Thursday, December 15, 2005

Avoiding the Vick Mistake
By Zach

It comes up every time a team thinks about trading the top pick in the draft. Is it possible to pass up a sure-fire star and yet still succeed? Can such trades ever end turn out fairly for both teams? With the Houston Texans looking more and more likely to have the first pick in the 2006 NFL Draft, they’ll have to make a tough decision. Give up on Dominick Davis (whom they signed to an extension before this year) or David Carr (who has never played behind even a mediocre offensive line), or miss out on a chance to grab the most exciting player in college football, or the most successful quarterback?

In some sports, trading out of the top spot is ill-advised. Most years, the talent in the NBA draft isn’t deep enough to make such a move worthwhile. Either talent available at the top is so good (LeBron James) that no team would dare pass them up, or there is no consensus number one pick (Andrew Bogut this year). In either case, teams with the top selection aren’t inclined to move.

This isn’t the case in the NFL. First, no one player can help you enough to change the fortunes of your franchise. Second, there’s plenty of talent available each year, so trading down a few spots in exchange for an extra pick or two makes sense in a way that doesn’t work for basketball. Just look at the teams moving out of the top spot the last few times it’s happened. In 2004, the San Diego Chargers traded Eli Manning (who they took #1 knowing he’d never play for them) to the New York Giants for the rights to Phillip Rivers (the #4 pick) and two other draft picks, including a 2005 first rounder. Prior to that, in 2001 the Chargers again dealt away the first overall pick (this time Michael Vick) to the Atlanta Falcons in exchange for draft picks - which turned out to be LaDanian Tomlinson and Drew Brees.

When the trade first occurred, most people thought the Falcons were getting a great deal. They were drafting a franchise quarterback who would also sell tons of tickets and jerseys along the way. Well, they were right on the latter two counts. Unfortunately for Vick, his on-the-field play has not progressed enough to consider him one of the better quarterbacks in the league. For every highlight reel rushing touchdown or sixty yard bomb, he has an array of passes thrown low, high, left, and right of his receivers. His scrambling tendencies kill the mechanics on his delivery, and he rarely steps into his throws. Prior to reaching the NFL, his natural ability and velocity were able to compensate for that flaw, but he’s repeatedly been exposed by talented defenses (like last season’s NFC Championship game).

Tomlinson has been one of the NFL’s top backs almost from the outset, reaching several Pro Bowls and compiling gaudy yardage and touchdown totals. After a rough start to his career, Brees made the Pro Bowl last season and is having another very solid campaign this year. At this point, it might not be too rash to say that if the Falcons could go back in time, they might have to think about it.

With Donovan McNabb under fire lately for his evolution from a scrambling QB to a pocket passer, it’s natural to question whether Vick might be able to make the same chance (and even if that might be wise).

The problem is, Vick has displayed little in his pro career that would indicate he can be a productive pocket passer. He’s had a passer rating over 80 just once (81.6 in 2002), and has completed over 55% of his passes just once as well (56.4% in 2004). While 60% completion percentage is consider the standard for good quarterbacks, you can accept a lesser completion percentage if the yards per attempt are higher (if the QB is throwing a lot of deep passes, he doesn’t need to complete as many to still be effective). Vick’s numbers, unfortunately, are average at besting that category.

Of course, part of Vick’s danger is his scrambling ability. While the team has tried to keep him in the pocket because they fear that he’s likely to get hurt when he runs, it’s become clear that he’s at his most dangerous when he can scramble. He’s averaged 7.0 yards per carry on his career, though that number is misleading because many of those runs come on third-and-long.

What’s the point of this piece, you might ask? Well, there are two. The first is that in the NFL, unless there’s a player at the top of the draft who you are sure will be an impact player and who fills an immediate need, you’re usually better off trading down. Extra picks in the first couple of rounds of the draft have plenty of value, and you can often avoid committing tons of money to a player who may or may not pan out. Thus, the Chargers likely got the best of both of their recent deals, acquiring a franchise running back and quarterback in exchange for what best can be termed an enigma. The second point is that while Michael Vick is promoted and marketed like a star quarterback, at some point the bubble will burst. Eventually, he’s going to have to produce the stats, and the wins, to justify his exalted position in the league. Sadly, I don’t see that happening.


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