Draft Myths: The draft is a crap shoot, right?
This is without a doubt the one that bothers me the most. Nothing could be further from the truth. IMO, it’s a crap shoot only for those who can’t figure it out, don’t know what they are doing or who have made mistakes time and time again in the past. Their statement of “it’s a crap shoot” rectifies their errors in previous drafts.
Professional evaluators make mistakes and there are reasons why certain evaluations are more accurate than others. Taking it one step further, in the world of drafting QB’s early, the results are a reflection of organizational success or failures as a whole. This includes their beliefs and philosophies on team building.
Really one needs to evaluate the evaluators and hold them accountable for prior decisions, evaluations, etc. There are explanations (not to be confused with excuses) on why certain players turn out to be good picks. Before you throw up your hands, lets objectively qualify what happens with the players in question. In the NFL, it starts with a decision maker at the top of the food chain who must understand the strengths and weaknesses of his evaluators.
The other thing to keep in mind, and I truly believe this, is that the process leads you to the players. Your process can be flawed if you lack a consensus building mechanism or the discipline to stick with it and, instead, give in to the “NEED” based mentality. When you fall victim to this method, your swing and miss rate goes way up.
When it comes to quarterbacks, the best example I can give you is the end result of the Jared Goff, Carson Wentz selections. In Goff’s case, NEED trumped consensus. I know many evaluators who did not see him as a first-round talent, much less the first pick in the NFL draft. Sometimes that desire/need allows you to talk yourself into overlooking something that is clear to others.
Goff’s deficiencies were there for the trained eye. When I was with the Los Angeles Chargers, we had two scouts in our draft room who saw and identified those traits that he lacked- thus no consensus. That told me it would be a reach to make that pick when the Los Angeles Rams did. Results have proved out.
In the Wentz case, I think it was an organizational failure in flawed schemes and roster (Wentz gets some blame too, along with the injury bug). My point is, there was a reason he was drafted too high. It wasn’t unknown or a “crap shoot”. I actually still think Wentz will become a top half of the league QB but, as we now know, it won’t be with the Philadelphia Eagles who originally drafted him.
Risers and Fallers?
Those in the media often report that certain names are “creeping up the draft boards” and drastic swings in opinions are commonplace in the weeks leading up to the draft. That really doesn’t happen inside NFL draft rooms. Usually, a team’s scouts all have their grades on players recorded by January. Some teams have draft meetings where all is known and boards are positioned in February. There is no such thing as “hype” or “buzz” that affects where a player sits on a team’s draft boards.
As a decision maker, I would go out of my way to not listen to these outside evaluations. I tried to eliminate outside influence. I felt it just took up space in my brain and because I don’t know enough about these notions or evaluators, I did not have time to connect/process all the dots that get thrown out there by the media. I’m not saying the talking heads are wrong, but I am saying that you must consider the agenda of the people who are leaking the news. I felt a need to explore the “why” and to decipher, dispel or agree with those opinions sent me down a rabbit hole all too often. I wanted to limit the opinion to the ones inside our building who understood our process.
I think it’s smart to limit the people you talk to outside your building. For years, I had one or two media members that I would talk to almost daily. It allowed me to gauge the field and information through a filter that I could control. It was the equivalent of drinking from a garden hose and not a firehose. Maybe it was just my way of thinking but by doing that I felt like I had control or “the pulse” of the league or the big picture. It allowed me to sleep better if nothing else. One of my goals was always to eliminate big swings of momentum generated by outside sources.
Most General Managers with experience in evaluating have already picked their lanes on where to stack talent by the first of April (if not sooner). The one thing that is missing until the weeks leading up to the draft is input from your coaches, who obviously don’t really see players until their own season is over. After you get some feedback from them, you might tweak your board during or after these meetings. Almost never would there be a big swing in where some player lands just because of a loud voice or a late opinion.
Even though it’s the second week of April, there are some teams that have yet to even start their final draft meetings. They don’t have risers or fallers because they haven’t even set their draft board yet and may not until a week before the draft, yet another reason that the notion of “risers and fallers” is a myth. This notion may exist outside NFL buildings because individual talent evaluators are either just now getting around to finishing their evaluations or just lining up with the herd mentality.
An example of this is when I hear that BYU QB Zach Wilson has really moved up on draft boards. The fact of the matter is that NFL teams knew Zach Wilson was good in November. NFL teams are way ahead of this curve.
Coaches have the loudest voice-
This one is not a myth, I think it definitely happens. The amount of input that gets traction from evaluations by coaches varies from team to team. In some places, coaches are not involved a lot in the process, but other teams allow for the loudest voice in the room to come from the coaching staff. I’ve been around some assistant coaches who are really good evaluators and some others who really don’t even care to be involved in the process. They stay away from this either because they know they are not good at it or they don’t want to be involved and just want to coach.
I have had staff before where my best evaluator was a coach, others not so much. The amount of sweat and equity invested varies with different coaches as well. Once again, you have to evaluate the evaluators.
I have always wanted our coaching staff to be very involved in the creation of the criteria we are searching for in order to match players skill sets with what we will be asking them to do. These positional criteria must fit their schemes. I also feel as though coaches don’t have the vast perspective that is needed in order to prioritize. To ask them to see all 70 players at their particular position during a draft or free agent process dilutes the quality of their assessments.
This is something that I experienced in Miami with Head Coach Nick Saban. This is something that I hadn’t done a good enough job with in my first 25 years in the league and one Nick felt very strongly about. He and his staff did the best job I’ve ever been around in helping define the exact traits (a job description) that we would all be looking for when evaluating talent for the Miami Dolphins.
To that end, I have found that the best value for assistant coaches during this process is to have them sequence prospects within a group of players with similar grades. For example, I want player C over A, or D over A and B but more importantly, to be able to tell me why. Prioritize within a similar grade or cluster of players. We did this in Miami and would even assign scouts to coaches so they would work as a team. That was valuable information for me to know as we stacked our board. This method also helped prevent wide swings in valuing players. A player going for round 3 to the first round was limited by the process. I don’t think it's fair to ask a coach to insert his opinion in the big picture unless he has seen all the players. I always believed in keeping the sample size smaller and manageable and a deeper dive with fewer players, is more productive if the numbers are not overwhelming.
I believe we had the best system for identifying and evaluating players that I was ever a part of when Saban and I were together in Miami and that stretches over my 30+ years in the league. I have no doubt it's part of the reason he has ascended to the best college coach ever status and that it would work in the NFL if implemented over time (its close to what everyone has tried to copy by hiring Patriot personnel for years). This really shouldn’t shock anybody. It’s a disciplined, process-oriented system of building consensus but it’s not used by everybody. I spent 10 years with a team where none of these things were EVER discussed.
Alabama QB Mac Jones might be a prime example of this. I’m picking him out because there seems to be less consensus on him than any other player in this draft. Scouts and personnel people had their evaluations on Jones completed during the month of January and we heard nothing that made us believe he was a top of the first-round talent. The fact that we now hear his name attached to the 49ers (and who knows if this is true) at No. 3 in the draft would make me very nervous as a decision maker. It's unclear why he has risen up the ranks recently, for some. My guess is that coaches have let their evaluations be known. I would never allow a guy to rise like this because my philosophy has always been that “the truth is somewhere in the middle”. It's not about ONE person being right. My experience is, if a decision maker allows this type of rise or fall on a single player, he is listening too much to the loudest voice in the room. I’m here to say, this is where mistakes get made.
Don't forget, if you stick to the process, it leads you to the players.