If you’re into the roster construction process, the NFL draft is akin to the Super Bowl. The league’s biggest player acquisition event provides a number of lessons that aspiring team builders can use to establish their own philosophies down the road. Given time to reflect on some of the happenings that took place this past weekend, here are four lessons that I learned from the 2020 NFL Draft:
1) Never too early to get the next franchise QB
The Green Bay Packers have been perennial contenders over the past three decades due to their stability at the quarterback position. The team transitioned from Brett Favre to Aaron Rodgers without skipping a beat, with a pair of Super Bowl wins, 13 division titles and 20 playoff berths with No. 4 or No. 12 at the helm.
Although the hand off from a three-time MVP to a young quarterback who emerged as a two-time MVP himself was viewed as controversial at the time, it’s hard to dispute the results now. With that in mind, I can’t understand why the football world is miffed by the team’s decision to use a first-round pick on Utah State quarterback Jordan Love.
Sure, the move prevented the team from theoretically adding another offensive weapon to the mix in the short term, but the quarterback is the most impactful position in the game (and probably in pro sports). And bringing in a young passer to learn behind one of the best to ever do it gives the Packers an opportunity to extend their championship window deep into the 2020s.
Sounds familiar, right? This is exactly how the Packers proceeded when Rodgers surprisingly fell into their laps in 2005, with Favre still in the midst of a Hall of Fame career. Despite Favre coming off one of his worst seasons as a pro (NFL leader in interceptions with 29) at the age of 36, his decorated resume and legendary status as a Super Bowl winner made Green Bay’s selection of Rodgers a big surprise.
However, former Packers GM Ron Wolf established an organizational philosophy of valuing the quarterback position at a premium, and he passed on those lessons to his successor Ted Thompson when Thompson worked as one of his assistants. Ironically, Packers general manager Brian Gutenkast worked as a longtime scout under Thompson, and those quarterback lessons are certainly embedded in his team-building philosophy.
“Ron (Wolf) traded a first-round pick for a quarterback that nobody wanted,” Gutekunst said back in February at the NFL Scouting Combine, referring to Brett Favre. “Ted (Thompson) drafted a quarterback when he had a Hall-of-Fame guy sitting there who was going to play at least three more years. That’s kind of how I’ve seen it. My first 10 years in the league, it was (Matt) Hasselbeck and (Aaron) Brooks and all those guys. Ron was able to turn those guys into picks down the line.
“I just think the quarterback position is so important that you can never not address it if you think you have an opportunity to take a player that can play in the league.”
And so last weekend, the Packers scooped up a young quarterback with a ton of potential. I don’t think anyone expects Love to play right away, but he could see game action sooner than some some are willing to admit due to Rodgers’ injury issues over the last several seasons and the fact that he’ll be 37 in December. While No. 12 could certainly regain his MVP form with more time in Matt LaFleur’s scheme, the odds are against the veteran quarterback enjoying a renaissance at the position in Year 16 and beyond.
Just to be clear, I’m not hating on Rodgers or dismissing his talents or esteemed place in NFL history, but we shouldn’t ignore the veteran’s declining production and output since 2016. No. 12’s completion percentage and passer rating have been well below his lofty standards (65% completion rate; 100.0-plus passer rating). Moreover, it’s been five seasons since he hit the marks in back-to-back years.
With Rodgers losing some of his trademark athleticism, which plays a significant role in his game as an improvisational playmaker, the Packers needed to take a long, hard look at the 2020 quarterback class to see if there was a young quarterback worth taking as an apprentice.
Studying Love throughout the pre-draft process, there’s a lot to like about his game and his potential as an eventual QB1. The Utah State product checks off a lot of boxes as a mobile playmaker with A-plus arm talent and a creative game. Love’s been loosely compared to Patrick Mahomes (who was compared to Rodgers during his pre-draft evaluation) based on his ability to make remarkable off-platform throws inside and outside of the pocket. Although his turnover woes and disappointing 2019 campaign have led critics to poke holes in his game, a long, hard look at his sophomore season provides a glimpse of what he could become at the next level with more discipline and attention to detail.
