Using Lessons From The Past

I believe it fair to say that few of us around here are Dallas Cowboys enthusiasts. Nonetheless, there is a significant lesson that can be learned from the Cowboys' history. The greatest turnaround in NFL history was executed by the Cowboys, under the direction of Jimmy Johnson, beginning in 1989 ... their record was 1-15 in 1989, 7-9 in 1990, a playoff team at 11-5 in 1991, and back-to-back Super Bowl Champions in 1992 and 1993. One of Johnson's conditions for accepting the Cowboys' head coaching position was that he have complete authority over all roster decisions ... reluctantly, Jerry Jones granted that. So, how did Johnson accomplish the incredible turnaround?

Johnson knew that the key to any reasonably-quick turnaround was to obtain as many upper- to middle-round draft picks as possible. To do that he began by trying to trade Cowboy players who might be attractive to other teams, but who weren't unique fits for his planned schemes, in exchange for draft picks. He discussed trading then-rookie WR Michael Irvin to the Raiders for draft picks. Then he got a better offer for RB Herschel Walker from the Cleveland Browns. Using that trade interest as leverage, he settled upon the infamous Herschel Walker trade to Minnesota in October of 1989 ... trading Walker plus three mid- to low-round draft picks to the Vikings for five players and eight draft picks ... 3 firsts, 3 seconds, a third and a sixth. (Parenthetically, it was at this time that Johnson created his now-famous draft pick trade value chart, which is still used in modified form by many NFL teams.) Johnson didn't really care much about the five players that he received from Minnesota (he only kept one), it was the draft picks that he was after.

Most people just assume that Johnson simply used the draft picks that he received in the Walker trade, straight up, for selections in the 1990-1992 drafts to build the Super-Bowl-winning roster. He did in fact use a first-round pick in the 1990 draft to select RB Emmitt Smith, but previous first-round picks QB Troy Aikman (1989) and WR Michael Irvin (1988) were already on the roster. The part of the story that isn't well known is that Johnson traded almost all of the picks received in the Walker trade ... either up (to select DL Russell Maryland and WR Alvin Harper) or down, in most cases, to obtain even more picks. It was the use of those additional middle-round picks that enabled Johnson to build his killer roster. How? He sought value in mid-round picks. Why that? He was simply applying a lesson that he had learned earlier in his career. When the head coach at Oklahoma State (1979-1983), Johnson had to recruit against then-powerhouse programs like Oklahoma, Texas, Texas A&M, and Arkansas, among others. To succeed he had to learn to spot talent in lesser players than the top-tier recruits who he had no chance of attracting. He applied that same approach in drafting for the Cowboys ... seek value in the middle rounds ... trade higher picks down to obtain more middle-round picks, then use those picks wisely. Not surprisingly, I am a huge proponent of this value approach to the NFL draft when rebuilding a roster virtually from scratch ... improving odds by preferring several "B"s and a couple of "C"s to adding just one "A", who may or may not work out in the end. And if that one "A" doesn't work out you continue to be in the very same deep hole. Sound familiar? You can always elect to upgrade at selected positions in a later draft once the core roster is strong.

Unfortunately Lynch and Shanahan are stuck with a roster that doesn't contain anybody with significant trade value, so they are starting with a bigger disadvantage than Johnson did. However, given the draft picks that they have available this year, they still have an opportunity to make a major change to the Niners' roster if they wisely use the trade-down strategy.

Given my lengthy background in making management decisions, I cannot help asking myself the question "what would you do?" when observing businesses in the decision-making process. It's simply ingrained in the beast. Thus, I ask myself, what would you do if in the Lynch/Shanahan situation.

The jockeying for position to select a QB prospect too early in the forthcoming draft is beginning to occur ... it's still pretty early in the process. The level of QB need varies significantly between the competitors ... from critical (Cleveland, the Jets, and Houston) to time-to-develop (many ... including Arizona, Kansas City, the Giants, the Chargers, Pittsburgh, and Washington). Being somewhere in the middle of that range, the Niners can either choose to play, if the right opportunity were to present itself at an appropriate value-point, or not ... with Hoyer and Barkley on board and the possibilities of signing Kirk Cousins and/or drafting a QB prospect from the superior 2018 QB draft class, there is no pressure one way or the other. Beyond all the likely jockeying to select "the right" QB prospect from a limited class, there would seem to be interest on the part of other teams to select a key non-QB talent who could make a substantial impact on their roster ... Carolina's rumored interest in DL Solomon Thomas or RB Leonard Fournette is just one such example. I am absolutely convinced that as we approach the draft that the Niners will be able to trade down from Pick #2 ... the only question is how much of a discount (from trade chart values) might be required to do so, in light of the weak QB and OL classes.

