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Ranking the 2011 Draft Prospects By Risk

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Jonathan Bales

Whether it has been in regards to position value or position scarcity, we have discussed the philosophy of ranking draft prospects in great detail of late.  My article on why selecting the best player available is not always a viable draft strategy was a bit polarizing, with excellent arguments arising on both sides of the debate.

Another reason I think it is sometimes efficient to bypass the best player available is due to risk.  In the first few rounds of the draft, teams should be looking to select players with high floors, i.e. low-risk players.  If you have the first overall draft pick, for example, the upside of that prospect is naturally limited (relative to his draft spot).  He’s supposed to be the top player in the draft, and outside of a Peyton Manning-esque career, he probably won’t surpass the hype.  Simple statistics.

Of course, there’s also the fact that “missing” on a top-10 pick can really set a franchise back.  Not only have you not strengthened your team, but you have also basically thrown away quite a bit of cash.  For those top five or so teams, especially, it is imperative to hit on their pick.  Thus, minimizing downside, for them, is more important than maximizing upside.

It is the middle and late rounds of the draft when a team should seek upside.  Those players cost little and, if they don’t work out, it isn’t incredibly detrimental.  Without that upside, though, the player holds little value.  Why select a player in the seventh round you know won’t ever be anything more than a special teams player?

The Cowboys have been up-and-down with this “high floor” drafting strategy of late.  I thought they did a fine job last year in selecting Dez Bryant and Sean Lee early.  Bryant’s upside is of course outstanding, but the ‘Boys did their homework to find out Bryant really wasn’t as risky as many believed.  He loves football, and despite some concern about his work ethic, I, for the life of me, cannot envision a scenario in which Bryant doesn’t rise to an elite level of play.  Note that a high floor doesn’t necessarily preclude a high ceiling.

While I wasn’t initially thrilled with the Lee pick, it’s pretty obvious it was the “safe” move.  Lee might not possess All-Pro ability, but the Cowboys knew he is going to work his tail off to be a heck of a player for years.  He simply won’t allow himself to become a bust.

Later in that 2010 draft, the Cowboys rolled the dice with Akwasi Owusu-Ansah, Sam Young, and Sean Lissemore.  The book is still out on these players, but all of them have the upside to potentially be starters in the NFL.

Dallas didn’t have an early pick in 2009, but in 2008 they selected Felix Jones, Mike Jenkins, and Martellus Bennett in the first two rounds.  Despite all players being early contributors, it’s pretty easy to see that each holds a lot of risk.  I really didn’t like the Jones pick in particular when it happened (even though I find Jones to be a very talented player) because of the low floor Jones possessed.  I much preferred the selection of Orlando Scandrick in the fifth round–an area where gambling on upside is an efficient strategy.

It is the way in which one defines “best player available,” however, that determines the emphasis which must be placed on risk.  If one simply means a list of the draft’s most talented players, then risk must be implemented into draft decisions after the fact.  A superior draft tactic, in my opinion, is creating rankings which already take risk into account.  I’d presume most organizations already do this.  Thus, draft day can be made simple.  If the idea is to acquire the best player available with risk as a consideration, the team can simply view its board and select the highest player, knowing they already factored risk into the rankings.

Taking all of this into consideration, I have ranked the top 40 players from my 2011 Big Board, according to risk. . .

Riskiest 2011 Draft Prospects: The Top 40

1. Cam Newton, QB, Auburn

  • Ultimate boom-or-bust prospect

2. DaQuan Bowers, DE, Clemson

  • Growing concerns about knee could lead to draft day free-fall

3. Jimmy Smith, CB, Colorado

  • Work ethic

4. Robert Quinn, DE, UNC

  • Brain tumor will scare off some teams; didn’t play football in 2010.

5. Taiwan Jones, RB, Eastern Washington

  • Lack of elite competition

6. Adrian Clayborn, DE, Iowa

  • One arm much shorter than the other

7. Titus Young, WR, Boise State

  • Work ethic, attitude

8. Phil Taylor, NT, Baylor

  • Obvious concerns about weight control and general work ethic

9. Graig Cooper, RB, Miami

  • Never “the guy”

10. Nick Fairley, DT, Auburn

  • Takes plays off and produced for just one season

11. Aldon Smith, DE, Missouri

  • Where does he fit?

12. Jaiquawn Jarrett, FS, Temple
13. Drake Nevis, DT, LSU

  • Limited to 4-3?

14. Marvin Austin, DT, UNC
15. Justin Houston, OLB, Georgia
16. Ben Ijalana, OT/OG, Villanova

  • Lack of elite competition

17. Tyron Smith, OT, USC

  • Can he maintain athleticism with increased weight?

18. Muhammad Wilkerson, DT, Temple
19. Brandon Harris, CB, Miami

  • Lack of elite speed?

20. Derek Sherrod, OT, Mississippi State

  • Zone-blocking only?

21. Martez Wilson, ILB/OLB, Illinois

  • Others disagree, but I think he possesses versatility in a 3-4.

22. Prince Amukamara, CB, Nebraska

  • Does he fold against top competition?

