The smartest-drafting teams are often the most successful, but an eye for talent and a capacity to develop aren't the only factors. Coaches, GMs, and front offices need ammunition in order to acquire the most talent for their clubs each year.
So, which team is best positioned heading into the draft? It's a question of value vs. volume. Are the Titans, who sit at the top of every round, best equipped? There's a tremendous amount of value in being one of those teams picking really early on, sure. That's where the absolute top talent lives.
But, for the teams with keen scouting eyes, having a higher number of picks can mean they're stocking their team with depth for years to come, and they have some built-in allowance for errors. Does that mean the 49ers, with 12 total picks, are prepped to improve the most? Even if they only "hit" on six of their 12 picks, those six starters or key role players will be under club control for four years at bargain rates. Think about what that does for the health of your salary cap. The Titans, who have just eight picks, don't have that same margin for error. They've got to hit on closer to 100 percent of their picks.
Looking at it another way, are the Rams or Patriots, both with two second-round picks each, flying under the radar in terms of their power positions going into the draft? Is the real meat of the NFL Draft right in that second, third, and fourth round range?
Now that the dust has mostly settled with trades and the doling out of compensatory picks, we have a better idea on which teams are armed to the teeth and which teams are bringing a knife to a gun fight. There are several ways of determining the value of a teams' picks, so let's take a look at which teams are in the best shape.
Some of the best teams of the past five or 10 years employ a volume drafting strategy. Green Bay, Seattle, New England, Baltimore, Cincinnati, Denver and San Francisco tend to look to accumulate draft picks in order to build out the depth on their roster. The idea here is to try to stay out of the risky waters of big-time free agency and build a home-grown nucleus to depend on.
This season, you see a lot of those familiar names among the teams with the most total draft picks. The 49ers, despite a few down years, continue to employ the volume strategy and lead the NFL with 12 total picks. That haul includes one pick in the first, second and third rounds, two picks in the fourth, three picks in the fifth and four sixth-round picks. It skews toward the middle and late rounds, but Trent Baalke has the potential to add 12 talented players to his roster, filling out some starter positions while bolstering depth, both things San Francisco desperately needs.
Next up on that list is New England, with 11 total picks, which is pretty remarkable considering they had their first rounder taken from them in the Deflategate scandal. A big portion of their capital comes in the form of compensatory picks (four), and the Patriots' selections skew toward the back of the draft. Bill Belicheck and the Patriots scouting team will have the chance to make hay in the sixth (five picks) and seventh rounds (two picks).
The future could be bright if you're a Browns fan, because this year they have a solid amount of picks (10) and new front office personnel in there making the selections. The Lions and Broncos also look poised to improve their rosters with 10 picks each. The Cowboys, Ravens, Eagles, Bears, Seahawks and Packers all have nine picks each.
Meanwhile, Carolina, Arizona, the Jets, the Colts, the Rams, Saints and Giants all have just six picks each. The Falcons have the fewest picks of anyone with just five selections. That's got to be a pretty frustrating feeling for Dan Quinn and company.
Now, while volume is nice, and the Seahawks, Packers, and Broncos all have a lot of ammo, it's clear that not all draft picks are created equal. The early round selections, just in terms of pure value, are worth a whole lot more to coaches and general managers. That's where the premium talent can most consistently be found.
It's not 100 percent consistent but the Jimmy Johnson Trade Value Chart is still pretty widely used by NFL teams when going about making trades on draft day. Back in 1989, Johnson took some of the out-dated trade charts and updated them using research that he and others had done at the time. It may not be the most accurate judgement of each pick's value at the end of the day, but it's still used as a baseline by front offices.
Using that trade value chart, we can approximate value for each individual pick in the upcoming NFL Draft. The first overall pick has an exponentially higher value than that of the first pick in the second round, for instance, and the scale starts at 3,000 before dropping to 2,600 for the second overall pick. It goes to 1,800 for No. 3, 1,700 for No. 4, and continues on a sliding scale until it reaches 1 point for each pick toward the end of the seventh round.
