Gamesmanship and the NFL Draft—How Much Funny Business Goes On?

imageDuring the first round of the 2016 NFL draft,  Roger Goodell barely had time to walk off the stage after announcing the Bengals’ pick—of the guy most people thought the Steelers wanted, William Jackson III—before he had to turn around and announce the Steelers’ pick. Apparently it came in seconds after the Steelers were on the clock. If they were heartbroken by the loss of Jackson they hid it pretty well.

I would love to know how much gamesmanship goes into the draft. It’s difficult to imagine a team spending their precious draft capital to move ahead of a rival team for the sole purpose of taking a guy they think their rival wants, but that’s exactly what many have said the Ravens were doing when they moved up in the 2015 draft to take TE Maxx Williams.

And I have to admit, given the number of tight ends already on their roster, and given they had to send the Cardinals their fifth-round pick to move up three spots—to the spot just before the Steelers picked, it certainly did look as if they were trying to pull off something.

On the other hand, despite picking up Williams in the second round they also took Nick Boyle with one of their two conditional fifth round picks. Since they had also taken wide receiver Breshad Perriman in the first round, they obviously were looking to shore up their offense.

In the end, Baltimore absolutely turned out to need Williams. They were down to two tight ends by the end of December.

Dennis Pitta, a favorite target of Joe Flacco as well as a former Momma’s Mock Draft winner, was out for most of the 2014 season after surgery for a fractured and dislocated hip. He returned in December of 2013, took up where he left off, and the Ravens signed him to a big contract extension after the season. He reinjured his hip in the third game of 2014 and hasn’t played since. I’m sure he was part of the Ravens’ 2015 plans, but it is also possible they were aware he might not be ready at the beginning of the season. Tragically, the team doctors have told Pitta he needs to retire, although so far he has resisted doing so.

Crockett Gilmore was the Raven’s 2014 3rd-round pick, and played well, until a back injury ended his season in late December.

Nick Boyle, the fifth-round pick, played in 12 games but was suspended for the final four because of violating the league’s performance-enhancing drugs policy. After apologizing to the team and vowing to put it behind him he got busted again and is suspended for the first 10 games of the coming season.

Chase Ford was a practice-squad guy the Ravens promoted in mid-November. Two weeks later he went on IR.

Allen Reisner was a free agent the Ravens picked up in 2014, but he apparently was IR’d early, as he didn’t play at all in 2015.

Finally, Konrad Reuland is a free agent who is apparently looking to best Ross Ventrone’s record with the Patriots. So far he has been signed and unsigned by the Ravens eight times since November of 2014. He and Williams were the only guys left standing by the end of the season.

As we look at the 2014 draft, I’m sure there were other guys the Ravens could happily have taken, two picks after the Steelers. But, given the uncertainty in the secondary, it would be surprising for the Steelers to take a TE over a DB at that point. After all, they had Heath Miller, although he was admittedly on the downhill side of his career. The Steelers didn’t have anyone else lined up who looked like a No. 1 TE prospect.

And while giving up a fifth-round pick sounds like a high price to pay, the Ravens also had two compensatory fifth round picks as well, so perhaps they didn’t feel too desperate about it. Perhaps the Ravens saw an opportunity to take a player they liked and perhaps screw the Steelers out of someone they needed.

But does it really make sense to game the draft this way? I guess when you play a team two or even three times per year small advantages can make a big difference. The problem is, nobody knows whether those small advantages will turn out to be advantages.

So is there any reason to suspect the Bengals of picking the player they thought the Steelers wanted? It turns out to be an interesting question.

I saw a thought-provoking article recently claiming the Bengals construct their team differently. Steelers Depot writer Matthew Marczi contends that the Bengals spend the majority of their capital on the defensive backfield and offensive receivers (including tight ends) and let the trenches more or less take care of themselves. He gives some interesting data:

…the Bengals front office tends to value building their roster with premium draft picks on the perimeter, rather than from the inside and working their way out. This will likely be obvious to anybody who realizes that they have drafted three cornerbacks in the first round over the course of the past five seasons, and five in the past 11 drafts.

In that span, they have also drafted two tight ends who regularly play as a wide receiver with a large role in the passing game, as well as an actual wide receiver. Of their other four first-round draft picks in that span of time, three offensive linemen and an outside linebacker were taken, a two-to-one ratio in favor of players who are primarily on the perimeter, e.g. not on the offensive line or in the defensive front seven.

Perhaps this merely demonstrates the randomness of how draft picks work out (or not.) The Steelers had, arguably, the best receiving corps in the NFL last season, and other than Heath Miller, had not spent more than a third-round pick on any of them. The best two receivers were a six-rounder and a fourth-round pick.

In like manner, the Bengals have done very well in the defensive trenches with late round picks such as Geno Atkins (fourth round,) Vincent Rey and the much-reviled Vontaze Burfict (both UDFA), Domata Peko (fourth round,) and Michael Johnson (round three.) Of last season’s base 4-3 starters only Rey Maualuga and Karlos Dunlap were taken as high as the 2nd round.

