.
There’s another side to that as well. Coaches should remember that they’re not inheriting finished products. If I were a GM and a position coach said they were down on a wide receiver prospect because he was a bad blocker or a running back because he didn’t perform well in blitz pickup, I would respond with a simple question: “What do you think we’re paying you for?” Coaches sometimes forget that they are paid to, well, coach.
Properly and honestly assessing the skills of the coaching staff and determining where prospects can realistically improve should be a part of the process for every organization.
5. Incorporate the two-minute rule for all first-round options
Regular readers might remember the two-minute rule from our 10-step guide for avoiding a disastrous offseason. The idea is simple. Any time you’re thinking of drafting a player in the first round, take yourself to the final two minutes of a one-possession game and ask yourself: Can he help you win? If the answer is no, you should probably pass.
Last year, roughly 44% of all NFL games were decided by seven points or fewer. The margin for error is small. If your first-round picks are on the sideline in crunch time, it’s probably going to come back to bite you.
This rule applies to running backs (specifically those who are not dynamic pass-catchers), run-stuffing defensive tackles who don’t have much pass-rushing juice and off-ball linebackers who are liabilities in coverage. Want to take those guys later in the draft? Knock yourself out. But in the first round? No thanks.
6. Employee the armpit test for individual prospects
What is the armpit test, you ask? You want opposing coaches to feel a little perspiration when thinking about having to game plan for your team. The same applies to opposing quarterbacks or offensive linemen or cornerbacks who have to play against your guys.
Let’s take the Seattle Seahawks, for example. When they’re writing up reports for defensive prospects, they should come up with the most likely outcome for each guy. They should then pretend they’re Sean McVay or Kyle Shanahan. Will those coaches:
- Be circling the prospect as someone to attack and exploit?
- Be circling the prospect as someone to account for in protection schemes, passing concepts, etc.?
In case you haven’t figured it out, you want the prospects who fit the second category there.
This obviously isn’t going to apply to every player and every decision, but it can be a useful exercise.
7. Use data to fact-check your narratives
We all have biases, and we create convenient narratives in our heads. The best GMs admit to those biases and put guardrails in place to protect against them. One great way to do that is to apply data.
For example, in the past couple years, we’ve seen rookie wide receivers Ja’Marr Chase and Justin Jefferson deliver incredible debut seasons. So now, teams might think that they can get rid of veteran wide receivers and easily replace them with less expensive rookies. But how rare is it to see a rookie wide receiver contribute like Chase and Jefferson?
In the past 10 years, among the 36 wide receivers taken in the first round, the average rookie season has produced 49.1 catches for 658.8 yards. The median season is 605 yards. Seven of the 36 wide receivers (19.4%) have produced 1,000 yards or more as rookies.
This is a very straightforward, unsophisticated example. But you get the point. There should be a “How often has that happened before?” element to every claim.
Georgia defensive tackle Jordan Davis is one the more intriguing first-round prospects. He’s 6-feet-6, 341 and has an elite athletic profile. But Davis never had more than 2.5 sacks in a single season at Georgia. He has the physical gifts that could convince teams he’ll develop into an excellent pass rusher. But as The Athletic’s Bo Wulf pointed out recently, it’s rare for a defensive tackle who had limited sack production in college to all of a sudden develop into a prolific pass rusher in the NFL. It’s happened, but probably not as often as you’d think.
Does that mean teams should definitely pass on Davis in the first round? Of course not. But they should take history into account when making their projections.
Bottom line: Using data can help teams properly assess the likelihood of certain outcomes.
8. Appoint a designated hater and hype man for each prospect
This goes back to protecting against biases. You want to guard against groupthink. You don’t want to fall in love. And you also don’t want to dismiss prospects as bad fits too quickly.
As part of the pre-draft process, why not randomly assign staff members to be haters or hype men for prospects? The haters’ job can be to sketch out the worst-case scenario for every prospect. Maybe there’s someone who checks pretty much every single box. We know there’s no such thing as a can’t-miss prospect. Figuring out how each prospect could fail might be a useful exercise.
It can work the other way too. Maybe there’s a prospect that the group is universally down on. The hype man’s job is to sketch out the best-case scenario for the prospect. What does it look like? How does he get there?
Not only could this exercise offer a more realistic view of the possible range of outcomes, but it could also plant the seeds for player development plans. For the players you actually draft, you’ll know what to guard against and how to help them succeed.
9. Know what other teams are trying to accomplish, and use it to your advantage
This can apply to a number of different areas.
Maybe it’s a team in “win now” mode like the Green Bay Packers. They have five picks in the first three rounds, including two first rounders, after the Davante Adams trade. And they’re in desperate need of wide receiver help. If a prospect like Garrett Wilson starts to slip, might they be interested in moving up? If I were a team picking ahead of them, I’d be sure to double- and triple-check before and during the draft.
Or what about the Kansas City Chiefs? They traded Tyreek Hill this offseason and now have six picks in the first three rounds, including two in the first and three in the top 50. The Chiefs are not afraid to trade draft picks. They’ve made just 30 selections in the past five years — second fewest in the NFL. They’re also in the business of trying to win a Super Bowl in 2022. If a player like Jameson Williams or Wilson or Chris Olave starts to slip, would the Chiefs be interested in moving up? If I were a team picking ahead of them in the first round, I would make sure to find out.
Another question to ask: Are there coaches or GMs trying to save their jobs? The Carolina Panthers, for example, have the sixth overall pick and don’t pick again until the fourth round (No. 137 overall). I can’t imagine that Matt Rhule is too concerned about the team’s 2023 draft picks. He might not have a job then. He needs players now. Maybe there’s an opportunity to offer him a second or a third for future assets?
A big part of the draft is being able to read what other teams are up to. The teams that know how to do that the best can find value.
10. Don’t overrate things that might not matter
The roles of GMs have evolved over the years. It’s no longer about sitting in a dark room and grinding film at all hours of the day and night. For many organizations, the job is to collect information from a variety of departments — scouting, coaching, analytics, medical — then putting it all together and making a final decision. The volume of information could get overwhelming. A lot of evaluations come down to figuring out what matters and what doesn’t.
Some coaches and GMs like to fancy themselves as psychologists or body language doctors. They think they can tell how coachable a prospect is based on a 15-minute interview at the combine. Or perhaps they draw a grand conclusion from how a prospect hustles from one drill to the next.
Maybe some of that stuff matters. Taking notes and making observations are fine. But there are some coaches whom I wouldn’t trust to feed my fish while I’m away on vacation. I definitely wouldn’t trust them to make an assessment on a 22-year-old’s character. They might convince themselves that they’re qualified to do that. But they’re not.
The final decision-maker should encourage everyone to focus on their specific areas of expertise. Removing the clutter can help to avoid falling victim to biases.
(Illustration: Wes McCabe / The Athletic; photos: Jonathan Bachman and Todd Kirkland / Getty Images)