The 2021 NFL Draft begins in less than a month. That means it’s time to post the updated “Big Blue View Rules for Draft Success.”
If you aren’t familiar with these rules, I created this guide to my draft philosophy several years ago. Each year the rules get tweaked with new examples and, on occasion, modified to reflect the changing realities of the NFL and my evolving beliefs. I also try to relate them to decisions currently faced by the New York Giants as well as ones they have made in recent years. It’s not perfect, and there is plenty of room for debate. If I was a GM, though, these are the rules I would draft by.
1. Draft ‘value’ over perceived need
I always push back against the idea that the Giants need to take position A in Round 1, position B in Round, position C in Round 3, etc. That is how you make mistakes - how you leave better players on the board while selecting lesser ones.
Truth is, you are never certain what your ‘needs’ are going to be in any given NFL season. You never know where injuries may strike, or where players already on your roster may under-perform or over-perform expectations.
One thing that is no doubt true when it comes to assessing ‘value.’ A team’s perception of ‘value’ is impacted by its perception of its ‘needs.’ Teams undoubtedly set their draft boards based somewhat on perceived needs and fits for their systems. As one former scout told me, that is simply human nature. My point is this. If you believe you need a wide receiver, but there is not one on the board who you believe should be drafted at that stage of the draft, you don’t grab a lower-ranked wide receiver. You take a player who, on your board, has a grade that makes him deserving of being picked in that spot. When grades are equal need and scheme fit come into play. At that point, take the player you feel gives you something you don’t already have -- the player who fills a need. Trust your evaluation, try to match value and need whenever possible. Value trumps need, but need is the deciding factor when values are equal.
Giants’ GM Dave Gettleman explained it this way during his 2018 pre-draft press conference:
“You’ve got to stay with the value. You have to stay with the value because you guys have heard a million stories, I’ve heard a million and one and you’ve probably heard half a million where a guy says, ‘Don’t worry, he’ll be there in the next round.’ Then the next round comes around and he ain’t there. You have to stay with your board, you have to stay with value. You can’t get too cute.”
You take ‘value’ over perceived ‘need.’ You hope, of course, that the best players on the board happen to match areas where you believe you have needs. The draft is unpredictable, however, and available value does not always match perceived needs.
I keep reciting it, but former Minnesota Vikings GM Jeff Diamond recently told the story on the ‘Valentine’s Views’ podcast of why he chose Randy Moss in the first round of the 1998 NFL Draft despite already having two star wide receivers. It is worth listening to.
How does that impact this draft? Well, this is the ‘can or should the Giants draft a receiver at No. 11 after signing Kenny Golladay?’ debate. The Giants have needs (edge rusher, guard) bigger than wide receiver, but that doesn’t mean they absolutely have to take an edge rusher or a guard in Round 1. In this spot, you take the player you believe will have the biggest positive impact on your football team.
2. If you don’t have a franchise quarterback, get one
The NFL is a quarterback-driven league. If you don’t have a top-tier one, you cannot have any type of sustained success. You can have a good year, or a good stretch within a year, but you simply can’t be competitive year after year without one. If you need a franchise quarterback, think there is one available when it is your turn to draft, and pass on drafting him shame on you.
This is why the Sam Darnold vs. Saquon Barkley debate took place. It’s why quarterbacks might be the first four players chosen in this draft. It’s why I supported the Giants’ decision to draft Daniel Jones at No. 6 in 2018. Whether or not he turns out to be a top-tier quarterback remains to be seen. The Giants, though, had a need to replace Eli Manning, thought he could be the guy, and went for it. As they should have.
Simply put, quarterback is more valuable than any other position on the field. Having, or not having, one does more to change the fortunes of your franchise than a player at another position possibly could.
The flip side of this rule is do not take the quarterback in the first round unless you are absolutely convinced he can be the face of your franchise for the next decade. You can’t pick a guy just to pick a quarterback or because Mel Kiper, Todd McShay, some other TV talking head, media member or the fan base says you should. You are marrying that player. You are putting the fortunes of the franchise in his hands. If you pick the wrong quarterback, you set your franchise back. Gettleman calls it “a five-year mistake.”
“It’s a massive decision. This is the face of your franchise,” Gettleman said a few years back.
3. Do not take running backs in the first round ... unless they are franchise-changers
This is a modified, softened version of the previous “don’t take running back in the first round” rule. It reflects the reality that teams do it, sometimes with good reason. Like the Giants did with Saquon Barkley.
Here is what I believe. If you are going to invest a first-round pick in a running back — especially a top 10 pick — that guy better be a super star. He better be more than a running back. He better be a franchise-altering three-down back who can be a pivotal part of your passing game. And, you better have the pieces in place at quarterback, offensive line and wide receiver to take advantage of the player’s skills. Draft a running back as early as the Giants drafted Barkley, he better turn out to be a guy who performs at an elite level well into that second lucrative contract you are probably going to have to give him.
The NFL game no longer revolves around the running game. Offenses revolve around the quarterback, the offensive line and the wide receivers. Running backs share the load, with most teams employing two or three and very few dominating the percentage of rushing attempts for his team. Look at offenses, and most of your running backs play fewer snaps than anyone else. Running backs are rarely the centerpiece of an offense, they are complementary players. Barkley’s importance makes the Giants an exception.
