Note: This piece theorizes a good, broad drafting strategy for the 49ers (and teams in general). Tomorrow’s post will feature some hard data, featuring work by economist Richard Thaler as well as the Harvard Sports Analysis Collective, in support of this theory.
The 49ers are currently in terrific shape for this spring’s NFL draft. How can that be, given that the 49ers, having lost the NFC championship game, will be one of the last four teams to pick in every round? Well…
The 49ers Have the Most Draft Picks
Per CSN Bay Area beat writer Matt Maiocco, the 49ers currently own 11 draft picks, giving them more than any other team. The league has yet to announce additional compensatory selections, which are awarded to teams with net free agent losses and cannot be traded. However the 49ers are expected to receive one, as they lost five free agents and added only four. Due to the significant playing time of the players who left, this pick may be at the end of the third round. As the exact number of compensatory selections are unknown, the overall order of picks is somewhat unknown beginning with the end of the third round. That gives the 49ers the following draft layout:
49ers 2014 Draft Picks
- First round, 30 overall
- Second round, 56 overall (via trade with Kansas City)
- Second round, 61 overall
- Third round, 77 overall (via trade with Tennessee)
- Third round, 94 overall
- Third OR fourth round, compensatory selection, TBA
- Fourth round, TBA
- Fifth round, TBA
- Sixth round, TBA
- Seventh round, TBA (via trade with New Orleans)
- Seventh round, TBA (via trade with Carolina)
- Seventh round, TBA
Every Pick Has Value
49er fans need not envy the Houston Texans organization, which picks first overall. Sure, drafting Jadeveon Clowney would be nice. But it is not important for success in the long term. With this many picks, general manager Trent Baalke and Co. can trade up to get a player more likely to make an immediate impact. Perhaps not of Clowney’s talent, but guys like defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan, wide receiver Marqise Lee, and cornerback Darqueze Dennard are within reach. Last year the 49ers moved up from 31st to 18th in the first round, giving the 74th overall pick (third round) to the Dallas Cowboys in order to take safety Eric Reid. Reid started throughout his rookie season, finishing as the 16th highest graded safety by Pro Football Focus, among 86 safeties who played 25% or more of their teams’ regular season snaps. Best of all, the 49ers still had two picks in the second round, and another in the third.
And players do not just come from the top rounds. Tom Brady is the most striking example of a late round success, but more mild finds also add value. The 49ers drafted fullback Bruce Miller 211th overall (seventh round) in 2011. PFF has graded Miller ninth or higher among all fullbacks each of his three seasons in the league, as he clears the way for Frank Gore week after week.
No Such Thing as a Sure Thing
Draft busts happen, to all teams and general managers. Some evaluation methods of prospects are certainly better than others, but no system is perfect. The Patriots epitomize long-term success, having made the playoffs ten of the last eleven seasons.1 Has every draft pick along the way been perfect? Certainly not. In 2006 the Patriots drafted running back Laurence Maroney 21st overall; he started 17 games in five years before dropping out of the league. 36th overall (second round) that same year they took wide receiver Chad Jackson; he started one game in three years before leaving the NFL. In 2009 they took defensive tackle Ron Brace 40th overall (second round); he started seven games over four years and is now out of the NFL. During this time the Patriots also drafted left tackle Nate Solder, tight end Rob Gronkowski, safety Devin McCourty, and others who have become stars in the league.
The draft process involves a lot of skill, but also some luck. Despite what one may tell you, no one knows for sure how a college player will turn out in the NFL. A team should do its best to predict a prospect’s future accurately. Then a team should maximize its chances of getting lucky. Earlier picks are better than later picks, but not at the risk of seeing millions wasted and future seasons ruined by one or two big busts. With twelve picks in the upcoming draft, including five to six in the first 100 overall, general manager Baalke and the 49ers are well-suited to maintain the team’s high level of performance far beyond the coming season.
- And going 11-5 in 2008 when they just missed the playoffs. Not bad. ↩