2014 NFL Draft: What makes a "Safe" draft pick?

Leon Sandcastle, the safest pick of all time. - Al Bello

With all the talk that General Manager Jerry Reese needs to be safer and more conservative in the 2014 draft, what does that mean? How can you tell if any player or position is "Safer" than any other?

"I think we have not gotten the production that we wanted out of certain draft slots. We have missed on some guys. We've had some bad luck with second- and third-round picks being hurt, first round picks in the case of Kenny Phillips, who I thought was going to be a Pro Bowl safety for us for years. We have missed on guys, no question about it. There are a few cases where we took a chance, knowing that we were taking a chance, thinking that if we hit on this guy, maybe we'll knock it out of the park. If we miss, we miss, and we missed a few times, but that's going to happen." -- John Mara

That quote set off something like a firestorm surrounding the New York Giants' 2014 NFL Draft. General manager Jerry Reese came under fire for some of the risks he was taking. Common consensus among the media and fans is that Reese needs to be more conservative with this draft and make "safe" picks in this year's draft

While that is an easy thing to say, it begs the question: What is a "safe" draft choice? Does such a thing even exist?

Reese addressed that question in his annual pre-draft press conference:

"You try to limit what risk you take but any time you pick a player, there's a risk. There have been can't-miss players and people have missed drastically with players. We try to get more right than we get wrong but nobody is batting 1.000 in picking personnel.

...

"Yeah, you try to pick the cleanest guy possible in your first few rounds but you get later in the draft, guys have some warts to them in some kind of way in respect to injuries or maybe some off-the-field issues. You feel like you can take a risk on some guys, some talented players with some risk in the latter part of the draft. You try to limit the risk with the first part of your draft."

Reese states the obvious when he says that nobody is going to right all the time, but it's something obvious that needs to be stated. What he doesn't say is how anyone goes about determining how "clean" a player is and how much or little risk they present.

(Hint: it doesn't have (much) to do with how often they shower.)

For me, there's a few things that factor into how much of a risk a prospect might present.

Injury History

The Giants have learned the painful lesson over the last few years: Nothing can derail a young player's career quite as fast injury. Football is a sport that has a 100 percent injury rate. Everyone gets hurt, even "durable" players who rarely (if ever) miss a start. And while it's a virtual certainty that any player you draft will get hurt from time to time, the risk is magnified by prospects with significant injury histories. Certain injuries, such as a torn knee ligament, carry with them an increased risk of re-injury.

A team like the Giants, who have struggled with and can't seem to shake, the injury bug can't afford to bring in additional injury risks.

By example, in 2011 the Patriots selected cornerback Ras-I Dowling out of Virginia with the first pick of the second round. Dowling was regarded as a very high upside player who could be a steal outside of the second round. Unfortunately, he was plagued by injuries in college and was injured at the NFL Combine (which caused his fall out of the first round).

In the NFL, he ended his first two seasons on the injured reserve (never making it past the month of October) before being cut by the Patriots.

Scheme Fit

Teams like the Patriots and Seahawks have been able to be successful by plucking talented players from a variety of places in the draft, then adapting their schemes to fit the players at hand. Few teams are fortunate enough to have coaches who are so willing to abandon their preferred schemes and adapt to their players.

For everybody else, they need to have a firm understanding of who they are as a team, and what roll they want a prospect to fill. While a prospect might be talented, if his game doesn't fit what the team wants them to do, there will be problems.

For instance, for a team with an offensive line built on zone blocking concepts a talented but immobile bulldozer of an offensive lineman would definitely be a risky pick.

Likewise, if a team runs a defense based on Tampa-2 principles, a middle linebacker who might have fantastic instincts and be a terrific down-hill player wouldn't be a "safe" pick at all.

In cases like that the risk isn't with the player himself, but rather that he simply isn't well suited to the how that team plays.

Team Fit

While a player could be a terrific scheme fit, they still might not fit with a specific team. That could be due to their personality clashing with the team's culture. Some players have loud personalities and are more prone to having swagger. Players like that probably wouldn't fit on a team with a more low-key locker room culture.

Can anyone imagine Deion Sanders in a Tom Coughlin locker room?

By the same token, 18 teams passed on Prince Amukamara (who was considered a top-10 pick), due to concerns that his dry "quirky" sense of humor could disrupt locker rooms. He has, however, fit in well in the Giants locker room.

Another reason is that there simply isn't a place for that player on a team. While many positions can be rotated or platooned, there are several that can't be. The quarterback position and offensive line stand out here. A team with an established, franchise QB in his prime would be wasting a high pick on a rookie quarterback, and as the saying goes "If you have two starting quarterbacks, you have none."