I have been told that former Giants GM Ernie Accorsi’s rule was always that quarterback, left tackle and pass rusher were the most important positions, and that running back was near the bottom of the list. The way the game is now played, I would add pass coverage guys (corners and safeties) to the premium positions list.
To get true value from a running back at No. 2 he would have to end up having a career far superior to any player at a premium position who could be taken in that spot. Historically, there are always plenty of quality running backs available in the middle of the draft. Take one then, and use your first pick on an impact player at a more important position.
The Giants are a great example. Tiki Barber, Joe Morris, Ahmad Bradshaw, Brandon Jacobs were not first-round picks. David Wilson, Ron Dayne, Tyrone Wheatley, George Adams, Rocky Thompson and Tucker Fredrickson were first-round picks.
Denver’s Terrell Davis might be the best example. A sixth-round pick in 1995, Davis and the Denver Broncos proved you don’t need a first-round running back to be a great running team. Davis gained more than 1,700 yards in 1997 and more than 2000 in 1998. The Jacksonville Jaguars got 1,070 yards in 14 games last season, 76.4 yards rushing per game, out of James Robinson. He was an undrafted rookie.
Did the Giants do the right thing drafting Barkley? To be honest, probably not. They probably could have accelerated their rebuild by trading out of that spot in the 2018 draft and acquiring additional draft picks. As great as he is, that will always be a question if the Giants can’t put good enough talent around him to win while he’s in his prime. You cannot predict injury, of course, but if he doesn’t come back fully from his torn ACL and we have already seen his prime, that choice looks even worse. Going back to what I said earlier, ideally the Giants would have drafted Barkley — a running back with a limited shelf life — as a finishing piece rather than a building block.
4. When in doubt, draft a lineman
This applies to both the offensive and defensive lines.
I don’t care how pass-happy the NFL gets or how much the rules change, the game is still won and lost along the front lines. On offense, you have to be able to block for your quarterback and open holes for your running backs. On defense, you have to be able to rush the passer and you have to be stout against the run in the middle. You never want to be caught without enough players who can do those things, so when in doubt draft a lineman. The Giants have learned these lessons the hard way in recent seasons.
You should be able to find quality linemen in the middle to late rounds, especially on the offensive side. David Diehl, a fifth-round pick, was a great example. Rich Seubert was not drafted at all and still had a long, productive career for the Giants. Elite linemen, though, are usually only available in the very early stages of the draft.
My rule? After you get your quarterback, or if you already believe you have him, you build from the inside out. Year after year I advocate for the Giants to select an offensive lineman high in the draft.
How does that impact this draft? As I advocated in 2020, the Giants used three of their 10 draft picks on offensive linemen. Despite that, you won’t read complaints from me if the Giants bypass the sexy receivers or edge rushers and use the 11th overall pick on an offensive lineman. They still need more talent there. You can pick the wrong lineman, like the Giants did with Ereck Flowers. In my view, though, it’s rarely wrong to pick an offensive lineman. You need more of them on each play than any other position on the field and your quarterback, your most important player, cannot succeed without them.
5. Trade down, not up
There are very few times when any player is worth trading up for, thus causing a team to mortgage valuable draft picks. You need depth in the NFL, and you can’t accumulate it by trading away your draft choices -- which is what you have to do to move up. Generally, it is better to move down and accumulate more draft choices than to move up and wind up with less. Your mistakes hurt less when you have more choices, more chances to get it right. You can take risks on occasion when you have more choices, and -- if the situation is right -- you can actually use some of those ‘extra’ picks to move up when you feel it is warranted.
When is it OK to move up? First and foremost, if you are moving for a guy you believe will be a franchise quarterback. If you are moving for a player at another position you believe is a franchise-changer or the one piece you need to put you over the top and into the Super Bowl, that is OK. Also, if you have accumulated extra picks perhaps then you can use that flexibility to target a player or two in the draft or via trade. This, really, could be called the ‘New England Patriots Rule.’
Normally, though, move down instead of moving up.
One caveat: I do happen to agree with Dave Gettleman that you can move down too far. Wherever you move down to, you need to be comfortable that players you will be happy to select from will be on the board. You don’t want to outsmart yourself, then lose out on a player you really wanted.
6. Don’t ignore your strengths
“You can’t be afraid to draft over a player, OK? So you’re in the draft, you’ve gone through free agency, you’ve got all your stuff going, and you’re sitting there and you’ve got a good player at a position, and a young kid comes up at that spot and is staring you in the face. You can’t be afraid to draft him just because you already got one. The more competition you can create, the better your team will be. And you have to create competition at every position. You have to.”
That was Gettleman speaking at the Combine in 2018. The statement plays into this rule. If your strength is your pass rush or your offensive line and you continually ignore supplementing or adding to those areas, eventually those are no longer strengths.
I always used to talk about this rule in the context of the Giants and pass rushers. Now, perhaps it applies to defensive tackle. Or receiver. Take the best players who fit what the Giants are trying to do. Along the way, hope that value meets need and your decisions are correct often enough that you don’t enter the season with too many glaring deficiencies.