What Drafting The Best Player Available Really Means

Looking back, it's easy to judge a draft pick and say if it was the best player available or not. The process that goes into it is a lot more difficult - and not nearly as straightforward as it seems.

"Just draft the best player available."

It's sage draft advice, it's so logical, it's how a team ensures they build the most talented roster they can. 

But it's also a little more complicated that it sounds.

Let's dive into why.

Imagine you're an NFL GM and you have to rank all the players in the draft.

You start off by grading them on a 10 point scale. Let's say you end up with something like 5 players rated as a 10 - this is your top tier or premium blue chip players. After that, you end up with 20 players rated as a 9, and 30 players with a grade of 8. These are all very good players, they're just very similar in terms of talent.

Now, what if your pick comes up and you have six guys rated as a 9?

You want to take the best player available... so which one is the "best"?

Well, that may be hard to do on a ten point scale, so let's say you pull your ratings out to include a decimal point. You go even deeper into rating them and the six players left end up with scores like this:

  • 9.8
  • 9.8
  • 9.6
  • 9.2
  • 9.1
  • 9.1

Well, that's a little better. Now you can see that a couple guys really stand out in this group and a few fall to the bottom.

Unfortunately, you have two players at 9.8 and you can only pick one of them.

What do you do? Is it time to carry out the rating to another decimal point?

What if they both come out at 9.85?

Decisions, decisions.

Maybe carry out the ratings to yet another decimal point?

One is a 9.854 and the other is merely a 9.852.

Eureka! You've found the best player available!

Ok, that was highly academic and just seems silly to split hairs to that degree, right?

Let's take a more practical approach. Rank the following receivers: DeAndre Hopkins, Julio Jones, Steffon Diggs, Justin Jefferson, OBJ, Tyreek Hill.

It's not very easy, is it?

Some are better out of the slot than others. Some are better at deep route than others. Would you rather have a faster receiver or a receiver with better hands?

You probably have your favorite one or two on the top of your list, but at some point, you just say "close enough."

It's the same way in draft evaluation. You rank all the players, but some are too close to call. Add in the fact that player evaluation is a notoriously difficult exercise (as evidenced by how many 1st round picks end up as total flops every year) and you realize that making the final decisions based on a couple thousandths of a rating point doesn't make a lot of sense.

So what do teams do if they want the best player available?

First, they embrace the idea that their ratings aren't perfect and they go for close enough. They realize that with thousands of available players in the college ranks, you will quickly hit the point of diminishing returns if you try to rank them to a pinpoint rating.

Instead, they rank them in tiers.

But instead of rating them into artificial tiers, like on a 10 point scale, they flip it. Sure, they start with rough numberical rankings, but after that, they draw new lines.

Let's say the top of the board has players with the following rankings:

  • 9.8
  • 9.8
  • 9.7
  • 9.1
  • 8.9
  • 8.8

Putting those guys into a 9-point group and an 8-point group wouldn't make nearly as much sense as drawing a line between 9.1 and 9.7 and  having a first tier with guys between 9.7 and 9.8 and having a second tier for guys between 8.8 and 9.1,

Once the tiers are set, things get really exciting.

As teams wait for their pick to come up (and for a team like the Packers, it's usually a longer wait since they win so much), they are crossing players off their list.

If the pick comes up and a team has a lot of guys from the top remaining tier, they may be more likely to trade down. If you can get one of your top guys and pick up another selection, that's good value.

I believe this is what happened to the Packers in 2017, especially based on Ted Thompson's comments at the time.

They needed help on defense and guys like TJ Watt, Reuben Foster, Kevin King, and Budda Baker were all still on the board. The Browns wanted to trade up for a tight end. The Packers could pick up a free pick for sliding down a few spots and still get someone from their highest remaining tier.

(Note: It's very possible that if the Packers couldn't trade down, they still may have taken Kevin King, so don't blame the process)

You know what's better than getting a guy you want in the draft? Getting a guy you want in the draft and gaining an extra pick in the process!

This is value trading at it's finest: get a player of similar value while picking up an extra pick for later.

On the flip side, if a team is watching players get picked and there is only one guy left on their highest-remaining tier, they may be tempted to move up and grab him.

Brian Gutekunst (who may or may not be good at drafting) seems to do this every year.

