The draft is an everlasting source of frustration for teams and fans. An opportunity sure, but a frustration indeed. Fans watch their teams tank their drafts with reaches, and teams watch their hours and efforts turn to naught in a few short years, when their scouting and development don't turn out like they plan. There's so much effort that goes into the NFL draft. It's not baseball or hockey where you can watch 2-3 starts of a player and get a good feeling of their game, including strengths or weaknesses. If you really have questions, you have a lot of tape to fall back on because scouts are able to focus on single players. It's a sport where you get one, maybe two efforts a year from a player where they're playing against opponents that are meaningful, where they can show their skills in a context that projects onto the next level of football.
What most don't grasp though, is how high the margin of error is for each and every single pick in the NFL draft. Watching college's future professionals play against college amateurs doesn't always equate to a translation when you move to the atmosphere of the NFL. It can't be. We always talk about the 'Most Dominant team in College Football' vs 'Most Inept Team in the NFL'. Those NFL veterans are on a team because they've generally beaten the margin of error. They've worked out at the NFL and have shown their value in ways that most college players haven't.
H.P. Lovcraft is quoted as saying: "The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown".
The NFL Draft is everything about the unknown. It's everything we don't know, and everything we can't predict. Front offices play to their love of the unknown, and pride themselves in it, in their ability to turn over rosters by guessing the unknown. Front offices and scouts can project to their hearts content, but even then, the draft sometimes doesn't work in their favour. Being great at scouting is just part of the equation in a draft. Then they have to compare apples, oranges, bananas, star fruit, mangos against strawberries, pears, peaches, walnuts, tomatoes, and say, "I'm getting a stew going, what goes good in here? Which ones have priority? If you can't get one, what's next on your list? Is what's next on your list going to fit?"
Mathematically, we're looking at permutations at drafting. When looking at big boards, which is the de facto standard of drafting procedures, you rank all 700 prospects that have been evaluated in some order that makes sense to your team, and then attach round values to them. Player X is someone we think would be taken between 22 and 29 and we're Y confident about that range we've set.
So, look at just the base level of this kind of complexity:
- Bears took Kyle Long at 20 in the 2013 Draft.
- Bears may have had Kyle Long rated between picks 25 and 40.
- Bears analyzed every other team and their needs and established how confident they may have been with that.
- Bears were looking to trade down from 20. Kyle Long may have been the best pick at 40, but maybe not the best at 20.
- At pick 25 the Bears may have felt they had no one better than Kyle Long on their board.
- Hypothetically if they move back from 20 to 25, they know what they feel Kyle Long would be the best value assuming that who they've targeted at 20
- But at 26 they may have had someone who they felt reached a level of value that was better than that of Kyle Long at 25 with more or less confidence then they had with Kyle Long. What if there's 7 players?
- The Bears then would have to reconcile one value against another. One Scenario against another. But do that for 7 possible players who meet the criteria given.
Oh, yeah, and they have about 10 minutes to make that decision in the first round, and in the next round even sooner. They have to re-evaluate that pick based on what they've already done and what needs they have to fill.
Even with perfect scouting and perfect evaluations, there's no time to compute the perfect value pick without introducing human error into the equation. Compare two linebackers. One has a bigger boom-bust value, a smaller confidence in his ability to translate, the other is more consistent, and looks to be a solid, but never otherworldly linebacker. Both of them would be perfect picks in the late second round. Sure, one may end up have the talent and play well above his second round billing, to the point he'll outperform all but the 15 best players from the draft class, but he may also be outperformed by 100 players from this draft class. The other? He'll just solidly sit in the mid 30's.
What we have here is Arthur Brown vs Jon Bostic.
Pundits look at this, and say, no question, pick Brown with his upside, with his strengths, his characteristics, his mental makeup and athleticism. Conventional NFL draft wisdom says, you always go with the player with more upside. But is that always the best option? This goes back to the self-evaluation that Phil Emery liked to talk about, taking good inventory of what you have and what you need. You can structure risk over time, you can structure risk against what you have on hand and your needs, but with the amount of variance and parity in the NFL, finding stable, if somewhat unsexy picks are often panned early if they work, and late if somehow the player that they could have drafted with higher variance worked out perfectly.
