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Exploring 'Best player available' approaches and draft boards

During my last year's draft preparation I put all the names I found into a file and moved players up & down. The top segment of every round represented 'my targets'. This year I wanted to try a little more methodical approach - and learn more about the logic of scouting and drafting.

Well, I will defer the practical part to next year, but I still want to tackle some of the draft-related topics: The seemingly self-explanatory 'best player available', draft board and grade.

I'm curious, if you see things differently or have other insights.

'Best player available'

We all know Reggie McKenzie calls himself a firm believer in BPA. But the term 'best player available' raises some questions, at least for me.

Does the BPA strategy eliminate the human factor on draft day?

In common discussions, it sounds easy. You either

  • identify holes in your roster and focus on these positions, when you're looking at the available players each time you're on the clock (draft for need).
  • Or you identify the best players from top to bottom, scratch the drafted and take the next man standing (draft best player available).

I won't reiterate the pro's and con's.

My point is, BPA sounds more 'automatic' than the other strategy, but also more than possible. When Reggie says something like 'Trust the board / Stick with the board / Just go BPA', it sounds pretty automatic: The man builds the board, the board prevents from knee-jerk reactions on draft day. But there must be an insurance, so that your board doesn't pick three QBs, right?

Ok, the GM could 'step in' and avoid obviously idiotic moves. No deal. But what's the deal with only 'questionable' moves, e.g. drafting players, who are similar? You can't prevent that pre-draft, so you either tolerate this or you meddle. The latter reminds me of the term 'BPA that makes sense', and 'sense' opens the door for the draft day human being...(Oh, and the GM can avoid the 'best player' by simply trading down.)

Let's go back to Reggie. The short formula 'Best player available' rings im my ears, when I recall his draft-related answers, and I associate the rather strictly BPA. Not so much, when I read the draft day 1 presser from last year ("if our guy wasn’t there we would have about five guys that we would have looked into") or his post-draft answers:

"we stayed true to the board and the board kind of dictated a lot of what we did of picking certain players, certain positions, whether it was moving back. We tried to assess the value and let the board help dictate what we do"

Reggie McKenzie (post draft press conference)

This seems to be a little bit of everything, and I'm scrambling for a better explanation.

Which BPA strategy, which draft board?

I read some about the draft process, and this piece by SB Nation's Danny Kelly gives great insight. With this input I'd put it like that:

Hybrids aside, there are two schools of thought, that both are somehow associated with BPA.

  • A) True BPA approach, using a ranking from 1 to XXX = the vertical draft board.
  • B) Comparison-heavy approach, using rankings of each position (targets and own players) = horizontal draft board

I would not label B a BPA approach, but here's the point: According to the article, it's the approach by the Ron Wolf school of scouting (Ted Thompson, Green Bay / John Schneider, now Seattle / Reggie McKenzie, now Oakland). McKenzie said, BPA is the only way he learned. Therefore B is BPA too.

In my understanding, the 'best' here is less pre-determined. You put all the brainwork into the horizontal board, and on draft day it's time for what I would call an 'educated and disciplined use of wiggle room'. The structure of the board emphasizes the single prospect in relation to other prospects and your own players, which helps aiming at value and impact for your team.

"They [Seattle in this case] want to select players that can compete with and hopefully beat out players at different positions on their roster. This makes draft day a little more hectic. It's a process that is grounded somewhere near BPA, but more flexible based on need and depth."

Danny Kelly

So how does such a horizontal board look like? Well, I have yet to find a professional example, but Derek Stephens and Davis Hsu from SB's Seahawks blog created a board to track the '13 draft (the post, the offense pdf, the defense pdf), that fits the outlined function. Take a look, it's pretty self-explanatory.

As a board this would 'dictate' for example:

  • in which round you consider players
  • which player at a position has to be selected, if several (in one tier) are available

It would help monitoring

  • how much of an upgrade each player would be over your own players (those with expiring contracts are red, the other blue)
  • how deep a position is (this changes as the players keep flying off the board!)

So it's not only doing the math with grades, but breaking ties or weighing difference on the horizontal axis (college guard A slightly higher graded than college defensive tackle B) and difference on horizontal and vertical axis combined (college guard A slightly higher graded than pro guard C, but college defensive tackle B a big upgrade over pro defensive tackle D).

A former Packers scout gives further examples of discussions like this in Kelly's article (esp. the role of trades. For more on this topic see also ninjagoro's study about draft slot values).

Grading for the board

Reading about the draft process, I was intrigued enough to play around with some excercise.

It's like experimental archeology by laymen. By building a house with only medieval tools and some historical knowledge, you might get a better feeling and experience problems, you didn't know in theory. But it's not science by any means or tells anything reliable about the events taking place in the black box, that is the Raiders draft war room.

Ranking with grades

Aside from mock drafts (speculation, what GMs will do), media experts deliver their own judgement with positional rankings (e.g. Mayock's Top 5) or vertical big boards (Mockingthedraft's best players from 1-200, regardless of position).

Teams though put a grade on players in order to compare them. They have different systems, but this basic one by former Chicago Bears GM Jerry Angelo gives an idea.

