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Saturday, April 23, 2005

Draft Steals

Who will prove to be this year's steal in the NFL draft?

It's hard to say, because there's always someone who played at Western Carolina, Tennessee-Chattanooga, Harvard, UTEP, or even a Michigan, Georgia or Arizona who gets overlooked and ends up being a Pro-Bowler. SI.Com offers a list of the top 20 steals in the draft over the past 20 years, and most are household names if you're a football fan.

Clyde Simmons, Terrell Owens, Matt Birk, Seth Joyner, Tom Brady, Hines Ward and Tedy Bruschi are among the names on the list. It's an impressive group.

Bill Belichick is a master of finding late-round value, as was one-time Eagles' coach Buddy Ryan (whose principal flaw was that he never paid much attention to his underperforming offense in his drafts) and one-time Cowboys' coach, Jimmy Johnson, perhaps the all-time master at finding late-round value.

Let's take at face value the comment that the average career of an NFL player is about 4 years. There are many players, of course, who only last for cups of coffee at different franchises. They either get hurt badly enough to end their careers or aren't good enough to be more than a periodic fill in. I don't have any hard numbers on this, but let's further suppose that you can get 7 to 8 years out of your first-round picks because they are elite players who aren't susceptible to falling into the "not good enough" category that brings down the average number of years in an NFL career.

If that's so, then at best, barring free agency, you can have eight first-round picks on your active roster of 53 players. My guess is that some injuries will befall your first-through-third round picks, you'll trade a few, a few will leave in free agency, and a few will prove not to be good enough after a few years. So, for any given eight-year span, if you have 24 of those picks (8 in each of the first three rounds), perhaps only 16 of those guys are on your roster during at any one time.

16 down, 37 to go to complete your active roster. In the current version of the NFL draft, the first three rounds are held on Saturday, the final four on Sunday. And that means that you'll need excellent second days (and signings of undrafted free agents) if you want to consistently field an elite team. Which means, of course, that you'll have to look hard for value on the second day.

It's no wonder, then that NE's Director of Player Personnel, Scott Pioli, makes $800,000 a year and was offered $1.5 million a year to become president of the Seattle Seahawks. Year-in and year-out, it seems that Pioli and Belichick are able to find gems in the draft from "tweener" sized players from out of the way schools.

They are, in a way, football's version of Billy Beane. Beane, of course, has to do more with less with the Oakland Athletics, because there are serious revenue imbalances in baseball that don't exist in football and there isn't the hard salary cap in baseball that there is in football. So, let's concede that from a competitive standpoint, the job that Pioli and Belichick have is easier relative to that of Beane. But where the comparison begins and is solid is that Belichick and Pioli don't always go with the flow and use the same metrics to value players as other teams do (if they did, their squad wouldn't have won three Super Bowls in the past four years). True, they won't draft a player before they have to (i.e., giving up too much value), but they find the players who can flat out play, regardless of whether their college competition was of BCS Bowl quality and whether their measurements are "classic" for a position. In similar fashion, Beane looks at a bunch of variables in evaluating players that have differed from the traditional scouting techniques.

Which takes us back to the initial question. Who will prove to be the steals in this year's NFL draft?

To answer that question, take a look at the second-day picks of the New England Patriots, and then follow up in about three years.

Because one of those players is as likely as anyone to join SI's list.


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