That's what Arthur Brown was to the Bears. They asked questions like: Will his size play a factor in his ability to shed blocks and play the run game? Will he be able to play more than WLB? Does his physicality hinder his value? Will his technician nature compensate for his possible inability to gain strength and size that are required to play the position? It wasn't so much that his game was the variance at hand. Brown is talented, instinctual, and a great technical linebacker.On one hand, that gets you somewhere in the Big 12, makes you look great, but in the NFL, those kind of questions have to be asked about their athleticism, size, body makeup, mental fortitude. This is the NFL.
So the Bears, while they may have liked Brown, couldn't shake the fact that Bostic had more intangibles that Brown couldn't acquire: The physical makeup to play 3 LB spots, the lack of questions on his game that would preclude him from being an effective player next year, the 'SEC ready' mentality at Florida playing against copious amounts of NFL draft ready linemen & running backs. What you saw with Bostic is probably exactly what you're going to get.
While Brown may be the better player in the long run, it's easier to visualize exactly how Bostic plays into the Bears plans, and with the Bears scrambling to replace multiple linebackers, you can't have questions like that when you're trying to turn over the roster.
Instead of building a team of average, bottom feeding hope to hit those high variance players and hope that they work out when they don't have the luxury of doing that. We too often forget league average is better than 50% of the teams in the league. Turning the corner from average to playoffs is easier than jumping from bottom feeder to playoffs, and it all comes from evaluating the context of the team more so than the context of the player. It's something that the punditry avoids in the player-driven events such as the draft, but it's the real key to evaluation. It's not just the player, but the fit, the timing, the plan that surrounds these players. Those bottom feeding teams look to build the scheme around the player too often. Instead of picking the safe choices, they look for the dynamic, impact player to reboot less than talented franchises.
Remember those years of Jerry Angelo? Always the dynamic, less than perfect fit, high upside players. Mark Bradley, Airese Currie, Dan Bazuin, Garrett Wolfe, Jarron Gilbert, Juaquin Iglesias... You'd think that after 7-8 seasons of picking WR and DE's that never pan out, that all sort of fit the same mold of 'potential', that you'd see some drafts with those average, stable, no-nonsense players. I counted exactly 4. Earl Bennett, Kyle Orton, Charles Tillman, Alex Brown. Players who were unsexy picks. Players who were productive, but not overly productive, who measured well. Never players who were going to dominate necessarily, but players to build teams with.
Teams backbones aren't made by high end players. They're made by the average talent level of the entire team. It's how Houston rose from the bottom, to the middle, to their current place. They drafted well. They drafted solid, average role players where they needed to, to raise their weakest links, but reached where they felt they had luxury. They felt strong with Connor Barwin, J.J. Watt and Brooks Reed, before making a jump on Whitney Mercilus. It's exactly what the Bears did with Shea McClellin, knowing Peppers, Idonije and Wootton were in front of him. It's what New England did with their line with both Sebastian Vollmer and Nate Solder. All risky, high variance prospects, all with the safety net behind them.
I've not been Emery's biggest fan since he started, always questioning his motives, his methods, his thoughts. But, when it comes to the draft, his methodology is exactly what builds teams, it's what closes the talent gap. True, his picks still have yet to be judged, but you can still judge how he picks, why he picks, how he values his players, and how he values his positions. It's why you saw not just Bostic, but Khaseem Greene be drafted. It's why the o-line, may have been a functional, much improved group, without Kyle Long. Adding Kyle Long to the mix, the Bears took a chance that may work out, and if it doesn't, their alternatives are still strong. Same with Cornelius Washington and Jordan Mills.
Emery's picks demonstrate a clear desire for fitting players to needs, and managing those picks with an intelligent risk structure. Every team has to toy with the unknown, but Emery's actions look to minimize the risks that the Bears take when it comes to the most uncertain, most risky of all NFL activities: The draft. His picks may not pan out, and I can't prognosticate that any of them will, but the picks themselves, the rationale behind picking them, is one of the right ways to go about building franchises for the long haul.