It’s time to update the rules, and argue again about the value of taking Running backs early in the draft
A reader pointed out to me recently that the ‘Big Blue View rules for draft success’ had not yet been updated for 2018. Truth be told, I have been procrastinating on that one. The draft, though, is just days away. I can procrastinate no longer.
If you aren’t familiar with these rules, I created this guide to my draft philosophy a few years ago. Each year the rules get tweaked with new examples and, on occasion, modified to reflect the changing realities of the NFL. The ‘running back rule’ is one that — in the Giants’ current situation — will be somewhat different that it has been in the past.
1. Draft ‘value’ over perceived need
Truth is, you are never certain what your ‘needs’ are going to be in any given NFL season. You never know where injuries may strike, or where players already on your roster may under-perform or over-perform expectations.
One thing that is no doubt true when it comes to assessing ‘value.’ A team’s perception of ‘value’ is impacted by its perception of its ‘needs.’ Teams undoubtedly set their draft boards based somewhat on perceived needs and fits for their systems. As one former scout told me, that is simply human nature. My point is this. If you believe you need a wide receiver, but there is not one on the board who you believe should be drafted at that stage of the draft, you don’t grab a lower-ranked wide receiver. You take a player who, on your board, has a grade that makes him deserving of being picked in that spot. When grades are equal need and scheme fit come into play. At that point, take the player you feel gives you something you don’t already have -- the player who fills a need. Trust your evaluation, try to match value and need whenever possible. Value trumps need, but need is the deciding factor when values are equal.
Giants’ GM Dave Gettleman explained it this way during his pre-draft press conference:
“You’ve got to stay with the value. You have to stay with the value because you guys have heard a million stories, I’ve heard a million and one and you’ve probably heard half a million where a guy says, ‘Don’t worry, he’ll be there in the next round.’ Then the next round comes around and he ain’t there. You have to stay with your board, you have to stay with value. You can’t get too cute. Guys have kind of laughed around the league when we’d be on the clock in Carolina and I’d have my pick in in 28 seconds. If you know what you want, then go do it. Don’t be shy. If you get too cute, you’re going to lose. You’re going to come up on the wrong end and it’s about value. You can never have too many good players at one position.”
2. Draft for the long term
This is really an extension of Rule No. 1. It is great to hit that ‘home run’ and find a guy who is a star from the moment he walks into training camp. Those players rarely come along, though they are more likely to be found at No. 2 than at the back end of Round 1. The draft is only partially about the upcoming season. It is mostly about trying to find as many players as you can who will contribute to the success of your football team for several seasons to come.
This is why you take ‘value’ over ‘need.’ No one can, with any certainty, tell you what a football team’s needs will be in coming seasons. A position that looks stocked one minute can be devastated by injuries the next, or by free agency. You hope, of course, that the best players on the board happen to match areas where you believe you have needs. The draft is unpredictable, however, and available value does not always match perceived needs.
Drafting for the long term also means not being afraid of taking the high-ceiling player you know might take a while to develop.
Gettleman spoke on Thursday about this balancing act.
“As the G.M., I walk a tight line. I have to look at the short term and I have to look at the long term and that’s the tight rope that I walk and I have to take all that into consideration in making decisions, whether it’s the draft, whether it’s unrestricted free agency, whether it’s trading for an Alec Ogletree. Whatever it is, making claims – you have to think about it. So I’m on that tight rope doing the best I can with the information that I have and we move forward.”
3. If you don’t have a franchise quarterback, get one
The NFL is a Quarterback-driven league. If you don’t have a top-tier one, you cannot have any type of sustained success. If you need a franchise quarterback, think there is one available when it is your turn to draft, and pass on drafting him shame on you.
The flip side of this rule is do not take the quarterback in the first round unless you are absolutely convinced he can be the face of your franchise for the next decade. If you pick the wrong quarterback, you set your franchise back. Gettleman calls it “a five-year mistake.”
The Giants have said they believe Eli Manning has “years” left, although Gettleman acknowledged Thursday that “there is no ability to predict” how much longer Manning can be a viable quarterback.
Gettleman talks often about avoiding “quarterback hell.” You can land there by picking the wrong quarterback high in the draft. You can also land there by not picking one when you have the chance and having your veteran quarterback suddenly fall off the cliff without a heir apparent in place.
In this draft, the Giants are rolling the dice either way. If they pick a quarterback, he better turn out to be the right guy. If they don’t pick a quarterback, Manning had better have enough left in the tank to buy them a couple of years to find and acquire the guy they really believe in as his eventual successor.
4. Do not take running backs in the first round ... unless they are franchise-changers
This is a modified, softened version of the previous “don’t take running back in the first round” rule. It reflects the reality that teams do it, sometimes with good reason.
Here is what I believe. If you are going to invest a first-round pick in a running back — especially a top 10 pick — that guy better be a super star. He better be more than a running back. He better be a franchise-altering three-down back who can be a pivotal part of your passing game. And, you better have the pieces in place at quarterback, offensive line and wide receiver to take advantage of the player’s skills.
Is Saquon Barkley that guy> Todd McShay thinks he is. Gettleman says Barkley is so good his mother could have scouted him. Still, is a running back — any running back — worth the No. 2 overall pick? That’s a good question.
