The pick that could make the Chiefs’ draft isn’t the aggressive cornerback or the nasty lineman. That is not to say they can’t turn into great players.
Marcus Peters and Mitch Morse each embody so much of what the men in charge of the Chiefs want from those positions. Peters is strong, particularly at the line of scrimmage, and specializes in the kind of disruptive press coverage the Chiefs emphasize. Morse is versatile and athletic, at his best when he can use his feet and smash tacklers in space.
But if the biggest Chiefs draft in years — the one with nine picks, just as the roster seems to be maturing into a contender — is going to be great, it’s going to be with the third-round receiver from Georgia being at least very good.
There are reasons to believe that will happen, too, both objective and subjective.
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Chris Conley is eminently likable. He is smart, talkative, engaging. Made a short film about Star Wars. Already has the local media in the bag with a journalism degree.
There’s a lot to like about his football ability, too. He is immensely talented, for starters: 6-foot-2, 213 pounds, a 4.35-second 40-yard dash and a 45-inch vertical leap.
With so much talk locally about Dorial Green-Beckham’s freakish gifts, it’s interesting that Conley is shorter and lighter, but he beat Green-Beckham in six of seven drills at the NFL Combine. Conley has longer arms and bigger hands, too.
The Chiefs certainly believe in him, not just by drafting him but trading up to do it — and this is where something you might not know materializes.
They gave up a sixth-round pick to move up for Conley. There are a lot of reasons for this, including that the Chiefs had extra picks to make a move and wanted to be sure they weren’t left out at a position of clear need.
Whether teams trading up in the draft do so out of desperation or conviction is an omnipresent debate in certain football circles, but a look through recent history might shine some light on the Chiefs’ move.
Stars such as Richard Sherman, Rob Gronkowski, Clay Matthews, Demaryius Thomas, Dez Bryant and Julius Thomas have been the targets of teams trading up on draft day.
But let’s go beyond the anecdotal. To see what kind of history the Chiefs are joining, I looked at the 126 draft-day trades involving only picks from the five drafts between 2008 and 2012.
The general purpose was to see how the targets — the players taken with the trade’s highest pick — have performed compared to the players taken around them.
Going through those drafts, I compared the trade target’s career Approximate Value to the five picks before and after. An NFC personnel man agreed that with a five-year sample, this would provide a rough estimation of how teams have done trading up.
The results are interesting in that there is an almost surgical 50-50 split in the number of trades that worked out. Sixty-one targets performed better than their peer picks, 63 worse, and two were indistinguishable. The 2008 draft, for whatever reason, was awful for teams trading up. Only 10 of 29 targets performed better than their peers.
But it’s interesting that the good trades have, generally speaking, outweighed the bad. Overall, the trades average to an additional 1.5 career AV on average.
The performance has been a little better than that for third-rounders — a boost of 2.4 — which at that point generally means the player selected performed like a pick from a half-round earlier or more.
Those numbers don’t take into account what teams gave up in the trades, and there are no guarantees here for the Chiefs or Conley. If you go through the draft-day trades, the strongest trend might be self-evident, that smart organizations do well and bad organizations don’t.
The Seahawks traded up to get Sherman, and the Patriots traded up for Gronkowski. The Jaguars traded up to get Blaine Gabbert and Justin Blackmon.
The Chiefs are a better, more solid organization than they’ve been in a decade, maybe more. They believe they are on the verge of re-establishing themselves among the NFL’s better teams.
There are reasons that a player of Conley’s intelligence and gifts was available in the third round. His routes need polish, and his college production didn’t match his raw talent.
But the Chiefs think they can bring out Conley’s best, and they believe it enough that they traded up to select him in what everyone understands is a critical draft for the team’s future.
They need this draft class to turn out, and for that they need Conley to be what they project.
That’s what the NFL’s best teams do, anyway.