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The Anatomy of an NFL Draft Pick

How I became a draft freak

Jeff Lageman

It was the first round of the 1989 NFL Draft and I was pumped to see the Jets add some players. They were 10-6 in 1986, beating the Chiefs 35-15 in the Wild Card game and losing a double overtime heartbreaker to the Browns 23-20. The next year was the players’ strike that led to 3 scab games. There were 12 more regular season games, but it was just not right. The strike made everything seem wrong; the Jets ended up 6-9 in a lost year. I thought they were getting better in 1988, but we went just 8-7-1 and finished in 4th place. The Jets did have the Defensive Rookie of the Year in Eric McMillan, however, and Ken O’Brien was looking good enough to make me stop asking why they didn’t draft Dan Marino so things were looking up. The team just needed a couple more guys.

I had done some research on players, so I thought I had a good idea which guys were good and the ones that weren’t so good. The Jets had the 14th pick and chose Jeff Lageman, a LB from Virginia, and I thought, “Super pick, one of the good guys.” That’s when Mel Kiper went off and ridiculed the Jets pick, “Look, I have no problem with Jeff Lageman as a football player. I think he’s an excellent football player, and I think he’s got a good future in the NFL. But for the Jets to select Jeff Lageman with the 14th pick absolutely demonstrates to me that the Jets have no idea what they’re doing.”

That statement hit me like a lightning bolt, what did he mean? What is this guy Kiper talking about? He’s a good player. Why wouldn’t the Jets select him? Then Kiper explained his statement and said, “They should have traded down, I thought they should have gone down to, maybe, 18 to 23 and they still will be able to select Lageman because I’m pretty sure the teams in between are not going to take him. They could have picked up extra choices. Remember, this is not a good football team. They can use some extra twos, threes, fours and fives.”

Kiper had been on the ESPN Draft coverage for the previous 5 season without many people even noticing. Then the Jets director of college scouting Mike Hickey made Kiper a phenom by saying “‘Basically, who is this guy who works out of his basement in Baltimore?” Hickey was replaced the following year, and Kiper is still doing the draft on ESPN 29 years later.

Lageman ended up a very good player for the Jets. Kiper was right, though, as Lageman was drafted as a MLB and switched to OLB were he struggled in space. He became an above average DE when the Jets moved him there in 1990. He had a 10 sack year in 1991. I was sad to see Lageman go to the Jags after six years with the Jets. He played four more seasons in Jacksonville and ended up with 47 career sacks.

That encounter back in 1989 started my madness for the draft. It wasn’t just selecting players. There is a science to selecting players. I started using phrases like “Draft capital” and “value picks.” I studied scouting guides and talked to coaches about the intricacies of each position, including what to look for. I devised my own scouting techniques and worked on them through the years. Then I got my hands on every piece of player info for the Draft I could find. I have for every Draft since written down on how I would have drafted for the Jets. I look for ways to make trades and pick up more selections.

Back then it was hard to find even a sliver of information about a player that wasn’t tainted by someone’s opinion. I want to make my own opinion, and I’d act like Joe Friday, (sorry to you younger people who don’t know who that is) “Just the facts ma’am.”

Today there is an abundance of information to find and game tape galore. There are times I could spend an entire weekend happily watching tape and taking notes. Bathroom breaks make me angry because it takes me away from what I want to accomplish. My wife is a football widow during this time but is very understanding of my obsession.

I was told years ago by a prominent coach to “trust your eyes,” and I have ever since. If you start letting opinion and non football facts creep into your head, you will make mistakes. I did in the past, and I still catch myself doing it again; it’s just human nature and you have to quell that if you want to be successful.

I did it back in 2015 (Maccagnan’s 1st draft) when the Jets drafted in the third round and selected Lorenzo Mauldin from Louisville. I had David Johnson from Northern Iowa as an early 2nd round prospect; we were in the 3rd round. I let myself get caught up in the need for an edge rusher and wanted DE Danielle Hunter from LSU who I had as a middle 3rd round prospect.

I let the opinion that Johnson was from Northern Iowa, a smaller school, and would struggle in the transition to the NFL sneak up. I did this after I watched Johnson tear up the Combine, He was the best player at the senior bowl, and he had some of the best pass catching skills of anyone in the entire Draft, receivers included. The last three facts are football-related, the fact that he is from a smaller school is not. I still rue that Draft miscue. It doesn’t mean anything to anyone, but it means plenty to me.

NFL GM’s have scouts to give them information about players so I think I have a slight advantage over GMs because I believe in myself. Scouts can have (even if unintentional) opinions about players. Hey, some guys you meet and like. Some guys you don’t like so much personality-wise.

