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Thoughts on the NFL Draft and team building

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Ideas for success

2018 NFL Draft Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

The NFL Draft is the only way to supply your team with affordable talent while at the same time reshaping your team to be more successful. The trick is to find the talent (not busts) that will fit your style of play and enhance your team positively. This is easier said than done, and no team is perfect at drafting.

What some people don’t realize is that all college players need to develop their games to be able to play in the NFL. How well these players evolve will determine the success of that particular Draft. Players develop at different rates, and some don’t develop at all. Determining the skill level of a prospect and his possible development is considered a player’s floor and ceiling. It requires figuring out his best and worst developmental scenarios.

Every team wants player with a high ceiling and high floors. The difficulty lies in the odds a player reaches his ceiling. Players like DeAndre Hopkins and Julio Jones reached their ceilings and players like Peyton Manning, Jerry Rice and Le’Veon Bell exceeded their ceilings. Most players don’t even get close to their ceilings but are still quality players. It is the players who only reach their floors who are considered failed picks. This sadly happens more often than not. Some players have very low ceilings, and even when they reach their potential they are only role type players. They are still useful parts of the team though. Not everyone can be a star.

What matters is not only the ability to determine which players give you the best chance for a successful Draft. You also have to be able to actually pick that player. It does you no good to realize player “A” is a great talent only to see another team select him before you. You must devise a plan to avoid that scenario.

It is similar to playing poker. You will never win money if you just wait until you have a great hand. You have to somehow win hands you are not supposed to win and take a big pot to boot to actually make money. Basically what I am saying is you can’t just hope you have luck to get the player you want. You have to have a strategy.

A skilled draft artisan will move up and down the draft, trading picks to find targeted players who may have slipped by other GM’s. He will add picks while moving down and use picks to move up the board. The value of drafted players has never been higher than now, and they will continue to increase in value until there is a change in the NFL/NFLPA contract.

With some veteran players earning in excess of $30 million a year, the Sam Darnolds of the world will continue to be an insane bargain. (Sam will make $30 Million in his first 4 years combined in his rookie contract.) Also the NFL game is getting closer to the style of play of the college game with more spread offensive influences. Add to that the increasing number of pro coaches willing to coach in college while waiting for another opportunity to join a pro team. This allows drafted players to become more “pro ready” as soon as they sign that first contract. Add to that the number of rookies who start right away. Teams are counting on rookies more and more now, much more than ever before.

I have never been an NFL GM, and I realize the job includes much more than just the NFL Draft. That said, if you are an NFL GM and don’t draft exceedingly well, you will not be a GM for very long (with the exception of Bill Belichick who is an exceptional coach). I myself have been an amateur scout and Draft aficionado since 1990. I have studied the better drafting teams along with studying the players for years.

I do have some ideas to share with you and some information that you need to keep in mind. I have amassed these ideas over the years by observation and/or by talking with people who actually do work in draft rooms for a living.

Things to keep in mind

1) Draft Boards

Every year you hear that some player is the “best player in the Draft” so naturally he would be at the top of every board. This is not always true; teams play different schemes, and no player fits into every system. If you play zone coverage on defense (Tampa 2, quarters or third coverage or any zone based scheme), and the #1 player is a press man corner he really doesn’t fit your system. Sure you could try teach him zone techniques, but why do that when you could trade the pick, amass some draft capital, and find someone with better zone instincts?

While elite WR’s and QB’s fit in virtually any system, you can reap a boat load of picks for them if you don’t have a pressing need for those types of players (see Colts vs Jets 2017 draft). Add to that the bust rate for first round QB’s and WR’s is higher than almost any other position so it’s buyer beware.

Also no player is perfect. No, you don’t want to trade away the next Calvin Johnson, but Calvin Johnson has retired. No WR since has come close his skill and professionalism although every year you hear some player being hyped as “the next Calvin Johnson”.

Remember no team ever shows the public or other teams what their draft board looks like, so when the “experts” say a player is the “best player in the Draft” they are more of making an educated guess rather than speaking from an informed position. The only certainty is that no two boards from different teams look alike.

2) You are only as good as your scouts.

Ask John Idzik. Idzik had no scouting ability so the 2014 Draft was doomed by the information created by the Jets scouts. Sure, some GMs do a lot of their own scouting, but they have a time-intensive job and are only human. Dan Hatman (a GM expert recently interviewed by John B) stated that the average GM only spends 30% of his time watching film on players. Mike Maccagnan was said to spend an inordinate amount of time watching film and going to pro days; you see what that did for him.

3) Spend more time researching the players you have a high interest in

This is so very important and encompasses many principles.

There is a lot of research needed on the players you are interested in. You don’t want to pick a player with hidden problems. They need to be vetted. These players are just young men you are drafting so you need all the facts. A good drafting team will interview the guy who cleans up the locker room and the equipment manager to get a better idea of who this player really is. Players spend a lot more time away from the game than actually playing it. The more you can glean from periphery sources the better.

Bill Polian who rebuilt the franchises of the Buffalo Bills (4 straight Super Bowls) and the Indianapolis Colts (8 division crowns and two Super Bowl appearances) and is a Hall of Famer said that drafting (especially in high rounds) is 40% science, 55% investigation and 5% your gut.

Most of the players in the draft are between 20-23 years old so they are really just children compared to someone who is older, like me. No one is perfect, and we all make bad decisions on occasion. GM’s and even owners (who are all much older than draftees) have been in the news because of insolent behavior so anyone can stumble.

The problem is that where others can do foolish things, they are not counted on to put a winning product on the field. Dependability is just as important as talent. If a player can’t play he is little use to the team and just takes up a roster spot. Josh Gordon is a great talent who cost the Browns a 2nd round pick. He has played in 64 of a possible 112 games but has been targeted over 100 times in only a single year in his career. If you can’t play you can’t practice. Then you don’t develop chemistry when your teammates.