23. Von Miller, OLB, Texas AM
24. Brooks Reed, DE, Arizona
25. Mikel Leshoure, RB, Illinois
26. Rahim Moore, FS, UCLA
27. Blaine Gabbert, QB, Missouri

  • Safe for a quarterback

28. Cameron Heyward, DT, Ohio State
29.
Aaron Williams, FS, Texas

  • Upside not incredible but I view him as free safety/cornerback

30. A.J. Green, WR, Georgia
31. Mark Ingram, RB, Alabama

  • Low upside due to lack of speed, but still relatively safe

32. Gabe Carimi, OT, Wisconsin
33. Julio Jones, WR, Alabama

  • Silenced concerns about speed at Combine

34. J.J. Watt, DE, Wisconsin
35. Akeem Ayers, OLB, UCLA
36. Cameron Jordan, DT, Cal
37. Mike Pouncey, C/G, Florida

  • Versatile

38. Anthony Castonzo, OT, Boston College
39. Patrick Peterson, CB, LSU

  • Ability to play free safety limits his “bust” potential

40. Marcell Dareus, DT, Alabama

  • Scheme-diverse
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10 Responses to Ranking the 2011 Draft Prospects By Risk

  1. Tyrone Jenkins says:

    Although many may disagree, I don’t think Cam is that much of a bust risk due to his work ethic and “glitz and glamour” campaign. Given the marketing scheme he’s taken on, he’s pretty much indicated to everyone who will listen that he’s willing to work and do the things necessary to become as good as he can be. He, like Tebow, are Sean Lee at QB where they might not be the best prospect at their position, but they assuredly wont’ be horrible due to their own laziness or lack of athletic ability.

  2. Vince_Grey says:

    JB – Nice piece. With a team needing upgrades at several positions, and having a top ten pick, I say strive for higher floor over higher ceiling. Those are usually linemen, though, as 6 of your “safest” 10 attest. Only one I seriously disagree with is Ingram, because he has had some injury concerns and RB is a injury-prone position. He is talented however, but I would drop him down several spots.

    Do you consider the overall state of the team a major factor in how much risk to take with a high pick?

    IOW, if the team was viewed as a group with no real pressing needs, would they be more justified in perhaps “shooting for the moon” and taking a player with a higher level of risk but one who could well turn out to be a multi-year all-pro?

    Or, should they be even more cautious at that point and take a player who’ll most likely not be a bust, but perhaps never be a All Pro either? (Newman comes to mind)

  3. Vince_Grey says:

    Tyrone – Lol… just because a player has a bunch of publicity guys telling everyone he’s a hard worker and all around good guy doesn’t make him one. Politicians run “campaigns” all the time and look how often they turn out to be completely bogus.

    Personally, if nothing else, I wouldn’t want to risk tens of millions of dollars on some guy who’ll I’ll have to hide my laptop from.

  4. Tyrone Jenkins says:

    LOL – good point.

    I just think guys like him will work extremely hard to be the best. They might not end up being that, but it won’t be for lack of effort. I do agree w/ you in that he’s a knucklehead.

  5. brian says:

    I like this piece. I will say I think it reinforces my feeling that Wilkerson is a much better prospect than Phil Taylor. I really respect JB but I don’t know why he has Taylor higher. The video clips he showed seemed to show Wilkerson as far more disruptive (constantly was in the backfield). Wilkerson’s stats back this up (9.5 sacks vs 0.5 for Taylor; admittedly Taylor is a NT…but still). And to top it all off, Taylor has character and weight issues. Guys who have weight issues when they are poor 20 yr old college students kind of frighten me. What happens when you are a millionaire?

  6. Vince–I definitely think the state of the team dictates how much risk they should take. Although many disagree, I think poor teams should actually take riskier players IF they believe they have a legitimate shot at competing now. 6-10, 7-9, etc teams that feel like they aren’t TOO far away need to take risks to win. Better teams don’t need the “luck” of a boom-or-bust pick, and so being a bit more conservative could aid them. Same sort of reasoning why poor teams try to run the ball and “stay in games,” while great teams want as many plays as possible (so “luck” can be limited as much as possible).

    Having said that, I think REALLY bad teams need to select safe players so they don’t set themselves back even farther, while REALLY good teams can afford to take a risk. So…REALLY bad and kind of good: be conservative, REALLY good and kind of bad: take risks…kind of strange.

  7. Brian–Points well-taken…concerns about Taylor’s weight are legit. Having said that, 3-4 NTs with his kind of agility and quickness are extremelyyyy rare. There are four or five guys just like Wilkerson in this draft alone. IF Taylor does see the light and work hard (and that’s admittedly a BIG if), he’s a home run. Thus, even though the risk is great, Taylor’s potential upside makes him more valuable than Wilkerson. Taylor, IMO, is a top-5 talent.

  8. Tyrone Jenkins says:

    I like VG’s take. Good teams, like Green Bay, Pittsburgh, etc. can afford to take the riskier player w/ the higher potential ceiling (but also w/ a lower floor). The team has enought talent to absorb a bust where as poor to average teams (Dallas included) should go with a strategy of taking a solid pick who might not have that much potential for being ELITE but is almost certain to be fairly dependable, healthy and provide a fair # of years of good, solid play.

  9. Vince_Grey says:

    Looking at my post now, I should have added that I’m assuming a team with no real needs will already be a top team with a great record, and thus will be drafting very low rather than high.

    That said, does that alter your comments? IOW, do you take more or less of a risk if you’re drafting in the 29th slot rather than in the top 10?

    IMO, you should take MORE of a risk, because the chances of landing a difference maker are low already.

  10. Well if you’re drafting really late, chances are you’re a very good team, and the opportunity to take a risky player and not be crippled by missing makes it a pretty good strategy. Ultimately, I don’t think there’s any “right” thing to do–it all depends on who is available and what you need–but great teams can certainly rank risky players a bit higher than mediocre ones.

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