Inevitably when discussing draft-pick trades, especially within the first round, folks complain that using the "Jimmy Johnson trade chart" is inappropriate, reasoning that it overvalues picks at the top of the draft. Accordingly, just to be ultra-conservative, I will use Chase Stuart's (Harvard University) alternative trade chart. (My personal belief is that "reality" as to what really happens in trades is a scheme somewhere between the Johnson and Stuart models.)

So, here's my answer as to what I would do ... using the Carolina rumor as my example, since it's more common than other rumors. Prospect rankings are taken, as usual for me, from NFLDraftScout.

The Trade

Carolina receives: Pick #1/2 (30.2 value points in the Stuart chart) in the 2017 draft

Niners receive: Picks #1/8 (21.4) + #2/64 (8.1) + #5/152 (2.6) = 32.1

(Using the Jimmy Johnson chart values, this trade would provide Carolina a 35% discount in the trade ... 2600 points versus a combined total of 1700 points.)

(The proposed trade does not deplete Carolina's draft capital ... they would still have 6 picks: #1/2, #2/40, #3/98, #4/115, #6/192 and #7/233.)

After the trade with Carolina, the Niners would have 12 picks in the draft ... 2 in the second round, 2 in the fourth, 3 in the fifth, and 2 in the sixth round. In particular, notice the Combine grades of the prospects available, especially in the middle and late rounds. It demonstrates what an incredibly deep draft this is and why it makes sense to trade down.

The likely scenario is that the Chargers select FS Malik Hooker at Pick #7 (assuming that SS Jamal Adams is already gone), just ahead of the Niners after the trade-down. IF Hooker was still available at Pick #8, I would probably select him and then go for an Edge rusher (likely Tarell Basham) at Pick #3/66. For simplicity sake let's assume the most-likely case ... that Hooker goes to the Chargers at Pick #7. With that, here's my mock:

Proposed Mock Draft

Round 1 / Pick 2 (Own): Traded to Carolina

Round 1 / Pick 8 (Carolina):

LEO Derek Barnett (Tennessee) 6'3" / 259# / 4.88 speed / 6.19 grade / ranked 8

3-year SEC starter ... All-SEC and consensus 1st-team All-American. First freshman ever to start on the DL for Tennessee. Elite production ... on par with HOF Reggie White ... against the run and as an edge rusher. Punishing hitter. Hustle player. Plus field awareness recognizing play-action, reverses, and screens. Honor role student. Sometimes overthinks rather than just reacting.

Round 2 / Pick 34 (Own):

CB Gareon Conley (Ohio State) 6'0" / 195# / 4.44 speed / 6.01 grade / ranked 36

Press-man talent with good zone instincts. Has experience at both cornerback spots. Plus burst to the throw. Uses length to play around the receiver and bat passes down without interfering. Allowed just 37% career completion rate. Soft hands and outstanding timing. Still needs to develop coverage techniques and work on consistency as a tackler and in run support. One of the best CBs in this draft class.

(Some ranking services have Conley ranked in the mid- to late-first round; if he was already gone, my alternative selection would be CB Kevin King (Washington), who is ranked 33.)

Round 2 / Pick 64 (Carolina):

WR Zay Jones (East Carolina) 6'2" / 201# / 4.45 speed / 5.77 grade / ranked 73

Outstanding football character, hard worker, and extremely driven to succeed. Both father and uncle were long-time NFL starters. Holds BOTH NCAA single-season (158) and career (399) reception records. 1st- or 2nd-team consensus All-American. Hands catcher who routinely makes the tough over-the-middle catches. Can return kicks. Play speed is only average. Doesn't have a second gear to separate. Can struggle against tough press coverage. Not a particularly good run-blocker but probably wasn't asked to do much of that at the collegiate level.

Round 3 / Pick 66 (Own):

FS Marcus Sanders-Williams (Utah) 6'1" / 202# / 4.56 speed / 5.82 grade / ranked 79

Ball-hawking free safety who has outstanding ball skills. 3-year starter who achieved both All-PAC12 honors as a player and for his academics. Athletic and instinctive. Good play recognition and closing speed. Good leaping ability ... former basketball player and high-jumper. Productive tackler and careful finisher. Natural single-high-safety ability like Hooker but has far more experience as a starter. Needs to add more muscle. Like Hooker, he's more of a finesse player than a hitter. After Hooker, he's the best single-high-safety prospect in the draft class IMO.

Round 4 / Pick 109 (Own):

QB Nathan Peterman (Pittsburgh) 6'2" / 226# / 4.82 speed / 5.79 grade / ranked 112

Given the 2018 possibility of Kirk Cousins and the superior QB prospects in the 2018 draft class, I simply can't convince myself that "wasting" a high draft pick on a mediocre talent makes much sense. Hence, I waited until the top of the 4th round to select a QB. Peterman isn't a superior talent, but his collegiate experience is in a pro-style, non-spread offense ... giving him an advantage (at least to me) over other options.

(If Peterman was already gone, my alternative selection would be QB Brad Kaaya (Miami FL), who is ranked 115.)

