This is the conclusion of my nearly month-long series comparing players drafted for need to players drafted because there were the best available at the time. Because of the subjectivity of grading players, and because establishing true need is difficult, there is no way this project was ever going to reach definitive answers. My hope was that it would enable Bears fans to get a better understanding of what teams actually do versus what fans think they do. In my more ambitious moments, I was also hoping to find some direction in whether or not one philosophy had more real-world application than the other.
First, a couple of key findings.
Once I clear out the "maybes" and look only at players drafted into areas identified as needs and those drafted against need, I'm left with a pool of 197 players drafted in the first three rounds of 2012-2014. Only 112 of these players were drafted for a position of need as identified by both of two different media outlets, and the other 85 players include names like Khalil Mack and Russell Wilson, who were potentially drafted not as matters of need, but instead because of the value they represented. For a sample size this small and a system as fuzzy as the one I was forced to use (i.e. not being able to see inside team planning rooms), that's the next best thing to breaking even.
Additionally, it is important to note that 30 of 32 teams drafted against need at least once in the top three rounds from 2012-2014, with the Atlanta Falcons and the Chicago Bears being the only two exceptions. Those two teams have both fallen on hard times, but it would be difficult to argue that drafting for value would have fixed their woes. After the Bears and the Falcons, the Jaguars and the Patriots tie for the fewest picks spent against clear need at one each. If you are beginning to suspect that there is no such thing as an identifiable pattern, I'd be tempted to agree with you.
On the flip side, three teams drafted against need six times in the three years under consideration: the Browns, the Bengals, and the Texans.
With the Browns, it's difficult to understand what motivated most of these picks, because while it was not identified need, it also wasn't clear value. In fact, all six of these picks were both against need and value. In an effort to be as charitable as possible, I looked at all three different boards available to me. Even if I assume that the Browns were using the highest relative value assigned to each player by any of the boards, all six were still over-drafted. A few of them were not even the highest player at that position available at the time of the selection. I feel that needs repeating--in three years, the Browns spent six picks from the first three rounds on players that did not fill obvious needs and who were still not the best value available by grade or ordinal ranking as identified by multiple different sources.
In the cases of the Bengals and the Texans, using the "best rank" approach from each of the three boards tells us that as many as five of the six choices by Cincinnati and four of the six choices by Houston might have been motivated by the philosophy of Best Player Available. This includes the selection of Jadeveon Clowney, who went with the top overall pick before suffering an injury that sidelined his career before it could begin. Might the Texans have been better served by drafting Blake Bortles or Derek Carr instead of Clowney? Absolutely. They also might have been better served by telling the new guy to take a water break instead of being a part of that one fateful practice.
This observation gets to the final analysis of this series--looking at players who were drafted ahead of their value because of the needs of the team. Of all of the methods I explored (using grades and then averaging them out to a unified system, composite rankings, etc.), the one that ultimately gave me the ‘tightest' and most defensible pool was the one I employed to consider the Browns picks above. I only considered a player a reach if they all three boards placed them lower than they were drafted. My shaky reasoning here is that if all three experts thought that other players were better, then other players were probably better. When possible (and it usually was, though some of the picks in the 90s had not been graded formally), I cross-checked this with available grades and explanations. Finally, to be as discriminating as possible, the player was only considered a reach for need if a) both sources agreed that he was drafted into a position of need, b) he was selected at least 10 positions ahead of his best relative rank on any of the three boards, and c) there were better players than that available at other positions at the time he was drafted.
This narrowed my focus down to 23 players, including the Bears' second-round picks in 2013 (Bostic) and 2014 (Ferguson). These two players are interesting because while there were better linebackers and tackles available, the "system fit" might have compelled a reach here for these two players (as much as anyone can get inside Emery's thought process during drafts). Perhaps most importantly, though, the Bears do not top the list of teams reaching for needs. That honor belongs to the Patriots. Again, the problem with making definitive team-based conclusions, though, is that no team follows one script that is discernible from the outside.
However, there are a couple of tentative position patterns. Six defensive backs were drafted ahead of their relative rank and value, as were five wide receivers and four defensive ends. Five of the six defensive backs went in 2013. Their careers, cumulatively, have been fine without overwhelming. Lacking any other reasonable tool to measure their contributions, I turned to Pro Football Reference's Weighted Career Average Value metric. This helpful (if crude) measure places most of them in the 10-20 range (they are late-second and third-round picks who hover in the Shea McClellin to Jordan Mills-level of value). A year earlier, a run on wide receivers was responsible for four of the five "over-drafted" players in that position, and none of these men exceeded Jon Bostic-level contributions. In 2012 it's the same story with defensive ends, as well.
Hence, it is relatively safe to say that drafting for need is not a problem, unless that position has become so depleted in talent that the team is going to have to reach. Then, it seems that a team is better off trying to pick of value at a place that is not stacked too deeply. This leads to my final conclusion.
Teams need good football players more than they need anything else. Outside of the Bears and Falcons, the closest to always drafting for need in this time are the Patriots and the Jaguars, both spending only a single pick (on Jimmy Garoppolo and Bryan Anger, respectively) on speculation. Claiming anything about the results earned by the approach displayed by all four of these teams is--obviously--leaving a lot of details out of the equation.
By contrast, the Packers, Bengals, Giants, and Jets seem to be the closest to drafting for "best value," at least if we assume their boards the resemble those used in this series. Again, this is a somewhat diverse group, although there is not quite the range of outcomes. Still, this value-based approach can lead to duds, as it did with Worthy and the Packers. In other words, no one approach seems to be better or worse than the other.
After researching this series, I do not believe in either "best player available" or "position of need," as both seem more suited to media talking heads than what actually happens with NFL teams. Instead, I believe in the value of coaches and GMs in determining what players will work with their system. A good scouting staff seems to make a bigger difference than a consistent philosophy. I cannot even say that a team should pick "best player available at a position of need." Instead, I think my real push is for "best scouting department available," because the real position of need on nearly every team is in the office making these decisions.