Atlanta Falcons coach Mike Smith, the reigning coach of the year and self-described personnel junkie, unabashedly proclaims that his team's philosophy when it comes to the draft is to fill positions of need. That way of thinking clearly represents the minority view in the NFL.
Typically, teams say they want to draft the best player available. That's like most people saying they want to drive the best car available (that they can afford) or live in the nicest house available (in a neighborhood with good schools for the kids) or take the most beautiful available girl to prom (if she doesn't mind the sky-blue tux and mom being the chauffeur).
Drafting the best player available usually includes the unmentioned benefit of fitting a need. So what do front office executives look for on draft day?
"It's best player," said 49ers general manager Scot McCloughan. "It's cliché, but it's the best player. Now, when I was with Green Bay, we had Brett Favre. We would never take a quarterback in the first round with Brett Favre in his prime. But 99 percent of the time, if you take the best player available you'll get the best bang for the buck for the long haul. There are 32 teams and not everybody has a roster they think is that good. You never have enough good football players."
True, but with a salary cap limiting the stockpiling of high-end talent, adding the best player isn't always feasible -- roster-wise or economically. Often times, a team won't pursue a player in free agency or the front/expensive end of the draft if it has a player(s) at the same position occupying a sizable percentage of the salary cap.
Picking for value
Teams tend not to invest too much money in one spot, which is why Cincinnati was willing to part with free-agent wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh and why Arizona could trade wide receiver Anquan Boldin. Chad Ochocinco (Bengals) and Larry Fitzgerald (Cardinals) are the star players for those teams and too many names on the marquee at the same position won't allow proper balance in filling out other positions.
As to how that relates to the draft, it's pretty safe to assume Atlanta and Baltimore won't be choosing quarterbacks in the first round, the Vikings will probably pass on a tailback with the 22nd overall pick and New England might not be adding a running back or quarterback with its first (23rd) selection because they're fairly well set at those positions.
"We try to pick the best player and we are conscious of what our needs are and we definitely want to pick for value," Giants general manager Jerry Reese said.
Value is dictated by a pre-draft grade a team gives to a player, but also how certain players fit into schemes or systems. LSU defensive end Tyson Jackson (6-4, 295) is a prototype 3-4 defensive end but not an ideal end for a 4-3 front, which tend to use smaller, fleeter ends. So teams like Kansas City, Green Bay and Denver, which are switching to a 3-4 scheme and have top-12 draft picks, could value Jackson a lot more than 4-3 teams, where Jackson could ideally be suited as a run-stopping left end or a tackle.
"The philosophy of the team will dictate the type of players you draft, i.e.: smaller, athletic offensive linemen vs. road hogs or tall physical cornerbacks vs. cornerbacks that can fly," Rams general manager Billy Devaney said.
The philosophy of most teams is to draft the best player available and address areas of need in free agency or through trades. This offseason, though, several teams with holes to fill have sidestepped free agency and the trade market. Economics or a limited supply of players at a certain position could have kept a team from pursuing veterans.
The Packers, for instance, need to address an offensive tackle spot and acquire the proper personnel to play in the 3-4 defense. They failed to lure targeted players (DE Chris Canty) and didn't show much interest in others, so they will fill those positions through the draft. The Indianapolis Colts, who rarely get involved in free agency, also have needs along the defensive line, at wide receiver and at running back. But they stayed true to their ways and will use the draft to re-tool.
Consistency is key
The teams that have drafted well historically are the most competitive year in and year out. New England, Indianapolis, Baltimore, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh are playoff regulars who are beholden to philosophies that are draft-based. Because of their consistent success, they tend not to draft until the later part of the first round and beyond, allowing them the liberty of taking the best player available, since they are drafting, often times, for depth.
"New England and Indianapolis and Pittsburgh, those are top-notch talent teams, where it's a lot tougher to bring in starters than it is for evolving teams," Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff said. "It's imperative to evaluate each draft on the strength of draft and strength of the team."
That is a major trait of some of the better drafting teams. Besides basing the draft on a projected roster for the upcoming season, making choices on the prospects eligible in future drafts also factors into the thought process.
One of the reasons the Falcons opted to select quarterback Matt Ryan instead of nose tackle Glenn Dorsey last year was because they weren't enamored with the 2009 quarterback class. They figured if Ryan would be the best prospect in two drafts, they'd better make their move. He was a player that filled a need but he also was the best player available.
The best-player principle also comes into effect when teams look at their own roster and assess the longevity of current players based on age, injury history and contract status. The San Diego Chargers, at some point of this draft, could select a running back, even though LaDainian Tomlinson and Darren Sproles are on board -- for a lot of money.
Tomlinson is 29 and has been getting hurt more often. Sproles, if a long-term contract isn't finalized, could be lost after this season. Adding insurance via the draft often helps teams sustain and succeed.
"We picked a defensive end a couple of years ago (Mathias Kiwanuka, 2006) and we had a Hall of Famer (Michael Strahan) and a Pro Bowler (Osi Umenyiora) -- and a future Pro Bowler (Justin Tuck) as the third guy," Reese said. "We still picked a defensive end. So if the guy is a good player, we will still pick him."
The key for teams that prefer to draft for need is not to "reach" for a player they don't value highly, but who plays a position bereft of talent. Besides having to pay that player more than his projected value, that player might not necessarily have the specs of the position -- at least on a three-down basis. His failure to meet the expectations of his draft status brings heat on the player and the person(s) who drafted him.
"It is very important that player that you pick is of the quality and value of that pick," Dimitroff said.
At some point, even those teams that select the "best available" player will select for need, Devaney said. Around the third or fourth round, teams really dial in for depth at certain positions or go after players at a devalued position, like guard or safety. Steals also are discovered at this point, like Houston running back Steve Slaton, who the Texans picked in the third round last year.
"You have your philosophy and you have to stick with it," McCloughan said. "If you change year-in-and-year out, you're not building your organization the best way. Successful or not, you stick to the vision and add good young talent every year. That's why the draft is so important to building a consistent team."