Outline of the entire article --
Step 4. Resulting Draft Needs and Alternative Draft Strategies
Today's Episode: Step 4. Resulting Draft Needs and Alternative Draft Strategies
Except as entertainment, most mock drafts are worthless. Why? Let's count some of the ways:
1. They ignore completely the fact that teams can solve positional needs in multiple ways ... like free agency and/or player trades in addition to the draft.
2. They ignore the differences between teams in salary cap capacity ... which obviously limits alternatives and avoids the realities of "cap casualties".
3. To be fair to the fans of all teams, among other reasons, they don't typically allow trading of draft picks ... when frequently that can be a team's most productive alternative.
4. They ignore the reality that not all teams employ the same schemes on offense and/or defense ... thus they assume that any draft prospect can be equally effective for any team without regard to scheme.
5. Most mock drafters take the easy way out ... avoiding the effort of doing much real team-need evaluation and prospect research and simply deal the well-know popular picks off the top of the deck.
As I suggested in the last episode discussing proposed free agent additions, I think that it makes good sense for the Niners to use some of the available cap capacity to acquire young free agents to solve some of the biggest short-term needs (i.e., CB, Edge, C, WR and TE), if possible, and then use the draft to acquire additional pieces which can be used to solve both immediate needs and to develop solutions for the longer-term. Thus, unlike most mock drafts, my proposed mock will NOT attempt to address all of the immediate needs. My thought is to develop some of the draftees to ultimately replace the signed free agents when they can demonstrate that they are ready to do so.
Identifying Draft Needs ... The Demand Side of the Equation
Let's start by removing from the overall end-of-season needs list those positional needs that will be solved with (1) the return of our own players from IR, and (2) the addition of free agents who I have proposed ... producing a "net needs list" to be solved via the draft. It's probably easiest to do this by just looking at each position group individually (once again, final overall 2017 PFF ratings are in parentheses):
Quarterbacks: Extend Garoppolo (85.2) as the starter / Beathard (68.5) returns as the backup / Mullen returns on the Practice Squad / No need in draft ... could add a late-round pick as BPA if appropriate
Fullbacks: Juszczyk (74.9) returns as the starter / no roster space available for backup / No need in draft
Running Backs: Brieda (73.1) , Williams and McNichols return / extend Mostert / Should add RB via draft to replace the assumed-gone Hyde
Wide Receivers: Garcon (82.5), Goodwin (80.0), Taylor (71.6), Robinson, Bourne and Bolden return / Watkins (or other free agent) assumed signed as starter via free agency / Should add a big developmental WR in draft
Tight Ends: Kittle (63.4), Celek (73.8), Hikutini and Wick return / Brate (or other free agent) assumed signed as significant contributor via free agency / No need in draft ... could select as BPA if free agent not signed
Offensive Tackles: Staley (87.4), Brown (79.3), Gilliam and Williams return / Should add developmental OTOTF in draft
Offensive Guards: Tomlinson (70.7), Garnett, Beadles (32.9), Flynn and Hunt return / extend Fusco (76.0) / Should add starting-level OG early in the draft
Centers: Magnuson returns as backup / Richburg (or other free agent) assumed signed as starter via free agency / emergency backup could be provided by OGs / No need in draft ... could select as BPA at some point
Defensive Tackles: Mitchell (56.5), DJ Jones, Buckner (90.4), Blair and Day return / No need in draft
Defensive Ends: Thomas (53.2) returns / Carradine (78.1) assumed to be extended / Armstead (78.9) assumed to be traded / No need in draft
Edge Rushers: Dumervil (76.1) returns / Ansah (or other free agent) assumed signed as starter via free agency if possible / Marsh (43.7) assumed to be repositioned to Sam LB / Should add developmental edge-rusher early in the draft ... ultimately Ansah's replacement
Sam LBs: Harold (47.7), Watson, Newsom, Gilbert and Taumoepenu return / Marsh (76.9) assumed to be repositioned from Leo / No need in draft ... could select as BPA at some point
Mike LBs: Foster (90.7), Coyle (41.3) and Nzeocha return / Should consider adding a backup in draft
Will LBs: Smith and Lee return / No need in draft ... could select as BPA at some point
Strong Safeties: Tartt (85.7) and James return / Reid (81.4) may return / No need in draft
Free Safeties: Colbert (77.6) and McCoil return / Ward (46.9) assumed to be traded / Could add developmental FS in mid-rounds of draft
Cornerbacks: Witherspoon (81.1), Williams (80.2), Hall and Mabin return / Trumaine Johnson (or other free agent) assumed signed as starter via free agency / Should add developmental CB in draft
Special Teams: Gould, Pinion and Nelson return / No need in draft
So, to summarize, we SHOULD be seeking a starting OG, another RB, a future #1 WR and future Edge-rusher. Additionally, we SHOULD seek a developmental OT, CB, and backup Mike LB. We COULD seek a QB, C, Sam LB and/or Will LB or FS as BPA during the draft if the opportunity presents itself.
