Every year, NFL teams live and die by what they accomplish in the draft. That’s the only way to have sustained success in a league with so much parity. The main method for this, according to NFL GMs, is to take the “best player available,” regardless of position. In leagues like the NHL and MLB, where draft picks aren’t expected to play a role for their teams for several years, this is a tried-and-true recipe for success. Get as much talent in the organization and trade your excess assets for team needs down the line if necessary. But in the NFL, with no prospect pools, no farm-leagues and a contract system that gives teams only four to five years of control before free agency, does this really work? In fact, recent history would suggest it does not. Let’s look at some examples where taking the best player available was a failed strategy:
In 2019, the Dallas Cowboys’ top two wide receivers Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup both eclipsed 1100 receiving yards. Meanwhile, despite having an offense that ranked first in the NFL in total yards, the Cowboys defense struggled so mightily that the team went 8-8 and missed the playoffs. So, what did Dallas do with the 17th overall pick in the 2020 NFL draft? They took CeeDee Lamb, a wide receiver. Why? Because, even though the team was loaded at the position, Lamb was considered the best player available. And so far through six games of the 2020 season, Lamb has proved them right. The rookie wideout has 36 catches for 407 yards and two touchdowns, which is excellent production for a rookie. The problem is, despite once again having a top-five scoring offense, the Dallas defense can’t stop anybody and the team sits at 2-4. Having a top-20 pick as your third wide receiver is a luxury a team that’s allowed the most points in the NFL cannot afford. CeeDee Lamb is great, but there’s no doubt the team would have been better off addressing the defense with the 17th pick.
In 2017, the New York Giants finished 3-13 for a variety of reasons. Chief among them was that their offense finished 31st in the NFL in points scored. So, what did the Giants do with their second overall pick? They took running-back Saquon Barkley because he was considered a generational talent and the best player in the draft. And they weren’t wrong. In Barkley’s rookie season, his only full season in the NFL, he led the league with 2028 yards from scrimmage while reaching the end zone 15 times. When healthy, there’s no question Barkley is a brilliant offensive talent. However, since adding Barkley via the draft, the Giants have gone 10-29. And while Barkley is a great running-back, high-production backs are very easy to find later in the draft. For example, Nick Chubb, who led the NFL in rushing in 2019, went in the second round of that same draft. So what should the Giants have done with the second overall pick? They should have addressed a more pressing need like offensive line, pass rush or quarterback at that spot and waited to find a running back. For example, the best offensive guard in the NFL, Quenton Nelson eventually went to the Colts with the sixth pick while 2019 MVP in QB Lamar Jackson went 32nd to the Ravens. Yes, hindsight is 20/20, and many teams wish they had taken Jackson, but the fact is many players at positional needs were available at that spot. Sam Darnold, Josh Allen and Bradley Chubb to name a few, were all still on the board. Since that pick, the Giants offensive line has been a disaster while their quarterbacks have struggled while under pressure nearly every play. Barkley is great, but the Giants missed on a chance to clean up their roster in a variety of ways. Now they’re paying the price.
So, what happens when teams ignore the best player available concept and aim to address a need? Let’s take a look at the 2019 draft, when the Arizona Cardinals selected QB Kyler Murray with the first overall pick. Murray was considered nowhere near the best player in the draft, but the Cardinals used their pick to get their guy and have been slowly improving ever since. In 2018, the Cardinals finished 3-13, and last year, in their first year with Murray, they improved to 5-11. This year they sit at 4-2 while fighting for a playoff spot in the best division in the NFL. This should be the model.
The new-age NFL is built around the concept of parity. The idea that any team could go on a run and win it all is paramount to what makes football fun every Sunday. That being said, teams no longer have time to take the best player available in the draft. They need to plug the holes in their roster as they arise or they’ll be stuck losing and their best players will walk out the door in free agency before they know it. All it takes is one home run draft pick at a position of need to catapult a basement team to the top of their division. It’s time for NFL GMs to realize this.