Yesterday, Vox.com put up a somewhat puzzling piece on how to do the NFL Draft correctly. It essentially said that every team would be better off by trading down for more picks and gave a bunch of reasons why that's the case.
After nearly 2,000 words extolling the brilliance of trading down, including not just an argument against trading up but also a caution against simply making a first round pick, it finally got to the essential problem with the thing, mostly:
If all teams took note of these findings and corrected their behavior, the principles would no longer apply. Teams would be much less interested in trading up, so the lucrative market for trading down would evaporate.
So close. It's not that teams would be less interested in trading up; they'd be entirely uninterested in trading up. The only trades involving draft picks would be ones in exchange for current players. There would be no more draft day trades at all.
The piece is correct in asserting that the draft is largely a game of chance, and buying more lottery tickets will increase your chance of winning. There are things that teams can do to tip the scales in their favor, however.
The biggest thing is to hire good coaches who excel in developing young talent. A good coach can be the difference between a viable NFL player succeeding or failing. He can also take some of those borderline players from the later rounds and turn them into successful players where a bad coach would fail at it. There are only so many good coaches out there, but not simply spinning the retread carousel when hiring a staff is a good start.
The canonical example of this effect is David Carr, the first ever pick of the Houston Texans. He started from his first game for an expansion team that sorely lacked talent everywhere on offense. He took a hellacious beating, taking 249 sacks and who knows how many more hits in his first five seasons. Not only that, but he didn't have a real quarterbacks coach either. It's possible that Carr never would have panned out anyway, but he never had a chance. Houston is probably going to take a quarterback this year, and the owner is talking about how they won't let a David Carr situation happen again.
That example is an extreme situation, but things like it happen all the time. For example a team might play a rookie out of position, setting him back too far when he might have made it at his natural place. There also can be personality conflicts that cause a coaching staff to sour on a player when that guy could have made it in a different organization.
The way we discuss draft picks always focuses on the player. If a guy didn't make it, he was a bust, or he didn't pan out, or he didn't have the right stuff. Sometimes he just was in the wrong place at the wrong time, but draft narratives seldom if ever point that out.
A player from your favorite team might be going to a place that is a really bad fit for him, and it could end his career before it even starts. That's unfortunate, but that's the NFL.