Identifying Selection Alternatives ... The Supply Side of the Equation
First, let's narrow the choices likely available to the Niners when their turn arrives in the first round ... by projecting the choices of the teams selecting before them. Here's the way that I see that playing out:
Pick #1 Cleveland Browns -- Needs: QB / CB / OT / RB -- Pick: QB Sam Darnold (USC)
I also see Cleveland acquiring a veteran QB to start while Darnold and Kizer develop their skills before being thrown into the fray (I doubt that Hue would have been allowed to mismanage Kizer the way he was last season if Dorsey had been the GM then). My best guess would be either acquiring Alex Smith in a trade with Kansas City (unlike many other teams, they have the excess draft capital to do that) or signing AJ McCarron as a Restricted Free Agent (with a contract offer that Cincinnati wouldn't choose to match).
Pick #2 New York Giants -- Needs: QB / OT / LB -- Pick: QB Josh Rosen (UCLA)
Eli Manning will start until Rosen is ready to take over. Davis Webb is another backup.
Pick #3 Indianapolis Colts -- Needs: OT / OG / E -- Probable Pick: E Bradley Chubb (North Carolina State)
This pick is probably the most unpredictable of any in the top-10. The Colts could select either OT Connor Williams or OG Quenton Nelson (to address biggest needs) or RB Saquon Barkley (since Frank Gore is a UFA). I think that the pick is Chubb as the BPA at a position of need.
Pick #4 Cleveland Browns (from Houston) -- Pick: DB Minkah Fitzpatrick (Alabama)
They may lose RB Isaiah Crowell in free agency but CB is the bigger need. (By the way, I think Fitzpatrick's best position in the NFL is FS, but many folks, probably including Dorsey, don't agree.)
Pick #5 Denver Broncos -- Needs: QB / OT / FS -- Pick: OT Connor Williams (Texas)
Elway already has 3 inconsistent, non-productive backup QBs on his roster and faces a closing opportunity window for his outstanding defense and aging WR corp. Accordingly, I don't see him selecting yet another QB to develop in this draft; rather, I think that he pulls out all of the stops and signs FA QB Kirk Cousins and drafts an OT, their second biggest need. Denver and Cousins meet each other's needs ... Denver needs a competent starting QB and Cousins needs a competent team around him. Meanwhile, the "3 backup QBs" either develop or are replaced by a future QB draftee before Cousins gives up the job.
Pick #6 New York Jets -- Needs: QB / E / OT -- Pick: QB Baker Mayfield (Oklahoma) or QB Lamar Jackson (Louisville)
I think that the Jets re-sign QB Josh McCown as the short-term starter until the selected rookie QB assimilates the playbook and probably starts late in the 2018 season or in 2019.
Pick #7 Tampa Bay Buccaneers -- Needs: E / S / RT / RB -- Pick: RB Saquon Barkley (Penn State)
IF he were still available, I think that the pick would be E Bradley Chubb ... but I have projected him going to the Colts at #3. It's conceivable that Tampa could opt for E Arden Key, S Derwin James or OT Orlando Brown here, but I don't think that they could resist selecting Barkley to replace the big-dollar contract of Doug Martin and freeing up additional cap space. (As proposed in the previous episode, Tampa Bay may be a targeted trade partner for DL Arik Armstead.)