Jaire Alexander, Darnell Savage, and Jordan Love are all guys he traded up to get. In each case, I believe he saw one player that clearly stood out from the remaining group and made the decision to give up a pick or two later to secure the guy he thought was clearly better than anyone else who would probably be available if they'd waited.

In short, these guys were probably all the last remaining player on the tier for the Packers and they felt that getting the last guy on the tier was worth more than having an extra pick or two later in the draft.

So what do they do if there are multiple players left on their talent tier and the scouting report puts them all at a similar level and they can't find a partner to trade back with?

Well, what if the Packers pick came up this year at #29 and they had three players with a similar rating: a quarterback, a running back, and a cornerback?

Well let's look at the key factors in this situation:

  • The Packers have the reigning MVP at quarterback and drafted the heir apparent last yea
  • They re-signed their starting running back and drafted a complementary back in the 2nd round last year
  • Their current starting cornerback is on a one year deal and is the obvious scapegoat for missing out on a Super Bowl trip last year

In this scenario, the Packers need a cornerback the most, so they will probably take the cornerback.

But isn't that drafting for need?

Not really.

Drafting for need would be taking the highest-rated player at the position you need most, regardless of how they tiers play out.

This is drafting the best player available while using need as a tie-breaker.

Without using tiers, teams would need to rate prospects to the thousandth decimal point and then take a player at a position so deep that they would be sitting the bench instead of taking a player that could step into a starting role - all because the rating came in 0.002 points higher.

GMs know they can't accurately predict how good a player will be to that degree (and Twitter reminds them hourly).

So they use tiers to get them close enough, move around to find value, and in the end, use position need as a tie breaker.

Now, this also explains why the Packers never seem to draft inside linebackers very highly - they rank the position pretty low in terms of relative value, so inside linebacker almost always loses the tie breaker in early rounds.

There's a lot that goes into the draft, and even a seemingly simply concept like "best player available" is a little more complicated than just ranking players 1 to 400 and taking the next one on the list.

 

 

Bruce Irons has played, coached, and studied football for decades. Best-selling author of books such as A Fan's Guide To Understanding The NFL Draft, A Fan's Guide To Understanding The NFL Salary Cap, and A Fan's Guide To NFL Free Agency Hits And Misses, Bruce contributes to CheeseHeadTV and PackersForTheWin.com.

Follow Bruce Irons on Twitter at @BruceIronsNFL.

 

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9 points

Comments (40)

Fan-Friendly This filter will hide comments which have ratio of 5 to 1 down-vote to up-vote.
Bure9620's picture

April 26, 2021 at 08:05 pm

I mostly agree. BPA but I take out QBs. Why? Because QBs are over drafted every year because you NEED a QB in this league. Therefore, by definition, QBs are usually never the actual BPA. Trevor Lawrence is going to Jacksonville #1 overall. He is NOT the best player in the draft imo.

You Have to go BPA even if not an immediate need. Bad organizations draft for need, and soon they need everything because they did not get what they needed from the player they drafted for need. Field flippers are rare.

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Turophile's picture

April 27, 2021 at 02:24 pm

I guess that depends more on how deep you reach and how well you pick. This is not really a binary yes/no thing.

Also, even trying to identify if a player was a reach pick is difficult, because you have no idea what the Packers board looks like. The best that most of us could do is compare picks to media mocks, but they will surely differ in many respects from a teams board.

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BruceIrons's picture

April 26, 2021 at 08:20 pm

It's an interesting debate because quarterback is unlike any other position in sports.

Teams are desperate to get them and often make huge moves to go up and get them - to the detriment of being able to field a team around them.

But when I look at recent history, I see a different strategy winning.

The Buccaneers spent a decade playing poorly and building a great team with high draft picks, then plugged in a free agent quarterback to get over the hump.

The Broncos did the same thing with Manning.

In both cases, winners were built by slowly assembling all the pieces and then adding a free agent quarterback.

The Chiefs were doing great and fresh off a 12-4 season when the drafted Mahomes. When Mahomes sat his rookie year, they were still good enough to win their division. Mahomes stepped into a great team and put them over the top.

The Eagles won with a backup quarterback.

Teams are desperate to move up for a quarterback and pay a king's ransom... but there's no real history to point to that shows it results in a title.

It's why I like the process the Packers follow where they try to develop their next starter before their current one is done.

