You Got Served: Draft groupthink

Did you hear the one about the NFL team which “reached” for a player to fill a need?  That’s a no-no, picking for need.  You should be drafting the best player available (hereafter BPA), regardless of need, goes the story.  I reject that thought as being over-generalized, because if you have a bad team, you should be picking to fill roles that will allow you to be competitive.

If you’re the Giants, then fine - take the BPA - if there’s no massive need to fill.  Some would say that Jerry Reese did that over the weekend (including Reese), but I would tell you that RB David Wilson and WR Rueben Randle filled needs, and specifically replaced Brandon Jacobs and Mario Manningham.  The Draftnik groupthink didn’t have the Giants universally taking any position, so that allows Reese to say he went BPA, regardless of the reality.

Then there’s the Ravens taking Courtney Upshaw.  They got the BPA and he’s a pass rusher!  Huzzah for Ozzie Newsome!  Except that Upshaw isn’t a dynamic pass rusher, and that he does fill a clear need, with the departure of Jarret Johnson, as an edge-setter in the running game on the strongside.  If Ozzie had a slightly worse track record, you’d be reading about how as an Alabama alum, he shows too much love to Crimson Tide guys like Upshaw.  (Johnson also played at Alabama, actually.)

Understand this – every team wants to say they took the BPA on every pick.  The media environment is such that instant analysis MUST happen after a Draft, despite the fact that it’s completely worthless.  Look at a team like Pittsburgh, which took G David DeCastro and T Mike Adams in the first two rounds.  The media says that both picks represented good “value” because each player was mocked by various media members to go higher in the Draft.  They say that Pittsburgh went the BPA route, only because no consensus had formed that the Steelers would go for offensive linemen.

I say that Pittsburgh was clearly targeting offensive linemen, as part of their owner’s stated goal of getting better in the running game.  Remember, the Steelers fired Bruce Arians because he likes to throw too much, and brought in Handshake Haley (who likes to throw just about as much) to replace him.  The point is that a lot of the media stuff is nonsense, and teams work pretty hard to manage what is said about what they did.

Remember how Defensive Tackle wasn’t that big a need for the Broncos?  Remember how they wanted to take impact players who would contribute this year?  Remember how it was all about BPA all the time?  These are things which teams have to say to the media, and which they hope will pave the way to a positive narrative coming out the other end. 

In the case of the Broncos, those efforts largely failed.  The main reason why is because the Denver Post epically whiffed on covering the 2012 Draft.  When you point out that Derek Wolfe wasn’t in Jeff Legwold’s Top 100 players, and that the Broncos took him 36th overall, that doesn’t necessarily point to a bad move by the Broncos; much more likely, it points to Legwold’s half-assedness, and noted lack of any real football acumen. 

Legwold may have successfully conned his bosses at the Post into thinking that he’s watching a lot of film, but if he had been, he’d know Wolfe, and he’d know that the dude has really impressive film, and that it’s better and more consistent than more well-known guys like Jerel Worthy and Devon Still.  I think the guy probably just reads the other groupthink out there and calls his equally unknowledgeable local media buddies around the country, and just builds his lists off of that.

It’s been a while since I’ve really beaten up on the DP crew, and I mainly leave that to Doug, but I’m riding pretty high after calling Wolfe the third-best DT prospect and second-best pass rusher at the position last Monday.   My comments were based on watching football video, as always.  This website was all over it, with Doc and I having both talked about Wolfe, and TJ and Doug both being very aware of him as a player, and for all his Passion, Legwold came off looking like a clown who was butthurt that he was way off the mark.

Let’s talk about the groupthink phenomenon in the media, because it’s very important to the overall narrative out there.  As we look around the Draft commentary landscape, we see five distinct types of media people:

Type 1 – Draft-focused hard workers with solid knowledge of football and players

Examples: Mel Kiper, Todd McShay and Scouts Inc, Mike Mayock, Michael Lombardi, Greg Cosell

Type 2 – Semi-hard workers who don’t really know what they’re talking about

Examples: Walter Football, many other Draft-focused blogs

Type 3 – Lazy MSM writers who don’t really know what they’re talking about

Examples: Pete Prisco, Clark Judge, Peter Schrager, Adam Schein

Type 4 – Low-knowledge national football reporters who get their information from insiders, and who consequently are tools used by the teams to disinform, and to set favorable narratives

Examples:  Peter King, Jay Glazer, Adam Schefter, John Clayton, Chris Mortensen, Mike Florio, Mike Silver, Jason Cole

Type 5 – Local reporters and columnists who tend to be the worst of all worlds

Examples:  Woody Paige, Jeff Legwold, Mike Klis

Throughout this universe of commentary, a groupthink tends to coalesce around which virtually everybody is in agreement about 95% of the facts on the ground.  In this groupthink, the real knowledge is gained and disseminated by the Type 1s, and it’s consumed by the Type2s, 3s, and somewhat, the 4s and 5s.