A typical grade on a player would have a two-digit number. That number reflects how the team projects the prospect will play when he gets into the league.

8.0 grade: Special player, will impact a game and dominate at his position
7.0 grade: A potential pro bowler, a player you win because of
6.5 grade: A solid rank and file starter you could win with
6.0 grade: A solid backup who could start, but limited
5.5 grade: A role player but not a starter. A specialist
5.0 grade: A talented player, but not draftable. Developmental

Jerry Angelo

Angelo continues to explain additional signs regarding system fit, personality, health, so you can decode a "7.0+ B, C, and C", but for now I'm only interested in the simple grades.

Derek Stephens and Davis Hsu use a variation and correlate the grades with draft rounds (5,6,7 together).

- 7.5 to 8.00 - Pro Bowl Player/Elite Player
- 7.0 to 7.5 - First Rounder/High Performer
- 6.5 to 6.99 - 2nd Rounder/Starter
- 6.0 to 6.49 - 3rd Rounder/Borderline Starter or Future Starter
- 5.6 to 5.99 - 4th Rounder/Solid Backup-
- 5.5 to 5.59 - Special Teams/Spot-Rotational Player
- 5.0 to 5.49 - UDFA/7th Rounder/Practice Squad
- Sub 5.0 - No roster spot

Stephens/Hsu

Inspired by these, I go with this system:

Rd.1

8

Once in a decade player.

7.5-7.9

Dominates at his position. Perennial Pro Bowler.

Rd 2

7.0-7.4

Makes a clear impact on the team. Pro Bowl conversation.

Rd.3

6.5-6.9

Solid starter.

Rd.4

6.0-6.4

Solid backup. Borderline starter.

Rd.5/6/7

5.0-5.9

Special teamer. Rotational player.

UDFA

sub 5.0

Below average chance to make the roster


My first step in grading a player is now to look at the right side. What explanation sounds like a fit?

Then I can use the numerical range to be more precise. (I go with one digit after the point, but maybe you need a second to break some ties later on)

Checking players with the same or a similar grade, I think them over and try to find a kind of standard.

Here are some of the questions, that came up.

Same grade, same verdict?

To a certain degree you try to compare apples and oranges using one system for college players and young pros and vets. You predict success or you evaluate success at the pro level, but it's the same scale.

If I grade a veteran player within the 6.0-6.4 range, it indicates a rather limited 'ceiling' (backup). Is that also the verdict on the college player with the same grade? Do you draft a career backup with a fourth round pick? I'd think you rather account for hopes and doubts you have. At least for the mid-to-late round grades the explanation may be closer to the floor than the ceiling of the college player. Even if I think a sleeper QB like Garrett Gilbert could be the next Tom Brady, I won't give him an 8 or 7.5. As long as I'm not ready to take him accordingly high, I try to measure my confidence in his development.

In any case: The highest grade within each range points to a strong belief, that the player is close to the next higher level. You show optimism, but keep it in check.

How do you rank your young / inexperienced players?

I guess you put final grades on your own players first: as part of your season review, because it's a small number (compared to the draft pool), and because they are the measuring sticks.

Your rookies with limited playing or even practice time due to injury (Latavius Murray) are basically college players. The other ones may only show a tendency. There's just more fantasy in the stock compared to the older vets.

Competition committee

The bottom line is: You assemble teammates, but the basic principle is competition. By grading prospects, younger and older players you place your bets on the outcome of position battles that will take place - or won't. If you grade your own player too high, you'll be picky on draft day and maybe miss out on a prospect good enough to take and upgrade the spot. If you grade him too low, the bar is not suited to bring in talent, that improves your team.

Example

I give an example with some tentative grades. This could be part of a horizontal board like the linked one (different grade system!). After puzzling out the Raider grades, you'd fill in the draft prospects you like.


OLB
Sio Moore 7.6
Kevin Burnett 6.9
Kaluka Maiava 6.4
Kaelin Burnett 5.7

Moore: This is not a grade for his actual play alone, because he's a rookie. I think he can be a superb defender, who already has a high floor (as evidenced by his performance as a starter). I don't feel like it's that hazardous to grade him very high, but it affects the draft. Combine the grade and the overall structure, and we'll rather end up with a young DE (to compete with the aging Tuck and Woodley), than a OLB like Dee Ford.

Kaelin Burnett: Remember these are tentative grades by someone without the 2014 tape at hand, without insight in a player's practice performance, and without the necessary football IQ. The first year player has a limited role so far, and I'd rather want him to beat out a draftee than blow up his grade in advance.

Kevin Burnett: He's highlighted, because his contract expires. You have to be aware of this uncertainty, because you can't only think of 2014. What if RM didn't draft Watson, because we already had a talented OT sure to be re-signed? Or Burnett could be the next Rashad Jennings (whatever caused his departure). I don't lower the grade itself, though. I see him around the 6.9/7.0 limit. I choose the lower, because I think he could be pushed by a mid-round talent.

Kaluka Maiava: I liked his signing last offseason. Injuries derailed his year, and now he sits behind Moore. Because I think he is a borderline starter, I place him at the upper bound.

(The other players at the position are unknown quantities for me)


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