“We took the best player available.”
It’s a phrase uttered numerous times every year by the Buffalo Bills and every other team in the league during press conferences conducted after the NFL Draft has concluded. Teams annually can’t believe how fortunate they were to have their preferred player still on the board at their selection. Every year, everything works out magically for all 32 teams that selected exactly their targeted player and nobody else. They’ll tell you that they took the best player available.
It’s also complete hogwash.
Teams taking “the player they believe will give their team the best chance to improve using the capital on the table for expenditure” is not the same as teams taking “the best player available.” Most NFL fans know this. This article is not intended to draw a conclusion that most have already drawn. Many will already tell you that a balance has to be struck between taking the best player available and lining up those players selected to accommodate for teams needs, whether those needs be today or in the future.
Instead, this article is designed to outline the two diametrically opposed philosophies in a practical and visual manner. In doing so, we will uncover multiple factors that must be accounted for while drafting in addition to the two concepts of “best player available” and “need”. With these new factors at our disposal, we will be able to better visualize the complexity of drafting. We will complete two mock drafts as part of this exercise: one in which we select the best player available on a selected big board regardless of position, and one where we select a player at the top of the selected needs list while accounting for already selected positions. It’s a pure BPA mock versus a pure needs mock.
For the mock drafting tool, we’ll be using the Pro Football Focus (PFF) mock draft simulator. For the needs list, we’ll be using the team needs outline from The Draft Network (TDN). No trades will be completed to ensure the same number of players are selected in both exercises with identical draft positions.
We will first be completing a mock that only takes the best player available at each pick on the PFF board at the time of the pick:
I cannot imagine many in Bills Mafia who would be overall pleased with this draft outcome. Not only did the Bills pass on USC wide receiver Jordan Addison and Oklahoma offensive tackle Anton Harrison with their first pick, they selected a player who, while the best player on the board, might be a better fit as a five-technique defensive end in a 3-4 defense. This brings up nicely the idea that “schematic fit” is an additional factor to consider when making a pick that might push a team off of purely the “best player available.”
In the second round, the most inane pick of the draft occurred when the Bills selected quarterback Tanner McKee from Stanford. Even though McKee has some defenders and is QB5 for some in this class, the Bills spending a Day 2 pick on a player to back up franchise star quarterback Josh Allen would surely be met with great disdain. After taking an interior defensive lineman in Round 1, the Bills passed on Wisconsin’s Keanu Benton at pick 59 along with Washington State linebacker Daiyan Henley and edge rusher Derick Hall from Auburn. This pick outlines how “path to playing time” can be a big factor when selecting a player in the NFL Draft.
The Bills already have an outside cornerback recovering from an ACL tear, but decided to double up on that factor when they selected Garrett Williams, a cornerback from Syracuse. After selecting press man cornerback Kaiir Elam out of Florida in the first round in 2022, the Bills do the exact opposite and pick a player who plays best when his back isn’t to the quarterback. To make this selection, they passed on two other linebackers in Dorian Williams from Tulane and DeMarvion Overshown from Texas, along with tackle Wanya Morris from Oklahoma, and wide receiver Jayden Reed from Michigan State.
Anthony Johnson Jr. is a player who could absolutely provide immediate depth behind Jordan Poyer and Micah Hyde while providing a potential developmental starter for the road to come. Kobie Turner is an undersized defensive tackle who will remind fans of the undelivered (up to this point) Ed Oliver promises and doesn’t seem to jibe with the potential size decrease coming at the linebacker position for the team in 2023. He also created numbers issues at the IDL position, with the Bills typically only carrying four on the active roster and now having selected two in the draft, identifying “numbers” as a factor in deciding which player to pick. Cory Trice feels like a throwback to the Legion of Boom Seattle Seahawks defensive backfield with size and length for days, but lacks the tackling aggression that head coach Sean McDermott typically wants to see in his cornerbacks.
Overall, this draft collects the talent (at least on paper), but lacks cohesion and a plan. Unlike many drafts, every single pick has starter traits, with none of them a clear “backup/special teams” pick. But they don’t necessarily fit with where the Bills are now in regards to scheme nor where they’re going with succession needs overall. In addition, multiple positions that are perceived as being needs (linebacker, wide receiver, offensive line) weren’t addressed at all.
