GM Ethan Hammerman on “Double Down or Stand Pat” (RSPWP III)


Jerry Porter is a player in Ethan Hammerman's argument in favor of trading down. Photo by S. Grace.

Jerry Porter is a player in Ethan Hammerman’s argument in favor of trading down. Photo by S. Grace.

Do you trust your scouting intel on a player that you value higher than most or do you stick to your board?

What is 2014’s Writer’s Project?

This year’s RSPWP is a different take on team building. I will have 15-20 written scenarios based on true NFL stories provided to me from current and former NFL employees (scouts, players, and consultants). In each scenario, the participating writer is the general manager of an NFL team has a decision to make. Each scenario will have at least two different writers. I will post the writers’ responses and the actual outcome of the case study (if applicable).

Find out more about RSPWP3 and see other GM Scenarios.

GM Scenario No.4: Double Down or Stand Pat?

You’re the general manager of a squad that went 10-6 last year and lost a nail biter on the road in the divisional playoffs.  It’s your fifth year running this team and they have progressed from a 4-12 after thought to Super Bowl dark horse. The squad’s calling card is a stifling defense and power running game.

This brand of football is the team’s present—and it’s a championship window that’s open—but the makeup and style of play will look a lot different in 3-4 seasons.

The changes need to begin over the course of the next 2-3 seasons, because odds are likely that your star running back only has 2-3 years left in his legs. Just as important is the defense; 8 of 11 starters will need new deals over the next two years and 6 of these players have performed well enough that you won’t be able to afford them all.

Speaking of overachievers, the starting quarterback—a fourth round draft pick—is a rising star.  He’ll be seeking a new deal before his contract expires in two years and he is clearly the face of the franchise.

Right now, your quarterback is producing like a high-functioning game manager. He’s good in the red zone and he doesn’t turn the ball over. He also flashes big-play ability, but your attempts to pair him with a big-play threat have been largely unsuccessful.

The 1500-yard, 12-touchdown free agent receiver you acquired three years ago has missed 24 games since his arrival and last year’s big offseason signing missed 12 games. Your organization has reached a consensus that it must upgrade the receiving corps for the future, because the quarterback has the ability to become the focal point of the offense and it’s unlikely the team will ever have a running back the caliber of its current starter.

One of the players that earned the attention of your scouts is a receiver on a cellar-dwelling ACC team. Fast, tough, sure-handed, and capable of running every route, this player was his team’s offense. Moreover, he’s a team-oriented player that you’re staff gave multiple chances to throw his teammates under the bus for its failures and he never took the bait.

The NFL Draft is finally here and the team is picking 27th overall. You’re sold this player instantly makes your team better, but your research indicates that your organization is the only one sold on him as a first-round value in a class flush with talented receivers.  However, your staff believes he’s better (and a better fit) than all but two of the receivers on your board and those two will be gone within the first 12 picks.

Aside from an under the radar football blogger you monitor, there has been zero mention of this player in the national media from January through April. However, you did see this morning a television segment where a former NFL receiver gave a glowing review of this prospect.

You have 3-4 teams who have inquired about trading into your slot and you believe they value your targeted player low enough that you could trade back 15-20 spots and still get him. But if you’re wrong, you lost a shot at your No.3 receiver on your board—and there’s a small cliff between him and your next option at the position.

Do you trade down and trust your intel that other teams don’t value him as high as your organization or do you take the guy at a premium to avoid missing a weapon that you, your coaching staff, and scouts believe will help usher your offense into a new era?

What decision do you make and what factors lead you to believe that your intel is either reliable or too shaky to trust? What’s your philosophy on playing the “value game” vs. picking the best player available and staying true to your board despite knowing that it might differ from a lot of teams?

Ethan Hammerman’s Decision

When I first received this assignment, my first two questions to Matt where whether this receiver was a underclassman, and if he was tall. I was told he could be whatever I wanted him to be. For argument’s sake, he is both of these things, because tall, young receivers are awesome.

Hopefully, this scenario is not referring to Stephen Hill, or this would make me look stupid. Stephen Hill is awful. I also originally thought this player was A.J. Jenkins. It was not. I kind of wish it was, though, because the Niners did LOVE A.J. Jenkins back in the day. 

The NFL Draft is a constantly evolving test of wits and out-guessing the competition – and some of the biggest traps that a team can fall into is overvaluing their returning players, the promise of future picks, and their coaching staffs while underrating what a true infusion of talent can do for a team.

On the other hand, value for picks is also crucial. After all, why not acquire more assets if you think a coveted player will be around later in the draft? It is also crucial for scouting staffs to have trust in their coaches and hope that, with their tutelage, they can push the players to reach their potential.