The Type 2s keep their mock drafts updated and re-issue them 70 times between January and April, and they tend to follow the work of the Type 1s pretty closely, in aid of keeping up with conventional wisdom of which player is rated more highly than another.  The Type 3s don’t do as many mocks, but they show up with one the week of the Draft.

The Type 4s will have a “nugget” here and there in their weekly columns throughout the process, and especially as they get close to the actual Draft, they start reporting what teams tell them.  The Type 5s work the same way on the local level.

The point is that for all of these words written in print and on the internet, and spoken on TV and the radio, there’s very little deviation between what’s said.  The differences will be over whether Jerel Worthy is a better scheme fit for Team X than Devon Still is, and most of the people writing would have no real clue about that.

If the universe of draft commentary were efficient, and reflected what was actually going on in the thought processes of teams, writers would be getting more than six or seven picks right in a mock draft.  Look at Peter King whining about how he agonized over a pick for hours.  The commentators agree on 95% of the facts, but do teams?  The answer is pretty clearly no.

The reason for that is because teams are actually watching film and working out the players, and because they have specific schemes, and are seeking to fill specific roles within those schemes.  When I say “specific schemes,” I’m talking about the fact that there are significant differences between one West Coast offense and another, and between one 4-3 and another.

At this writing, we don’t know what the Broncos defense is going to look like in 2012, because there’s a new defensive coordinator in Jack Del Rio, and even if the team were willing to talk about scheme specifics, nobody at the Denver Post has the chops to really understand the conversation, or to report on it in an enlightening way. 

I tend to think that TJ is on it, with his speculation about the nature of the 4-3 we’ll see. But the fact remains that this is the only Broncos website that has any in-house writers with real scheme knowledge, and who could therefore even begin to hazard a realistic guess.  That’s part of how I can recognize Derek Wolfe as being a good fit for what we think the team will do.  (The other part is that I watch football video and know how to recognize a good football player.) 

The team knows what they specifically want to do, and the media doesn’t.  That leads teams to have wild divergences among themselves in how they value certain players, and to the media not doing so.  For this reason, it’s silly when a media member criticizes a team for “reaching” for a player.  It’s also silly when they talk about how a team got good “value” by taking a player later than where the consensus mock draft had him.

Did you ever collect baseball cards?  We did as kids in my family, and every month, we’d get the Beckett value guide.  We’d go to card shows, buy and sell, and trade with others in the neighborhood.  My brother Chris was much more into it than me, but we all dabbled some.  I learned a lot about the concept of value at 12 years old from baseball cards.

How much is Cal Ripken’s rookie card worth?  In 1990, Beckett may have said it was worth $15.00 in mint condition.  If I took it to a store, though, with the intention of selling it, what could I get for it?  Beckett’s number meant that $15.00 was a price that I was supposed to find acceptable if I were shopping at Comic Den, but nobody was going to give ME that much money for that card.  The lesson was that an asset is only worth what you can get for it.

That comes into play when you start criticizing “reaches” and also how much compensation a team got for trading up or down.  If you want to trade down, and the player you really want is going to be there at the later pick, anything you get in the deal leaves you better off than where you were before you made it.  The Browns traded a 4th-, 5th-, and 7th-round pick to move up from #4 to #3 on Thursday, and to ensure that they got Trent Richardson. 

If you consult the outdated/stupid value chart, the Vikings got 101.5 points worth of value for trading down 400 points worth of value.

