Commentary

Tannenbaum has unique draft approach

Despite the Gholston debacle and underwhelming Class of '10, GM has stellar record

Updated: April 26, 2011, 3:37 PM ET
By Rich Cimini | ESPNNewYork.com

By the time the New York Jets make their second selection in the 2011 NFL draft, late in the third round, the New England Patriots will have picked six players -- barring trades, of course.

When it comes to the draft, the two AFC East rivals are as different as the personalities of Rex Ryan and Bill Belichick -- and it actually adds to the appeal of the rivalry.

Under GM Mike Tannenbaum, the Jets are all about quality over quantity. In 2009 and 2010, they drafted a league-low seven players. The Belichick-led Patriots? Try 24 players.

[+] EnlargeSanchez
James Lang/US PresswireMike Tannenbaum is notorious for taking giant leaps up in the draft.

Less filling for the Jets, tastes great for the Patriots.

Despite the restrictions and uncertainties caused by the labor dispute, Tannenbaum claimed he's not going to change his approach. The Jets have six picks, but those in the GM's inner circle chuckle at the prospect of actually finishing the three-day draft with the same six picks.

Everybody knows the deal. In his five previous drafts, Tannenbaum has made 12 trades.

"If we can [accomplish our objective] with three picks, great. If it's nine picks, that's fine," Tannenbaum said. "I don't think we're ever fixated on the number of picks. It's trying to solve the needs."

Tannenbaum prides himself on being able to think outside the box, being able to adjust to situations and take chances. So far, that daring style is working.

In the 1990s, the Jets had a GM named Dick Steinberg. He was a good football man, but he was a by-the-numbers guy, reluctant to take chances. He lived in the small world of his scouting reports and structured grading system, failing to see the big picture -- and it subjected the franchise to years of mediocrity, at best.

This isn't to say Tannenbaum's method is right; it has a downside, too. His way is costly because the team has to rely on spending big bucks in free agency. It means less depth at the bottom of the roster. It also reduces the margin of error in the draft, putting extreme pressure on the scouts to get it right almost every time.

But the folks up in New England don't have all the answers, either. While Belichick can survive a higher bust rate because he has so many picks, he also runs the risk of having a roster that's too young. Maybe that's why the Patriots lost in the playoffs; maybe they weren't mature enough to handle the Jets.

Conventional wisdom suggests the Jets will keep their six picks, or try to add more, because free agency (both veteran and undrafted players) is the great unknown. Don't believe that for a second.

If Tannenbaum falls in love with a player, he will try to trade up to get him. He mentioned pass-rushers Aldon Smith, Ryan Kerrigan and Robert Quinn, all of whom are projected as top-20 players, as "interesting guys." If one slips into the 20s, the Jets could try to jump up from the 30th spot.

Other Tannenbaum staples:

•  He likes players from the so-called power conferences. Only five of 27 picks came from non-BCS schools, including two last year -- Kyle Wilson (Boise State) and Vladimir Ducasse (UMass).

•  He doesn't follow an offense-defense script, evidenced by the past two drafts -- six offensive players, one defensive player.

•  He's not afraid of one-year wonders in college -- i.e. Mark Sanchez, Shonn Greene and Vernon Gholston. Obviously, he whiffed on Gholston.

•  He's likely to pick an offensive lineman in the middle to late rounds. It happened from 2007 to 2009, and last year he took Ducasse in Round 2.

•  He'll trade third- and fourth-round picks; he's done it four years in a row.

Because of the labor mess, Tannenbaum's world is upside down. He's known as the Trader GM, but he can't make any blockbuster player trades. He's also known as the Free-Agent GM, but he can't sign any big names -- or any names, for that matter. For now, he's the Draft GM, and how that plays out is going to be one of the fascinating subplots.

This is uncharted territory for every GM in the league. What makes Tannenbaum so compelling is because he's out of his element. In years past, he signed free agents to plug holes, almost obsessively trying to complete his free-agent work before the draft. That way, he figured, he'd have more flexibility during the draft.

Now his six-shooter has a couple of empty chambers. He used a golf-club analogy, not bullets, saying, "If you're trying to solve a problem, you still have other clubs in the bag to use. You may not have your driver … You use your utility club."

Thing is, Tannenbaum is like "Tin Cup;" he doesn't like to lay up. So we wonder:

Is he going to be aggressive and trade up? Without a second-round pick, traded for cornerback Antonio Cromartie, Tannenbaum is missing a key bargaining chip. To move up significantly from the 30th spot, he'd have to mess with the future by dealing a first- or second-rounder in 2012.

From 2007 to 2009, the Jets made aggressive moves in the first round, making Carl Lewis-like jumps for Revis, Dustin Keller and Sanchez. The 2010 draft was atypical, as they didn't move from the 29th spot and ended up with Wilson, who disappointed as a rookie.

For the most part, it's hard to argue with the results. Despite the Gholston debacle and the underwhelming Class of '10, the Jets' drafting record under Tannenbaum has been very good.

Ah, but now it gets tricky. Typically, their draft board has 20 to 25 players with first-round grades, meaning -- if this is a typical year -- they could be out of legit first-rounders by the 30th pick.

There's also the matter of need versus best available athlete. Many observers believe that, without free agency, this will be a "need" draft for many teams. But the Jets insist they will remain true to their draft board, taking the best value, regardless of position.

Unless the phone rings with an offer they can't refuse.

Rich Cimini

ESPN New York Jets reporter

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