Remember, Rodgers wasn’t viewed as a sure thing in 2005 and there were even questions about his long-term potential following the first two seasons of his career in Green Bay. That’s why the Packers‘ gamble on Love and his upside could pay off handsomely down the road if he develops into a solid quarterback after likely serving a two-year apprenticeship behind Rodgers. The salary cap implications associated with dumping No. 12 prior to the end of the 2022 season makes it likely that Love will get at least two seasons to work on his game under LaFleur’s tutelage and the philosophical shift to a more run-oriented approach (see AJ Dillon and Josiah Degura picks) could help the youngster excel in a “stretch-bootleg” scheme that mirrors the system run by the San Francisco 49ers and Los Angeles Rams with quarterbacks Jimmy Garoppolo and Jared Goff, respectively.
Considering Love’s athleticism, arm talent and playmaking ability compared to the aforementioned QB1s, the Packers could have a Super Bowl-caliber quarterback in place to carry them through the next decade.
The Love pick might not rank as a popular one at the moment, but adding a young franchise quarterback to the roster paid huge dividends in Green Bay before. It could happen again with the Utah State product in place as the heir apparent.
2) Eagles creating a QB factory
Maybe the indignation stems from who the Eagles took (Jalen Hurts) with their second-round selection or hearing GM Howie Roseman’s bodacious desire to create a “quarterback factory” in Philadelphia, but the investment in the quarterback position is a sensible move when you survey the landscape of the league. It’s not a coincidence that the teams with the best quarterbacks are routinely in playoff contention due to the QB1’s impact on the outcome of games. Investing in a backup quarterback is like buying insurance on your house — you don’t want to pay the premiums, but you’re thankful for the coverage when disaster strikes.
Considering the Eagles‘ recent history with their starter and his backups, the team certainly understands the value of a quality QB2 and how a capable fill-in can keep title hopes afloat in dire circumstances.
In 2017, Nick Foles guided the Eagles to a Super Bowl LII win while earning Super Bowl MVP honors along the way after Carson Wentz suffered a season-ending knee injury in Week 14. The following season, Foles again stepped in and engineered another playoff run after the franchise quarterback was sidelined in mid-December for the remainder of the season with a back injury.
Although Wentz started every game during the 2019 regular season, he was knocked out of the Eagles‘ wild-card contest, forcing a 40-year-old Josh McCown into action to try and spark the offense as an emergency fill-in.
With those memories freshly etched in the minds of the general manager and head coach, the Eagles wisely made the QB2 position a priority this offseason. But instead of spending big cash on a veteran in free agency, they opted to find a quality (and more affordable) backup in the draft. Considering the going rate for high-end backup QBs is in the $3 million-plus range with the potential to reach into double digits, the Eagles are saving money and securing cost certainty by investing in a young quarterback.
Think about it this way. For a little over $6 million, the Eagles have locked up their QB2 for the next four years. Hurts will count for just under $1.1 million against the salary cap in 2020, per Over The Cap, which is a bargain for a marquee position on the roster.
“For better or worse, we are quarterback developers,” Eagles general manager Howie Roseman told reporters after selecting Hurts. “We want to be a quarterback factory. When we make these kinds of decisions, we always go to our principles and who we are and what we believe in, and right or wrong, this is who we are.”
That statement might be laced with a twinge of arrogance, but I understand and agree with Roseman’s rationale when it comes to devoting resources to the position. Quarterback play ultimately determines the winners and losers in this league, and the smart teams have a deep bullpen. The Eagles are simply going about their business in an unconventional way.
That said, we’ve seen the New England Patriots succeed with a similar approach when they had Jimmy Garoppolo and Jacoby Brissett backing up Tom Brady. The invested Day 2 picks (No. 62 overall for Garoppolo in 2014; No. 91 overall for Brissett in 2016) but were able to get solid performance and value for their investments. The young quarterbacks helped the Patriots earn a 3-1 record in 2016 during Brady’s suspension, and their individual flashes as short-term starters helped the team flip them for a draft pick (Garoppolo traded to San Francisco for a second-round pick) and a player (Brissett traded to Indianapolis for Philip Dorsett).
