Draft day is tantalizingly close, but oh, so far away. Rather than go into what our needs are (there will be plenty of time for that later) I would like to address what kind of strategic approach we should be taking to the draft. This may be counter-intuitive to some, and I hope to make tasty hamburger out of some people's sacred cows. I'm sure some of you
have achieved enlightenment are aware of this already, but hopefully this can generate some discussion about the best way to make our team stronger through the draft.
First, a word about taking players in the draft versus free agency, the way it is currently structured in the NFL. While they constitute a small sample size, the Washington Redskins are a pretty good example of why a team ought to be interested in the draft. You would think that after splashing money on underperforming players like Bruce Smith, Deion Sanders, Albert Haynesworth, etc., the Redskins would have figured out by now that giving up a huge chunk of change on a small number of players is not the way to succeed. Fortunately for the rest of the NFL, they haven't. And neither have several other teams.
The bottom line, particularly in the NFL, is this: There is not one single player that is a certainty to perform well when moved from one situation to another. Not one. NFL players get injured. A lot. A player that plays well in one system may not necessarily play well in another system. This means that owners take a lot of risk on NFL players. Since the NFL still as of this writing has a salary cap in place, there is only a certain amount of money for an owner to splash out on players. Knowing how much uncertainty there is in the NFL, if you were an owner, would you rather spend most of your money on a few players or spread your risk around on several players? If you didn't choose the latter answer, then, well, you're Dan Snyder.
Which brings me to the draft.
I have a radical idea. Brace yourselves.
Unless they finish in the last eight, the Texans should trade down. Every year.
I don't care who the Texans stand to get at #18 or #20 or wherever. They should trade down.
Succeeding in the NFL is all about depth. If one starter goes down but his replacement is almost as good, you don't lose nearly as much as you do if your All-Pro starter goes down and his replacement is scrub-level. As an example, think about one of the least pleasant Texans experiences (and wow, that's saying something) of all time - the home game against Indy in 2008.
Imagine for a moment that instead of just teh Schaub being out of commission, both starting quarterbacks couldn't play because of the flu that day. As much as I curse his name to this very day, I think it's fair to say that the team starting Sage Rosenfels is going to have a pretty significant edge over the team that starts Jim Sorgi. Why? Because the drop off in talent between Schaub and Rosefels is not nearly as severe as the dropoff between Manning and Sorgi.
Right. Now that I've gone out of my way to make a totally obvious point, let's get back to the draft.
Because depth is more important, and because the amount of money owners can spend is capped, a smart GM will be looking for value in draft picks; that is, looking for a high rate of production per dollar spent. As it turns out, way back in 2005, a group of economists did some research on the economics of the NFL draft. In a nutshell, these guys calculated the production of players taken in the NFL draft and compared it to their salaries.
The study determined that players taken early in the draft are generally better. However - and here's where the value thing comes into play - the costs are out of proportion to their production. Once you get past about the 25th pick, the cost/production ratio is most favorable. Basically, the most valuable picks are in the 25-75 range. If you're picking there, you are going to (a) spend less and (b) get more value out of your dollar.
Which is why I'm a firm believer in trading down. Let's look at the Texans as an example. With the 20th pick, what should the Texans do? You know what my answer is: Trade down. 20 is outside the value sweet spot. Let's check out the draft-pick value chart. What if the Texans could give up the 20th pick and get something like the 30th and 74th picks? That would turn their one overvalued pick into two picks right in the value zone.
Obviously swinging such a deal is not easy - you have to find a team that wants your spot and has picks where you need them. But there are always GMs and owners out there that believe that there is a can't-miss prospect waiting at a particular spot. There's always a Dan Snyder out there. Of course, because he doesn't grasp these concepts, he's usually drafting ahead of the Texans.