You've just been granted every NFL fan's greatest springtime wish: You're your favorite team's new general manager. After the bright lights and probing questions in the press conference, you're shuffled off to a windowless room somewhere in the dark heart of team facilities.
The draft board, all but complete, takes up an entire wall. Your staff is ready to start mocking scenarios. With a great draft, you'll have a foundation of quality talent you can build around for years. With a poor draft, you'll be setting money on fire in the free-agent market in two years, desperately trying to save your job.
So, how do you build your team through the draft?
Draft For Tomorrow, Not Today
The most important thing to remember is to draft for what your team needs—not what it needs today, but what it will need next year and in the years after.
If you're stressed about who's going to start at right guard, taking a guard in the first round solves that problem, but you may have passed on the eventual replacement for your aging wide receiver, left tackle or cover cornerback.
You'll spend a lot more time trying to replace a playmaker at a premium position when you have a crying need than to "fill a hole" during a rebuilding year.
The Philadelphia Eagles took some heat in 2002 for drafting two corners and a safety in the first three rounds when their backfield was already led by two perennial Pro Bowlers. Today, it's looked back on as one of Andy Reid's best drafts, as he picked and groomed replacements for two impact players before they ever declined.
If You Don't Have One, Take One...No, Take One Regardless
The first step is to evaluate the quarterback position. No player on the roster can do more to elevate the players around him and is harder to "hide" with a great supporting cast.
It's easy enough when you have one of the top few picks and there's an obvious stud waiting for you. Don't overthink this. Thoroughly work the prospect out, but if there's a Peyton Manning there to be taken, take him. He'll make you look smart for the next 10 years.
If you're not picking at the very top of the draft, things get a lot trickier. When teams reach for quarterbacks in the first round because they "need a quarterback," it's often a disaster, so don't take a quarterback in the first round unless he's the right quarterback.
Quarterbacks aren't lottery tickets; they aren't secret "hits" or "busts" just waiting to have the gunky silver stuff scratched off them. Players have clear tools, personalities, strengths and weaknesses; your job is to fit them to your coaching staff's needs.
No matter what round you take your quarterback, make sure he's a player who has the traits your offensive coaches need most. If they're not excited by the prospect's game or tools, don't waste their time—or the pick.
Still, though, take one. The New England Patriots have been set at quarterback for over a decade, but have made a cottage industry out of drafting and trading backups.
Rush the Passer
The nature of the game is changing. What was once trench warfare has become more like aerial dogfighting. The old bromides about "it all starts up front" are still true, but not in the same way.
Instead of line play being about dominating the line of scrimmage as a powerful, cohesive group, it's become a numbers game: the game of who can protect the passer (or rush the passer) with the fewest linemen.
You need as many players who can win their one-on-one battles—through any combination of power, speed and technique—as you can get. This frees up linebackers and safeties to cover instead of blitz.
The shortest route to the quarterback is up the middle, which is why pass-rushing defensive tackles like Ndamukong Suh and Gerald McCoy are getting drafted at the very top of the board. The combination of body type and speed to do this job is very, very rare.
Next come the edge-rushers, who can be anything from 245-pound outside linebackers to 290-pound beasts like Mario Williams.
There are major technique differences between playing 4-3 strongside end, 4-3 rush end, 3-4 end or 3-4 outside linebacker, and different ideal body types for each. As defenses evolve, though, teams are taking players who can get to the quarterback first and worrying about putting them wherever they can do the most damage second.
The model here is Seattle, where the Seahawks have added pure edge-rusher Cliff Avril and inside/outside guy Michael Bennett to an already-fearsome defensive end group that includes Bruce Irvin and Chris Clemons. New coordinator Dan Quinn will find uses for all of them; I promise.
The important thing to remember here is pass-rushing talent. As you drop down the board, take risks on character or injury as you can, but get eye-popping talent .Spending draft picks on pass-rushers who made it happen with grit, pluck, pursuit and perseverance in college mostly become special teamers in the NFL.
Protect the Passer
You need players who can protect the passer from defenses bristling with edge-rushers. The more dominant your offensive linemen are in pass protection, the fewer tight ends and backs are needed to stay in and chip and the more weapons you give that quarterback you took.
The old thinking used to be that you needed a monster, do-it-all left tackle who could erase the other team's pass-rusher. No left tackle can block Clemons, Irvin, Avril and Bennett all at the same time, though, so you'll need to target linemen who can move and use their hands at all positions.
This is a position where all but the very best prospects need time to develop NFL bodies and technique. Some come in sloppily overweight, some too lean to drop the anchor and all needing experience against NFL pass-rushers. A savvy scouting staff can identify players in the third, fourth and fifth rounds with the potential to become stalwarts.
If you're relying on quality starters over 30, don't put your future self in the position of having to bet your quarterback's health on whatever rookie falls to you.
Leaders, "effort" players and "high-character guys" are all important parts of building a cohesive team. When your best players are also your hardest workers, your team is incredibly blessed. Calvin Johnsons, though, are tough to come by.
All the leadership qualities in the world, though, won't translate to the NFL if they can't play at a high level. A roster full of college captains, coaches' kids and gym rats won't win games if they don't also have explosive athletic tools.
In today's NFL, you want to find skill players who scare the other team and make them adjust their game. Once you get out of the top round or two, you won't find players who have that kind of ability unless they also have holes in their game. That's OK.
"One-dimensional" used to be a curse when NFL scouts used it to describe a player. With the way players are rotated, packaged and situated now, if a player does one thing at an elite level and it's something your team needs, you can draft him just to do that!
Don't Pass Up Great Value
It's important to get the right players for your team, but don't be so obsessed with need and fit that you pass up a great prospect for a decent one.
When a prospect you weren't expecting to be there for you is indeed there, respect your scouts and draft board. Back in 2001, the New Orleans Saints had the mind-boggling luck of seeing a consensus top-10 pick, running back Deuce McAllister, still on the board at No. 23.
Despite having just traded their entire 1999 draft plus their 2000 first- and third-round picks for tailback Ricky Williams, the Saints pulled the trigger anyway. McAllister went on to become the franchise's all-time leading rusher, and Williams was dealt for what became two first-round picks and a third-round pick.
Three longtime starting linemen (defensive end Charles Grant, offensive tackle Jon Stinchcomb and offensive guard Montrae Holland) were picked as part of the bounty of value reaped by drafting McAllister and trading Williams, none of which would have been possible if the 22 teams above the Saints hadn't drafted to fit immediate need.
Chance Favors the Prepared Mind
There's no getting around it: It helps if you get lucky.
No amount of mocked scenarios can prepare you for what really happens when the cards start parading to the podium. Players will be overdrafted and underdrafted, surprising trades will happen and the board could break any number of ways. You could be overwhelmed with options you didn't think you'd have or you could be staring at your board not liking anything you see.
Whether Lady Luck stands you up or suggests you spend your second date picking out flatware, you need to be prepared.
When the team in front of you is running out of time, have your card ready in case it misses its pick. Make sure everyone in the war room knows where everyone else stands on certain targets so you don't spend all your time on the clock arguing and eventually making a panic pick.
Plant seeds with possible trade partners (up and down) ahead of time so you can move in and out of picks and still get your targets.
When all else fails, trust your staff, your scouts and your board. If they're doing their job well, you'll be handsomely rewarded for it after you nail two or three drafts in a row like you're about to nail this one.
Rebuilding through the draft isn't easy, but at least you've got the perfect blueprint.
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