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Running the Numbers: “Best Player Available” and My Dream Mock Draft

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My two latest posts at DallasCowboys.com have been a critique of a true “best player available” draft strategy and my dream “stat nerd” Cowboys mock draft.

Draft Possibilities Exhibit a Range

So often it appears as though draft strategies are split up into a distinct dichotomy; you’re either drafting the best player available, or you’re drafting for need, they say. It’s so engrained into our minds that it almost seems like a given that drafting for need necessitates forgoing the highest-rated player. But it doesn’t.

The best player available/drafting for need dichotomy fails on two levels. First, it assumes that drafting for need is the opposite of drafting the highest-rated player. Logically, we should know this can’t be true since it’s possible to select the best player available who happens to play the top position of need. When that happens—when a team’s highest-rated prospect plays their primary position of need—drafting is quite easy. Ideally, you’d always prefer to draft the highest-rated player and, if possible, you’d want him to play your top position of need.

But the combination rarely occurs. In most cases, the top-rated player will play a position that’s not the most important need. So what then? Most would say you draft that player anyway, but the merits of such an idea become worse and worse as the position becomes less and less of a need.

For example, if the Cowboys have Geno Smith rated in their top five and he falls to the No. 18 pick, does anyone really think they’ll take him? There’s no chance of it, and there shouldn’t be. That’s because quarterback isn’t a need at all for Dallas, meaning Smith would be the “true” opposite of drafting for need: drafting the top-rated player at the position of lowest need. And it’s easy to see why that strategy, although still a version of “best player available,” is just as bad as drafting the top need regardless of his position.

In reality, draft strategies fall into a range. At the one end, we have drafting solely for need. Such an extreme strategy would be very shortsighted; teams would say “we’re drafting this one particular position, no matter who is on the board.” That’s obviously a problem.

But at the other end of the spectrum is drafting the top-rated player at a position you don’t need at all. In most cases, that’s also a big mistake because the prospect—Smith, for example—might not ever see the field.

Pure Need——–Top Player, Top Need——–Top Player, Lowest Need

In the middle, we have the “Platonic ideal” of drafting—the top player at the No. 1 need position. The closer a potential prospect is to falling in the center of the range, the better he’d be as a pick. When a prospect doesn’t fall into the center of the range, teams should really be balancing their board and their needs. To select a player at a position that’s not a need at all, he would need to be rated reallyhighly on the board—way ahead of other prospects. On the other hand, to draft a pure “need” position, the player should be ranked at least near the top of the board. It’s a delicate balancing act, but superior to blindly selecting the top-rated player.

Check out the rest of the “best player available” article.

And the mock draft:

Round 4: J.J. Wilcox, S, Georgia Southern

Again, the best predictor of future NFL success is college production, but what happens when a player has little experience at a position? Wilcox, a three-year starter at receiver and running back for Georgia Southern, was moved to safety in 2012. After rushing for nearly 1,000 yards and scoring 17 total touchdowns in his first three seasons in college, Wilcox registered 84 tackles and two interceptions at safety as a senior.

In situations like this, it’s vital to figure out if a prospect possesses elite potential but will drop due to a lack of experience at a small school. That’s where measurables come into play. At 6-0, 213 pounds, Wilcox ran a 4.51 40-yard dash, jumped 35 inches vertically, and recorded a ridiculous 4.06 short shuttle. He’s an elite athlete, and in the fourth round, it’s worth the gamble to see if he can become a top-tier safety.

Round 5: Zac Stacy, RB, Vanderbilt

The Cowboys might be tempted to draft a running back earlier, but historically, late-round running backs have been just as efficient as early-round running backs. It’s difficult to determine whether NFL teams are really that poor at drafting the position or if running backs are so dependent on their teammates, namely the offensive line, that it doesn’t make sense to take one early in the draft, but it’s probably a combination of both.

In my article on potential running back picks, I left you with this comparison:

Zac Stacy: 5-9, 216 pounds, 3,143 yards, 5.4 YPC, 4.55 40-yard dash, 6.70 three-cone drill, 4.17 short shuttle, 27 reps

Player X: 5-9, 215 pounds, 3,431 yards, 5.6 YPC, 4.55 40-yard dash, 6.79 three-cone drill, 4.16 short shuttle, 28 reps

I didn’t reveal the identity of ‘Player X’ at the time, but it’s Doug Martin, a first-round pick in 2012. If the goal of NFL teams is to uncover undervalued commodities, Stacy, a player who ranked third in my weight/speed metric, is the ultimate “arbitrage” selection who could offer big-time value.

Round 6: Charles Johnson, WR, Grand Valley State

The Cowboys once gambled on an undrafted free agent wide receiver with freakish size and athletic ability. At 6-2, 217 pounds, the small-school prospect ran a 4.47 40-yard dash and turned in a 40.5-inch vertical leap. His name is Miles Austin, and he’s worked out pretty well for a player no one really wanted.

Johnson could very well be the next Austin. He’s 6-2, 215 pounds with even better speed: 4.38 in the 40 and 4.31 in the short shuttle. For the sake of comparison, consider that Dez Bryant ran a 4.52 40 and 4.46 short shuttle. At a time in the draft when the sole concern should be maximizing the ceiling for each choice, Johnson could very well be the premiere prospect left on the board.

Rounds 1 through 3 are at the team site.

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