Pick #8 Chicago Bears -- Needs: WR / ILB / CB -- Pick: WR Calvin Ridley (Alabama) or WR Courtland Sutton (SMU)
An ILB (Roquan Smith or Rashaan Evans) or a CB (Denzel Ward) could be the pick here, but I think that it's a WR to provide Trubisky with some weapons.
Matching Remaining Available Prospects to Our Post-FA Draft Needs
Given my projected selections in the first eight picks of the draft, we can now project which prospects are likely still available to the Niners. Let's identify them by position of need.
OG: Quenton Nelson, Billy Price (OG/C), Will Hernandez, Braden Smith
Edge: Harold Landry, Arden Key, Sam Hubbard, Marcus Davenport
RB: Barkley (if Cleveland or Tampa Bay don't select him), Guice
WR: Calvin Ridley or Courtland Sutton (whoever Chicago doesn't select)
Developmental OT: Mike McGlinchey, Orlando Brown
Developmental CB: Denzel Ward, Joshua Jackson, Carlton Davis
MLB: Roquan Smith, Rashaan Evans, Tremaine Edmunds, Malik Jefferson
QB: Baker Mayfield or Lamar Jackson, Josh Allen, Mason Rudolph, Mike White
C: Billy Price (C/OG), Frank Ragnow, Mason Cole
S: Derwin James
Some Analysis --
OG: Like the pre-resizing Joshua Garnett, Nelson is a poor fit for a zone-run scheme because he's simply too big and not mobile enough; Billy Price would be a great zone-run fit but pick #9 is too high for him; the others are 2nd-rounders.
Edge: Landry and Key are certainly 1st-rounders but I'm uncomfortable with both of them at a pick as high as #9 ... Landry is really best suited to play OLB in a 3/4 scheme and Key may have some motivational issues that could be red flags for me (I'm not interested in getting into another Aldon Smith situation).
RB: Barkley, if still available, would be a great value ... but RB isn't very high on our list of needs AND the 2018 RB draft class is very deep, so we'd still have opportunities to acquire another outstanding prospect, but in the middle rounds.
WR: Assuming that we sign a free agent as a starter, a developmental WR doesn't justify the #9 overall pick in the draft.
OT: This could be a possibility, but once again, neither McGlinchey or Brown are good fits for a zone-run scheme. I just can't bring myself to make that kind of pick at #9 ... wasted value.
CB: Assuming that we sign a free agent as a starter, a CB pick at #9 would have to be able to displace Witherspoon as the outside CB starter opposite the free agent. That doesn't compute for me ... Witherspoon graded out at 81.1 in his rookie year, far better than I expected, and he is bigger and a better scheme-fit than any of the top 3 CB prospects in the upcoming draft class.
MLB: Right or wrong, we committed to Foster in the 1st round in 2017 and he is going to be the starting Mike in 2018 (except for any possible game suspension). Malcolm Smith is going to be the starter at Will ... the dead money hit from releasing him would substantially exceed his cap hit. Once again, a backup LB at #9?
So, you see where this is heading for me, right? We have a pick that has great value and there are some outstanding prospects available at that pick ... except that none of them really fit our needs very well on a value basis. I'm fine going with the BPA philosophy when a team doesn't have a plethora of needs ... but when you're trying to build a roster in a turnaround situation, that makes far less sense to me.
Finding The Right Draft Strategy
The #9 pick is extremely valuable ... but none of the likely available prospects are outstanding fits for our needs. And I hate to use a top-10 pick on a guy that is a reach at that pick ... it simply represents poor value. So how can we get more value from this pick? Well ... there is always the possibility of trying to find a trade partner that has a greater need for one or more of those available prospects than we do and we might then have an opportunity to enhance our value proposition after the trade.
