As we enter into our final window of time before the 2021 NFL Draft and seemingly everyone is matching players to teams in their mock drafts. Please keep this in mind, NFL teams have a criterion that not only optimizes their vision of a player, but also considers their team’s needs. The perfect draft choice becomes clearest when a team can select the best player on their board and their choice happens to fall at a position of greatest need in their overall team building process.
Its easy for draft analysts to throw up their top 15 or top 20 players based on their evaluations of film. Heck, I do it too. However, what separates NFL teams from this outsiders’ process is that the most-prepared teams have a checklist and know exactly what they are looking for at each position. This is based off schemes and specific skill sets that they prioritize over time. Each team's FIT is unique and cannot be generated without the knowledge from within that specific NFL team’s building.
I have to be honest here, I did not have that same belief and philosophy until I hooked up with Nick Saban in Miami where he hired me as the General Manager of the Dolphins. I had 20 years in the business in my back pocket, had built playoff teams, was named NFL Executive of the Year by my peers, and had plenty of ideas. However, it was Saban's disciplined process in identifying and evaluating that made me so much better at my job. Truthfully, it even surprised me. What I learned is that if we open our minds, we can all still learn from others, no matter what our level of experience is or what our prior perspectives are.
Here are some thoughts and experiences that confirmed to me that drafting players in the NFL is a two-pronged process. You need to first identify traits of what you see, then you must project them into your system. It’s really all about “FIT”.
There is no greater example of this than when you are sizing up the front seven of a team’s defense. This is where I wanted the most input from the coaches we had on our staff. I heard New York Giants GM Dave Gettleman say exactly this in his pre-draft press conference the other day. Based on their scheme, they know best what skill sets they are looking for and will utilize from each position. It’s the GM’s job to hold everyone accountable to their own job descriptions without exceptions.
What might work or fit for other organizations may not be what our team might want. The first step is realizing “that is just fine and dandy”. We had a column on our legal pad that is used for “does not fit”. Not every player we evaluated fit into our front seven on defense, so we just set those guys aside even if they were very good players.
Saban and his staff gave me the best job descriptions of any staff I have ever worked with. It can’t come as a surprise to anyone in or around football that Coach Saban knows exactly what he wants. His level of detail is only as good as the discipline needed to hold the evaluators accountable. Said another way, we all knew exactly what we were looking for.
This all seems simple but in most NFL organizations, that's not the case. I’ve seen teams make mistake after mistake in drafting because they never would start their process by developing a job description. This is very frustrating for scouts and coaches alike. Teams have a tendency to force a fit because of a player’s production or some other agenda that usually relates to acquiring players, not building a team. For example, when evaluating any defensive lineman or linebacker, the goal should be to stick to this specific, team generated, criterion. History shows that this philosophy works because their skill set fit. I know, for fact, the guys we drafted who didn’t fit our criteria, but were still good players, didn’t work out more times than not.
Another example of this is that we had no row on our draft board for the “edge rusher” position. We eventually created a position called “JACK” but our discipline didn’t allow us to consider that position until Round 3 of the draft. It really was a “no fit” for our defense.
We didn’t want to spend high-draft capital on a part time/role player. Quite a number of the edge rushers don’t play LB or DE, they are what we call “tweeners". Saban’s comment to me on many occasions was, “we don’t have that position so stop talking about him”. Our team was okay with them going somewhere else and being good players. They just didn’t fit what we were trying to do. End of story.
There is no greater example of a proven “fit” system than what the New England Patriots have done over the last 20 years. Like Saban, Bill Belichick knows exactly what he wants and his staff does as well. It’s not about always drafting the best players but instead, drafting the best players FOR US. A giant nose tackle that, above all, can hold the point of attack and knock people back on contact might not be as important to others but for US, it was golden.
We wanted defensive ends that knew how to play the "5 technique" and had strong hands to control blockers. They didn’t need to be elite rushers and their production didn't show up in numbers or stats. We looked for one outside linebacker that could rush and one that had the agility to drop quickly into pass coverage. This is over simplifying it, but I’m just trying to illustrate the basics with my list of skills, in prioritized order, put together over hours of discussion, and vetted by the entire staff. That process is exactly what the good teams have as a guide to identify talent. The job descriptions differ from team to team, but the process is essentially the same.
We would use our training camp in August as a “scout school” where we make sure everyone can identify and describe individual traits on film. An unprepared scout is the fault of his supervisor in my opinion.
Every team also operates with a set of alerts. These are letters attached to a player’s evaluation or draft card that signifies various concerns such as C-character, F- frame, H- height, S –speed, D- durability, I- injury prone, O- over achiever, M- medical. There are many of these alerts that eventually come off a player during the pre-draft process, but some can’t be overcome.
For example, in our system in Miami, we could not grade a cornerback above the 3rd Round if he was shorter than 5100 (5’ 10”) or couldn’t break 4.55 in the 40-yard dash no matter how good he was on tape. So, the “H" and “S" alerts were non-negotiable for corners in our system. It was insurance against us having a small guy or a slow guy up too high on our draft board. We valued height and/or speed that much at that particular position. We didn’t want to have a team of exceptions.
You can dispute this line of thinking if you don’t believe in the same reasoning, but ours was a detailed road map that kept all the coaches and all the scouts on the same page. We also tried to use similar terms to describe a player and/or his skill sets in meetings, etc. So we were comparing apples to apples in our communication.
At the end of the day, we were all looking for “clean" players without alerts, but this lettering system we used just added visual details to a well- defined process. It is still my belief that some evaluate better than others, but before you yell and scream at your team for not drafting the player that the experts thought they should, remember that very few players are so talented that they fit any scheme.
This 2021 NFL Draft will be no exception. Of course, we can all see how TE/WR/Weapon Kyle Pitts fits with a team’s offense, but once we get outside the top 10 and, especially on defense, FIT will play a large role when teams sequence similar valued players on their boards. Factor this information with the medical, character and mental/learning aspects of a player’s profile and we would all have to admit that an NFL team should know what fits them best. If they don’t, they are just collecting talent.