Round 4 / Pick 143 (Own -- Compensation):

RB D'Onta Foreman (Texas) 6'0" / 233# / 4.45 speed / 5.76 grade / ranked 142

Outstanding athleticism for a big RB. Adequate play speed. One-pace runner. Smooth lateral movement. Swivel hips and can hurdle ... unusual for such a big guy. North/south runner with jarring hits against both LBs and safeties. Consistent producer and can carry a big load of work. Needs to become more decisive and aggressive. Significant ball-security issues ... 6 lost fumbles during the past season. Poor mechanics in pass protection.

(If Foreman was already gone, my alternative selection would be RB Jamaal Williams (Brigham Young), who is ranked 144.)

Round 5 / Pick 146 (Own):

OT Julie'n Davenport (Bucknell) 6'7" / 318# / 5.45 speed / 5.35 grade / ranked 147

A developmental prospect ... very athletic small-school OT, bright and a model citizen, multi-year team captain and All-American at LT. Outstanding physical traits but lacking in technique ... superior coaching and development time will help. Huge arm length and hand size. Major adjustment to NFL-level athletes and game speed.

(If Davenport was already gone, my alternative selection would be OT Conor McDermott (UCLA), who is ranked 155.)

Round 5 / Pick 152 (Carolina):

NT Eddie Vanderdoes (UCLA) 6'3" / 305# / 4.99 speed / 5.63 grade / ranked 157

Surprisingly athletic for his size ... note the 40 speed. Booming power and quick feet. Tough and edgy. Can two-gap. Needs to convert fat to muscle and improve conditioning.

Round 5 / Pick 161 (Washington):

TE Bucky Hodges (Virginia Tech) 6'6" / 257# / 4.57 speed / 5.82 grade / ranked 173

Hodges has outstanding size, athleticism, catch radius, and high-point ability. Runs and plays fast ... ideal for Shanahan's scheme. Matchup nightmare for linebackers (speed) and safeties (size). Still needs to develop route-running ability. Blocks better than most people expect.

(If Hodges was already gone, my alternative selection would be WR Josh Reynolds (Texas A&M), who is ranked 177.)

Round 6 / Pick 186 (Own): Traded to Baltimore (Zuttah)

Round 6 / Pick 198 (Baltimore):

SS Josh Harvey-Clemons (Louisville) 6'4" / 217# / 4.59 speed / 5.58 grade / ranked 206

Potentially our version of Kam Chancellor. Former five-star recruit with alpha mentality. Has elite size, length and athletic skills. Rangy tackler with the ability to cover and blitz. Could be a box safety or a hybrid linebacker.

Round 6 / Pick 202 (Denver):

K Zane Gonzalez (Arizona State) 6'0" / 202# / 5.30 grade / ranked 197

A kicker? Yes ... the best in college football. More field goals than any collegiate kicker ever. 83% career field goal accuracy ... 13/15 over 40 yards, 7/9 over 50 yards. 75% of kickoffs are for touchback. Far younger and cheaper than Robbie Gould.

Round 7 / Pick 219 (Cleveland):

OG Aviante Collins (Texas Christian) 6'4" / 295# / 4.81 speed / 5.42 grade / ranked 228

Athletic, versatile OL ... played both LT and RT in college, but shorter arms will force him to play inside in the NFL. Quick for his size ... note 40 speed. Plays with some edge and chippiness. Lacks discipline in pass sets. Zone scheme only.

So, by trading down and selecting wisely, the Niners could acquire 12 prospects, most of whom are eventually capable of being starters, possibly as many as 7 in their rookie year. Here's how it breaks down:

Offensive prospects --

QB Nathan Peterman (Pittsburgh)

RB D'Onta Foreman (Texas)

WR Zay Jones (East Carolina)

TE Bucky Hodges (Virginia Tech)

OT Julie'n Davenport (Bucknell)

OG Aviante Collins (Texas Christian)

Defensive prospects --

NT Eddie Vanderdoes (UCLA)

Edge Derek Barnett (Tennessee)

SS Josh Harvey-Clemons (Louisville)

FS Marcus Sanders-Williams (Utah)

CB Gareon Conley (Ohio State)

Special teams prospect --

K Zane Gonzalez (Arizona State)


The point of this post is NOT to "sell" a particular mock ... but to suggest what's possible IF the team commits to the trade-down strategy. The moral is pretty simple:

The 2017 draft is incredibly deep with quality prospects ... take advantage of that fact by acquiring as many picks as possible.

Commit to the appropriate draft strategy based on circumstances:

To build a roster ... trade down and select wisely

When the roster is solid ... trade up, if necessary, to acquire premier prospects at key positions


As usual, let me know what you think and I'll respond.

This is a FanPost and does not necessarily reflect the views of Niners Nation's writers or editors. It does reflect the views of this particular fan though, which is as important as the views of Niners Nation's writers or editors.