Thoughts on the NFL Draft

Later this week is the 81st National Football League Annual Selection Meeting, also known as the NFL Draft.

It used to be I spent months studying this. Before I made films, I wanted to be an NFL Scout, and before that, I wanted to be the next Mel Kiper. So much so, that I actually won the 1999 ESPN NFL Draft contest, coming in first out of 45,000+ submissions. (Side note: Got a free trip to the 2000 NFL Draft, which turned out to be one of the most boring first rounds in NFL history, with no trades among other things).

Though I don’t spend a lot of time on it anymore, I thought I’d impart some of the wisdom I picked up over the years, some from observation, some from discussions, and a bit that was flat out told to me.

This was one of the latter – got a good lecture on this one year from a veteran scout when scouting the Pittsburgh Steelers. First round picks are really the lifeblood of your team. These are players who are expected to come in and contribute nearly immediately with as little learning curve as possible.

The college draft scouting process is long, and usually takes place over several years. Everything from on the field play to practices, from weight training to how a player treats trainers and equipment managers (character). Everything from a missed team bus to a reoccurring injury is potential information.

What the Steelers scout told me was very simple: the guys you take early are the ones with the least number of issues. The more picks that hit, the more consistent your team is. Pretty simple, when you think about it.

Okay, story time. This one’s fairly well known by those who follow the NFL. The San Diego Chargers held the top overall pick in the 2004 NFL Draft, and wanted to draft a quarterback (despite having a young Drew Brees – another story for another time). The NFL draft that year held three future franchise quarterbacks in Eli Manning, Ben Roethlisberger and Phillip Rivers. Manning was considered to be the consensus top overall pick.

But – twist – Manning didn’t want to play in San Diego, and the Chargers coaching staff really liked Phillip Rivers. The New York Giants wanted Eli first, and Roethisberger second. Seems like there was a deal to be made, right?

Chargers GM AJ Smith and Giants GM Ernie Accorsi were two old school negotiators, and neither would budge off their demands for days. Then the draft started. Despite back and forth over the phone, the Chargers selected Eli Manning. The Giants were up at #4, and thus started a 45 minute, high-stakes Mexican standoff.

I interned with the Chargers in 2004, and let me tell you – that was a TENSE room. I don’t recall anyone really speaking the entire time, even once the Giants came up and the phone didn’t ring. It seemed like they’d just take Roethisberger, and the Chargers would be stuck with a player they didn’t want.

But then the Giants blinked. They took Rivers. And the phone rang.

The trade, in the end, was one of the biggest hauls in NFL history to that point. For Manning, the Chargers got Rivers, a 3rd round pick in 2004 and a first and fifth in 2005. Smith stuck to his convictions, was willing to walk away, and got what he wanted.

In my view, the fact that Rivers hasn’t been to the big game is more a fault of the later coaching staff than his. But that’s another story.

It happens pretty regularly. A player who is rated in the Top 3 or 5 in the entire NFL Draft hits the late teens or even 20s before he’s selected – thus, sliding down the draft.

Two big-time moments I can remember. In 1995, Warren Sapp was considered to be one of the best players in the draft (after playing at Miami next to The Rock), and certainly the best defensive tackle. But reports surfaced the night before the draft that he had failed multiple cocaine and marijuana tests and he fell to #12 in the draft before being selected. Ultimately, these reports would prove false, and Sapp still believes these were the work of someone intentionally sabotaging him (it potentially cost him millions of dollars).

The most famous one, though, occurred in 2005. The San Francisco 49ers held the top overall choice and, like most who hold that pick, wanted to select their next franchise quarterback. They had their pick of two: Alex Smith and Aaron Rodgers.

It was a laughable choice in hindsight, though most scouts in the league had the two rated neck and neck. Rodgers, though, had a red flag that had nothing to do with him: his college coach, Jeff Tedford. Tedford, one of my all-time favorite college coaches, had coached five previous quarterbacks who had been selected over the 11 years prior to that day in 2005: Trent Dilfer, Akili Smith, David Carr, Joey Harrington and Kyle Boller.

You’re not alone if you don’t remember any of those names, because not a single one did well in the NFL.

(Side note: Kyle Boller SHOULD have done well, but should never have seen the field for three years at least. He had only played QB for five years total when selected into the NFL. He was a project QB at best. But the Ravens started him Day One, and that was that).

Smith, meanwhile, worked in Urban Meyer’s somewhat gimmick system in Utah, and was known for being athletic. Both quarterbacks had high scores in the character area. Rodgers was a Bay Area kid who wanted nothing more than to be the next Joe Montana or Steve Young.

He wasn’t. The 49ers made one of the biggest blunders in NFL Draft history, and selected Smith. Rodgers, famously sitting in the green room at the NFL Draft in New York, would remain there for hours – inexplicably falling all the way to #24 overall, when the Green Bay Packers snapped him up and sat him on the bench behind Brett Favre.

