When The Best Player Isn’t The Best Choice In The NFL Draft?


Jul 26, 2013; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia Eagles guard Danny Watkins (63) addresses the media during training camp at the Eagles NovaCare Complex. Mandatory Credit: Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Fans want the best player, other players want the best player, and even the Media downgrades the projections of teams who do not take the best player (in their opinion) – but when is the best player NOT the best choice in the NFL draft?

With the 2014 NFL draft rapidly approaching, the question becomes more and more important.   Does the best player make the best fit?  Does the top rated player mean guaranteed success?   Do you have to shoot to the top of the draft to get the  impact players?

Well, the story may surprise you.   There is more success to be had by looking beyond the combine measurables and interviewing the player:  their attitude, ambition, perseverance, work ethic, and accountability can weigh heavier than their measured speed or gymnastic prowess.

History has many such examples of a top rated pick who was an NFL bust.   Collegiate sports gives annual awards to the top college athlete, and the Heisman trophy is certainly the most renowned college football award available.  But how many Heisman trophy winners have had NFL success?    Of the 77 Heisman winners, eight have been indoctrined into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.   That’s 10%, and that’s not terribly bad.  But on the flip side, 14 have never played an NFL game, and 15 have never been drafted.   That’s alarming.

So what is the “golden boy goes bust” reasoning?     Each case is different, but it can be persuasively argued that the drive to succeed in sports has been met.   Once a player achieves high individual awards, it is easy to convince themselves that the painstaking hard work and sacrifice of training and preparation are behind them.   And once that player believes they’ve peaked, they stop improving.

Does this impact the 2014 NFL draft process for the Eagles?    Well, we’ve already witnessed the effects of accumulating large amounts of talent.  The 2012 Eagles looked very good on paper, but looked very much like paper dolls on a good day when the team took the field.   In a game whose very foundation is teamwork (eleven guys play, but only one football means ten guys are doing something to support that one guy), the game is trying to rediscover it’s identity in an electronic age where individual statistics become the headlines, and fantasy football follows scores and turnovers, but ignores blocking and tackling.     In a sport where selflessness equals championships, but selfish players get the big contracts,  what is the right path?   Do you want your team to build a squad of sure tacklers, or a ball hawk who can’t tackle?  If you say sure tackler, then you are baffled when you see the face of Deion “Primetime” Sanders on the NFL network, who never demonstrated an ability to tackle in his NFL career.

Navigating the myriad of factors that can lead an above average prospect to an all-pro NFL career, while a different set of factors can lead a “can’t miss” NFL 1st round pick to an invisible NFL career is a challenge at best.   But throw that individual into a competitive environment where one mistimed poor play can mean the difference of playing on an NFL Sunday or getting cut from the team outright, and it’s easy to see how difficult it becomes.

Does the team value guys who contribute in small ways?  If you believe Chip Kelly in his interviews, he frequently mentions players, by name, who do the little things which won’t show up on a stat page.  It seems that the Eagles coaches do understand that a key block can deliver a game winning touchdown, or a punishing two yard run for the first down can change a game’s momentum.  A reserve player who delivers on special teams, or a wide receiver who can block or tackle a defender who just intercepted the ball are the types of little plays that don’t show up on a stat sheet but can be a difference of winning and losing in today’s NFL.

So as we don our “GM for a day” hats, sit down to our mock drafts, and try to pick out the biggest impact player for our team, consider this:
try to find a wide receiver in this draft who can block better than the rest;   try to find a running back who can pick up a blitzing linebacker better;  try to find the safety who can play in the box defending a run and drop back and give good coverage on a receiver;  and try to find that edge player who can crash down on the quarterback with devastating effects, but who can backpedal quickly enough to blanket a receiver slipping out of the backfield.   When you can pick those types of players out of the draft, then you are prepared.

Because, on draft day, that is EXACTLY what the Eagles front office will be doing – trying to find the players who do show up in more ways than the box score.