With either QBs Baker Mayfield or Lamar Jackson, Josh Allen, Mason Rudolph, and Mike White still projected available in addition to the likes of OG Nelson, OTs McGlinchey and Brown, CBs Ward and Jackson, LBs Smith, Evans and Edmunds, and S James all still probably available at pick #9, there's bound to be interest from other teams in trading up to jump the competition. Who might some of those teams be, where are they drafting, and what kind of a trade package might we be able to get in return? Let's look at some possibilities.
The teams with the greatest QB need are assumed to already have addressed that problem ... Cleveland, New York Giants, Denver, and the New York Jets. Continuing down through the drafting order, here are the remaining teams most likely to want to draft a QB:
#13 Washington: They are going to lose Cousins in free agency; they will probably sign a free agent like Sam Bradford to solve the problem temporarily but will still need to draft a QB to develop. The backup is Colt McCoy.
#15 Arizona: Palmer retired and Stanton/Gabbart/Barkley would all be weak temporary solutions. Lacking significant draft capital, I doubt that they would trade for Alex Smith or Tyrod Taylor, unless Taylor was just released outright by Buffalo.
#16 Baltimore: They are in a world of hurt ... Flacco is 33 and not playing well, but his present contract extends through the 2021 season with significant dead money remaining. When do they try to draft an ultimate replacement?
#21 Buffalo: It would seem that Buffalo's new regime wants to cut ties with Tyrod Taylor; his contract also extends through 2021 but doesn't have huge dead money remaining, so they could opt to release him or trade him, if possible. Nathan Peterman or Joe Webb as the starter? I don't think so. They could go free agency (Smith, Bradford?) but that's just a short-term solution.
There are other teams who could opt to select a QB at some point during the 2018 draft, but their needs are substantially less severe: Los Angeles Chargers, Pittsburgh, Jacksonville and even New England.
The obvious point here is that anybody wanting the first shot among the remaining seekers is going to have to jump ahead of Washington; and, that might not be enough ... there's an outside chance that #11 Miami or #12 Cincinnati could surprise everybody and select a QB. In addition, teams may want to jump ahead of those teams to get a non-QB target like Barkley (if still available), Nelson, McGlinchey, Roquan Smith, or others.
Stay Put or Trade Down (if possible) in Round 1?
Generally, but not always, the proper answer to that question is a function of roster need. If the roster has few holes to be filled via the draft then selecting the very best prospect at a position of need in each round is probably the right answer. However, if there are a number of holes to be filled or if there isn't a good scheme-fit available at a given pick perhaps trading down in order to acquire more higher-round picks or better fits is likely the best answer. In the case of the Niners in the 2018 draft, the latter strategy would seem appropriate ... presuming that a reasonable trade can be made. I believe that such an opportunity exists. The Buffalo Bills have obviously decided that Tyrod Taylor is not their desired long-term solution at QB; and, they have extraordinary draft capital available ... only Cleveland and Buffalo have two selections in each of the first two rounds of the 2018 draft. However, in Buffalo's case, neither of their first-round picks (#21 and #22) is likely high enough to give them an opportunity to select any of the top remaining QB prospects after the Jets select at #6. To be sure of being able to get that pick they must trade ahead of Washington (#13) and maybe even ahead of Cincinnati (#12) or Miami (#11).
The Niners could well be in a good spot to negotiate a trade with Buffalo if they decide that that is the right strategy. Fine ... so why wouldn't Buffalo trade up even higher into the first round to get the guy they want? First, the QB-needy teams are not likely to want to trade away their opportunity to get their QBOTF. That leaves the non-QB-needy teams ... Indianapolis, Tampa Bay, Chicago and the Niners. The only trade that would get them a better QB prospect than at #9 is Indianapolis at #3 and that trade would would cost them both of their 1st-round picks and both of their 2nd-round picks (or their 2019 #1); they would likely not be willing to give up that much to get a QB prospect other than Rosen or Darnold; and, what is the probability of Indianapolis wanting to trade all the way down to the twenties when they can likely find more attractive trade-down opportunities if trade-down is their strategy? Tampa and Chicago might be willing to trade down but it would depend upon which prospects they project still being available to them in the twenties and how well those prospects fit their needs.
Next Episode: Step 5. 2018 Mock Draft