One of the things about players sliding down the draft is that, eventually, the other GMs tend to get nervous. They wonder – “Well, if Bill over in Seattle needs a QB and passed on Rodgers, then what’s wrong with him?”

Don’t fall for the hype. Get on the board, trust your years of evaluations, and make the most informed pick you can make.

The flip side of the Don’t Fall for the Hype equation are the fast risers – players who make meteoric rises up to the top of draft boards, despite not really being on the radar beforehand.

Many of these happen at the NFL Combine during the 40 yard dash. Players taken due to super fast 40 yard dashes (usually below 4.3 seconds) often don’t equate in the NFL. They run slower with pads on, they aren’t good football players, or what have you. Examples of this are TE Vernon Davis and WR Darrius Hayward-Bey, both from the University of Maryland who were considered good prospects, but launched themselves into the Top 10 after big-time scores in the 40.

But more often, the big busts tend to come from quarterbacks with one big season under their belts. The aforementioned Akili Smith was one of these in 1999. Despite not being a full-time starter at Oregon until his senior season. Smith was selected at #3 overall by the Cincinnati Bengals. He would only play in 22 games for the team before his release in 2002, throwing 5 interceptions against 13 interceptions.

One of the more famous examples of this came in 2012 with Robert Griffin III. Griffin, despite being selected #2 overall by the Washington Redskins (who famously gave up THREE 1st round choices and a 2nd to move up to take him), came with more red flags than befit a top selection:
1. He was an athletic quarterback, who emerged from Baylor, which did not run a pro-style offense (strike one).
2. His frame – generously listed at 6’2 and around 215 when drafted, was thinner than many NFL receivers. Since he was a running quarterback, this did not bode well for him in the NFL with the larger, faster players (strike two).
3. He already had a surgically reconstructed knee from college (strike three).

Despite his sensational rookie year, Griffin ultimately tore up his knee again, and hasn’t been the same player since. Now, he is widely considered to be too fragile for the NFL, a combination of his frame and reconstructed knee.

This all leads me to…

The thing about the NFL Draft is it’s a lot of stress. Millions of fans are looking at your draft room and they all have a million different ideas of what they want you to do. It’s the same within the draft room – a GM probably has a couple of dozen eyes on him at any given time. The coaches each have their own ideas and agendas, and often those are more focused on win now, than building a roster for the future.

I’ll never forget being an intern in that Chargers war room during that 2004 NFL Draft. Along with its long list of needs, the team needed a kicker. We had, two months before, watched one of the best kicker workouts in draft history at the NFL combine from Nate Kaeding, and by virtue of the Eli Manning/Phillip Rivers trade, San Diego found itself in possession of an extra 3rd round choice.

The team took Kaeding, and I was given the task of walking down to the coaching wing of the team headquarters to break the news to them. Knowing how much the offensive and defensive coordinators would love to hear of the team taking a kicker and that I’d essentially been made the shootable messenger by the personnel staff, I talked it out to myself on the way. I’d hit and run – open the door, drop the news in as few words as possible “They took Kaeding” and bolt.

But for some reason, I froze after I broke the news. Predictably, I was met with stony silence and a “fucking kicker” from the room, but I also realized – Kaeding was a solid choice. Good special teams can make a big difference to a football team, and though often 3rd round choices aren’t immediate difference makers, a kicker would play from day one. And if Kaeding was every bit as good as we’d seen in Indianapolis, the team had itself a good one.

Turns out, Kaeding was a difference maker (though his playoff record was somewhat dubious), leaving the NFL after a few injuries in 2012 as the second most accurate kicker in NFL history with an 86.2% field goal percentage.

The point is – Kaeding was the next man up when the Chargers’ first third round choice (#65) came up in the 2004 NFL Draft, and the team didn’t hesitate. You can let years of information, months of preparation and weeks of meetings go out the window at the last minute due to the pressure or a “gut instinct” – or you can trust your team of scouts got it right the first time and make the calm, rational pick.

The teams who draft best are the most consistent winners in the NFL. While the NFL’s free agency can add a big name player to fill a hole or two, most of a team’s building blocks come out of the draft. Ultimately, the teams who draft best follow these rules: (1) Taking the players with the least number of red flags, including character, (2) Sticking to their guns once they’ve decided on values for players, (3) Not falling for the last minute hype – good or bad – on a player, ultimately leading to (4) Trusting their draft boards and making the cool, collected and most informed choices.

Only time and many years will ultimately determine who has best draft class in 2016, but I bet you’ll see the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens among them – two of the more consistent teams over the last few years of the NFL. These are teams who don’t routinely invest huge in free agency – because they don’t have to.

Happy drafting.