The Horizontal Draft Approach and How Teams Don’t Pick the Best Available Player

Armando Salguero at the Miami Herald says that, though all general managers say they are taking the best available player, many are  actually drafting horizontally and not vertically:

“Drafting horizontally basically means the Dolphins want to give themselves space to fill their needs instead of simply picking the player with the highest draft grade.”

“Drafting horizontally, one critic of the format told me last week, is a great way to fool the media and the owner into thinking you’re picking the best available player who coincidently plays a position of need (wink, wink) when what you’re really doing is just filling your greatest needs.”

“The vertical approach simply grades a number of players that are draft eligible one after the other, regardless of position. It is a 300-name totem pole of sorts with the best player in the draft at the top and Mr. Irrelevant at the bottom.

And, theoretically, the selection process takes on a life of its own because as names come off the board, all a team has to do when its turn comes up is pick the next player with the highest grade.

If a team is drafting 12th overall, as the Dolphins are, and the highest player on the board has the No. 6 overall grade, that’s the pick regardless of position or need.

That’s the classic approach. It’s simple. It’s black and white.

The horizontal approach leaves room for more grays.

Teams using this approach stretch every position group horizontally across a board. Left ends, nose tackles, right ends, weak linebackers, strong linebackers, inside linebackers, wide receivers, quarterbacks and so on. (Teams with 4-3 defenses use different position groups as teams running 3-4 looks.)

The Dolphins would then take a small number of players — between 120 and 180, depending on the year — and plug them into their board according to their position.

Along the first line under every position, the club places the name of players that have a first-round grade. So first-round cornerbacks are on the same horizontal line as first-round quarterbacks or running backs or any other position.

Along the second line, the name of every player with a second-round grade is placed under his appropriate position. That’s how a second-round safety can be on the same horizontal line with a second-round quarterback.

And on draft day, when the No.?12 pick comes up — assuming the Dolphins aren’t trading up or down — [Jeff] Ireland will be able to scan horizontally across the first round and spy the handful of players graded at the pick. Those players will be laid out horizontally at their various positions.

The Dolphins GM can then select a name out of that group.

It shouldn’t surprise that the player selected often plays a position of need, because logic and human nature will dictate that picking a quarterback ahead of a cornerback won’t help the team as much in 2012 even if the quarterback is rated higher.”

I’m pretty sure that Salguero is actually simplifying what is, in fact, a very complex process with a lot of blurry edges for every team.  I’d be willing to bet that no team in the NFL drafts vertically in the strictest sense of the word as described above and very few draft strictly horizontally. The NFL Network goes into the draft room of one team every year and, though they don’t give you a good look at it, I’ve never seen a draft board that wasn’t set up by position.  Most probably there’s both a vertical and horizontal arrangement on every board.

They key is to take the best available player that’s going to improve your team.  For some teams that means taking the best player at a position of need (horizontal).  For others it means taking the best player who can improve any position (vertical).  The Dolphins fall closer to the first category.

On the other hand, the Bears almost certainly will fall closer to the latter category this year.  They’ve tried very hard to fill positions of need with free agents in the hopes of leaving themselves free to take almost any player on draft day.  But that doesn’t mean regardless of position.  They aren’t taking a running back in the few rounds because they simply aren’t going to find one who is going to be an upgrade over Matt Forte.  Unless they’re planning on playing a lot more man coverage, they aren’t going to find an upgrade over their two Pro Bowl cornerbacks.  And though quarterback is a little different in that you might draft for the future there, its also almost certainly out, at least for the first round.  But defensive tackle, defensive end, and safety?  These aren’t necessarily positions of need per se.  But I’m betting the Bears wouldn’t hesitate to go in any of those directions.

Personally I prefer the vertical approach.  Success in the league depends upon the ability to find impact players.  Common sense tells you that you are less likely to find one if your hands are tied by only considering a hand full of positions.  But for budget conscious teams like the Packers, and particularly those with lots of needs like the Dolphins, the horizontal approach isn’t just the best way to go.  It’s the only way to go.  Something to consider as we watch the process unfold on April 25.

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