Let’s examine Buffalo’s depth chart after a draft like this, using only the players currently on the roster in addition to the drafted players:
- QB: J. Allen, McKee, K. Allen, Barkley
- RB: Harris, Cook, Hines
- FB: Gilliam
- WR: Diggs, Davis, Shakir, Harty, Sherfield, Johnson, Coulter, Patmon
- TE: Knox, Morris, Davidson
- T: Dawkins, Brown, Doyle, Quessenberry, Van Demark, Anderson
- IOL: McGovern, Morse, Bates, Edwards, Mancz, Boettger
- DE: Miller, Rousseau, Basham, Epenesa, Jonathan
- IDL: Jones, Oliver, Bresee, Turner, Phillips, Settle, Ankou, Bryant, Vickers, Broughton
- LB: Milano, Dodson, Bernard, Matakevich, Spector
- CB: White, Elam, Jackson, Johnson, Neal, Benford, Williams, Trice, McMichael, Ingram
- S: Hyde, Poyer, Johnson, Hamlin, Rapp, Lewis, Anderson
- P: Martin
- K: Bass
- LS: Ferguson
Keep that roster in mind as we move on to our mock draft where we will only take the top unmet need on the TDN needs list:
The needs as currently listed on the TDN needs list are, in order:
The Bills do not have eight picks in the 2023 NFL Draft, so tight end and offensive tackle did not get addressed in this exercise. All other needs were addressed in the order they were placed on the needs list.
In the first round, the Bills picked a guard who, while a good player, doesn’t seem to fit the archetype that the team currently targets under offensive line coach Aaron Kromer. In the second round, they took a chance on an extreme size outlier at wide receiver. They ended up with Kobie Turner in this mock in the same way they did in the first mock, but a full two rounds earlier than he was selected prior. This adds “opportunity cost” to the factor list we are creating. The Bills had players like Wake Forest wide receiver A. T. Perry, Alabama safety Jordan Battle, Michigan State wide receiver Jayden Reed, Ole Miss receiver Jonathan Mingo, and Alabama linebacker Henry To’oTo’o all on the board at pick 91 but because IDL was next up on their list, they took a player when we just outlined a scenario where he’s available 78 picks later.
They filled their need at linebacker on paper with the selection of Ivan Pace Jr. But Pace represents the second extreme size outlier picked in this draft. If Pace is going to succeed at the next level, he’ll need to be incredibly protected by the defensive line holding up blockers in front of him, allowing him to flow to the ball. The Bills often ask their middle linebacker to cover more than one gap so that their defensive line is free to attack singular gaps. As mentioned above and potentially as outlined again with the Torrence pick, “schematic fit” is still a factor in drafting players. And even if it looks like you filled a positional need on paper, you may not have filled it in actuality with the players you chose and how they fit what you ask them to do.
Viliami Fehoko is an edge player who shockingly fits the Bills’ preferred archetype in that position. Much like A. J. Epenesa and Gregory Rousseau before him, Fehoko is a player some teams might have pegged as a 3-4 base end with his size (6’4”, 276 pounds) and length (33” arms). The Bills could ask him to slim down a la Epenesa, but they’ve been down this road before and the redundancy in traits seems slightly odd. This pick makes the most sense predictively though, and like all of our other picks this time around, it fills a need.
Evan Hull profiles as an RB3/4 with special teams potential at the next level, but would fight to be active on a weekly basis as the clear RB4 for the Bills. The last RB4 the Bills had (Taiwan Jones) managed to carve out an active role every week as a gunner, but it appears probable that Jones’ role was replaced in free agency through the acquisition of Trent Sherfield, leaving questions as to Hull’s potential place on this roster.