On the other hand, as noted above they have spent in recent years three first-round picks on cornerbacks, one on a wide receiver, and one on a tight end. The WR turned out very well—nobody would fault the pick of A.J. Green in retrospect. The jury on TE Tyler Eifert is still, perhaps, not entirely in, as he has played very well when he has played. He missed essentially all of his second season, a good chunk of last season, and injured his ankle at the Pro Bowl this past year, which eventually led to surgery a few weeks ago. In all he’s played just over half of the games since he was drafted. The other TE, Jermaine Gresham, was rather drop-prone, something even less acceptable in a No. 1 TE than a WR, and the Bengals let him walk at the end of his rookie contract.

The CBs have been a bit of a mixed lot. The first chosen in the first round in recent years was Dre Kirkpatrick in 2012. It took him until 2014 to make the starting lineup, and Pro Football Focus rated him No. 103, out of 111 ranked cornerbacks. (The only Steeler with that bad a ranking was Antwon Blake.) Ironically, they took another DB in the fifth round that has excelled—S George Iloka.  (PFF ranked him No. 15, out of 89 ranked safeties.) The other starting safety, Reggie Nelson, was a free agent signing.

The Bengals’ next upper-round try was Darqueze Dennard, in 2014. Another first-round pick, he has struggled considerably in his time in Cincinnat, to the extent that he didn’t have sufficient snaps for PFF to rank him.  (He was listed as Kirkpatrick’s backup on their 2015 depth chart.)

Cornerback No. 3 is, of course, this year’s William Jackson III. Although the Steelers put out a lot of (dis?)information about their interest in Jackson, or at least allowed the media to do so, there is some question as to whether Jackson or Artie Burns was in fact their first choice. It matters little, ultimately. What is certain is that the two men will be linked together, with pundits watching eagerly to proclaim which was in fact the better pick. But did the Bengals really need a cornerback?  I guess they do, if they don’t see Dennard as the future at the position, or don’t intend to keep Kirkpatrick beyond his rookie contract. They did just pick up his fifth-year option, however.

On the other side, the ageless Adam Jones played extremely well last season. But he’s not getting any younger, in a young man’s position. Leon Hall was his backup, and he Is gone now.

So yes, especially given there was no trade made to do it, I think it’s reasonable to assume the Bengals took Jackson because they thought he was the best corner remaining when their number was called. Did it give them a little bit of extra pleasure to think they might be doing the Steelers out of their preferred pick? Maybe. Or maybe they just want to develop some corners that won’t take stupid penalties at absolutely the wrong times. Just a thought.

 

 

 

3 comments

  • cold_old_steelers_fan

    It is possible some teams would draft someone to spite a rival or to prevent them from getting a specific player but I doubt think it is a defining characteristic of a good team and the Ravens are a good team and to a lesser extent, so are the Bengals. With the Browns, on the other hand, anything is possible.

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  • Excellent look at the dynamics of recent drafts. At the end of the day, I think that gamesmanship IS part of how teams draft. I didn’t follow the Maxx Williams story too closely, but I seem to remember that there was some information out there that indicated the Steelers WEREN’T interested in Williams, but let the leak circulate to force the Raven’s hand.

    I don’t know if that’s true or not, but given that the Steelers drafted Golson in that round, and that Kevin Colbert flat out said, something like “We weren’t getting out of the second round without drafting a corner” I don’t think the Steelers had their eye on Williams in the 2nd….

    Now, if I’m Colbert and I get wind that the Ravens think I want Williams and are looking to trade up to get him, I certainly do not disabuse him of that notion.

    The bottom line is, the rumors and gamesmanship are fundamental part of the draft.

    I remember when the Steelers drafted Plaxico Burress in 2000 with the 8th pick.

    A day later, Chad Pennington, whom many fans DESPERATELY wanted the Steelers to pick said that the Steelers called him the night before and said they were going to draft him. Bill Parcells drafted him later in the second round, and let it circulate that he offered Sean Ellis AND Pennington (both 1st round picks that year) for Burress.

    Was that true? I doubt it because Parcells was known to start those kinds of rumors.

    The other interesting thing that no one talked about was that the Bengals took Andrew Billings one round before the Steelers picked in the 4th. The Steelers invested a lot of time in Billings and many thought he’d be their first round pick. I thought the Bengals might have also grabbed him to keep him from going to Pittsburgh (although Jim Wexell has said that there’s no way the Steelers would have taken Bilings after taking Hargrave a round earlier.)

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    • Thanks for the correction as to the actual Steelers 2nd round pick. I’ve corrected the article. The years are just blurring together in my mind, I suppose : ) Also, interesting point about Billings, although I tend to think Wexell is right. That would be a lot of draft capital to spend on the D-line.

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