The Miami Dolphins draft horizontally.
I’ve heard Jeff Ireland repeat this a hundred times and, as he’s going to meet with the media this week before the NFL Draft kicks off April 25, I suspect the Dolphins general manager will say it a couple of more times.
The Miami Dolphins draft horizontally.
But what does that mean? Is that a good thing? Is that an innovative or obsolete approach? What?
Let’s start with the fact that a lot of teams draft horizontally. There’s nothing wrong with drafting horizontally. Ron Wolf built the Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers of the 1990s drafting horizontally.
It is not a new approach. It is not a bad approach. It is, well, an approach.
Drafting horizontally basically means the Dolphins want to give themselves space to fill their needs instead of simply picking the player with the highest draft grade.
It means that the Dolphins are not necessarily going to be drafting the best available player.
It means that even if the Dolphins don’t pick the best available player, they can make the case they did exactly that.
Drafting horizontally, one critic of the format told me last week, is a great way to fool the media and the owner into thinking you’re picking the best available player who coincidently plays a position of need (wink, wink) when what you’re really doing is just filling your greatest needs.
A proponent of drafting horizontally countered that it’s the best way to marry two draft-day desires: Getting the best players, yes, but also doing it at the positions you need to improve.
The Dolphins will go into the April 25-27 draft needing help at cornerback, offensive tackle, defensive end, tight end and perhaps at guard and safety. And because the Dolphins draft horizontally, the chances actually improve that those needs will be addressed somehow.
Well, to explain, let us first look at the more traditional vertical approach to the draft.
The vertical approach simply grades a number of players that are draft eligible one after the other, regardless of position. It is a 300-name totem pole of sorts with the best player in the draft at the top and Mr. Irrelevant at the bottom.
And, theoretically, the selection process takes on a life of its own because as names come off the board, all a team has to do when its turn comes up is pick the next player with the highest grade.
If a team is drafting 12th overall, as the Dolphins are, and the highest player on the board has the No. 6 overall grade, that’s the pick regardless of position or need.
That’s the classic approach. It’s simple. It’s black and white.
The horizontal approach leaves room for more grays.
Teams using this approach stretch every position group horizontally across a board. Left ends, nose tackles, right ends, weak linebackers, strong linebackers, inside linebackers, wide receivers, quarterbacks and so on. (Teams with 4-3 defenses use different position groups as teams running 3-4 looks.)
The Dolphins would then take a small number of players — between 120 and 180, depending on the year — and plug them into their board according to their position.
Along the first line under every position, the club places the name of players that have a first-round grade. So first-round cornerbacks are on the same horizontal line as first-round quarterbacks or running backs or any other position.
Along the second line, the name of every player with a second-round grade is placed under his appropriate position. That’s how a second-round safety can be on the same horizontal line with a second-round quarterback.
And on draft day, when the No. 12 pick comes up — assuming the Dolphins aren’t trading up or down — Ireland will be able to scan horizontally across the first round and spy the handful of players graded at the pick. Those players will be laid out horizontally at their various positions.
The Dolphins GM can then select a name out of that group.
It shouldn’t surprise that the player selected often plays a position of need, because logic and human nature will dictate that picking a quarterback ahead of a cornerback won’t help the team as much in 2012 even if the quarterback is rated higher.
That’s how drafting horizontally makes greater concessions to picking need positions.
And the Dolphins definitely have addressed needs in their drafts. Last year, the Dolphins needed a quarterback and, voila, picked one in the first round. They needed a right tackle and the club selected Jonathan Martin in the second round to play right tackle.
The Dolphins in 2011 needed a running back because Ricky Williams and Ronnie Brown were gone. They needed a center because Jake Grove was a free agency bust and Joe Berger was a solid backup the team no longer wanted as the starter.
Miami selected center Mike Pouncey in the first round and traded up to select running back Daniel Thomas in the second round.
Sometimes, the horizontal approach meshes with the best-available-player approach. In 2009, the Dolphins’ roster was lacking cornerbacks. The Dolphins not only filled the need with Vontae Davis in the first round, but he was graded in the teens by the team that picked him at No. 25. So, the club believed, Davis was a value pick at a position of need.
All this suggests the Dolphins will definitely fill needs this month. And as the player at need positions will be on the same horizontal line as perhaps a higher-graded player who doesn’t fill a need, the Dolphins can hypothetically and honestly contend they didn’t reach for anyone.
Even if they did — hypothetically.