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Jags' strategy: Get value


It's draft day, arguably the most important day of the year. If you believe, as James Harris does, that the draft is the foundation of your football team, then the choices you make today will determine the fate of your franchise for the next several years.

Go ahead, pour yourself a cup of coffee, get a bagel and I'll see you in the draft room. You're ready to go. You've graded all the prospects. You've considered all of the possibilities. You have a defined strategy. All you have to do now is pick.

If you're a member of the Jaguars draft team, you're looking for value on this day. Yeah, every team is looking for value, but some are decidedly committed to addressing their needs, while others will turn their back on need if value at another position is too great to ignore.

"I still think you try to get the best player," said Harris, the Jaguars' personnel boss. "That's what you go in trying to do. In the end, when you group your players, a lot of things have an effect. You try to get the best player who fits into your situation, and you're always excited about playmakers."

Tom Coughlin wanted value, too, but he would also tell you to your face that the "draft is all about needs," and that's exactly how Coughlin drafted. Sometimes he made it work, sometimes he didn't.

If you can make it work, drafting for need is the way to go, but you run a terrible risk of passing on a better player at another position to draft a player you may have overrated because you have a desperate need for him to be better than he really is. It happens, a lot.

Actually, the NFL system for offseason roster replenishing is out of order. It would be much more efficient and beneficial if the draft came first and the start of free agency followed. Given that order, teams could use the draft in a broad sense and then go into free agency knowing exactly what their remaining needs are.

The way the dates currently fall, you may end up addressing needs expensively in free agency that you could've solved cheaply in the draft, or failed to address needs in free agency you thought you could solve in the draft but, as it turned out, couldn't.

"When the season is over, you evaluate your team. What do you need to improve your team? It can be different than the perception outside the building. You have to make a decision on your own players, and then you determine your needs. You'd like the draft to be first. You'd like for your foundation to be first, to see what you get in the draft and then go out in free agency," Harris said.

But it's not that way. You did some work in free agency in March. You like the guys you signed and you solved some needs, but there are positions that still need upgrading and there's no guarantee the draft will allow you to address them and still hold true to your "best available player" philosophy. Are you disciplined enough to remain committed to your beliefs? We'll find out shortly.

"You always want to come out of the draft having solved needs, but you can't be married to your needs. If you're looking for a safety and safety is not strong in this draft, you can't be married to the position. Do you take the lesser player? Generally, you don't, because your needs may change," Harris said.

In Harris' first draft as the Jaguars' personnel boss, the best available player addressed the team's need for a quarterback who would be the foundation on which the Jack Del Rio era would be built. Byron Leftwich was an easy pick for Harris, who fell in love with Leftwich during the scouting process.

Last year's draft, however, seemed to present the classic need vs. BAP confrontation. When the Jaguars were on the clock with the ninth pick of the draft, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was still available. We can't know where Roethlisberger stood on the Jaguars' value board, but we knew he was the last player the Jaguars needed, a year after drafting Leftwich.

"We talk through those things in that draft considerations meeting on Thursday before the draft. There are options. You have to work through those things. That's why we have that meeting. In the salary cap era, you have to be prepared for those things," Jaguars Director of College Scouting Gene Smith said.

The most popular option in that situation is that you trade out of the pick, acquire the value of the player still available and move down in the order to where the player you need matches the value of the pick. The rest of the league, however, isn't lined up waiting to trade with you.

"You have to be prepared to take a player because when you try to trade-out people rarely want to give you equal value. You always have to be prepared to take a player," Smith said.

The Jaguars picked wide receiver Reggie Williams and Harris maintained that Williams was the highest-rated player on the Jaguars' board when they selected him, and it can be said the Jaguars made their pick rather quickly. Roethlisberger was selected two picks later by Pittsburgh.

Did the Jaguars really have Williams rated above Roethlisberger? Is it possible the Jaguars massaged Roethlisberger's grade down because he played a position they absolutely wouldn't address? Or were the Jaguars merely without any option other than to pick?

Whatever the truth is, it's not reasonable to have expected the Jaguars to pick a quarterback in the top 10 for the second consecutive year. The salary cap just doesn't allow for that kind of extravagance.

Harris remains firm in his commitment to drafting from the top of his board. He says the question of who to pick is decided well in advance of going on the clock because the "draft board" rankings have already made that choice.

"When you set your board, those questions are already answered. Why is the guy still on the board? Let's say you don't need a running back because you have Fred Taylor. At some point you take (the running back) because he is so much better (that everybody else). Now the position you come up short in you fill in free agency," Harris said.

Need becomes a factor when players at different positions are tied in the rankings.

"You put a grade on them and you slot them. When you have them graded similar, you go with need. But you don't pass up a real good player for a guy who may be a possible starter," Harris said.

"The draft is about value. When all things are equal, that's the only time need would prevail," Smith added.

Harris' and Smith's draft record in their two years together includes five starters (Leftwich, Rashean Mathis, Vince Manuwai, Williams and Daryl Smith), a kicker (Josh Scobee) who appears capable of becoming a fixture, and three other players (George Wrighster, Greg Jones and Bobby McCray) who will compete for starting jobs this season. LaBrandon Toefield and Ernest Wilford are major contributors, and there's a strong belief that Jorge Cordova, Anthony Maddox and Chris Thompson will become major contributors, too. Of the 19 players in the "new era's" first two draft classes, 15 are still with the team.

"We got a number of guys who are still on the team and are a part of the foundation. As we proceed now, it's going to be more challenging for draft choices to make the team," Harris said.

Harris credits his scouts for the Jaguars' draft success. "You have to have good evaluators. We're fortunate to have two of the top personnel guys in the NFL," Harris said of Smith and Charlie Bailey, the team's director of pro personnel.

"You try to cut as much of the risk out of it as you can, and that's by having good evaluators. Scouts are probably the most underappreciated guys in all of football. There's an old saying that nobody loves a scout except a scout," Harris added.

There are two other key people involved in the Jaguars' draft-day decisions: Del Rio and owner Wayne Weaver.

"What you gotta have to make it all work is a good relationship with the coach. Jack is a good evaluator. Some coaches aren't good evaluators. Jack is," Harris said. "Mr. Weaver is probably as good an owner as anybody is at working with personnel because he asks the good questions."

Immediately following the final pick of the draft, all teams begin signing undrafted free agents. Smith said the Jaguars target the highest-rated available player on their board, and "the best players who can compete to make and upgrade our team.

"When we put a grade on a player, everybody has ownership because it's a 'we' grade and a Jaguar pick. Our top objective is to get a top player, a top competitor and a top person," Smith added.

When all is said and done, Harris and Smith are the two people who have to live with and take the greatest responsibility for the Jaguars' draft class. Monday morning following the weekend draft is the day draftniks pass out grades. It's also the day teams grade themselves.

"I really believe it's a good draft if you draft good players. It's about getting value for your pick. I'm very strong-willed in bringing the best player, the best competitor and the best person here," said Smith, maintaining his commitment to the best-available-player philosophy.

It is the mind-set the Jaguars will take into the draft room on April 23, along with a year of scouting information and the draft strategy it shaped. That strategy is all about value.

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