Thursday, April 26, 2012

Patriots Draft Preview

In this century, the Patriots are the most successful Boston sports team. Yet their moves are also the most heavily critiqued. Perhaps because those moves are the least understood by their fans.

That's not a knock on Pats fans. The football salary cap is the most complex in of all sports. Football rosters are also more than twice the size of the other sports. The pursuit of the best talent at the best price in the NFL is more complicated than buying and selling options on the Taiwanese bond market.

I have no idea who the Patriots will draft tonight. I have no idea what position he'll play. I don't know if the Patriots will make any trades with their picks. But I do know that the Patriots' Draft Day isn't random. There is a system in place, a strategy. There is a certain approach to the Draft that is distinctively Patriot-like.

There's an assessment of value, risk, and payoff. The Pats' War Room is more like the Chicago Board of Trade or New York Stock Exchange than a gathering of football minds.

As an outsider, I've tried to understand how and why the Patriots draft the way they do. And these are the rules/guidelines/strategies that I see:

Fans lament that the Patriots don't trade up and draft superior talent. There's a good reason they don't, and it isn't just to hoard picks for the future. There's a risk involved with every pick. In the NFL Draft, you're only selecting talent. With each player, there's a significant chance that they won't work out in the NFL. There's no way to predict how a player will react to the independence, to the money, to the competition, to being a big fish in a big pond.

If you trade up in the Draft, you are going to acquire superior talent. Which means the potential payoff is higher. But you're also risking more. Since you used other picks to move up, you're paying a higher price. Unnecessarily so. It's like betting more on a roulette wheel. You'll win more if you win, but lose more if you lose.

If the pick doesn't work, you'll also have inferior remaining picks to make up for the shortcoming. So not only do you risk more when you trade-up, you have weaker insurance to recover if the pick doesn't work out.

And typically to move up in the draft, you have to overpay. Look at what the Redskins paid to draft RG3. Even if RG3 turns out to be a superstar, the price was still ridiculous. And too much of a risk. RG3 might work out in Washington, but it's still a bad move. Bad moves sometimes work out. Good moves sometimes don't.

Speaking of the RG3 trade...

You see these kinds of deals all the time. Team A sends future picks to get Team B's superior picks in the current draft. And what you also see is the Patriots emerging from each draft with a load of future picks in their pocket.

Some teams seem to think that a 2013 pick is less valuable than a 2012 pick. And it isn't. They're worth the same. You can draft the same caliber of player and retain their talent for the same amount of time.

We're all fans and we all want our team to improve as much as possible right now on Draft Day. And every team has some area that it really needs to improve. But the need to improve will be just as pressing next April. The value of a pick now is the same as a pick next year. The Patriots take advantage of teams that are desperate to improve right now and are willing to sell future picks for a low cost.

Let's say I offered you a Hawaii vacation for $1,000. Does it matter if you take the vacation now or a year from now? Not really, not in the long run. And now let's say I offered you the same vacation package for $1,000 if you go now, or $800 if you go next year. Which would you take?

Two good picks are better than one great pick because of risk. As I mentioned earlier, each player drafted might not work out in the NFL. There's unpredictability. A way to manage that risk is to make more picks.

The Patriots love to increase their number of picks. And it's not because they want more players. It's because they want to have a better chance of getting players that will produce in the NFL.

Let's say I have $1,000 to gamble on NFL games. I could put it all on one game. But something crazy could happen, like an injury or a missed field goal. I don't want to put all my eggs in one basket. It's safer to bet $200 on 5 games. A crazy thing might still happen, but one or even two crazy things won't mess up my entire day of betting.

That's kind of what the Patriots do with their vast pool of draft picks. They know that each player has a chance of failure. So they'd rather spread that chance of failure around instead of hoping one guy works out. It's a safer, smarter way to invest.

And that's what these picks are: investments.

This is a classic gripe of Patriots fans. The Pats don't draft based on their needs or wants at certain positions.

The Patriots draft the best talent available when they pick.

If you have the 30th pick, and you need a linebacker, and there's one available. Why not pick him? If he's worth a 30th overall pick then fine. But if he's worth the 40th pick then it's a bad move to take him.

Why reach? Why use the 30th pick to take someone who is worth a 40th pick? Picks are like money. And players are like groceries. It's like spending $10 on a head of lettuce just because you need a salad to complete a meal. Just go without the salad and buy more pork because it's on sale. You won't go hungry. You'll just have a different looking meal that's stronger in another area.

Besides, drafting based on what you need tends to be a bad idea anyway, even if the price is right. There is a significant chance that the player drafted won't work out. So you spend that pick to get someone, he doesn't work out, and you're in exactly the same situation only you've lost that pick.

If you really need help at a position, it's better to sign and trade for players who have NFL experience. It's much easier to predict how well they will fill that need.

You'll end every draft with needs. You'll start every season with needs. You should try to fill them. But if you overspend picks and cap space to fill that need, you'll just create needs at other positions. And you'll have fewer resources to try to address those needs.

The Patriots need a CB, for instance. If they acquired Asante Samuel and his hefty contract, they'd address their need at CB but create a need somewhere else because of all the cap money Samuel would consume.

You don't help yourself, you hurt yourself.

We're all fans, and we're all excited to see the Patriots improve themselves. We get giddy at the idea of some star linebacker wearing a Patriots jersey. But the guys running the Pats' Draft aren't fans. This is their business. And they treat it like a business.

Fans like to point out anecdotal evidence of picks not working out. I know 98.5's Felger and Mazz were heavily criticizing the Patriots' Draft strategy yesterday. I think it makes sense. I think it works out. It builds consistency. The Patriots don't draft amazingly well, but they always find themselves rich with picks. Which allows them to stay competitive year after year.

And for this year's Draft, the only thing I can predict is that Pats fans will be upset after tonight.

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