NFL Draft: Is BPA really the best policy?

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The 2015 NFL Draft is just 16 days away now. Draft coverage is drab this close to D-Day, mock drafts are little more than a nuisance, and fans are weary of the phrase “best player available.” It’s one of the NFL’s most overused phrases this time of year. It’s the premier strategy according to the league’s foremost authorities on the draft. Perennial winners deploy it fearlessly and consistently from one year to the next. It’s allegedly the best way to build a championship football team, but what does it really mean?

Presumably, “best player available” refers to the best prospect on the board at any given position. Purists of the BPA model will tell you teams do this without respect to positional need. I might be on the fringe here, but I tend to think that’s a wooden reading of what head coaches and general managers are actually doing during the draft process. I believe there are a precious few situations where pure BPA is prudent, and more importantly, possible.

I’m convinced that the most common draft strategies control for a host of factors. Among them: positional depth, roster needs, positional value, fit, liability, and roster positional value. I’d like to quickly, and simplistically, define those terms to make sure we’re all on the same page.

  1. Positional Depth: How many good players are there, at a particular position, in this class?
  2. Roster Needs: Where does the team need help?
  3. Positional Value: How important is this position? How easy/difficult is it to acquire talent at this position?
  4. Fit: Does this player fit the scheme?
  5. Liability: Does this player come with red flags or injury issues?
  6. Roster Positional Value: Does this player give a team contract leverage/insurance at a given position?

We have a common language now, let’s continue. Those six categories also double as the individual bullet points I plan to use to make my case against employing a pure “best player available” strategy. Here goes nothing.

Positional Depth

Mandatory Credit: Ivan Pierre Aguirre-USA TODAY Sports

Let’s assume, for a moment, that when the Chiefs go on the clock with the 18th pick, four of the five highest-rated players on their big board play the wide receiver position. For the sake of argument, let’s say the fifth player is an inside linebacker. This draft class is clearly deeper at wide receiver. With four picks in the first three rounds, the Chiefs will be in great position to nab a wideout on Day 2 (possibly even one with a late-first round grade). Conversely, there’s a rather steep dropoff in ILB talent between the first and third rounds.

A number of draft publications expect as many as 20 receivers to be drafted by the fifth-round. Those same publications project fewer than 15 inside linebackers to be drafted in the entire class. Can you see why there might be incentive to take the backer at 18? That move potentially gives the Chiefs two top-100 players. Sounds like maximizing draft value overall and not just from round-to-round.

A wealth of talent at a given position also presents the team with trade-down scenarios. If there are three quality running backs clustered together on your board in the third round, you might be able to drop down several spots and still select one of them. Trading down would be counter-intuitive for any legalist of the BPA method though. You obviously cannot draft the “best player available” if you’ve accepted another team’s offer to trade out of your draft position.

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