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Turophile's picture

April 26, 2021 at 08:19 pm

A tricky subject and well explained. Tiers can have such a big effect on how the Packers position themselves, yet very little is said about it. I did try to create a tier system for the first round this year using Connor Rogers grading, and the tier the Packers were involved in (at pick 29) went from pick 21 to 30. This would mean it would be difficult to trade up because it required a big move up to reach a higher tier, 9 spots at the very least. It also meant that if they traded back more than one spot they would be in a lower tier...........................so I'm guessing they stay put in round one this year.

Of course if my tier system is very different from the Packers, they may not. Since so many people suggest a trade up or down, and since Gutes history is to do so, I'll call it a victory if they stay put this year.

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BruceIrons's picture

April 26, 2021 at 08:22 pm

I feel the same way about this draft class. I think the talent drops off in the early 20's. Unless someone like Barmore falls, I'd like to see the Packers trade back.

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splitpea1's picture

April 26, 2021 at 08:18 pm

I can see the need for all of this quantification so GMs can balance needs, BPAs, and trade offers simultaneously in order to make the best judgement in the allotted time frame. Hopefully they get a chance to take a deep breath and use a little intuition (not much time from the third round on) before they make the selection.

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BruceIrons's picture

April 26, 2021 at 08:24 pm

Great point - we don't talk about it much, but the frenzied mania and emotion of the moment impacts decision-makers. The selection clock seems like an eternity for fans, but for the guys taking calls and making the final call, it flies by.

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hobowilly's picture

April 26, 2021 at 09:29 pm

Hi folks, great topic: BPA. Everyone has their own "tier system", if it is only a hunch or if they've been following a player.
What i love about the Packers, most often they will surprise. Pre draft visits/interviews/pro day attendance/SR bowl etc. Green Bay keeps its cards close to its chest!! It's gonna be new too, with a new DC in Barry, that plays in a bit as well.

May i share believing in Gutey, i think he has a real feel for draft. It appears his vast experience as a scout himself and in having been in those trenches, he can review/quiz his regional scouts about various players that get graded high on their board. Moreover, too many were highly doubting his pick of R. Gary and pissed about the surprise selection of Love. They were doubting/puzzled at Dillon's choice but not as much with the Deguara selection. Remember, GB is a draft/develop outfit as has been stated. We won't know about #1 and #3 for a while, right? We saw glimpses of releasing the beast (Dillon) and we've seen Gary come on. Too bad Deguara got hurt, but he looks like a willing warrior.

To conclude, we will never know how GB grades its prospects, but i truly love they care a lot about character, an intangible that doesn't factor in a players' RAS. GPG!

P.S. we still have our leader, one Mr. Rodgers MVP and seek to go one step further in 2021.

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croatpackfan's picture

April 27, 2021 at 04:00 am

My hope that "Mr. Rodgers" will take 2 step further in 2021. Not only one step (playing in the SB), but also second step (winning the SB!).

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Lphill's picture

April 27, 2021 at 12:05 pm

Maybe if he plays D line or corner too, so it’s all on Rodgers?

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GLM's picture

April 26, 2021 at 09:56 pm

Great article. In this particular draft, I feel the team can stand pat at #29 and land a very good player who can start. Trading down will be harder than trading up, IMO, just like previous years. It takes another team who wants a specific player, and I would think that a lot of GM's are hesitant to make Green Bay a stronger team in the draft by trading up with us. It could happen, but if it doesn't, I like the board, and our staff, even if they take someone who might he considered a reach in our minds, or the minds of the draft pundits.

Case in point... remember the Craig Newsome pick? No one had even heard of him, yet he was our first round pick in 1995... he was a high-floor kind of player, and did well for a number of seasons.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Craig_Newsome

He's just one example, and I'm sure you can find even better ones. I'm just going to enjoy the ride, and watch the Packers dominate, again...

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PatrickGB's picture

April 26, 2021 at 11:46 pm

Gutie pretty much said as much in today’s press conference. And he said he even follows TT’s example when there is an apparent tie in rankings. I am unsure if that’s really true but that’s what I heard him say.

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Johnblood27's picture

April 27, 2021 at 07:02 am

Let's cut the BULL.

There is a dart board that determines what the team does.

The darts are all thrown before the actual draft so it isn't caught on camera.

All the results are catalogued and the actual picks are NEVER varied from once the dart has stuck.

The inner ring is the "make a trade" spot and a trade MUST be made at that point if the dart finds that spot.

This system explains the high rate of busts as well as the stoopid trades that get made since the team that has the "must trade" spot HAS to do so and often ends up with a trade partner that has all the leverage.

