With the 2018 NFL draft approaching, a familiar strategy has re-emerged - “best player available.” The mantra served Ozzie Newsome well in the first half of his tenure as Ravens general manager as he drafted Hall of Famers and perennial Pro Bowlers, including Jonathan Ogden, Ray Lewis, Peter Boulware, Chris McAlister, Jamal Lewis, Todd Heap, Ed Reed and Terrell Suggs. Recent drafts have not brought same caliber of talent to Baltimore, as Sergio Kindle, Terrence Cody, Courtney Upshaw, Matt Elam, Arthur Brown, Breshad Perriman, Maxx Williams and Kamalei Correa have failed to produce the desired return on investment.
Subpar drafting has caused the Ravens to miss the playoffs in four of the last five seasons, put pressure on the front office to supplement the roster through free agency and created an unhealthy salary cap situation. The team is now at a crossroads, with Super Bowl winning head coach John Harbaugh and quarterback Joe Flacco not guaranteed to remain with the Ravens past the 2018 season. At this pivotal period in franchise history, a case against drafting the “best players available”:
- Projecting collegiate players to the NFL is unpredictable
Frankly, the Ravens scouts have proven they do not know who is the best player available at any given draft slot. The same holds true for every team in the league. Last season, third round running backs Alvin Kamara and Kareem Hunt outplayed top ten overall picks Leonard Fournette and Christian McCaffrey. Receiver JuJu Smith Schuster thoroughly outperformed each of the five wideouts picked before him. Carl Lawson was a fourth round edge rusher who lead all rookies with 8.5 sacks.
The 2017 All-Pro offense featured four former first round selections, three second rounders, three sixth rounders and one undrafted free agent. Specific to the Ravens, they received more from their mid round choices than the their early rounders in the 2013, 2015 and 2016 drafts. By and large, the draft is a crapshoot. Selecting a player who is ranked slightly lower on the big board yet fills a positional need is a practical strategy.
- Positional Value
Some positions are more valuable than others, both in terms of importance to the team on gameday and because of the quality of replacement level options. According to 2018 franchise tag values, a top five quarterback is worth $23 million, top five cornerback $15 million and elite defensive end worth $17 million. Conversely, a top five running back is valued at $12 million. These figures illustrate the passing nature of the modern NFL game.
The other factor that explains positional value is the level of talent traditionally available later in the draft. Above average defensive tackles, linebackers, offensive guards and running backs are often found in the middle and late rounds of the draft. These positions are not valued as highly as other premium positions, and therefore the “better player” is not the best pick if comparable prospects can be found at lower draft slots. Positional value should be a significant consideration on draft day.
- Team trajectory
Between the reverse order of the standings draft setup, hard salary cap and merit based scheduling, the NFL is designed for parity. These regulations encourage teams to build up and then tear down their rosters semi frequently. Drafting the “best player available” is a fine strategy for teams that are immersed in a rebuilding project and looking to add long term building blocks. Not as much for teams that deem themselves to be in win now mode.
The Ravens are desperate for a playoff team in 2018 to re-energize the fanbase after a three year postseason drought. With limited offseason resources, a highly leveraged future salary cap outlook, aging core of veterans and coaching staff that appears to be on the proverbial hot seat, Baltimore cannot afford the luxury of selecting players the will be buried on the depth chart for a couple seasons. They must draft prospects that will contribute immediately in order to honestly contend in 2018.
For all of these reasons, “best player available” is not a suitable plan for the Ravens 2018 draft. The goal should be to draft the most impactful player available. Drafting over promising young players at the expense of filling critical positional needs will merely prolong the Ravens current stretch of mediocrity.