The 2019 NFL Draft is still several months away, but with the NFL season ending after the Super Bowl, draft discussions are starting to ramp up. With that in mind, there are several common trends that I have seen in these discussions regarding the amount of risk that teams should take on when deciding which players to select. Risk assessment is a crucial factor in draft selection, and some people tend to oversimplify those evaluations. By doing so, they are often ignoring relevant factors that need to be considered.
The first tendency is that some people overvalue “safe” picks in the first round. In theory, there is nothing wrong with valuing low-risk, talented players in the draft. The problem arises when people value safety instead of talent. One player who has been emblematic of this issue is Duke quarterback Daniel Jones. Jones has a lot going for him as a prospect. He is accurate on short throws and has the athleticism necessary to pick up yards with his legs. Also, his head coach at Duke, David Cutcliffe, also coached both Peyton and Eli Manning, so he will likely be well prepared to be an NFL quarterback.
However, Jones lacks arguably the most crucial area for a quarterback – arm strength. He does not have the arm talent necessary to hit on deep throws consistently or to fit the ball into the air-tight windows that are much more common in the NFL. Jones’ profile reminds me of one NFL player in particular – Alex Smith. While Smith has had a moderately successful career, in retrospect I would not have taken him with the first overall pick. He is a solid player but lacks the natural talent to be a true star. In my mind, teams should be aiming higher than this in the first round.
While many players will not end up being superstars, this does not mean teams should not try to find those that will. This is why I prefer less polished players like Missouri quarterback Drew Lock, who has the physical tools necessary to be elite. Lock has a higher bust potential than Jones, but if he fixes his consistency issues, he has the arm talent to be a great player. In other words, teams should be looking for players with a high ceiling, not a high floor. Naturally, in an ideal scenario, teams would select players who have both — often that is not an option. When those cases come up, it just does not make sense to be so conservative. Yes, you will have fewer busts this way, but you will also find fewer superstars.
Riskier strategies are especially important when you are trying to turn around the fortunes of a franchise, as teams searching for a quarterback often are. Playing it safe will only maintain the status quo. This point applies less to organizations like the New England Patriots, who can afford to take fewer risks because they are already in a position where they can win. Teams like the Miami Dolphins or Washington Redskins need to be much bolder or else they will remain stagnant in mediocrity forever.
This leads me to my next point – that tanking for a specific player is a bad idea. In this case, another quarterback who has been the topic of much discussion over the past year worth noting is Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa. Discussions have centered around teams “tanking for Tua.” In other words, suggesting that rather than taking a chance on a quarterback in this upcoming draft, teams should wait for someone that appears to be a better prospect like Tagovailoa in the 2020 draft, or even Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence in 2021. This seems very foolish. Imagine you are the owner of a football team who believes that his or her team should tank their season to draft Tagovailoa. The problem with that is there are so many things need to go right for you for this plan to work.
First of all, Tagovailoa needs to stay healthy. This is easier said than done, even for quarterbacks. Just this past year Central Florida quarterback McKenzie Milton had a promising season ended by a horrific knee injury that has since required multiple surgeries. Admittedly, injuries like this are not very common, especially for quarterbacks. However, even minor injuries can derail a player’s draft prospects, creating enough uncertainty that they fall out of contention to be the number one draft pick.
Second, Tagovailoa needs to play well in the upcoming season. The 2019-2020 season will only be his second as a starter, and with players who are that inexperienced, there is always the possibility they will regress. Tagovailoa certainly did not play very well in either the National Championship Game or the SEC Championship, throwing three touchdowns and four interceptions. He is undoubtedly talented, but there is no guarantee that he will be able to put it all together for another full season. If he does not, then teams could sour on him as the first overall pick.
Finally, your team needs to play poorly enough for you to be in a position to draft Tagovailoa. Accomplishing this is not nearly as simple as this might initially sound. Even the worst teams still manage to win games occasionally. Only two teams have ever gone 0-16 in the history of the NFL. Unless you force your players to actively throw games, they will probably win at some point. As a result, it is entirely possible that even if your team goes 3-13, while another team will go 2-14 and take Tagovailoa instead. Then your team would need to adjust its course, and the entire draft plan will have been wasted.
When all of these risks are taken into account, it becomes clear that tanking for any player, even one as good as Tagovailoa seems to be, is risky. This means that, for certain teams, drafting a comparable player in the current draft might make more sense. Yes, players like Dwayne Haskins and Kyler Murray have risks associated with them. However, if teams do their research and determine that they like one of them, then drafting them now could be less risky than waiting a year or two for a supposedly safer prospect.
The primary point that I am trying to make is that many people are not careful enough when evaluating draft prospects and strategies. Many factors go into determining how much risk is worth taking. These decisions are much more complicated than they might at first appear, and when it comes to the NFL draft, nothing is as surefire as it might seem.