Most NFL mock drafts are constructed through the process of identifying the top depth chart needs for each team and then matching those needs, pick by pick, with the best available players at those positions. It's a logical way to make predictions, given that actual information about what NFL general managers plan to do is scarce. And it's this process that produces, for example, the now-consensus public opinion that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers will be targeting an offensive tackle with the 14th-overall pick.
On the evening of the actual NFL draft, the picks that draw the most surprised reactions are the ones that deviate from what were widely considered a team's targeted position or positions. Sometimes this reveals that team officials had their needs prioritized differently than the analysts did. Sometimes it indicates that a team simply thought an available player was too good to pass up, regardless of need.
Consider the Cleveland Browns' selection of Ohio State cornerback Denzel Ward with the fourth-overall pick in the 2018 draft. After the first three picks went the way many expected, beginning with the Browns' own selection of quarterback Baker Mayfield first overall, it seemed logical that Cleveland would go with either North Carolina State edge rusher Bradley Chubb or Notre Dame guard Quenton Nelson. Those were commonly considered positions of need for Cleveland, but post-draft comments from then-Browns Defensive Coordinator Gregg Williams indicated that the team thought the more urgent need in the rush-and-cover combination on defense was at the back end.
And maybe the Browns simply thought Ward was the best player on their board, period. According to Buccaneers General Manager Jason Licht, that simple fact is an important consideration in every draft.
"Sometimes the best picks have been the ones that weren't a position of need but it clearly was the best player, and a year down from the road you're very happy and you can't see life without that particular play," said Licht during his annual pre-draft press conference, this time held by videoconference from his home. He was specifically asked if he would go so far as to use the 14th pick on one of the draft's top receivers, even given the presence of Mike Evans and Chris Godwin on the roster.
"Needs change quickly from April/May to July/August/September," Licht continued. "It wouldn't be a bad thing to have another great receiver on this team. I think Bruce [Arians] and Byron [Leftwich] and Tom [Brady] would find a way to get that player involved and it would be an asset for us."
A year ago, the Buccaneers had no problem marrying need and best player available when they focused in on LSU linebacker Devin White and then landed their man. Of course, that's a lot easier to predict when you're picking fifth, especially when the first two picks (Kyler Murray and Nick Bosa) were all but locked in before the draft. As success rates of mock drafts show every year, the draft usually starts to deviate in unexpected ways before its even out of the top 10.
That's why Licht has to feel comfortable with how he and Arians and their staffs have arranged their draft boards and he has to be ready to stick to their rankings even if the best players available are not what was anticipated. In 2017, for example, Alabama tight end O.J. Howard was widely regarded as a potential top-10 pick but the Bucs landed him at number 19. Licht and his staff had mocked out just such a scenario and were ready for it, but it's doubtful that was the most expected outcome.
"A lot of things go through your mind," said Licht. "That's why you have to stack the board correctly in your mind, in our minds, Bruce and I at the end, how we like these players. You take need into effect when you stack the board, but you don't want to stack a player at a position of need too far above a player who is maybe a little bit better at his position."
There certainly appears to be an opportunity for the Buccaneers to land a top-notch offensive tackle in the first round, with one or more of Louisville's Mekhi Becton, Georgia's Andrew Thomas, Alabama's Jedrick Wills and Iowa's Tristan Wirfs having a chance to make it to pick number 14. But the draft is also deep in receivers, has some defensive linemen who look intriguing in the middle of the round and might even have a couple running backs worthy of early selection. "Need" works into the thought process for every GM with every first-round pick, but there's a balancing act between that consideration and the best players available.
"Every year you want to work that particular part of the process the same," said Licht. "You don't want to push players too high at a position of need just to get that position. Across the league, it's 50/50 whether any first-round pick is going to be a player or not three years down the road. It's 50/50 from the first pick down to the 32nd pick. You want to make sure you manage your board the best you can, you want to manage risk and you just want to make sure you get a good football player."
Licht also has to be ready to factor in not only need and availability at a particular draft slot, but also the value of his entire collection of draft picks. If a player is clearly ahead of everyone else on his board, it could be time to consider working a trade up. Licht has successfully done that on several occasions in the middle rounds of previous drafts – such as the ones that led to the selection of current starting guards Ali Marpet and Alex Cappa – but he has yet to do so in the first round. He did make small trades down in 2016 and 2018 that added later draft capital.
Before April 23 and the first round of the draft arrives, Licht will arm himself with all the information he needs to pull or not pull the trigger on any potential trades, including ones up to every possible position before the Bucs' current pick.
"We'll have all of our scenarios done when the draft starts in terms of where I would trade up, where I would trade back, what we would be looking for, what we'd be wanting, what players we're going to take in order – those types of things," he said. "We put together every move up to every pick, all the way up to one, what we'd be willing to do. [That] doesn't necessarily mean we're going to do it."
Obviously, the cost of doing business rises rapidly when the targeted trade-up spots get earlier and earlier. When the Rams traded all the way up from 15th to first in 2016 it cost them two second-round picks and a third-round pick that year plus a first and a third in 2017. That's a dramatic cost, and it's unlikely any team would do that except to try to land a franchise quarterback, which was the Rams' plan with the selection of Jared Goff. The Bucs won't be trading up to the first pick, for sure, but even a move into the bottom half of the top 10 could easily cost them their second-round pick.
"Every year, we put together scenarios of moving up in the first round, as well as moving down," said Licht. "It just hasn't worked out that way. It takes two teams to get together and have a marriage to do the deal. It's not as simple as just saying, 'Okay, we want to move up to the eighth pick.' I guess it is if you're going to give up a bounty of picks. You just want to make sure that you're not stressing your team and harming your team for the future by giving away too much."