Upset the Shopping Cart Model, Please

An NFL team should never take a “shopping cart” approach when it comes to the draft.

The “shopping cart” approach works like this: A team determines what its needs are heading into the draft, then compiles a grocery list of sorts, then uses the draft to shop for its needs. It’s a flawed system.

The Giants don’t use this draft approach and neither do the Packers or Steelers, whom have all won Super Bowls in the last four years (or twice in five years in the case of the Giants). The Eagles don’t use this draft approach, either, and they’ve qualified for the playoffs in nine of the last 12 years.

Given how many holes the Rams still need to fill before the start of the 2012 season, it might be tempting for Les Snead and Jeff Fisher to use a version of the “shopping cart” method. The Rams will be on the clock four times in the first 65 selections and could acquire more picks if they decide to trade down from No. 6. Considering they have immediate needs at receiver, offensive tackle, defensive tackle, outside linebacker and cornerback, Snead and Fisher could essentially say, “Let’s make sure we fill our most pressing needs in every round.”

But the most successful teams realize that drafting for need is ultimately a losing proposition. Yes, filling needs with impact players is the ultimate goal. But a team is more likely to reach when it feels the pressure of having to fill a position with a starter. It also puts more pressure on a prospect if a team is counting on him to start right away, and not having enough depth at positions won’t foster healthy competition, either.

This isn’t Fisher and Snead’s first draft and I have complete trust that they’ll make sound decisions in two weeks. Hopefully they’ll stay true to their board when they get into the middle rounds, when high-stakes decisions are made in mere seconds. Because if they don’t, they could wind up reaching for a player because it’s much easier to say, “Hey, defensive tackle is on our grocery list – we have to draft one here.” That’s essentially how teams get into trouble because they’re more worried about filling a need than selecting the player with the most talent, upside or potential.

For the past four years, Snead worked under Thomas Dimitroff in Atlanta. He was part of the brain trust that selected impact players like Matt Ryan, Curtis Lofton, Mizzou grads Sean Weatherspoon and William Moore, as well as 2011 first-round pick Julio Jones. Twenty-six of the 32 players drafted under Dimitroff are still on the Falcons’ roster, which is an outstanding draft rate.

But Dimitroff also subscribes to the theory of drafting for need, which is why the Falcons wound up reaching for first-round busts Sam Baker and Peria Jerry when there were obvious warning signs. (Baker struggled with a back injury at USC while Jerry was a poor fit as a nose tackle, but the Falcons drafted him anyway because they needed a starter at DT in 2009.)

Not every first-round pick will pan out – that’s just the nature of the beast. But the 2012 draft will be huge for Snead and Fisher, so the pressure is on them to acquire impact players. This is a Rams team in desperate need of playmakers from top to bottom and thus, it’s important that Snead and Fisher not to get caught up in addressing needs.

Draft for value and positional needs will eventually take care of themselves.