Jason Licht has done an outstanding job in the NFL draft over the past three years. He's consistently gotten quality players and multiple starters, and the results have been really good so far -- the holes on the roster appear to have been a problem created in free agency and cutting ties with established players than anything else. And yet, I'm going to spend this article critiquing his draft skills -- or rather, uncritical praise of his skills in the draft.
In particular, I'm going to critique this line of reasoning. It's courtesy of Pewter Report's latest SR's Fab 5 column, always worth a read, but it's a sentiment you see a lot. It boils down to: Jason Licht moved up and down and still drafted players he (says he) liked so he must have done a good job! Praising a trade up and a move down in the same breath isn't seen as any kind of inconsistency here.
Just as important as knowing which players to draft, is learning how to maneuver within the rounds to get them. Knowing when to trade down, when to stay put, and when to trade up are all skills the 45-year old Licht has quickly mastered.
While this is technically true, this is not something we can actually assess accurately. We praise Jason Licht for staying put to get Noah Spence, but he was certainly taking a risk there -- it just played out well. Similarly, if we praise him for trading up for Roberto Aguayo, how do we know Aguayo wouldn't have been available with the Bucs' pick? Licht implied that he had some secret knowledge, which is entirely possible, but this is not exactly something we as independent analysts can properly evaluate in any sort of way. After all, general managers nearly always say they got the player they wanted. Why wouldn't they?
The one thing about draft moves that we can accurately evaluate is the value the Bucs got in their trades. And while Licht managed to do well in trading back in the first round, though it wasn't by a huge margin, he got fleeced in the trade for Aguayo. To be precise, Licht gave up 209.4 points of value for a pick worth 135.1 points, per Kevin Meers' trade chart. Other modern trade charts give similar results. Basically, he just threw a late fourth-round pick in the trash, in terms of the value he lost in that trade.
Moreover, these are exactly the kinds of things Mark Dominik excelled at. He, after all, traded down in the first round to get Mark Barron, traded back up into the first round to get Doug Martin, and up into the second round to get Lavonte David. Sure, Barron was overdrafted and didn't pan out -- but he certainly managed to maneuver the draft itself, even in cases where his evaluation of players was off-base. Dominik would make small moves to get players every year -- but the superficial appearance of activity isn't the same as doing well.
None of that means that Licht hasn't done a good job in the draft. He's certainly gotten good players in his first two years, and he appears to have gotten them in his third year as well. While there's good reason to be skeptical of Roberto Aguayo's value, he's still a very, very good kicker. Licht could stand to get more value out of his late-round picks, but overall the results have certainly been well above average. Though it should be noted that there is some evidence that drafting is, itself, more luck than skill.
But while Licht has certainly earned praise for the players he's selected in the draft, if we're going to just praise him for every draft-day move he makes -- whether it's staying put, trading up, or trading down -- then we're clearly not being very discerning.