Tuesday, May 04, 2010

"Best" "Available" "Player"

On a secret mission, in uncharted space, you may discover a world very like our own, but slightly different. This is a story of that world.

In this world, you are Not Martin Mayhew, head decision-maker for the Detroit Lions, and you are irrevocably committed to draft the Best Available Player. Roger Goodell steps to the podium at about 7:45 PM ET on April 22, 2010, and intones, "With the 1st overall pick in the 2010 NFL Draft, the St. Louis Rams select Ndamukong Suh, defensive tackle, Nebraska. The Detroit Lions are now on the clock."

In your role as Not Martin Mayhew, you review your team's draft board. With only one player off the board, there are a number of excellent prospects on there. One name, in fact, stands out as by far the best player player: Oklahoma quarterback Sam Bradford. If Suh is a perfect 10 and has a downside (barring shocking catastrophic injury of 9), Bradford's a 9.9 if he learns to take a hit (something you're confident you can teach him). He doesn't have a super arm like Matt Stafford, but he's better than Stafford at everything else a QB does, including the supremely important accuracy. You instruct your representative at the draft to submit a card with Bradford's name on it. Ten minutes later, you're being escorted out of the draft room by team security with instructions to clean out your desk.

But, really, that's ok. Because, well, after a brief interlude, you have a new job, as Not Mike Reinfeldt, head decision-maker for the Tennessee Titans, but you're still irrevocably committed to draft the Best Available Player. It's now Saturday morning, the Redskins just took LSU linebacker Perry Riley, and you're on the clock after acquiring pick #104 from the Seattle Seahawks.

In your role as Not Mike Reinfeldt, you review your team's draft board. You'd like to take a cornerback, but there are two, both from the Pac-10, who are interesting and you have to decide which one to draft. Alterraun Verner was a good player at UCLA and a very smart young man, who was an excellent representative for the Bruins and would do your franchise well. Your scouting staff, though, doubts he'd ever be good enough to be a competent starter at CB in the NFL; call him a peak value of 6.0 and a fairly high floor of 5.0. The other name is Walter Thurmond. He was injured a lot at Oregon, but your scouting staff is convinced that if he can stay healthy, he's a solid 7.0, but if he remains injury prone, he'll be a 4.0. You think it over a little, and submit your draft card with Verner's name on it and go about the rest of your busy Saturday.

After this, your mission ends and you return to your home world of Terra, Sector 001, where life continues as normal...
So, did Not Martin Mayhew make the right move? Did Not Mike Reinfeldt make the right move? They both faced difficult decisions and chose differently.

Not Martin Mayhew picked, quite literally, the best available player, the one with the highest grade on the board. But, in your little world, he got fired. For understandable reasons, the Ford family wasn't eager to pay #2 salary a year after forking over #1 salary to Matt Stafford even though Bradford is better than Stafford. Putting aside the whole money issue, did Not Mayhew do the right thing? After all, Bradford was the higher rated player, and if you're drafting the Best Available Player, that's who you take.

Ah, but as Not Mayhew, you get fired, because no NFL GM in a world without trades would ever make that selection even if they, like you, are firmly committed to drafting the Best Available Player. Does this mean they're all hypocrites? You could, if you wish, accuse them of such, but that seems like an exceptionally unproductive exercise. They are, after all, architects of a team, trying to put together the best group of 53 men, 45 active and 11 playing on the field at a time, plus 8 practice squadders they can find. It is within these ground rules that you pick players. Only one quarterback can play at a time, and teams seem to commit to make high-profile commitments to only a single young quarterback at a time, for fairly obvious reasons. So, even if the top rated player is a QB, you don't draft the QB just because of what you already have.

Let's shift gears a little bit, and talk about former Jaguars GM Shack Harris. The Jaguars are recovering from a roster purge after the quality teams of the late 1990's that failed to make the Super Bowl, but with the aging and departure of Jimmy Smith and Keenan McCardell, a generally good team is quite weak at wide receiver. Your first round pick comes around, 9th overall in 2004, and you select your highest-rated wideout, Reggie Williams. Your first round pick comes around again, 21st overall in 2005, and you select your highest-rated wideout, Matt Jones. Neither Williams nor Jones ever excels as an NFL player, and after several other draft picks, you're there to greet Not Mayhew when he joins the ranks of former NFL general managers.

What should we think of Not Mayhew and Shack Harris? Not Mayhew took the highest rated player, pumping his team up from 9.25 to 9.9 at QB and bypassing chances to improve DT from 7 to 9.2 or OT from 7.5 to 9.3. Harris took the player who could most improve his team: going from 4.0 to 8.0 at wideout makes the Jaguars a better team than going from, say, 7.5 to 8.5 at offensive tackle, or 6.5 to 8.2 at defensive end. Which of these men, if either, took the Best Available Player? Did they both? Did neither?

The Not Mike Reinfeldt example is meant to illuminate the slippery nature of BAP drafting. Was Verner or Thurmond the BAP in this example? Both players have their strengths and their drawbacks as prospects. Verner was generally a very well-received pick, but the ultimate verdict will come on the football field this fall and hopefully in subsequent falls as well. If Verner is never more than a nickel or dime corner and solid special teams player, while Thurmond makes two Pro Bowls and starts for 6 seasons, does and should that change how we thought of Verner and Thurmond when it comes to BAP?

In the cruel and unforgiving world of judging sports executives, Reinfeldt almost certainly will be judged by those results, or would if he were employed by a team that thought about such things. Shack Harris lost his job not so much because he overdrafted wide receivers for a team that was weak at wide receiver, but because those receivers he drafted simply ended up not being very good. Similarly, Jaguars fans have confidence that GM Gene Smith didn't overdraft Tyson Alualu out of pressing need for a pass rusher because the early returns are that Smith did an excellent job of drafting in 2009. If Alualu ends up being a worse player than expected or looking like the Tony Mandarich of the 1989 draft (rest of top 5: Aikman, Barry, Derrick Thomas, Deion), Gene Smith has a good shot of being fired, for better or for worse, BAP or not.

So, the next time an NFL GM says his team is drafting the best available player, just nod your head and value it as much as you value pretty much everything else coming out of his mouth between January and the draft: as having absolutely no value at all.

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