The NFL game no longer revolves around the running game. Offenses revolve around the quarterback, the offensive line and the wide receivers. Running Backs share the load, with most teams employing two or three and very few dominating the percentage of rushing attempts for his team. Look at offenses, and most of your running backs play fewer snaps than anyone else. Running backs are rarely the center piece of an offense, they are complementary players.
Dan Hatman of The Scouting Academy said during an appearance on ‘Locked on Giants’ that Ernie Accorsi’s rule was always that quarterback, left tackle and pass rusher were the most important positions, and that running back was near the bottom of the list. The way the game is now played, I would add pass coverage guys (corners and safeties) to the premium positions list.
To get true value from a running back at No. 2 he would have to end up having a career far superior to any player at a premium position who could be taken in that spot. Historically, there are always plenty of quality running backs available in the middle of the draft. Take one then, and use your first pick on an impact player at a more important position.
The Giants are a great example. Tiki Barber, Joe Morris, Ahmad Bradshaw, Brandon Jacobs were not first-round picks. David Wilson, Ron Dayne, Tyrone Wheatley, George Adams, Rocky Thompson and Tucker Frederickson -- were first-round picks.
Denver’s Terrell Davis might be the best example. A sixth-round pick in 1995, Davis and the Denver Broncos proved you don’t need a first-round running back to be a great running team. Davis gained more than 1,700 yards in 1997 and more than 2000 in 1998. A more current example is Le’Veon Bell of the Pittsburgh Steelers. A second-round pick in 2013, Bell is perhaps the game’s finest all-around back. Last season, Leonard Fournette went fourth overall to the Jacksonville Jaguars. He had a nice rookie year with 1,342 total yards from scrimmage in 304 touches, but averaged only 3.9 yards per carry. Alvin Kamara (67th overall, New Orleans Saints) had 1,554 yards from scrimmage in 201 touches — 212 more yards in 103 fewer touches.
Year after year teams get excellent play from mid- to late-round running backs. Unless you believe the player is a transcendent, franchise-changing talent, the value just isn’t there when taking a first-round running back. Maybe Barkley turns out to be that guy. If the Giants select him at No. 2, he’d better be.
Whether you want Barkley or not, you should read this excellent analysis of running back value by SB Nation’s Bill Connelly. His main point? No matter how good a running back is, he doesn’t really change your team all that much.
5. When in doubt, draft a lineman
This applies to both the offensive and defensive lines.
I don’t care how pass-happy the NFL gets or how much the rules change, the game is still won and lost along the front lines. On offense, you have to be able to block for your quarterback and open holes for your running backs. On defense, you have to be able to rush the passer and you have to be stout against the run in the middle. You never want to be caught without enough players who can do those things, so when in doubt draft a lineman. The Giants have learned these lessons the hard way in recent seasons.
You should be able to find quality linemen in the middle to late rounds, especially on the offensive side. David Diehl, a fifth-round pick, was a great example. Rich Seubert was not drafted at all and still had a long, productive career for the Giants. Elite linemen, though, are usually only available in the very early stages of the draft. This is something the Giants have tried to do in recent years, but they haven’t hit on their developmental choices.
My rule? After you get your quarterback, or if you already believe you have him, you build from the inside out. Year after year I advocate for the Giants to select an offensive lineman high in the draft.
This time around, the big debate is whether or not you can take a guard — Quenton Nelson — No. 2 overall. I don’t think the Giants will, but it wouldn’t bother me if they did. There are great interior defenders in the NFL like Aaron Donald and Fletcher Cox. Somebody has to block them. You can’t tell me there isn’t value in selecting a guy you believe can neutralize them and give his quarterback a clean pocket to step up into.
Same with the defensive line. I won’t argue a bit if the Giants select Bradley Chubb No. 2 overall. You can “scheme” pass rush pressure, but when you have to do that you leave vulnerabilities elsewhere. Chubb has drawn comparisons to Von Miller and Khalil Mack. Those guys are pretty good. I’d be happy with the next one.
No matter what they do at No. 2, I have to believe Gettleman will add some hog mollies on both sides in the draft.
6. Trade down, not up
There are very few times when any player is worth trading up for, thus causing a team to mortgage valuable draft picks. You need depth in the NFL, and you can’t accumulate it by trading away your draft choices -- which is what you have to do to move up. Generally, it is better to move down and accumulate more draft choices than to move up and wind up with less. Your mistakes hurt less when you have more choices, more chances to get it right. You can take risks on occasion when you have more choices, and -- if the situation is right -- you can actually use some of those ‘extra’ picks to move up when you feel it is warranted.
When is it OK to move up? If you are moving for a guy you believe is a franchise-changer or the one piece you need to put you over the top and into the Super Bowl, that is OK. Also, if you have accumulated extra picks perhaps then you can use that flexibility to target a player or two in the draft or via trade. This, really, could be called the ‘New England Patriots Rule.’
Normally, though, move down instead of moving up.
The Giants are at No. 2 with only six draft picks. Gettleman would have to mortgage a huge chunk of this draft to move up for a quarterback. I don’t see that as being worth the price right now.
7. Don’t ignore your strengths
As Gettleman said above, “You can never have too many good players at one position.” I always used to talk about this rule in the context of the Giants and pass rushers. I still believe in the rule, but when I look at the Giants’ roster right now there really isn’t a position I see as so strong that it can be ignored in the upcoming draft. Chase the value. Take the best players who fit what the Giants are trying to do.