In the typical post-draft postmortems, we are hearing the typical complaining.
“Oh the Giants should have drafted a linebacker. So and so was available in round 4.”
“I can't believe that the Giants didn't draft a cornerback with the sorry state of their secondary.”
I think that these complaints, while certainly correct in pointing out roster weaknesses, display somewhat of a misunderstanding of the constraints faced by general managers in the salary cap era. This posting will attempt to give a framework for thinking about these issues.
Roster TurnoverFirst, let's think about roster turnover. There are 22 starting positions on offense and defense. Punters and kickers are typically later round selections now that Al Davis has passed on.
Let's assume that the average starting quality player can play 9 years. He is a starter for 8 of those. I calculated this by position with some assumed to last more years (e.g. quarterback) and some fewer (e.g. running back). I won't bore you with the details.
Furthermore, let's assume that you only have salary cap room to retain 50% of your starters after their initial 4-5 contract runs out. You only get 3.3 years out of the starters who leave after their contracts are up. This assumes 1/3 of your starters are first round picks with 5 year deals and 2/3 are players with 4 year deals.
Crunching through the math, this gives you 5.6 years of longevity for your average draft pick. Assuming that you have 22 starters, this means that you have to replace approximately 4 starters each year.
The challenge of doing this should be obvious. First and second round players should be decent starters, third rounders are 50/50 and later round picks are either crapshoots or backup players.
CaveatsThe biggest caveat with the above is that it assumes that every draft pick in the first 4 rounds pans out. This is obviously not the case.
Obviously, you will have some undrafted free agent signings that pan out (e.g. Victor Cruz and Stevie Brown) as well as some later round picks. These are hard to count on.
Also, 22 is not really the real number given that teams need specialty players (e.g. nickel defensive backs) and rotation players at positions like defensive tackle. So the problem is actually worse. Also, you need to account for injuries depleting your starting lineup as well.
What Does This Teach Us?
So assuming that this math is roughly correct, what does this teach us?
General Managers Must Prioritize by PositionGiven the above math, you have absolutely zero chance of drafting a top player at every position. The problem is that you are constantly burning picks to replace players. You only have 3 picks in the first 3 rounds each year and this is where most of your starters have to come from – the math doesn't work if you need to fill 4 positions each year. As has been ably pointed out by John Fennelly, linebacker is not a highly valued position by the Giants. I've noted that the Giants are happy to fill in at tight end. These schematic accommodations are necessary to have continued success in the modern NFL.
Filling in From the Free Agent Market is a MustNo matter how good you are in drafting, you will have positions that go unfilled each year. The draft will be weak or a pick won't work out. You will need to sign some free agent starters. So long as you don't overpay, this is not an issue. The Giants have gotten terrific productivity out of affordable free agent signings like Kareem McKenzie, Plaxico Burress (pre-shooting) and Michael Boley. You have to do the best you can in the draft and then fill in where necessary. Obviously, you are limited by salary cap considerations.
Some Positions Will have Subpar Players that Coaches will Have to Account forNo matter what you do, you will have weaknesses on your squad. Even if you have a great group of 22 starters, there will be injuries. This is not the days of the Dallas Cowboy or Steeler dynasties where the subs were good enough to start for many other teams. Coaches have to account for personnel weaknesses in their schemes. The Giants do not have tight ends that are elite receivers. They deal with it by having excellent wide receivers.
Blown Draft Picks are Team Killers – Risk avoidance is Key
Given that you have to replace 4 starters per year, top round draft washouts are team killers. While it's fun to wax about the potential of high upside, low performance (in college) players like Dion Jordan or Barkevious Mingo, if you swing and miss on a high upside player, it is a killer given the small number of high draft round choices you have each year. Many times, drafting a low risk, lower upside player with a proven college track record is a better strategy. Also, even low risk players at lower impact positions (like guard or right tackle) may be solid picks over higher risk players at more coveted positions. The fact that 2 guards and a right tackle went in the top 11 picks this year is fairly astonishing; General Managers are getting smarter and more risk averse.
Drafting Best Player Available is Essential
If you know that no matter what you do, you will have holes, it becomes even more important to make sure that the solid players that you draft successfully are as good as they can be and contribute as much to your team's success as they can. The Giants picked defensive line players in rounds 2 and 3 this year because they thought that they could be starters and the available cornerbacks were not rated as highly. I'm sure they know that they have big risks in the secondary.
Drafting to a Position of Strength is Not Necessarily a Bad Thing
Draft picks not only serve to help the team in their first year. They serve as means to allow soon to be expensive players to leave, saving cap space.
I'm sure a lot of people groaned when the Giants drafted Johnathan Hankins in the second round. After all, Linval Joseph is very good, Kuhn is a decent rotational player and one of Cullen Jenkins, Shaun Rogers and Mike Patterson should work out. Marvin Austin has skills and might contribute as well, The groaners were missing the point. Linval Joseph is a free agent after 2013. He'll demand $4-$5 million per year. If the Giants have enough depth to let him go, they can save that money to spend on another position of need.