There... pretty simple, eh?

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PewAuKeeFan's picture

April 27, 2021 at 09:33 am

LOL!

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Since'61's picture

April 27, 2021 at 09:48 am

I have believed in the dart board theory myself many times over the years. It certainly appears that's true when you look back at many of the draft results over the years.

However, I think there is more than one dart board. Which one they actually use depends on which round they are up for. Apparently there is a subversive factor who moves the darts around when no one is looking!

How else would we end up with Tony Mandarich instead of Barry Sanders and how else would Aaron Rodgers drop from #1 to #24. And who sharpens the points on the darts???

In any case a dart board probably would actually work about as well as all the analysis, hype and speculation that is prepared and presented by the alleged draft pundits. Enjoy and stay well. Thanks, Since '61

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jannes bjornson's picture

April 27, 2021 at 02:36 pm

The illusion of Complexity.

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greengold's picture

April 27, 2021 at 04:24 pm

It's all smoke and mirrors...

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hobowilly's picture

April 28, 2021 at 10:34 pm

Hi '61, i just wish some would stop with applauding TT selecting AR with the 24th pick. Just IMHO, that slide was ludicrous in that the #1 selection appeared to be either Smith or Rodgers and, Rodgers played across the bay...i recall MM sorta leading Rodgers on that SF was going to select him. How in the world, does a QB that was so close to being #1 slide all the way to GB's choice @ 24?? It was a duh choice to the max, sorry.

Who out there feels that if SF doesn't select Jones @ #3 tomorrow, he'll slide all the way to #29, lol??? Or even to the 20's. I'd bet if Mac Jones is there @ Bellicheats' pick (15/16?) NE will snag him. I think the gold rush for QB's has really evolved since 2005; thinking there may be 5 chosen in the top ten tomorrow.

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BruceIrons's picture

April 28, 2021 at 10:12 am

First rule of drafting: never tell outsiders about the dart board.

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Savage57's picture

April 27, 2021 at 08:04 am

The problem with BPA is that in the end, it's still a subjective measure that leaves it vulnerable to one condition.

Some team's BPA is another team's Not Even On A Bet because no one's yet figured out how to predict the future success of a NFL player candidate with anything over a 35-40% success rate.

Pick and pray, baby. Pick and pray.

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Since'61's picture

April 27, 2021 at 09:50 am

Summed it all nicely as usual Savage57! Thanks, Since '61

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Coldworld's picture

April 27, 2021 at 08:16 am

BPA is really a fiction. It gives the talking heads something to be authoritative about and GMs something nebulous to explain a pick.

It is a subjective measure comprised of a few empirical elements (athletic testing), a few semi empirical ones, performance stats (against varying opposition) and medical extrapolations and a lot of subjective input, scouting (typically various layers), interviews.

All these are weighted, again a subjective procedure reflecting team perceptions. Typically need (roster hole type, roster shape etc) will be a factor in that weighting. There is your list.

That’s why each team’s is different after a very very small number of consensus picks and why lists compiled by talking heads are usually wildly off since they use less variables, being more focused on athleticism and tape and can’t know what additional criteria teams are applying and with what weight. It’s also possible that formulas adjust weightings by draft round to reflect different factors in later round prospects.

There is no such thing as “the BPA”, just the team’s BPA in their assessment. But it sounds good.

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Since'61's picture

April 27, 2021 at 09:52 am

Not as good as your brilliant explanation Coldworld! Thanks, Since '61

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Turophile's picture

April 27, 2021 at 08:48 am

"There is no such thing as 'the BPA', just the team’s BPA in their assessment. But it sounds good."

That, right there, is gold.

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Lphill's picture

April 27, 2021 at 08:56 am

Step forward if you think Kevin King was a better pick than TJ Watt .

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dobber's picture

April 27, 2021 at 09:01 am

I'd almost rather hear more about Nick Kwiatkoski...

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Since'61's picture

April 27, 2021 at 09:53 am

Cookie! Thanks, Since '61

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13TimeChamps's picture

April 27, 2021 at 06:08 pm

Lol!!!

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PewAuKeeFan's picture

April 27, 2021 at 09:37 am

Ha!

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13TimeChamps's picture

April 27, 2021 at 06:25 pm

Didn't 29 other teams pass on Watt?

Step forward if you think it's time to stop obsessing about the 2017 draft 4 years later.