Why do that deal?  Because something is better than nothing, if you’re ultimately going to get the player you want, and because that was the best offer they had.  The market set the value of the asset, not some chart, and not some media groupthink.  The only reason the Vikings haven’t been slammed for not getting enough “value” is because they only went down one spot and indisputably got the player they wanted from the start.  If they’d gone down two spots to #5, and Tampa had taken Richardson, and the Browns took Morris Claiborne, the Vikings still would have gotten Matt Kalil.  It would have been easily speculated, though, that the Vikings actually wanted Claiborne, and had to settle for Kalil instead.

Here are three key points I want you to think about, as I wrap this up:

1.  Teams evaluate the capabilities of players very differently, based both upon what they see on film, and upon what they need for the roles they’re trying to fill within their specific schemes.

You want to know who was a major reach in 2011?  Aldon Smith of the 49ers, that’s who.  Don’t believe me?  Look here.  That’s some criticism, and also some damning with faint praise, if you ask me.  According to the groupthink, Smith was supposed to go between 12th and 20th, and he ended up going 7th.  For the most part, those are the Type 1s who know a bit of football, too.  Imagine how many of the other types criticized the 49ers for “reaching.”

Of course, as it turned out, the 49ers had a specific role to fill, and they filled it.  Smith played on passing downs and recorded 14.5 sacks as a rookie on a surprising team.  This is a reminder to ignore the fools who cry about reaches.

2.  Scheme fit is tremendously important, and the vast majority of the universe of Draft commentary has no clue about the scheme considerations of each of the various teams.

I’ve been seeing Seattle get killed for taking Bruce Irvin and Russell Wilson, but I applaud them.  They clearly know what they want, and they have the sack to go outside the media groupthink.  I’m here to tell you, Pete Carroll knows what a pass rusher looks like, and if he says that Irvin is the best one in this class, you’d do well to take heed of that. 

The media guys say, well, Irvin won’t play on every down, and he can’t hold up in the run game.  That might be true, but if Carroll is focused on hitting the QB in passing situations, he might not care about Irvin playing on early downs.  His strongside DE in base defense plays like a traditional 3-4 DE and two-gaps, while the backside one-gaps.  If Irvin’s role is to replace Red Bryant on 3rd down, that’s a specific role in a unique defense.

Trust me, Pete knows what he wants on his defense, and he has a specific role in mind for Irvin.  How the kid would fit in any of the other 31 defensive schemes is completely irrelevant, because the Seahawks valued him as the 15th-best player in the Draft, in the context of their own player acquisition requirements.

3.  When a media person tells you that a team could have gotten the same player later, don’t believe them, because it only takes one other team to like your guy as much as you do.

I don’t care that nobody in the media had Ronnie Hillman in their top 100.  The Broncos valued him highly enough to take him 67th, and if you watch his tape, you’ll see why.  They traded up 20 spots to get their guy, and have been criticized for doing so.  Why not stay at #87, because Hillman probably gets there?  If he doesn’t, you just take Lamar Miller.

There are two bad assumptions at play there.  The first is that all 32 teams value all players equally, and that the media consensus accurately reflects that relative valuation.  The second is that Hillman and Miller (or whoever) are interchangeable, vis-à-vis the specific role that the Broncos want them to fill.  Both of these assumptions are flat-out wrong.

I don’t care if most teams had Worthy or Still rated more highly than Wolfe.  Based on the tape of the three players, I highly doubt that that’s true, but we’ll never know one way or another.  To the Broncos, for their specific needs, Wolfe was the best guy they could take, and they felt like #36 was an appropriate place to take him.  Personally, I think the Panthers were a pretty big threat to take him at #40 if he were still on the board.  (They took OG Amini Silatolu in actuality, but the groupthink had DT as their biggest need entering Draft Day.)

The point is that we don’t know, and we shouldn’t take the groupthink as being indicative of reality, because 32 teams have 32 evaluations, and 32 sets of scheme-specific needs, and 32 sets of values, vis-à-vis player traits they’re looking for.

I’m not going to praise or rip the Broncos’ draft activities with any kind of conviction, because there’s no point in doing so.  I loved the Wolfe pick, and I pretty much hated the Brock Osweiler pick, as I’m sure many of you gathered on Friday.  I’m not so invested in being right that I’m rooting for Osweiler to fail, though.  I want all Broncos to be successful, and I want the team’s decision makers to have been right in what they did.  The thing is, only time will tell if they were.

1.  I’m not in the arguing business, I’m in the saying what I think business.
2.  I get my information from my eyes.

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