In Hurts, the Eagles are getting a dual-threat playmaker with a winning pedigree and impeccable character. He led a pair of blue-blood programs (Alabama and Oklahoma) to the College Football Playoffs, while showing gradual improvements as a passer along the way. With the Eagles intent on finding a mobile playmaker to groom behind Wentz, Hurts was a logical choice as a prospect.
“Where the league is going, when he gets experience and coaching, he’s going to be a valuable player,” Roseman said. “Our job is to acquire as many assets as we can and utilize them to get more value. That’s really what the draft is about. It’s about value.”
While some Philly sports fans might be frustrated that their team didn’t address more pressing needs with the selection, the Eagles are hoping that their commitment to fortifying the quarterback position will pay dividends down the road.
“The draft isn’t about just doing whatever is best for a team in the short-term,” Roseman said. “The draft is about making smart, long-term decisions for your organization based on the priorities that you believe [are] key to winning football games. We’ve won a lot of football games around here the last three years, and I feel very confident that the decisions we make are going to serve us well for the short-term and the long-term.”
3) Teams building strength on strength
As a young player with the Green Bay Packers, I remember Hall of Fame executive Ron Wolf telling me how he believed surplus at a position, particularly a position that’s essential to the team’s style of play, was critical to future success. He said stacking “strength on strength ” allows a team to absorb a significant injury to a key player, and also provides the general manager with some potential trade chips if they need to them down the line.
From a game-planning standpoint, the addition of a blue-chip player at a position of depth enables the offensive or defensive coordinator to implement a rotation that eventually wears opponents out. Last year, we watched the San Francisco 49ers add Nick Bosa with the No. 2 overall pick to a defensive line that already featured four former first-rounders. The 2019 Defensive Rookie of the Year enhanced the unit with his savage pass rush skills and fanatical effort on the way to helping the 49ers field the NFL’s second-ranked defense.
This offseason, general manager John Lynch tapped into the defensive line’s superior depth and talent to swap out an emerging superstar (DeForest Buckner) for a first-round pick from the Indianapolis Colts that turned into the Pro Bowler’s replacement (Javon Kinlaw). Although the veteran’s dominant performance won’t be easy to replace, the 49ers might’ve landed a comparable talent at a much cheaper price (Buckner signed a four-year, $84 million deal with the Colts; Kinlaw’s rookie contract is projected to be a four-year deal for around $15 million).
The Niners weren’t the only team to build strength on strength in the draft. Here’s a look at four other teams that added blue-chip players to already-loaded position groups:
Washington Redskins: DE Chase Young. The top-ranked player in the 2020 draft didn’t necessarily fill a position of need for the ‘Skins based on the presence of Montez Sweat and Ryan Kerrigan on the edges, but Ron Rivera couldn’t pass up an opportunity to add a premier pass rusher to the rotation. As an A-plus athlete with an exceptional combination of size, strength and skill, Young has gold jacket potential and his disruptive presence will help the ‘Skins close the gap on their NFC East rivals. With four former first-rounders joining Young on the frontline, the Redskins might be able to follow the blueprint that enabled the 49ers to go to from doormat to contender in a couple of years.
Baltimore Ravens: RB J.K. Dobbins. It’s hard to upgrade a running game that’s already viewed as the best in the business, but Dobbins will give the Ravens‘ offense a little more explosiveness in the backfield. The 5-foot-9, 209-pound workhorse is a dynamic runner with exceptional vision, balance and body control. He finished his Ohio State career as the second-leading rusher in school history on the strength of a junior campaign that culminated in a 2,000-yard season while leading the Buckeyes into the College Football Playoffs. Despite the presence of Mark Ingram, Gus Edwards and Justice Hill in the backfield, the addition of a blue-chip runner to a read-option attack spearheaded by the reigning MVP (Lamar Jackson) could make the Ravens‘ running game downright scary to defend in 2020.
