Since Bill Belichick arrived in New England he has been steadfast in his philosophy about value in the draft. Because of that belief he is far more likely to trade down and acquire an additional draft pick, especially in the early rounds, than he is to trade up to go after a highly rated prospect. It’s not that it never happens (e.g., Vince Wilfork), but history has shown that he is more likely to either trade down, or turn it into an earlier pick in the following draft than he is to move up.
This strategy has been very frustrating for fans who anxiously see some name player passed by and their favorite prospect go to another team, but the success of the team in the early part of the last decade kept any grumbling quiet; it was difficult to argue with that success. Free agency, a hard salary cap and the annual draft in inverse order of the previous year’s record resulted in the NFL getting it’s wish for parity: a league where fan interest would remain high everywhere as no team would remain bad for long, even if it was at the expense of any franchise remaining on top for an extended time.
Owner Robert Kraft wanted to put together a team that could be competitive year in and year out, but how would that ever be possible in that climate? Bill Belichick’s idea was that by spreading talent throughout the roster he could build a winning team. The idea flew in the face of conventional wisdom where a higher percentage of money was to be spent at the top of the roster. Utilizing his idea of assigning more value to mid-tier players (and their contracts), the Pats not only became very competitive, they were able to keep on winning for an extended period of time.
As time passed the NFL salary cap grew by 247% from 1994 to 2011. Teams no longer went in to cap hell. Veterans with big contracts were still being cut, but usually it had more to do with their performance than their salary. And as the years went by more and more teams became savvy about the cap and made better financial decisions regarding big contracts. The rest of the league was catching up to the fiscally responsible teams like the Patriots, Steelers and Colts.
As we all know the owners opted out of the CBA and went to an uncapped year. Most thought that those teams that spent a lot of money in the uncapped year (like the Packers and Jets) would be hurt the following year when the cap returned. However, even though the cap was scaled back, the wording of the new CBA was such that contracts were written pushing a decent amount of money into future years – when new network contract will kick in and those new caps will dramatically increase.
Another aspect was that rookie contracts were scaled back in the new CBA. This had two effects; first off proportionally more money is available for veterans. Second, and perhaps more importantly, having an early draft pick is no longer an albatross around your neck to be avoided. In previous years bad teams were stuck having a high percentage of their cap tied up on those rookie contracts, and if one didn’t work out it would set them back for several years; now however that is no longer the case.
With the cap no longer being as restrictive as it was ten or more years ago, and with contracts to rookies taken in the top half of the first round no longer being a bad risk, is it time for Belichick and the Patriots to rethink their economic strategies to building a longtime winning organization?
Prior to the new CBA I was a staunch defender of Belichick’s draft and team building philosophy, in large part because I believed that the new CBA would be far more restrictive to teams in regards to the salary cap. But since that has not been the case, the old model is if not obsolete, at the very least questionable. I still believe that since the draft is something of a crapshoot – even the best drafting teams have a large percentage of misses with picks taken in the early rounds – so I’m not ready to completely discard the concept of acquiring extra draft picks. However, it seems very apparent that early draft picks – particularly picks in the first round – now represent a much higher value for teams than they did in the 1990’s and early 2000’s.
Now the question is whether or not Belichick can embrace this change in philosophy. Some are quick to portray him as stubborn, but Belichick has been anything but that throughout his career. He has a long history of going against conventional wisdom and thinking outside the box, whether it be listening to statistic experts on the probabilities of a two-point conversion, going for it on 4th down, using a linebacker at tight end, or many other ideas. Belichick adapted as rule changes caused the game to evolve offensively seven years ago; I am confident he can and will adapt next off season as well.
Earlier this week I attempted to quantify how well – or not so well – the Patriots have drafted over the last several years. That apparently struck a nerve with many, so I want to clarify a few points.
First of all I never said the Patriots are the best team in the NFL at the draft – it should be quite obvious that they are not.
I never said the 2011 Patriots defense is good; that too should be quite obvious that they are not.
And I never said that the Steelers have not drafted well. I used them as an example of comparison because they are the team, more than any other NFL franchise, that people use as a comparison when it comes to drafting. The reason is because right now they are arguably the best in the business in that department.
What I found was that the Patriots are not really all that far off – but nobody seemed to want to hear that. I was either an idiot for not joining in on the post-loss draft bashfest, a homer for declaring the Pats drafts haven’t been that bad if you look at the numbers, and on top of that apparently because I compared them to the Steelers some thin skinned Pittsburgh fans feel slighted.
I still don’t understand how people can come to conclusions about what is a good or bad draft without knowing what’s the average, upper quartile, lower quartile, very best and very worst for the average number of elite players, starters, and solid contributors per team per year. It’s like complaining about a QB for throwing ten incomplete passes, ‘that’s ten wasted plays, bench the bum‘ … without considering what the norm is for number of incomplete passes – and then finding out he’s on average completing 25 out of 35 passes per game, making him one of the league’s most accurate passers.
The other point is that when you trade down in exchange for additional draft picks you are essentially conceding that the total number of busts will be higher. The roster size is still the same; the expected result should be more players drafted equals more players cut (i.e., busts); why people act surprised when this happens is baffling. Teams – and there fans – shouldn’t be the least bit concerned with how many players don’t work out; the important number is how many players do contribute and produce.
If you have more draft picks you will have more busts. If you have fewer draft picks you will have fewer draft busts. That’s shouldn’t really be that difficult to follow folks! But apparently the concept that having a higher number of draft busts being irrelevant to which team had a better draft in this scenario really is rocket science to some people.
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