Draft Goes Deep!
That, or whatever other similar slogan the NFL has thrown at you, has been the rallying cry for the NFL to get its fanbase involved - often to the bitter end - in the draft.
It’s why, for the longest time, you saw teams horde draft picks, only to let them go for the highest of bounties. Jimmy Johnson even came up with a draft chart decades ago to quantify the value of picks, one of the earliest forms of modern statistical analysis in the NFL.
That Whole ‘Value’ Thing
When comparing draft position vs. performance, take a look at this FiveThirtyEight article. If you don’t have the time, I’ll save you the trouble. Team performance really wasn’t impacted by draft position.
That flies in the face of traditional drafting. Do you want a true difference maker? Trade up! Do you want to pepper your team with prospects to fill holes? Trade down! But does it work?
Back when He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named was the head coach of the Los Angeles Rams, that traditional strategy was en vogue - take it from Les Snead himself (in an article by the late, fantastic Bryan Burwell):
Snead is something of an anti-Moneyball guy. He’s all about instincts and feel, not the cold analytics that the advanced metric guys love.
Now, considering how the Rams drafted with all those picks from the fabled RG3 trade, and the arrival of Sean McVay, you might be surprised to learn that Les Snead is actually now all in on using advanced metrics and statistical analysis (draw whatever parallels and conclusions you want between the one constant in this scenario - Les Snead - and the two variables, Jeff Fisher and Sean McVay):
The Rams are invested in analytics big time—five analytics staffers are on board and more are likely coming—and the presence of youthful new coach Sean McVay makes it certain that more growth is on its way. GM Les Snead came up in Atlanta, so it isn’t difficult for him to buy into what young analysts like Rebecca Lally, Ryan Garlisch and Jake Temme are selling. Chiefly, Snead and his staff use the numbers to create boundaries in their evaluations, and to try to find prospects where others might not be looking. As one staffer described it, “It’s a club in the bag that you’re going to use a lot.”
To note, the bold emphasis is mine (more on that later). With the background set, look at the 2017 NFL Draft. With limited draft picks, the Rams invested heavily in free agency, bringing in veterans OT Andrew Whitworth and WR Robert Woods. Both had concerns - Father Time for Whitworth and contract value for Woods. In the draft, they looked for specific traits in their players, instead of the ‘boom-or-bust’ type picks Jeff Fisher preferred.
The Part Where We Look Back at Sosa’s Draft Analysis
Those specific traits they were looking at ended up with a wideout by the name of Cooper Kupp, who our own Sosa Kremenjas said:
After looking at Cooper Kupp, I’m not sure he has the highest ceiling. In my opinion, he’s probably close to being relatively maxed out.
They also picked S John Johnson, who in our post-pick poll had 49% of TST faithful giving the pick a grade of C or lower.
The impact of both - who became starters in their rookie year - was immediately felt. The team found players with very specific skills they needed, even if the players weren’t seen as the traditional total package. They didn’t have eye popping athleticism, or crazy highlight reels full of epic catches or hits. Simply put, they had value that other teams dismissed. They were players that teams projected as projects or role players, even though the Rams knew the skill-set they had would drastically improve the team.
Trade it All Away
The biggest move of the 2017 offseason, however? Trading away a second-round pick and scheme misfit CB E.J. Gaines (there is a growing skill set theme I want to make painfully obvious) for Sammy Watkins. Here’s Les Snead on that move:
Sammy has proven he can be a productive player and an explosive receiver in this league, we look forward to having him in a Rams uniform.
While the Rams attacked highly specific needs in the draft, they went for home runs with trades and free agency - guessing that the value of the draft pick or the contract was negligible compared to proven production in the league. After all, talent and production might be related, but they still are separate.
Fast forward to 2018 where the Rams needing a clear need for a lockdown corner, not something is easily found or developed at the end of the first round, traded for Marcus Peters. The ideology of trading for a player with proven production and talent at an NFL level is clear. The Rams judged that Peters would be at least equal to whomever they chose at the end of the first, and were able to get him for much less then that anyway.
Let’s go back to Jimmy Johnson’s draft chart.
If someone like Iowa CB Josh Jackson is worth 760 points at #23 overall, how would you feel if Marcus Peters’ cumulative value based on the compensation the Rams gave up was 194 points?
Is whomever the Rams pick at 23 capable of delivering the same impact as Marcus Peters? Maybe.
Is Marcus Peters worth four times less than that draftee? Hell no.
And that is the reason why advanced metrics exist and why the Rams are embracing them. Finding invisible value - or improperly valued players - and taking them regardless of convention, ‘draft ammo’ or draft grades. It’s what Johnson tried to do decades ago; associating a value to each draft pick and driving draft trade costs for a generation. The Rams clearly have identified a value vs. cost ratio that not many other teams are willing to utilize, or are aware of.
It’s a breath of fresh air, and one of the reasons why the Rams went from doormat to division champions in a span of months.