The first few picks are worth way more than subsequent picks, and thus, teams picking near the top of the draft, and near the top of each subsequent round, are going to have a lot more "capital" with which to use.
That explains why Tennessee, Cleveland, San Diego and Dallas have the most total draft capital this year.
In fact, the top seven picks end up having the seven highest numbers in draft capital of all teams this year. The one team that shoots up the "draft order" are the Rams, who have four picks in the top-76 selections (they picked up Philly's second-rounder in the Nick Foles-Sam Bradford trade last year). The Rams pick 15th, but have the eighth most draft capital of all teams.
Other than the Rams, there aren't really too many surprises in the total draft capital list here. Those first-round picks are just so disproportionately high in worth that even if a team is rich in the latter parts of the draft, their overall capital can't challenge those early-picking teams.
With that in mind, let's take a look past the first round.
It's not just about the first round
The first round is notoriously rife with busts. First-round picks come with great expectations — with good cause, those picks are worth a lot according to the trade value chart — and there have been too many failures therein to even mention here. Some teams have had a lot of luck, others have had nothing but bad luck, and other teams are just bad when it comes to making their selections in that first round. It is undoubtedly the most important round, but because of the crazy miss rate, let's just, for now, ignore it and look at all the rounds following.
Take another look at the graph above. The darker red bars on the graph show how much capital teams have after the first round of the draft.
As you can see, the Rams and their four picks within the draft's top 76 selections have the most draft capital on days two and three. Can Les Snead and Jeff Fisher start turning that capital into playoffs wins? Well, if the last five years is any indication ... probably not.
Apart from the Rams, the big mover is obviously the Patriots. They go from not even picking on the first day of the draft to having four picks on day two (rounds two and three). They have the 60th, 61st (from the Cardinals), 91st and 96th pick of the draft, so that is going to be a fun day for New England fans.
In fact, the Patriots are one of just four teams with four top-100 picks, joining the Rams (already discussed), the Seahawks, and the Broncos.
Both Seattle and Denver make big jumps in the "draft capital" ranking list in terms of rounds 2-7 because of this. They'll both pick three times on Day Two, the Seahawks owning the 56th, 90th and 97th picks, while the Broncos own the 63rd, 94th and 98th picks.
So, while the Pats, Seahawks and Broncos are automatically at a draft capital disadvantage by doing so well in 2015, they have made up for it with smart maneuvering and with the help of the compensatory draft pick process, and look poised to make some noise with their day two selections.
One other team worth mentioning here again is San Francisco, who owns the third highest amount of day two and day three draft capital. Trent Baalke is going to have a chance to give Chip Kelly some good players.
On the other side of the coin, look at Arizona. Not only do they own just six picks total, their draft value worth is pitiful. They don't have a second rounder, then they pick near the end of the third, fourth, fifth and sixth rounds. Steven Keim and Bruce Arians are going to have to work some magic.
The NFL wants parity, so the teams that did the worst in 2015 more or less have the most draft ammo in 2016. That's the goal, and that's pretty much what's happened.
The Browns, Chargers, and Cowboys all have a ton of capital with which to improve their teams in 2016 as well. The 49ers have accumulated a ton of volume as well — so while their total value might not outpace others, they're building in a little room for error and even a few "hits" could improve their roster dramatically.
A few teams, like the Patriots, Seahawks, and Broncos are all pretty well armed for the latter parts of the draft as well, despite their strong finishes in 2015.
On the other hand, the Falcons have just five total picks, and the Cardinals' decision to give up a second-rounder for Chandler Jones leaves them with little ammo. Let's just say two now have a crow-bar and an ax, and they're the NFL's version of slathering yourself in blood and guts and making a run for it in the hopes the zombies don't smell your living flesh.
Regardless, whether you're a long-suffering fan of a cellar-dwelling franchise, a follower of a club that's coming off of a down year, or a devotee of one of the league's top-echelon teams, the NFL Draft can change everything. Every pick counts.
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