There's a term you'll hear quite frequently if you follow the NFL draft at all: BPA, which stands for "Best Player Available." The idea is that a team should always take the BPA in the draft, rather than reach for a player who might represent a "need."
The problem though is that BPA is a relative term. Think about it: how do we determine who is the best player available at, say, pick 25? Who's board are we looking at? Sure, the team has their own board...but how did they come up with the rankings and ratings assigned to each player?
The answer is that need does play a part in ranking players. For instance, a team that employs a 3-4 defense isn't going to rate a prototypical 7-technique defensive end (a 4-3 scheme player) as highly on their board, especially if he shows zero ability to drop back in coverage or play the run all the way to the sideline. The reason is that this player's size would typically make him an outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme, and those skills are vital to the position. They might even discount that player by a full round or more due to the lack of fit for the team.
So the board is set based on fit with the team, and yes, need comes into play even beyond the scheme that's used. When you have Aaron Rodgers, for instance, you don't value a QB as highly as other teams do...especially in the early rounds (provided you have a capable backup).
Now that we've defined BPA, we look a little further into how it's determined and how quickly those needs can change...along with the team's overall draft strategy.
What a difference a few years make, huh? Not long ago the 49ers were among the teams with multiple holes in the roster, positions with no clear-cut starter and not much encouraging depth. Teams in this situation generally approach the draft looking for players to fill these holes, guys they hope can step-in and contribute as soon as possible. They're looking to find a diamond with every pick.
You see teams trading down, acquiring more picks, more players, more hope...filling more "holes". These teams often do indeed see many of their young players in prominent roles in their first or second year with the team. They have little choice or better options.
This was the 49ers a few years ago...and for a long time. A time we'd like to all forget as some black hole, a paradox in the universe that we'd just assume is labeled as "can't be explained".
What a difference a year or two make, eh?
The 49ers are fresh off an appearance in the NFC Championship game and, what's more, had several players earn not only a spot on the Pro Bowl team, but the AP All Pro team. Talent seems to be brimming from the roster at nearly every position. The team is still young and returning most of the players who aided in it's success last year.
Things are different this time.
The team won't seek to fill multiple gaping holes in the starting lineup in the draft. They've filled some of their perceived needs in free-agency and most starting roles appear set already. No, this is the year to find "depth", not a dirty word as in the past when it meant "bodies" or "hope".
We have hope.
We are looking to add studs at each position. To create the next generation of All Pro's and Super Bowl Champions. To stock-up on trained assassins who can step-in for an injured team-mate or a departed free-agent and pick up where they left-off, if not do better.
The roster could be trimmed to 53 players tomorrow and I have no doubt that Jim Harbaugh and Co. could lead that team deep into the playoffs. Spots on this team are going to be hard to earn. This isn't a place for fringe talent and projects. We're on our rise to the top.
Don't be surprised if you see the team trading up instead of down...to grab the next 10-year starter to fill-in for Justin Smith when his playing days are done. Or the future ball-hawking safety to step-in for Dashon Goldson if a new contract isn't arranged.
We need the best quality, not quantity, of players we can get. Guys who deserve to be called "Forty-Niners". Guys who belong next to the likes of Patrick Willis and Vernon Davis. Guys who are made for greatness.
The tale of two drafts. What a difference a year or two makes.