In this scenario, given the hypothetical depth at the position, the development time necessary for wide receivers to mature, and the structure of the team as it currently stands, the trade down seems like the best possible option in this particular scenario.

The differing roles and relationships between coaches and scouts is something that often gets underrated when it comes to the development of players. It is what makes teams like the Seattle Seahawks and the San Francisco 49ers so successful. The general managers and personnel evaluators receive direction on the kinds of groceries to buy and then put them in the hands of their chefs, the coaches, to prepare and season effectively.

The perfect example of standing pat on a wide receiver in the first round when trading down could have been a better route is when a wide receiver that you probably have not thought about in at least 10 years.  Travis Taylor, a former Florida Gator and top ten pick by the Baltimore Ravens, was the third receiver off the board in the draft. He was seen as a big, physical option for a Ravens team that was lacking one at that position.

Taylor may well have had the talent to succeed, but the lack of surrounding talent hurt his development. Here is the list of wide receiver coaches to get their hands on Taylor during his eight-year career:

  • 2000 – Milt Jackson (Retired the next year)
  • 2001 – Mike Nolan (Yes. That Mike Nolan. Seriously.)
  • 2002 – David Shaw (Not surprisingly, Taylor did best when Shaw was there – it was the prime of his career.)
  • 2003 – David Shaw (Taylor actually led all WRs on the team in catches this year, but when his quarterbacks were Kyle Boller, Anthony Wright, and Chris Redman, it’s not going to be pretty.)
  • 2004 – David Shaw (Injury woes + perceived lack of production = bye-bye)
  • 2005 – Wes Chandler (He was fired after this season)
  • 2006 – Darrell Wyatt (LOL)
  • 2007 – Henry Ellard (Probably the second-best WR coach on this list, but by this time Taylor’s career trajectory was pretty much set – he had one touch for 4 yards as a Ram)
  • 2007 Part 2: Lane Kiffin Raiders Edition – Charles Coe (He is currently the offensive coordinator at Missouri Baptist University – GO SPARTANS!)

The fact that the above list reads more like a GM’s blacklist of coaching candidates does not completely absolve Taylor of his faults throughout his career. However, it goes to show that in cases where the wide receiver class is relatively deep–as stated in this scenario–the ability to cushion a situation like this matters.

 

The best receiver in the vaunted 2000 NFL Draft class of pass catchers? Arguably,  Laveranues Coles one of three picks after the first round with better careers than the first round picks. Photo by Tom Sullivan.

The best receiver in the vaunted 2000 NFL Draft class of pass catchers? Arguably, Laveranues Coles one of three picks after the first round with better careers than the first round picks. Photo by Tom Sullivan.

Unfortunately, hindsight reveals that this class lacked the quality depth as promised (as is often the case). Even so, there are three players in the second and third rounds of the 2000 NFL Draft that had better careers than Taylor (in bold type) and could have been better selections if the Ravens traded down (table courtesy of Drafthistory.com):

2000 1 1 4 4 Peter Warrick Bengals Florida State
2 1 8 8 Plaxico Burress Steelers Michigan State
3 1 10 10 Travis Taylor Ravens Florida
4 1 21 21 Sylvester Morris Chiefs Jackson State
5 1 29 29 R. Jay Soward Jaguars USC
6 2 1 32 Dennis Northcutt Browns Arizona
7 2 5 36 Todd Pinkston Eagles Southern Mississippi
8 2 16 47 Jerry Porter Raiders West Virginia
9 3 4 66 Ron Dugans Bengals Florida State
10 3 7 69 Dez White Bears Georgia Tech
11 3 8 70 Chris Cole Broncos Texas A&M
12 3 11 73 Ron Dixon Giants Lambuth (TN)
13 3 16 78 Laveranues Coles Jets Florida State
14 3 17 79 JaJuan Dawson Browns Tulane
15 3 18 80 Darrell Jackson Seahawks Florida
16 4 5 99 Gari Scott Eagles Michigan State
17 4 9 103 Danny Farmer Steelers UCLA
18 4 17 111 Trevor Gaylor Chargers Miami (OH)
19 4 20 114 Anthony Lucas Packers Arkansas
20 4 27 121 Avion Black Bills Tennessee State
21 5 14 143 Windrell Hayes Jets USC
22 5 22 151 Joey Jamison Packers Texas Southern
23 5 25 154 Muneer Moore Broncos Richmond
24 5 36 165 Troy Walters Vikings Stanford
25 6 6 172 Mareno Philyaw Falcons Troy
26 6 9 175 James Williams Seahawks Marshall
27 6 30 196 Emanuel Smith Jaguars Arkansas
28 6 34 200 Sherrod Gideon Saints Southern Mississippi
29 7 2 208 Desmond Kitchings Chiefs Furman
30 7 27 233 Drew Haddad Bills Buffalo
31 7 36 242 Charles Lee Packers Central Florida
32 7 40 246 Leroy Fields Broncos Jackson State
33 7 44 250 Ethan Howell Redskins Oklahoma State

Raiders’ second-round pick Jerry Porter had the talent to do more than what he did at Oakland. Even so, it was still better career production than Taylor.