How many SB's has Pittsburgh won since drafting him?

AFC Championship games?

Anything?

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PewAuKeeFan's picture

April 27, 2021 at 09:32 am

Great article Bruce. You have come up with a very clear explanation on the possible workings of the GM mind. This is also something that a fan-man like me can use too, when I'm biting my nails on Thursday/Friday. (By Saturday, no more nails, so I'll quit biting)

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Since'61's picture

April 27, 2021 at 09:55 am

Another reason not to watch but to just get updates via my cell phone once the Packers make a selection.
Thanks, Since '61

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Turophile's picture

April 27, 2021 at 02:30 pm

But how are your fingernails going to get whittled down if you don't bite them anymore ? You are going to have to pay for a manicurist, now.

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mnbadger's picture

April 27, 2021 at 12:36 pm

I watched the cheesehead tv gang last year for the first time and really enjoyed it, mostly. Mr. Benicke's anxiety was a little taxing though. I really loved it when ex packer players and/or coaches came on, had a drink in them, and just talked like you're hanging out. I'll probably do it again this year. NOTE: you have to watch a separate phone or tablet to keep track of the actual picks because the chatter goes on and in many directions not related to the draft. This, IMO, made it especially fun to watch.

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greengold's picture

April 27, 2021 at 02:34 pm

Agree "BPA" is kind of an empty, yet, powerful PR tool, and little more. And, I appreciate Bruce Irons' explanation here.

Was Jordan Love a BPA pick last year? Or, was he a "need" pick? I'm going to say a little bit of both. Of course it rubbed much of Packer nation the wrong way, after getting to the NFCC and failing. AR wasn't and isn't getting any younger. He was just coming off a season playing with a broken leg. GM's doing their due diligence take a franchise QB when they don't need one, so the player can learn and develop. Might as well take the guy with the strongest arm of Burrow, Tagovailoa & Herbert who is in a free fall and give up the R4... That way, Love can get a year or 2 or 3 of development time in just like AR got.

To anyone saying, "but, we needed to stop the run!" Were you going to be thrilled with a Yetur Gross-Matos pick at 30? Queen was gone. Brooks was gone. Ross Blacklock? Marlon Davidson? Darrell Taylor? Those were the next 4 DL selected between picks 30 and 53. The FOUR OF THEM combined for 21 tackles and 2 sacks... Queen, a player we realized was not what was needed, at least had 10 QB hits. That's 10 more than Brooks.

Let's not forget ROOKIE WR Tyler Johnson, who had TWO HUGE plays in last year's NFCC game to help TB win in the 4th Quarter. He was pick 161 in the 5th Round last year. On 3rd down Johnson drew the PI call on Kevin King to help put the game away. His other play was a 1st down reception earlier in Q4 on 3rd and 16.

LATE PICKS MATTER. I'm certain Alonzo Highsmith has something to say about that too...

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porupack's picture

April 28, 2021 at 07:20 am

You're up for best comment ever!

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BruceIrons's picture

April 28, 2021 at 10:18 am

Funny you mentioned Ross Blacklock. I always keep track of who I would have drafted (making picks as the draft goes on so I don't have the benefit of hindsight) and Blacklock was the guy I took in the 1st.

It's a fun exercise and reminds us of how little we know.

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blacke00's picture

April 27, 2021 at 05:51 pm

No such animal as "BPA". The teams pick for need, always have and always will. They pick the best player at the positions they need the most. Look at he teams in the 20 in this years draft and see what players they pick almost all will be in an area of significant need. If the Packers pick a CB, DL, ROT or WR the first 3-4 rounds....I think I will have made my case.

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HankScorpio's picture

April 27, 2021 at 08:35 pm

Jordan Love and AJ Dillon disagree.

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HankScorpio's picture

April 27, 2021 at 08:33 pm

I'd say it is more about Most Impactful Player available. Check out the franchise tag values for the various positions. Those are the positions that matter. Draft as if that truth is true. Pass rushers and QB protectors. Pass catchers and the guys that cover them. And, of course, QBs above all else. Skew heavy to those spots early, no matter the current roster, is a formula for long-term success

For example, a ILB may grade out higher and be a bigger need than a CB. But he better be significantly higher in both to consider in round 1 over that CB. CBs matter. LBs don't matter as much. That's what the 2nd & 3rd contracts tell us. The same thing applies to the draft.

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