If a high pick is invested in a lineman, he has to be able to beat out an existing lineman. He isn't going to be rotated in mid-game like a wide receiver or defensive tackle could be. Doing that could create more problems than it would solve. Offensive lines depend more on chemistry and continuity than individual talent.

The Giants had one of, if not the best, offensive lines in the NFL from 2007-2009. That line wasn't particularly massive or athletic, or even loaded with high draft picks. What they had was incredible chemistry after going three years without any player missing a snap. Each knew exactly what the other four were doing, and five men could play as one.

Physical Ability

The next thing to look for is a player's physical gifts. The NFL is full of fantastic athletes, nearly every NFL player is a great athlete. Even the biggest lineman, if he has a career of any length, has a blend of quickness, power, and balance that few people can ever dream of having.

That is one reason why teams place such a high premium on athleticism in the draft. The greater a prospect's physical tools, the more they can do, the more options they give their team. Now to be sure, there is a lot more to athleticism than how fast a person is, how high they can jump, or how many times they can rep out a bench press. There are also things like their ability to control and contort their body, their flexibilty, and their functional strength.

In 2011 the Giants drafted Tyler Sash, Greg Jones, and Jacquian Williams toward the end of the draft. Of the three, Jones and Sash were regarded as easily the best football players, and despite being athletically limited, very safe picks. Williams, on the other hand, was considered a terrific athlete, but a risky reach. Of the three, Williams has not only had by far the greatest impact, but is also the only one still in the NFL.

Football IQ

This is the flip side of the coin from a player's physical abilities. All the things that separate an "Athlete" from a "Football Player". Things like instincts, technique, and knowledge of the game (schemes, plays, all of that).

A player needs a good football IQ to translate his physical gifts into production on the field. A receiver needs to know how to get off the line of scrimmage, run a correct route, set up a defensive back, and position himself to make the catch. A pass rusher needs to be able to time the snap, identify the play (pass play, run play, play fake, screen), and know how to use various techniques to get off or past blocks to get into the backfield to make the play.

Back in 2008 the New York Jets drafted one of the freakiest athletes ever to play the game in Vernon Gholston. Gholston was drafted sixth overall on the strength of his absolutely rare blend of size and athleticism. However, he lasted only three years in the NFL, recording a total of 42 tackles in 45 games, and never notching a single sack.

Despite his incredible physical gifts, he could never manage the jump from dominating college kids with his superior athleticism to the NFL, where players are on a much more equal footing.

Work Ethic

For me, this is the one that ties it all together. An average athlete who refuses to be out-worked, who throws himself into his training and preparation can become a good, even great player. That is how Antonio Pierce made his living.

A fantastic athlete who devotes himself to perfecting his craft can become a great player. The selection of Jason Pierre-Paul was questioned at best, and more often hated by fans. However, JPP honed his raw athletic talent and drew the praise of his teammates with his work ethic and willingness to learn.

J.J. Watt has probably been the best draft pick in recent memory, That pick was (by and large) detested by Texans fans almost as strongly as the selection of JPP was by Giants fans a year earlier.

This quote by him sums up what I think of when I'm looking for a "safe" player:

"Every single part of my life is calculated, everything. I'm sure part of it is unhealthy, because my personal relationships suffer, I don't have much of a social life. I literally dedicate my life to this game, and you're not going to find me out, you're not going to find me at the bar, you're not going to find me outside my house very often, because if I'm not at the stadium I'm recovering, I'm eating, I'm doing some recovery for my legs, I'm getting my body ready.

I know that I have probably an eight- to 10-year window in this league, and if I want to be what I say I want to be, then I have to commit myself 100 percent. That's why I don't have a girlfriend, because I give my life to this game and I want to be the best in this game, and I know it takes an unbelievable commitment. And so I've sacrificed that stuff. I know I've probably missed out on some great parties and some fun at the bars, but to me getting sacks on Sunday and the opportunity to be an All Pro and the opportunity to get Defensive Player of the Year far outweighs any party I could go to." - JJ Watt

Before the 2011 draft he was regarded as a smart, player with a good build, good technique, and a relentless motor to offset average athleticism. Simply put, he was projected as "solid". What turned Watt into the best defensive player in the game (and one of the best players in the league period), is his relentless work ethic.

And that's what I'm looking for in a "safe" player. I think of a player with the physical tools to thrive in the league, the mind to grasp the game at its highest level, and the drive to never be out-worked in the gym, the film room, or on the field.

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