Third-round pick Laveranues Coles was arguably the best receiver in this class. Darrell Jackson, Taylor’s college teammate, had six years with at least top-30 production at his position and four years in the top-15. He was also a nice grab in the third round.

Mind you that this example was with a top-10 pick. When you’re late into the first round, the risk to move and get more whacks at the piñata is worth it.

It is also important to note that, for the most part, rookie wide receivers are not going to set the world on fire right out of the gate, making the coaching aspect even more important. Since 2001, only five rookie wide receivers have exceeded the 1,000 yard mark – and one of those is Michael Clayton who, to be honest, shouldn’t count because he’s awful. The others are Anquan Boldin, A.J. Green, Marques Colston, and last year’s third round San Diego steal Keenan Allen.

A few others came close (fun fact: Anthony Armstrong had the 13th best rookie season within this time frame!) but, for the most part, they fell short of being true number one options for their teams. In this scenario, there are weapons around – perhaps not the most reliable ones, but enough where if one can hit, the pressure would be taken off the rookie a bit. To expect a rookie to come right in and be the number one receiving option in Year One is completely unfair to the player and, quite simply, will end badly for the team.

This point actually lends more credence to trading down as well, as it shows the importance of the developmental process at the position and is educational insofar that it is unwise to put all of one’s eggs in a basket that, in reality, does not exist. Considering that, again, this class is deep, and payoff might be more immediate at other positions and not wide receiver, it may pay to be as nimble as possible in terms of accruing more picks and seizing on opportunities to get more immediate difference makers and starters at other positions, such as offensive tackle, where 34 different rookies since 2000 have not just seeped in and played right away, but started every single game for their teams in their debut seasons. Having that flexibility and more ammunition is beneficial, especially when weighing the importance of immediate payoff with the aging running game.

The structure of the team itself also plays into the rationale to trade down. Great running backs are nice to have, but they are also completely replaceable to a degree. Physical freaks of nature such as Knile Davis and Christine Michael could be found on the second day of the 2013 NFL Draft, and the position as a whole has lost some of its value due to the importance teams place on locking up players at other positions long-term and the stench of failure that can emanate over a player that ends up bolting once their cap-friendly deal runs it course.

The only running back with a top-20 deal in terms of dollars spent against them to have a Super Bowl ring is Reggie Bush, and he was still on his rookie deal when his team won. In 2012, once it expired, he was not resigned. Running backs are replaceable, but having a great one certainly helps, and it is important to capitalize in such a case by loading up assets and attempting to win immediately. Having more picks with the potential to add ammunition there helps with that, especially since these players could be had at team-friendly long-term contracts to help push some money towards the quarterback and all of those defensive starters who need to be reupped.

Overall, the choice here is pretty easy – with the depth of the class, the variability of rankings at the wide receiver position, the way the team is built, and the way that football organizations are supposed to function, the team has to make the trade down. There is a chance that they may miss out on the object of their affection, but if that were to occur they would need to put some trust into their coaches to do good work on another similarly projectable player while also picking up potential contributors at other positions with their extra ammunition. Hopefully, the player is there 10 picks later and is not Stephen Hill

 Matt’s Notes

When Ethan first mentioned Travis Taylor I was skeptical about where this was leading, because I remembered that this 2000 class of receivers wasn’t as fantastic a crop as promised. Yet, trading a round back could have netted the Ravens a few players that might have been better.

The coaching that Ethan brought up is a worthwhile point for further discussion. A former player like Ryan Riddle will tell you that players don’t receive a lot of technical coaching on the craft of the position and the focus is primarily on scheme and execution of the playbook. The bulk of positional coaching is independent study and/or tutoring from veteran players.

If Ethan’s team has coaches that specialize in developing players when it comes to fundamentals then a player like Taylor or a better bargain like Porter would have worked out. Coles and Jackson were fine route runners and Coles had game-breaking speed.

But it’s hard to say any of these receivers would have had careers as good or better than Taylor’s before Steve McNair or Joe Flacco arrived in Baltimore. Likewise, Taylor may have been a more productive option if drafted by another team.

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