So the Bills’ roster as it currently stands now with the addition of these players looks like this:
- QB: J. Allen, K. Allen, Barkley
- RB: Harris, Cook, Hines, Hull
- FB: Gilliam
- WR: Diggs, Davis, Shakir, Harty, Dell, Sherfield, Johnson, Coulter, Patmon
- TE: Knox, Morris, Davidson
- T: Dawkins, Brown, Doyle, Quessenberry, Van Demark, Anderson
- IOL: McGovern, Morse, Bates, Torrence, Edwards, Mancz, Boettger
- DE: Miller, Rousseau, Basham, Epenesa, Fehoko, Jonathan
- IDL: Jones, Oliver, Turner, Phillips, Settle, Ankou, Bryant, Vickers, Broughton
- LB: Milano, Dodson, Bernard, Matakevich, Pace Jr., Spector
- CB: White, Elam, Jackson, Johnson, Neal, Benford, McMichael, Ingram
- S: Hyde, Poyer, Hamlin, Rapp, Lewis, Anderson
- P: Martin
- K: Bass
- LS: Ferguson
Take a gander at both rosters as they are now constructed after our two branching timelines. You will likely be of the opinion that the second mock draft is the ideal one, and I would agree with that. The idea that the team takes the “best player available” has always been nonsensical. If they did, more drafts would include quarterbacks inexplicably taken high, much like the McKee pick. We outlined multiple other factors that are either being ignored or minimized through our usage of the pure “best player available” method:
- Schematic fit
- Path to playing time
All of which are hurting the efficiency of your expenditures. If Tanner McKee ends up being a good player, his ability to actually impact the team and provide surplus value during his rookie contract is greatly diminished by the presence of Josh Allen on the roster. If you draft too many bodies at one position, you may be forced to cut a good player while a lesser player remains on your team in a different position or trade that excess player for a diminished value. Either way, you run the risk of improving other teams around the league. You might pick a player who, while talented, doesn’t do the things you need them to do well to be able to make an impact within the structure of the offense or defense (the same structure that was built to accentuate the players already existing on your roster), leading to muddy and disjointed schemes.
But even with the second mock draft where all positional needs were filled, we still ran into schematic fit issues in addition to the biggest issue with drafting for need:
The Bills drafting Kobie Turner two full rounds before they may have needed to do so greatly impacted the amount of overall talent they added to the team in the second mock draft. You can see this reflected in the overall PFF grades of each draft. The second one clearly addressed more needs for the team but did so at the cost of adding the most talent. The mock draft simulator recognizes this total talent addition and awards the first draft the higher grade due to it.
The truth is that very few members of Bills Mafia surveyed with these mock draft results were pleased with either one of them, but we knew that would be the case. Earlier in this article, I said the following:
This article is not intended to draw a conclusion that most have already drawn. Many will already tell you that a balance has to be struck between taking the best player available and lining up those players selected to accommodate for teams needs, whether those needs be today or in the future.
Instead, this article is designed to outline the two diametrically opposed philosophies in a practical and visual manner.
The article was not intended to prove a point. It was intended to visualize a point most already knew to be true in a vague way.
It was intended to strengthen the idea that drafting isn’t as simple as a bumper sticker slogan can make it by putting to paper what those bumper sticker slogans get you and how utilization of them in their truest forms leads to decisions that are rife with inefficiencies.
Most already knew that either extreme would result in suboptimal mock draft results for differing reasons. But the actual execution of these mock drafts using these philosophies has shown us exactly how these extremes would manifest and why it’s so important to strike a balance between the two poles. That balance must take into account the other factors we uncovered through this exercise: schematic fit, path to playing time, numbers, and opportunity cost.
So with the above additions, we now have, at minimum, six individual factors at play when deciding who to pick at a particular pick in the NFL Draft. What it means is that reductive statements like “just take the best player available” or “we can’t draft a wide receiver in the first round because we have bigger needs” will always fail to hold water in meaningful discussions about ideal draft pick usage. Drafting has been and will remain a complicated marriage of many competing priorities in a limited resource environment.
...and that’s the way the cookie crumbles. I’m Bruce Nolan with Buffalo Rumblings. You can find me on Twitter and Instagram @BruceExclusive and look for new episodes of “The Bruce Exclusive” every Thursday on the Buffalo Rumblings podcast network!