Having scouts work for you is still a tremendous advantage; scouts are at team facilities, where the prospect lives and works. They can talk to coaches and find out a player’s habits and how hard they work. Good scouts talk to the equipment guy and the guy who cleans up the locker room to get an idea on how a player relates to teammates and how motivated he is to study film and work out. These tidbits are more revealing than how he plays on the field, I can watch that from my living room or on tape over and over again.

The four main advantages that GMs have over a person like myself (which are huge) are:

  1. A GM has coaches game tape of of every game and can watch a player from a better angle than I can. I would love to have that type of film.
  2. A GM gets to go to the Combine and interview players one on one to learn more about them. They get 30 personal workouts at their facility and have position coaches put them trough drills. They take them to dinner, and have a relaxed conversation. Some players could fool you with overstated work ethic and such, but I would rather gauge a man face to face and see what he is made of.
  3. He gets all the relevant medical files on players going back for years. This is why I freaked when Idzik drafted Dee Milliner 9th overall back in 2013. He had 5 major injuries before he was a pro, for that reason Milliner was not even on my Draft board. The body can only take so much abuse, even for big tough guys, and Milliner was a little guy. Milliner is now 27 years old and should be in the heyday of his career but instead is out of football. Medicals are vital to the draft process, but I can only go by what I can find out on the internet.
  4. The aforementioned information scouts collect is from sources around the school a prospect plays at. Sometimes you can get more relevant information from a guy who washes the jerseys than you can from a head coach. The head coach wants his players drafted. It helps him with recruiting, a laundry guy will usually give you the straight story.

What about after the Draft?

The second part of the draft process is how a player is used by the drafting team. You would think coaches would set their players up for success by giving them the best possible scheme that fits their respective skillsets. In reality, many coaches are dinosaurs and want the player to fit into their system. That at least is starting to drastically change. I realize that teams draft players who they think will fit their system. But everyone is not the same, and players aren’t robots you can program.

That’s why you are starting to see more really young coaches being installed as coordinators and head coaches. They are using many spread schemes from colleges that are difficult to defend. Many prolific players from college are also used to these systems. You soon should start seeing more young defensive coaches who are used to defending spread systems. It will still take some time for defenses to catch up the offense.

Take my guy David Johnson, who was drafted by the Arizona Cardinals 4 picks after the Jets chose Lorenzo Mauldin. It kind of makes you queasy to think about. Anyway, Johnson was used very well by Bruce Arians who still brought him along slowly. Johnson had 125 carries and 36 receptions his first year then exploded for 293 carries and 80 receptions his second year. He had 1820 rush yards (4.35 avg) and 24 TDs, along with 1,336 receiving yards (a phenomenal 11.5 avg) and 8TDs. The exceptional pass catcher Johnson averaged 7.5 targets a game in his second year.

Johnson broke his wrist in the first game the following year and didn’t play again until this year. You would think with a year of rest and no injuries to his legs or torso he would make Johnson a game changing monster again, but that is not the case. For some reason, the new head coach of the Cardinals Steve Wilks prefers that Johnson runs between the tackles rather than on the edge where he excels. Through 5 games (relatively small sample) Johnson is averaging only 3.3 yards a carry and is getting only 4.4 targets a game. Predictably, the Cardinals offense has struggled, which can also be attributed to poor QB play.

Steve Wilks is a fine defensive coach and has shown himself adept at making secondaries in Chicago and San Diego stronger while increasing turnovers. Now is Wilks (the defensive minded coach) misusing Johnson, or is it new OC Mike McCoy who is the culprit? I don’t really know, but you would think they would have figured out the best scheme for him during the offseason. That didn’t happen. You know Johnson is one of the most prolific RBs in the NFL, but he is not being used correctly right now. If this was his rookie year, and you had no idea of his talent you would naturally assume he was overdrafted and lacked elite talent.

Other examples are Todd Gurley and Jared Goff who are both lighting it up in LA right now.

On a side note, when Gurley came out in the Draft I had a plan to trade down with Cleveland from #6 for the #12 and #19 picks and select Todd Gurley at #12. I don’t know whether the Browns would have gone for the trade, but Gurley was selected at #10 anyway so it wouldn’t have worked. I would have kept the pick and not traded away #6 when it became apparent that the Jets could draft Williams so I ultimately wouldn’t have made the deal anyway.

Gurley’s first year with the Rams went well. He had over 1,100 yards rushing and 10 TDs in an offense with Nick Foles and Case Keenum at the helm. The following year in Jeff Fisher’s dinosaur offense run by Keenum and Goff, Gurley averaged 3.2 yards on 278 carries and Goff was worse with 5 TDs and 7 interceptions in 7 games. The Rams said goodbye to Jeff Fisher, who was fired after 13 games, and went 4-12. If you look at 2016 stats only, Gurley and Goff both look like awful picks. If the Rams didn’t change coaches, they might still look as bad. That all changed when the they hired Sean McVay (a young coach with a varied backhround) .Gurley has looked unstoppable and Goff’s play has been stellar.

