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When Fantasy Becomes Reality

My biggest takeaway from this year’s NFL college draft was the lack of consensus by top decision makers from different franchises, especially when it came to WR and QB. I can’t remember a time when teams were all over the place, to this extent, on how they viewed the top 20 players. What this tells me is that we are going to have to wait longer than normal before the results of their evaluations can be seen with a clear vision. It must happen on the field before grades and results can be judged.

The disparity really was evident at the WR position. I know for a fact that the top choices for some teams were no better than fifth or sixth in a sequence of another team and vice versa.

Who was taken, and when they were taken, really depended on what priority a team put on certain individual characteristics that are prioritized within evaluating a position. With six WRs going among the first 18 picks this year, it should be easy in the future to track exactly who the better evaluators were at this position.

Look no further than this as an illustration. Odds makers installed Atlanta’s (selected first among receivers) WR Drake London as the favorite for offensive player of the year. I don’t see it at all. They made his selection the answer to the question of who was the best WR? Keep in mind some teams had him 5th. Cover your pockets, if you’re the betting public ☺

The other position that fascinated most fans and media was that of the QB position. I am no rocket scientist, but my cousin co-founded Space-X (fact)! I’m also not a physicist, but I have a buddy who graduated at the top of his class in this area at Cambridge. I didn’t have to ask either person as to why QB’s came off the board in the order that they did. What is clear is that no NFL team is looking for six-foot QB’s. The majority of teams NEVER have been.

It also was validation, again, that projecting success for collegiate QB’s is based much more on things other than arm strength and athletic ability. Those factors are part of the criteria, without a doubt, but pocket vision, accuracy, anticipation, the system they run in college/what was asked of them within their system, and a feel for how they lived and worked within the pocket, are all part of the evaluation and always have been.

In addition to those categories, a college QB’s leadership skills, learning ability, and ease of communicating, as well. What happened this year was that independent evaluators failed to compute all of the things that I just mentioned. They were anchored to an initial position they had established seven or eight months ago. As a result, this year’s group of QB’s became hard for the public to figure out because they were being sold fool’s gold. It’s not the fans' fault that they were mis-informed.

Here is the order in which this year’s QBs were drafted along with their height…

(Round 1) Kenny Pickett/Pittsburgh - 6’3 ¼”

(3) Desmond Ridder/Cincinnati - 6’3 ¼”

(3) Malik Willis/Liberty- 6’ ½”

(3) Matt Corral/Ole Miss- 6’1 5/8”

(4) Bailey Zappe/Western Kentucky- 6’ ½”

It’s not complicated. Just start by looking at the measurables and then do a little research on those that either are playing or recently played in the league who are/were of similar stature. The first two QB’s to go off the board this year were both over 6’3”. Two recent standouts, Drew Brees and Russell Wilson, overcame their lack of height to ascend into very good NFL pocket passers, but the road is littered with many more six-foot-and-under guys that have failed. Please remember that neither Brees nor Wilson was a first-round pick in their draft.

There are two current QB’s in the league who failed to grab a consensus among QB evaluators, when coming out, yet both were drafted with the first pick in the first round after winning Heisman Trophies. Baker Mayfield (6’ 5/8”), the recent starting QB for the Cleveland Browns, who is now looking for a home, while Kyler Murray (5’10”) of the Arizona Cardinals, is struggling to fit into the NFL framework of being able to win from the pocket.

My point is that both are shorter in stature and struggle with vision from the pocket. There are some coaches and player personnel staff inside the NFL that are wondering if these two players will ever improve in today’s game due to lack of size?

In my opinion, both Mayfield and Murray have confirmed the long-standing premise in the NFL that “size matters”. If you are a QB who is below 6’1”, you had better have much more than a strong arm and some special athletic traits- you had better have high scores in the other categories listed above.

The order in which this year’s class of QB’s were to be taken was near unanimous for those outside NFL buildings going back to late August when the college season got underway. It was Malik Willis, it was Sam Howell, etc. There was a rush by evaluators outside the NFL walls to assign a round projection based on an early evaluation on QB’s. The race to be first, conflicted with the race to “be right”, which happens a lot in the media.

Most of the time, evaluations are thrown out for public consumption with projected rounds and with no narratives attached. Once that happens, sources get anchored to their positions. However, in NFL buildings, these two things don’t exist independently of each other. Scouts and player personnel staff, along with GMs, never put a big grade on a player without a complete breakdown and the narrative has to answer all the criteria that a particular team has prioritized and listed. They have a big advantage over the media because they don’t have to be first and they know their detailed criteria for each position.

I came across another phenomenon as the draft was unfolding this year. During the Day 2 selections, I was contacted by a beat reporter for an NFL team who was looking for some perspective on this year’s QB situation. Could this crop of QB’s be so poor that teams simply were not willing to take a flier on one in the late first or second round? What was happening was so off the wall, in his opinion and I had to really think it through.

When you consider the roster of influencers on TV covering the draft over the three days, there was nary a single person in the group, on any channel, who had ever picked a single player in their lives much less built a team.

Do people actually think that teams take fliers on draft picks, especially in the first - or second rounds? Until asked, I’d never really thought of that before and my answer, of course, was that teams don’t do that.

The professional lives of people in the front office of an NFL team depend on these picks. This is not fantasy football. People that run NFL organizations don’t take flyers on a QB or any other position. The closest thing to a GM making this kind of a move might be when all of the players of a cleaner and less questioned status are previously taken.

The 2022 NFL Draft had quite a number of quality players for various reasons, it was deep. The time for a so-called flier could only really happen in either Round 6 or 7, because of this and THEN only if a team feels like they have built up enough chips/depth as a team to afford a swing and miss pick.

After Pickett, several QB’s fell to Rounds 3 and 4. Those picks were not fliers. By that time in this year’s draft, teams justified that the reward for their QB pick simply outweighed the risk. One or more of the QB’s picked in this window will probably have a chance to become a full-time NFL starter. Odds just say that’s true.

Let’s don’t rush to write an end to this play, just to be first or to validate our position. I’m going to stay tuned to see who, if any, got it right. I know this might not be as fun but let’s let fantasy become reality first, and then keep track of who said what.

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Not that my being a subscriber to The Athletic entitles me to give you like 20 hours of homework, but it might be really illuminating to go back to your notes & reactions following the draft in, say, 2018, and see what we’ve learned.

How much of a guy‘s success (or otherwise) was due to measurables, or to his attitude & intelligence, or his fit in the scheme, or injury luck or whatever else. Who were the biggest surprises, and what do they tell us?

As you note here, the media coverage is skewed towards rankings and takes and speculation. But there’s probably more to be learned going through mock vs. real drafts from a few years ago than from…

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