By John Errico // @MikeZimmersEars
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There have been many debates over the years. Waffles or pancakes? Chocolate or peanut butter? Tastes great or less filling? Allow me to add one more related to the NFL draft: Best available or fill needs?
I decided to dig into which strategy works better by researching ten years of drafts from 2009 through 2019. I chose the best team in each NFL division based on the overall record from that same period. I first looked at statistics for each season for these eight teams.
Items such as points scored and allowed, offensive and defensive rankings in each season, sacks allowed and recorded, and depth issues formed the baseline for what I saw as team needs for each draft. Any player chosen that would help improve the team in any of these areas was seen as a need pick, not a best available. Here are the teams and my analysis:
Philadelphia Eagles: The Eagles have led the way in the NFC East for the past decade, including a Super Bowl ring after the 2017 season. Over this time they drafted 80 players, 50 of which I saw as need picks due to depth issues at wide receiver and running back, secondary problems, and offensive line weaknesses among other things.
Percentage-wise, most of their need picks were made within the first three rounds, with 23 of 28 players (82.1%) taken being necessary for improvement. Only 51.9% of their picks beyond the third round were seen as needed.
Seattle Seahawks: The Seahawks are the premier squad in the NFC West for this decade with a Super Bowl ring after the 2013 season. During this time they found their franchise quarterback in Russell Wilson. They’ve also struggled to find him an offensive line and top-level wide receivers since taking him, ranking in the bottom quarter of the league in passing offense and allowing 40 or more sacks six times during his tenure.
The Seahawks made only seven first-round picks during this decade but all seven were seen as need picks. They’ve loaded up on the back end with 66 picks made from the fourth round on, but only 32 of them are seen as need picks (48.5%). In all the Seahawks have drafted 97 players during the research period with 52 of them being needs.
Green Bay Packers: Green Bay has had its ups and downs but hold the best record in the NFC North and a Super Bowl title over the past decade. They’ve had some depth issues on offense, lack of strength in the running game and pass blocking, and various problems with pass defense.
The Packers have used the first two rounds of the draft to fulfill needs with 19 of 22 choices (86.4%) going towards team flaws. They’ve also made need a priority on day three of the draft, with 20 of 29 picks (69.0%) of those picks aimed at filling holes. In total, the Packers have made 89 draft picks with 55 (61.8%) being used on team needs.
New Orleans Saints: The Saints have ruled the NFC South over these past ten seasons, although they have not played in a Super Bowl. During this period they’ve experienced problems with pass defense and consistency in the running game at various times.
They’ve made 11 first-round picks during the research period with 10 being need choices. From the second round on, only 27 of the 50 picks taken (54.0%) are seen as need picks. The Saints have made the fewest draft choices among the teams in the study with only 61 players chosen.
Houston Texans: The best team in the AFC South over the past decade has been the Houston Texans, despite not qualifying for the Super Bowl (NOTE: This is the only division in the NFL not to have a Super Bowl representative in the past decade).
The Texans have run into problems with their pass defense and offensive line in the past ten years. In terms of percentage, Houston has used the first two rounds almost exclusively for need with 16 of 19 (84.2%) players taken. However, when it comes to the 5th and 6th rounds, the Texans appear to go with available talent as only 10 of the 25 (40.0%) players chosen filled needs.
Kansas City Chiefs: The AFC West has seen the Chiefs emerge as the current elite team culminating in a Super Bowl ring after the 2019 season. Problems with both passing offense and defense, as well as the offensive line, have been the bigger issues for the Chiefs.
They’ve used 12 of 17 (70.6%) of their first- and second-round choices as need picks over the past decade. Of the 36 choices the Chiefs have had from the 4th through 6th rounds, half have gone towards need. Of all the teams in the survey, Kansas City has made the most need picks in the 7th round in terms of percentage at 66.7%.
Pittsburgh Steelers: The Pittsburgh Steelers slipped past the Baltimore Ravens for the best record in the AFC North during the decade. Their biggest areas of concern over the period related to depth and age at certain positions.
Pittsburgh has gone after need with 15 of 19 (78.9%) of its picks used in the first two rounds. When it comes to the 3rd round, Pittsburgh appears to grab the best talent on the board. The team has made 13 picks in that 3rd round but only four (30.8%) filled actual team weaknesses. In all, they’ve made 83 draft choices in the study period with 46 (55.4%) of them going towards team needs.
New England Patriots: The most successful team not just in the AFC East but overall in this study is the New England Patriots. The team made five Super Bowl appearances and won three Super Bowl rings between the 2010-2019 seasons.
New England is the only team that has not made at least half of its picks based on need. In fact, only the 5th round has seen the Patriots fill a need more than 50% of the time with four of seven picks going towards filling holes. In total, the Patriots have taken 87 players during the study period with just 34 (39.1%) being taken out of necessity.
The eight teams in this article have made 650 draft choices over the past decade. Among those taken, 363 (55.8%) filled clear team holes. The first two rounds were most often need picks as 115 of 156 (73.7%) fit the criteria. By the time these teams hit the 6th and 7th rounds, need became less important with 89 of 207 (43.0%) among this group being chosen based on talent.
So what is the answer to the best draft strategy? While most of the teams on this list have gone need over talent, the most successful of the bunch took the best player on their board more often than not. Maybe the Patriot Way is the best way.