Dallas Cowboys: WR CeeDee Lamb. When the Cowboys re-signed Amari Cooper to a lucrative extension, the team’s work at wide receiver appeared to be done. However, Lamb’s surprising draft-day slide put the Oklahoma star squarely in the team’s crosshairs, and Jerry Jones bypassed more pressing needs to add another point scorer to the lineup. Lamb is a natural WR1 with extraordinary ball skills, hand-eye coordination and running ability. He is a rare playmaker capable of snagging 50-50 balls along the boundary or taking a bubble screen the distance. With Ezekiel Elliott commanding attention as the Cowboys‘ primary offensive weapon, Lamb could join Cooper and Michael Gallup in the 1,000-yard club, with defenses forced to pick their poison when determining whether to stop the run or pass.
Miami Dolphins: CB Noah Igbinoghene. The Dolphins added Byron Jones to a defensive backfield that already featured a Pro Bowler in Xavien Howard, but that didn’t stop GM Chris Grier and coach Brian Flores from selecting another cornerback in Round 1. Igbinoghene is an explosive straight-line athlete with the speed, quickness and burst to run with vertical-stretch players on the perimeter. He is a fearless competitor willing to go nose-to-nose with the receiver at the line but still needs some skill refinement to be a high-end playmaker on the island. That said, the Dolphins‘ decision to use an early pick on a cornerback is another example of a team stockpiling talent at a key position.
4) A ‘players over system’ approach
Most NFL teams identify, evaluate and rank prospects based on the players’ individual talents and traits (physical and mental) and how well those attributes align with the team’s offensive or defensive schemes. Considering how most coaches and executives (sometimes stubbornly) adhere to this philosophy, it was refreshing to see the Dallas Cowboys‘ strategy for the 2020 draft continue their recent transition to a “players over system” approach.
In theory, the decision to value a player’s talents over scheme fit makes the evaluation process so much easier for scouts because they can pick players like they’re filling out their Turkey Bowl squads at the park. Evaluators can simply focus on identifying the blue-chip prospects in the class and select the “BPAs” (best players available) when the team is on the clock.
Using this philosophy puts the emphasis on film study and the creation of unique game plans to maximize a player’s impact potential. Scouts are expected to bring the coaching staff the best football players, and the coaching staff is expected to build or expand the playbook to suit the influx of unique blue-chip players.
Back in January, Mike McCarthy shed light on his team-building philosophy when he was asked how he would go about finding players for his preferred defensive scheme.
“I think if you have a system of defense where you need a certain player to fit your scheme, you’re limiting your personnel department,” McCarthy said at a press conference in January shortly after his hiring. “We know what a Dallas Cowboys football player looks like. The length, the athletic ability. Let’s get as many good football players as we possibly can.”
The coach was adamant about building a roster that features as many stud players as possible — regardless of fit — and his words were more than just coachspeak based on what Cowboys executive vice president of player personnel Will McClay shared with reporters this week.
“When he joined the organization and we started talking about players, one of the first things out of his mouth was ‘players over system,’ ” McClay said on Tuesday, per the team’s website. “Well, that rung a bell with me right away.”
One reason we might not see as many teams deploying a players-over-system approach is that it puts an even larger burden on the coaching staff to adapt in order to maximize the individual and collective talent on the roster. Head coaches must be able to think outside of the box to create opportunities for the best players to get on to the field and must challenge their assistants to consider how a prospect could impact the team in a role that might not already exist in the current playbook.
“That was a unique thing to hear a coach say (players over system), because most of it is system-based when they look at things,” McClay said. “So that opened the door for a lot of things.”
Considering how many talented prospects are dismissed or devalued by teams due to strict schematic standards, the Cowboys‘ against-the-grain approach to the draft could give them the leg up on the competition. In a talent-driven league with razor-thin margins separating the winners from losers, the Cowboys are counting on their coaches to turn a collection of blue-chip prospects into a championship-caliber team through schematic tweaks and on-field development.
If McCarthy and his staff can pull it off, we could see more teams start following the “BPA” model.
Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.