How Bad Process led to the Worst Picks of the 2021 NFL Draft.

In life process doing things the right way matters. Sure you might have lucked out and got good results occasionally on a school test you hadn’t studied for, but if you put the work in every time you will always end up doing better. It’s the same in the real world. Sometimes you might fall into a great opportunity for a job by knowing the right person or being in the right place out of coincidence, but more often than not those who work harder will get where they want to be first. That rule is exactly the same in the NFL Draft. Over the long run, the teams who follow the right process will always come out on top. Those who don’t will inevitably fail at some point. To elucidate this point I have decided to take five of my least favourite picks from this years draft, and explain the five different examples of bad draft process behind them which makes them so poor. Let’s get into it…

Round 1, Pick 9 – Denver Broncos: Patrick Surtain II, CB – Alabama

On the face of this, Patrick Surtain appears to be an absolute slam dunk pick for the Broncos. With excellent traits and strong college production Surtain was the cleanest defensive prospect in this draft, and even brings strong NFL bloodlines with him to the league. The Broncos needed to keep investing in their secondary, which is always good process regardless of how strong you think you are there, and so taking Surtain was an excellent pick. Well, without context that is. With context this is one of the worst picks of the entire draft. Not because of Patrick Surtain, he’s a wonderful player, but because of the player that was staring them right in the face. Justin Fields.

Justin Fields was my QB4 in this draft, but in my mind still ranked ahead of Tua Tagovailoa and Justin Herbert from last years draft as a prospect. In most years he would be in hot contention for the first overall pick, yet somehow he slipped to the Broncos at 9. Taking Fields should have been a slam dunk pick for Denver who possess one of the most complete rosters in the NFL, but are just that one piece away from being contenders. That piece was Justin Fields. Instead they passed on him in favour of a Quarterback room currently consisting of Drew Lock, Teddy Bridgewater and Brett Rypien. At this point, that’s probably the worst in the entire league.

Drew Lock was objectively one of the worst starting Quarterbacks in the league last year, consistently holding back an offence that should have been one of the best in the NFL. There’s clearly talent within him, but the Broncos have no obligation to develop him further when they’ve already seen what he is at this point. When a prospect as rare as Fields is there for the taking, who is undeniably better than what you have in Lock, you have to take that leap. Quarterback is the most important position in the NFL, and you can’t afford to settle for mediocrity. Especially when that might be sugarcoating what Drew Lock is at this point. Passing on such a special talent because Drew Lock might become something against all evidence is terrible process. Denver had a great draft after Day 1, but in the years to come it will be defined by passing on Justin Fields.

Round 1, Pick 24 – Pittsburgh Steelers: Najee Harris, RB – Alabama

Do you ever just get the urge to drive out into the middle of nowhere, walk across a couple of fields, and scream into the abyss knowing nobody can hear you? That’s how I feel every single time a team takes a running back in the first round. Well, apart from this time. This time I had my Bengals hat on over my draft analyst hat and just burst out laughing, because this was possibly the worst pick the Steelers could have made. It isn’t just an issue of the running back position being significantly less valuable to teams than others however. It’s an issue of causality.

The Steelers picked Najee Harris because their run game was basically a non-factor last year, which meant that Defences were more than happy to drop linebackers into coverage to defend against the pass. That, alongside Big Ben’s lack of ability throwing down the field and unwillingness to consistently run play action, meant the Steelers had to depend on a very inefficient dink and dunk method of moving down the field. That inability to run the ball therefore prevented them from becoming an explosive offence, which led to the team collapsing late on in the season. Naturally then investing in creating a strong run game is a very good idea. Here’s the crux of the point though. The Steelers running woes were not caused by James Conner. They were caused by the poor play of the offensive line.

Running backs can have an impact impact on football games, but they are significantly impacted by the play of others around them. More so than any other position in football. They depend on having good run blocking in front of them to create movement at the line of scrimmage and provide gaps for them to hit. The Steelers offensive line was dreadful at that last year, ranking 31st in the league in PFF run blocking grades, and that inability to be a force in the trenches was a far bigger factor than whoever was running the rock. What’s worse is that the Steelers line got significantly worse during the off-season with Maurkice Pouncey, Matt Feiler and Alejandro Villanueva all out of the door. You wouldn’t think it possible for this line to get worse, but it did. So regardless of how much talent you add to your backfield, the only way to improve your running game is to invest in an offensive line. Anything else is superfluous. I like Najee Harris as a prospect, but this pick was like sticking a band aid on a broken leg.

Round 1, Pick 25 – Jacksonville Jaguars: Travis Etienne, RB – Clemson

I don’t want to harp on about how drafting running backs in the first round is a terrible idea, because at this point I’m just banging my head against the wall for no reason, but the Jaguars pick of Etienne touched on another aspect of bad draft process that I thought would be interesting to touch on. There’s a reason the Jaguars were picking first overall, and a reason why they had a lot of draft capital up their sleeves. They’re an awful football team. Now I don’t think they’re quite as bad as it may appear, if they hadn’t benched Minshew to tank they might have had a few more wins, but there are still a huge amount of holes on that roster. They need a new Left Tackle, would like some more weapons for Trevor, and have more holes on defence than a broken sieve. Jacksonville has so many needs on their roster, and therefore needed to swing hard at valuable positions with their high end draft capital. Even though they had two first rounders, you can’t treat that as some sort of plaything to have fun with.