McVay devised and offense that suited the skillset of Goff and gave him throws he liked to make. The result was near miraculous with Goff looking like an All Pro and Gurley nearly unstoppable. I didn’t think it was possible for an offense to change so dramatically in a single year with primarily the same personnel. In 7 games with Jeff Fisher’s offense, Goff had 5 TDs and 7 interceptions. With McVay’s offense, Goff in 15 games (last game was rested for playoffs) had 28 TDs and 7 interceptions. The contrast is astonishing, and Goff went from being a bust to an above average starter almost overnight. I realize you can’t say a player is a draft bust after 7 games, but he sure looked like he was headed that way instead of his upward direction now. With his confidence soaring, and as he builds his knowledge of defenses you could see Goff climb to the ranks of franchise type QB who can win without superior talent around him. You would have thought that to be impossible if you went by his first 7 games and in that Fisher offense.

Gurley and Johnson are perfect examples of players with elite talent who have dominated in the NFL but also had times when they were used incorrectly and struggled. What if they were never put into a strong offensive scheme? We might not have ever seen the exceptional abilities they possess. The scheme (offensive and defensive) play larger roles in how a player and their team performs than most people realize.

There are many more examples of this in NFL history but it is safe to say that talent is a prerequisite to a All Pro career, and a well-designed scheme is necessary to allow that talent to shine. It could be more true today than ever before with all the new offenses and nuanced defensive schemes. It has been said that the best coaches put their players in the position to succeed and then allow them to do so.

I’m sure there are many players over the years who could have dominated during their careers but were held back by limited offensive minds who were unaware of the possibilities those players gave their team.

The bottom line is a prospect needs talent, heart, desire, intelligence, a competitive nature and the self confidence to make himself a star. The right system to play in will only accelerate that process and maybe take him to the top of his profession.

The NFL Draft in 2019 will be my 29th year of scouting the draft and I look forward to the next 29 years with eager anticipation. I’m sure the Jets will disappoint me. (They usually do.) But I will continue to be positive unless they try and kill me with another Hackenberg 2nd round selection; I don’t know if I could survive another of those.

I print my Draft report every year, and there are a select number of people who get them. One is a director of pro scouting for an NFL team (No, it’s not the Jets) so at least someone humors me with interest. I can’t tell you which one. I may in the future have a website with all my Draft insights for the world to see. But that takes time, and I am not great at building websites. At least I have something horribly difficult for me to look forward to.

I’m already knee deep in scouting notes with a lot more players and games yet to be played to view. It’s a labor of love. Every year I get to shake my head at some of the early selections (not just the Jets’ selections). I even disagree with Kiper quite often on players. His love for Johnny Manziel always astonished me.

The more he made plays like this, the wilder he became. Manziel is a decent athlete. but his decision making was too often peculiar. It only takes one bad mistake by a QB in the NFL to lose a game. If that continues; he loses the players on his team. This was only one play, but there were more that are maybe not as crazy but just as frenetic and distressing.

I remember Jon Gruden pounding the table for Manziel to be the #1 pick. Even Mike Mayock thought he was going to bring excitement to Cleveland and it was a great pick. I thought those guys were crazy. I had Manziel as a 5th round talent. He was small (6’ 0”) with a decent arm but very undisciplined. Worst of all, he liked to be that way. It is very difficult to break someone of bad habits they like to do.

Added to that, there was the absurdly childish rubbing of the fingers together signaling “Show me the money.” Do you want that guy to be the face of your franchise? I was worried sick the Jets might take him. Thank God for the Cleveland Browns. I had no idea he would spiral down out of control like he did and lose his career; I just thought he would be a bust. I figured he would be like most overrated QBs who are given a shot and fail only to have a 12 year career holding a clipboard.

Character is an overused phrase, but it is essential for prospects with elite talent. The NFL is a meat grinder of a profession, and the football aspect of it is the easy part. There will be so many temptations, people trying to use you, family (some you don’t even know you had) pulling on you. Plus there all the other demons the world holds.

Include with that all the studying needed to learn your new job. In some cases, it is like learning a new language. Those plays are spoken really quickly. You need to know what you are doing at all times. A mistake can mean a loss or an injury.

You get up on Monday morning and you feel like you were hit by a garbage truck the day before. Now you have to practice and study film when you just want to rest, but you can’t. There is more, but you get the picture. Your character and the ability stay focused is what keeps you going and out of trouble.

For that reason, there are some coaches who will rate a player a little higher if he was a team captain and did a good job of being a leader. I know I do, and I always check who the captains are on each team along with how long they were so honored. Character or lack thereof is something I will always grade a player on if I can find out definitively what qualities he has.

Thank you all who read this, I know it was long and rambling, but I appreciate your interest and in the sport we love. I have to get in about on hour of reviewing game film as soon as I finish so thanks again and