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Analysis: Best Player Available? Not Usually

NFL GMs always say the draft is about selecting the best player available, but teams must address obvious needs or else.

Indianapolis Colts general manager Ryan Grigson has repeated the “best player available” phrase since he was hired in 2012 to describe his staff’s draft mind-set. It’s what NFL GMs like to say each year at draft time.

Seriously, what does it mean?

As the draft reminds each year, teams say they take the best player available but it typically doesn’t prove to be true. Grigson and his 31 counterparts are talking about taking the player they deem to be the best talent available as rated by their respective scouting staffs. That’s different than the blanket three-word statement. It’s strictly a team’s subjective opinion, and NFL teams get it wrong all the time. The draft is an inexact science.

While those of us in the media are quick to second guess every decision, we participate in mock drafts 1.0, 2.0, 3.0 etc. and banter about what teams should do in the draft, I won’t ever say I know as much as an NFL scout or Grigson when it comes to evaluating college talent. But the job requires us to pay attention and question everything. And say what you want about those of us doing the second guessing, but it’s easy to spot a mistake when it’s obvious. 

That’s why it pains me when I hear those three words. Best player available is simply GM-speak, and always has been.

Grigson was convinced the best player available when the Colts were on the clock in the opening round last year was wide receiver Phillip Dorsett, although the team had obvious needs on defense and the offensive line, the same needs which much be addressed next week. While Dorsett could still pan out to be worthy of the pick, he was injured as a rookie and fell far short of expectation while the Colts’ obvious shortcomings have lingered.

We’re not that far removed from the first-round selection of defensive end Bjoern Werner in 2013. Werner didn’t measure up and was released this offseason. Nobody has signed him in free agency, either. How is it that he didn’t prove to be the best player available? Because NFL teams can convince themselves that they know more than anyone else. The Colts saw a 4-3 defensive end who lined up with his hand in the ground but were convinced he had the skill set to stand up and play a 3-4 outside linebacker. It’s an easy second guess for reporters now, but some know-nothings in the media thought it was a mistake from the beginning.

Which brings us back to draft philosophy. The Colts have obvious needs. The notion that those aren’t taken into account when choosing a player in any round boggles the mind. The smart money suggests NFL GMs would be well-served to stay flexible. The unexpected often occurs. Roll with it. Be ready for anything.

Take a look at how the Los Angeles Rams and Philadelphia Eagles traded a bunch of picks recently to move into the No. 1 and No. 2 draft positions. They need quarterbacks, although Jared Goff and Carson Wentz aren’t considered by anybody I’ve read to be the top two players in this draft. So be it. Quarterback is the most important position in football. The Rams and Eagles were convinced these passers have too much potential to pass. We’ll see how it plays out. Everyone else has had to adjust their draft boards. They’ve had to be flexible.

Grigson was asked Wednesday the annual question of best player available versus need in relation to the Colts’ 18th overall selection in the draft. How difficult a decision is it to weigh the difference between both?

“I’d be lying to say that – I think it’s weak to look, no matter what your needs are, to look at your board and see Player A here and then you have Player B, C and D down here and you’re going to go, well, we have to get a need and do that. That defies the whole process,” Grigson said. “I think it breaks the trust and the morale of your scouts and all the guys that spent all that time stacking your board with you and all the coaches that went and worked the guys out and went through this exhaustive process.

“The coaches too, they have a pretty rough go of it there after the combine of hopping on planes, taking three connections into goodness knows where in this country. They have an opinion to where they feel strongly about it because they’ve done the work. So the guys that do the work and put their heart and soul into it usually are your loudest voices no matter if it comes from the coaches, the scouts or what have you.”

So that means Grigson is sticking with best player available?

“I mean, yeah, pretty much,” he said with a chuckle.

We shall see if that’s true. Ideally, a “supposed” best player available fills the most pressing need. But it doesn’t typically play out that way.

The Colts must address the offensive line. They need a center and offensive guard, according to head coach Chuck Pagano, although I think this team needs a right tackle. If one of the top four tackles are available, that pick makes the most sense. The Colts can always take the rookie and play him inside at guard for a year to get his feet wet, if there’s someone else on the roster that proves better equipped to handle right tackle.

If those tackles aren’t available, center Ryan Kelly seems like a smart pick. I chose him in Scout’s mock draft because he’s the highest-rated player at his position and fills an obvious need, one the Colts have struggled to fill since selecting quarterback Andrew Luck with the No. 1 overall pick in 2012.

Grigson spoke at February’s NFL Scouting Combine about a lack of depth of pass rushers in this draft. That’s why taking a project pass rusher in the opening round doesn’t make sense. Why reach? We don’t want to see another Werner pick.

This much is obvious about next week. The Colts need to get an impact player, whomever he is, to help this team. They can’t afford a miss. They haven’t had much money to spend in free agency, with Luck’s anticipated $25-million-per-year contract extension looming. That places more of an emphasis on making the draft count.

Grigson, even with a three-year contract extension, can’t afford to fail in the offseason objective of upgrading the offensive line. Then there’s the matter of bolstering a defense in need of pass rushers.

If enough of the players selected don’t prove to be NFL ready, Grigson’s annual goal, the Colts won’t be anything more than they have been for four years, a good team usually carried by a talented quarterback but unable to defeat the NFL’s best come the playoffs.

And that's not the best scenario available.

Phillip B. Wilson also can be found on Facebook and Google+.

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