There is no such thing as a luxury pick when you are rebuilding a roster from the ground up. Every pick has to work within the parameters of your cost-benefit calculations, and taking a Running Back in the first is sacrilegious in those terms. The potential impact of a running back is so low compared to a left tackle or cornerback that there is no way that using such an important pick on one can every have the same potential benefit as getting a player at a more valuable position. I had this debate with fellow Full 10 Yards writer Raj on our latest podcast, and he made the point that if the Jaguars were able to get a good tackle and defensive playmaker in the second round we could look at the entire haul in it’s entirety and say it brought good value. Now if the Jags had taken Christian Barmore and Samuel Cosmi in the second the draft it would have looked like a great draft, but regardless it was still bad process. In the end the Jags helped out my point by taking a third round corner and a left tackle who hasn’t played football in nearly two years in the second. Those picks did not provide good value for the draft capital they possessed.

The fact you have more picks doesn’t mean you can take on luxuries like this. If you have more picks, use them on more valuable positions. Get your future left tackle on a contract with a fifth year option. Ensure you get the best corner on your board and prevent yourself taking Tyson Campbell at 33. Trade down and add more capital even. Just don’t waste them on a running back. Especially when you already have a pretty good one that went undrafted last year. This isn’t Madden. This isn’t some fun luxury pick you can spurn on some speed. This is a franchise level pick you need to invest in a valuable prospect. Etienne was poor process, even excluding the Jags poor second round, and therefore a poor pick.

Round 3, Pick 99 – Dallas Cowboys: Nahshon Wright, CB – Oregon State

Everybody slammed the Las Vegas Raiders for taking Alex Leatherwood at 17 because it was a huge reach on the consensus board, but that was nothing compared to the Cowboys pick of former Beavers corner Nahshon Wright. Wright was ranked outside of the top 300 on the majority of draft boards, and so taking him within the first 100 picks probably ranks as one of the biggest consensus reaches in draft history.

I must admit I had not watched any of Wright’s tape until half an hour ago, so I wasn’t keen to jump in on the pick until now. Having watched a couple of games I can see the appeal. He’s got excellent length, strong ball skills and plays with ideal physicality. There are some enticing traits here. His agility testing however was dreadful, with his short shuttle and 3 cone ranking in the 2nd and 7th percentiles respectively. Change of direction ability is one of the most important traits in the NFL, and a very predictive statistic to use when evaluating whether college corners will be able to cut it in the NFL. His testing was almost historically bad, and is a serious concern. Add into the fact he isn’t a particularly well developed football player at this point, and you have a serious reach on your hands.

If you love Wright, that’s fine, but don’t waste a third round pick on him when he’s probably going to be there late on Day 3. There were plenty of other players on the board at that point who could have made an impact for the Cowboys at that point, so the correct process would have been to wait on Wright and accumulate higher ranked talent at that point in time. You run the risk of him getting stolen from under your nose, but playing the board gives you a higher percentage chance of hitting on bringing in better talent overall. Picking Wright robbed the Cowboys of getting better value throughout the draft, and is therefore bad process.

Round 5, Pick 149 – Cincinnati Bengals: Evan McPherson, K – Florida

As I’ve made clear, I don’t value running backs. So when I’m sitting by the television praying my Bengals take one they must be special. The fact that Kenny Gainwell had slid to Cincinnati at Pick 149 felt like a miracle, and a perfect opportunity to replace Gio Bernard and add another weapon for Joe Burrow to play with. Instead they picked a kicker. Now I’m a big special teams fan, and a true believer that a draft pick on an elite punter is a good one, but picking a kicker is always bad process.

What’s the difference you ask? Well, it’s pretty easy to translate a punters traits into the NFL. Leg power, touch and hang time are all quantitative data points that directly correspond to a punters abilities, with evaluators able to see punters do exactly what they’ll do in the league in college. Unless they get the yips nothing should change. Kickers however are a different beast. For all the talk of leg talent, accuracy and percentages, there are many other factors that can’t be measured. The difficulty of conditions is one, Alex Kessman was my Kicker 1 in this draft due to his success kicking at the infamously tough Heinz Field, kicking in key moments is the other. For all the natural ability we can talk about, the success of a kicker is defined by their mental toughness and how clutch they are. That’s tough to evaluate in college though, as these data points don’t come around often and don’t hold the same importance when you’re playing for Southern Methodist compared to when playing for the Eagles.

Evan McPherson has never once made a game winning kick in his Florida career. In fact he missed a 51 yarder to tie things up against LSU in 2020. It’s all well and good being able to knock a bottle top off from 30 yards for TikTok, but there’s no evidence as of yet to say he’s a truly clutch kicker. Given that no other kickers were drafted on Saturday, the Bengals would have been better served attacking the priority free agent market by bringing in multiple undrafted kickers. Especially given how tough it has been historically to draft a good kicker. Just ask top prospects like Roberto Aguayo, who never made it in the league at all, and Daniel Carlson, Matt Gay and Jake Elliott who all didn’t make the cut at their original franchises. The likes of Alex Kessman of Pittsburgh, Jose Borregales of Miami and Blake Haubeil of Ohio State were all there. Bring two or three of those guys, plus some other vets, and have an intense kicking battle in camp. Get then in your building, test their mental toughness, and see who can hack the big time. There’s no bigger incentive or pressure than winning a job and keeping your football dreams alive. That’s the best way to find your leg of the franchise.

What do you make of draft process? Let us know @Full10Yards. By Ed Farrar, @Farrardise

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