Mock Draft Tips: When best player available is the right – and the wrong – draft strategy

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As part of an occasional series, Fanspeak will offer tips and best practices for its wildly popular and first-of-its-kind On The Clock draft simulator.

Today’s topic: Is taking the BPA approach the best way to draft?

Those who can’t get enough of Fanspeak’s On The Clock draft simulator have no doubt run into this situation time and time again:

It’s your turn to draft, so you go ahead and take the best player available, thinking you did the prudent thing. After all, logic dictates you don’t pass up talent for lesser-talent, right?

Then you watch as, round after round, players at positions of need are drafted just ahead of you.

Need a cornerback? There was just a run on CBs, with all five of the first- and second-tier prospects drafted before you go back on the clock.

Fine, you’ll take that offensive tackle. Nope! The last three, Day 1 starter-quality tackles also flew off the board, early in the round.

OK, fine, you could always use a pass rusher. But the ones who are still left come with red flags – meaning, it would be a stretch to draft them now.

In the end, you wound up taking a really talented player who somehow slipped to your spot, but now you’re forced to try – hope? – to find potential starters at positions of need on Day 3 or whatever is left in free agency.

In other words, it’s not ideal.

That’s why the BPA (best player available) route isn’t always a slam dunk.

Randy Moss and making the case for BPA

You don’t need long arguments to make a supporting case for this one. Simply put, bypassing better talent for lesser talent will eventually catch up to you in all walks of life.

The Dallas Cowboys have one of the more infamous cases that underscores the importance of taking the best player available.

Dallas had the eighth overall draft pick in the 1998 draft, and the Hall of Fame triplets were still there: Emmitt Smith, Michael Irvin and Troy Aikman.

But then-head coach Chan Gailey and others were said to be opposed to drafting Moss due to his red flags and off-field incidents. So, instead of taking Moss, the team selected North Carolina edge Greg Ellis, who enjoyed a solid, albeit unspectacular, career. Moss, on the other hand, ultimately became a Hall of Fame receiver.

To be fair, Dallas wasn’t the only team to pass on the Marshall receiver, as Moss wound up slipping all the way to pick No. 21 overall. But it does make you wonder if Dallas could have prolonged its dominance a little longer with a young Moss.

Longtime Cowboys scout Jim Garrett, the father of former head coach Jason Garrett, may have said it best when it comes to taking the best player available. As recalled by executive vice president Stephen Jones in a 2018 ESPN article, the elder Garrett pushed hard for the team to draft Moss. Finally, during a pre-draft meeting in 1998, Jones said Garrett stood up and made this proclamation:

“Men, this is not the Boy Scouts we’re dealing with. This is pro football. Draft him.”

Avoiding an average roster

If only it was that easy.

Fact is, there are dangers that come with drafting the best player available.

It starts with playing time. If, for example, Alabama receiver Jerry Jeudy slides to Dallas at pick No. 17, it might be hard for the team to pass him up. However, Dallas just resigned former Alabama receiver Amari Cooper to a lucrative contract, and second-year receiver Michael Gallup is coming off his first 1,000-yard season.

In other words, Jeudy is unlikely to have the same kind of production as the team’s No. 2 or No. 3 receiver as he would as the main pass catcher. Of course, Jeudy could always rise to the challenge and force his way into becoming the team’s primary receiving threat, but that’s a big ask for a rookie competing for playing time with another young Pro Bowl player.

Meanwhile, the team has major needs on defense. By taking Jeudy over, for example, Florida cornerback C.J. Henderson, the team would then hope to find a starting CB on Day 2 – and then hope that player can push for starter’s minutes, also a big ask for a lower-ranked prospect.

Furthermore, loading up on a position while other positions remain in flux has salary cap implications down the road. Back to the Jeudy-Cowboys example: Will the team really want to play three receivers top dollars if doing so means filling your defense with second-tier players?

That’s what’s happening right now in Dallas. The team has allocated so much of its salary cap to its offensive line, running back and now receiver – and soon to be quarterback – positions that it felt it didn’t have the money left over to retain cornerback Byron Jones, defensive end Robert Quinn, safety Jeff Heath or defensive tackle Maliek Collins. Collectively, those four accounted for 57 starts last season and 3,116 snaps, according to the Dallas Morning News.

Now? Tops on Dallas’ needs lists includes cornerback, defensive end, defensive tackle and safety.

Our recommendation

The best strategy is probably a combination of several: take the best player available at a position of need. And if that player is too low on your draft board, then look for teams to trade down with. If you can’t find a decent return for trading down, then you go back to taking the best player available at a position of need.

Of course, you still don’t want to reach on any picks, either, so in that scenario, it may be wise to draft the highest-rated player at a different position of need. For example, if Jeudy is available and is the highest-rated player on your draft board – but taking a receiver would be considered a luxury on your team – and your team needs a cornerback but isn’t happy with who’s left in the first round, then you need to take a look at the other players who are still available and who could help your team right away.

Jeudy’s available, but Henderson is not. Would LSU LB Patrick Queen walk in as a Day 1 starter on your team? Could LSU edge K’Lavon Chaisson provide an immediate upgrade?

Again, worst-case scenario, you may have to take the BPA route at a position that’s not quite as glaring as your top need.

And finally, none of this is cut-and-dry. Philadelphia, which needs a receiver, shouldn’t feel compelled to take a pass catcher in Round 1 given the depth at the position in this year’s draft.

And you have to take the tier gaps into consideration, too. Jeudy might be the higher rated player when it’s your team’s turn to draft, but if you need an offensive tackle, for example, and don’t take one in the first, then odds are against you finding a starting-caliber tackle in the later rounds.

Teams that load up at a position can always trade one of those players for future draft capital, too, but those teams are not trading from a position of strength, as all 31 other teams know you’re trying to trim the fat.

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