Forget the Draft Charts!

It’s officially the off-season in the NFL, long enough after the Super Bowl for any lingering mental fuzziness resulting from Sunday’s party to have dissipated into the malaise of nothingness that a football fan lapses into once that game’s hype has receded into the background.  What follows the last conversation about which TV commercial in the Super Bowl was funny, the last few articles by the beat writers stating their opinions on which positions ought to be addressed in the off-season, the surgical consultations on key players, the gradual, unwelcome calm and the distant claxon of “pitchers and catchers,” are a series of football-related activities intended to remind us that the hiatus is only temporary.  Most of us on this site are sports fans generally, but, for personal reasons, football fans specifically.  For those so afflicted, only NFL speculation will provide sufficient life support to survive the sports ennui of the spring.  One of the keystones of that speculation is who your team is going to draft in April.

Inevitably, when trying to guess who one’s team is going to draft, NFL fans resort to the “experts.”  Few of us follow college football assiduously, especially since it takes place at the same time as the Pro game.  Married fans can’t very well tell their spouse that Saturday is off the table for that trip to Bed, Bath and Beyond, when Sunday is already held sacred.  Studying game tapes and newspaper accounts of a couple hundred college teams is just too much like a full time job.  While we like football, of all kinds, how can we know the players?  There’s just too many and they keep changing.  Sometimes we don’t even recognize the formations.  So, instead, we pick up rumors, see a game or two and are impressed with a particular linebacker, hear a tv or radio guy mention a player as “promising,” or frequent a website that has a draft analysis and prediction board.

The proposed draft board is the most ubiquitous element of this distraction cum informal self-education, and there are hundreds of them.  Each one follows a similar pattern: 1) List the clubs in their original order by the position they finished in the previous season (ties are decided by the league, along with compensatory picks);  2) Assemble a list of eligible players; 3) Create a tentative draft list based on player rankings; 4) Publish said list as the “first” such list available anywhere; 4) Alter the order as pre-draft moves are announced; 5) Alter the players as the combine results, pre-draft show days, injuries, and arrests, change perceptions; 6) Go back to step 3.

In trying to predict who “your” team is going to draft, the football junkie has his own ritual.  1) Check the lists; 2) Look up the players who might fill the bill, especially on youtube; 3) Shoot off a few emails and forum comments; 4) Go back to work so you don’t get fired; 5) Return to step 1.  This is a time-honored tradition, well respected in football fan circles.  However, for some teams, it’s completely pointless.  The problem with doing this, if you’re a Jet fan, is that nobody can predict what the Jets are going to do.

No team is less predictable than the New York Jets, at least under Mike Tannenbaum.  In his four drafts, he has had 30 draft slots (including compensatory picks).  Of these, he has selected in his own slot only eight times, and one of those was a recovered seventh rounder that he had traded away earlier.  Twenty-two of the Jets thirty draft slots have been filled by other teams.  He has only selected in his own slot in the first round twice, and one of those was Vernon Gholston, a pick that the team has tried to distance itself from ever since.  He has never picked in his own slot in the second or fifth rounds, once in the third, once in the fourth, once in the sixth and twice in the seventh.  In that time he has traded 22 of his 30 slots, to move up, down or out of the draft altogether to get a particular team’s player through trade.

In 2009, his only slotted pick was Matt Slauson, a sixth rounder.  This was the year of moving up to get Sanchez and then again, to get Shonn Greene.  In 2008, besides Gholston, he chose Marcus Henry in the correct slot in the sixth and Nate Garner in the seventh.  This was the year he gave up a 3 and a 5 for Kris Jenkins, and took back a 4 (and the following year a 3), for Jon Vilma.  In 2007, he made the Stuckey pick in the recovered slot in the seventh.  This was the year he swapped twos with Chicago to get TJ, moved up to the fourteenth slot get Revis and then moved up again to 47 to get David Harris in the second round.  In 2006, his first draft, he chose d’Brickashaw Ferguson in the correct first round slot, Eric Smith in the third and Brad Smith in the fourth.  He also picked Mangold as compensation for John Abraham going to Atlanta.  This was a strange draft with the same number of pro-bowlers in the fourth round as in the second and third combined.  In that fourth round, he took Leon Washington, two picks before Brandon Marshall, eight in front of Elvis Dumervil.  By the way, it wasn’t our pick, it was Kansas City’s, compensation for Herm Edwards (anyone want that exchange back?).  In the same draft he moved up four picks to take Kellen Clemens, down five to take Anthony Shlegel (neither move made history), swapped fifth rounders, seventh rounders, etc.

He came out of the 2006 draft with Ferguson, Mangold, Clemens, Shlegel, E. Smith, B. Smith, Leon Washington, Jason Pociask, Drew Coleman and Titus Adams.  That’s ten players for nine slots, three selected in the Jets’ actual positions.  Seven of these players were offensive, and only two are starters, not counting Leon.  Of those three were pro bowlers, and Brad Smith is invaluable.  In later drafts, Tannenbaum clearly shifted from quantity to quality.  In 2007, the Jets came out of the draft with Revis, Harris and Stuckey (unless your counting Thomas Jones).  That’s three drafted players for seven slots.  In 2008, besides Gholston, he got Keller (trade up), Lowery (part of the Vilma deal), Erik Ainge (part of the trade up for Keller), Henry and Garner.  That’s six drafted players for seven slots.  Of course, that’s also the year they got Kris Jenkins.  This year, the Jets went home with Sanchez (trade up and players), Greene (trade up), and Slauson.  That’s three players for seven slots.

What are Tannenbaum’s tendencies?  First, he is three times more likely to trade away a slot than to use it.  Second, he picks for quality and is willing to reduce his overall draft for a few choice players rather than take a shotgun approach.  Third, he trusts his board as much as any GM in the league.  If Sanchez and Greene had been busts, he would have traded his whole draft for two mediocre players—a risk in any league, and hard on job security, but he’s willing to do it time and time again (2007, for example).  Fourth, he drafts for need, not best player.  Fifth, he tends to draft offensive players (23 to 7), although every one of his defensive draftees are still with the team, with two Pro Bowlers and only one bust (Gholston).  The one caveat is that in a deep draft, like this year, he might be tempted to stay put more often than usual.

So, for fans looking to figure out what the Jets will do, here’s what I recommend.  Assuming breaking into Florham Park and copying the team’s board is a least desirable option, follow this plan: 1) Examine the draft boards carefully; 2) eliminate the picks in the second and fifth rounds; 3) Jumble up all the rest of the picks which you will swap indiscriminately with other teams and make your picks just before you; 4) Discard the draft board altogether, then; 5) Take the top three players at the positions that fill the most critical need (DE, CB, etc.); 6) Make an index card for each and place on construction paper; 7) Throw dart.