You research players because in most cases you are about to hand a contract (early round) that is valued with more money than the player’s entire immediate family has earned in their entire lives combined. Money changes people. One-third of of all lottery winners eventually declare for bankruptcy, and I’m sure most are older than these players. You can’t tell the future, but research and good interviewing can give you some insight into a player’s mindset.

Did the player work hard to get a payday in the NFL, or does he want to work hard and become a great player? Will he develop, and does he respond to coaching? Did he succeed in college because of physical talent, or did he succeed because he made himself better?

If you look at the 1998 NFL Draft you can see the need to research players. Many called it the Ryan Leaf - Peyton Manning draft, but that was not the whole picture. Out of the first 7 picks (many Mel Kiper touted) only Peyton Manning and Charles Woodson developed (both Hall of Fame careers) while the other 5 players were busts. Andre Wadsworth was the consensus #1 non-QB pick and lasted only 3 years due to injuries.

Manning was said to do well in interviews, but he was a son of a Pro Bowl QB so he knew what to expect. Manning had played 4 years in Tennessee but never beat a Florida Gators team and got crushed by Nebraska in his last game 42-17. He was considered to be an above average QB with an average arm. He was never expected to be a Hall of Fame type talent even by Bill Polian. He was said to have impeccable character and was a player others looked up to.

Leaf came off as too cocky and arrogant in interviews, but he was from a high school in Montana and played at Washington State. What did he know about intense scrutiny? He took over the QB duties of a 3-8 Washington State team and brought them into respectability his first year even though they went 5-6. The next year he led his team to an 11-2 record and Washington State’s first Rose Bowl appearance in over 60 years. His team was #2 in the nation in scoring average, and Leaf threw 34 TDs and only 11 INTs. He lost to a #1 Michigan team 21-16 in the Rose Bowl.

Deeper investigation found that Leaf was by far the best football player his high school ever produced, but he got only 1 vote for team captain by his teammates. The lack of respect by teammates, especially in high school, is not a complete game changer, but it is a definite red flag and that needed to be further investigated.

Peyton Manning was drafted (1st overall) and was asked what was the first thing he was going to do after the Draft. He responded by saying he could not wait to get to Indy so he could study the playbook. Manning was not a consensus pick among scouts at that time. Manning was considered an intellectual, and Leaf was the superior athlete by a wide margin. Their Wonderlic test scores were nearly identical (Manning 28, Leaf 27), but research found that Manning was a known quantity (even boring to some) while Leaf was the higher ceiling player. Leaf was the second pick, and when he was asked what he was going to do first he said he was going to Vegas. He made good on that claim by taking the owner’s (Alex Spanos) plane to Vegas and parting the entire night. At his first press conference the next day Leaf was visibly hung over and yawned when he read a speech on how he was going to take the Chargers to a couple of Super Bowls.

Character concerns were a problem for Leaf all the way back to his high school days His own coach had reservations on how he would handle the glare of the bright lights. Every player has to deal with these problems as a pro, but they are highly exacerbated for a high pick QB. Add to the fact was the Chargers traded 4 picks and a Pro Bowl player to move up one spot to get Leaf, and they gave him a contract valued over $30 million and a record signing bonus of $11.25 million. (This was before the rookie salary cap.) Expectations were high, but Leaf crumbled quickly and never recovered.

Even a simple investigation would have thrown up red flags in Leaf’s character. He gained 20 lbs between the Rose Bowl and he NFL Combine which was held in February that year. His interviews were not good. Even his own teammates at Washington State said he was the best player they had ever played with, but was not the best teammate.

In that same draft (overshadowed by the Manning-Leaf debate) was the story of Randy Moss. Moss was the most physically gifted player in the Draft followed closely by Charles Woodson. Moss played at Marshall for two years but still finished 4th in the Heisman voting in 1997. In that year he had 96 receptions, 1820 yards and 26 TDs in 13 games. He was 6’ 4” 220 lbs and had reportedly 4.25/40 speed.

Moss was supposed to go to Notre Dame, but in 1995 he was arrested for two counts of misdemeanor battery and served a 30 day jail term. That ended his possible Notre Dame career. He was then recruited to Florida State but he failed a drug test for marijuana which violated his parole. The Board of Regents would not let him attend FSU. Bobby Bowden flew to West Virginia himself to give him the bad news. Bowden really believed in Randy and fought to get him on his team but could not get the regents to budge. The earlier arrest was the figurative nail in the coffin.

Later investigations showed that Moss was a strong young man who always believed in himself and would not let anyone push him around. He grew up in awful poverty in a town with many racial problems. This led to some of the problems he had later with authority, he seemed to be fighting for respect his entire life. His arrest was for beating up two bullies who tried to terrorize Randy, they called him many racial slurs. They attacked him, and Randy was merely defending himself. Once the fight started his rage got the best of him and he continued the fight beyond the point of just winning the battle. In a town where everyone in power had their own agenda, Randy was up against people who had made up their minds before hearing what actually happened.

What was missed in all of this was Randy’s love of the game. He always loved to compete, and with his talents he loved to excel against the players at the highest levels. Randy had to fight many demons in his time but he went on to say, “I love the game so much; for those hours on Sunday, you can be free and just let it go.”

Each player has a story behind the facade of an athlete. It is who they are. You just need to find out. So substantial resources should be used to investigate some of the players you expect to take with premium picks. It doesn’t have to be intrusive. In fact if done correctly the player will never even know he was being investigated. Think how much money and Draft capital would have been saved had the Chargers done a quality investigation.

It is a question of character. Players are people first before they ever put on a uniform. Professional football is a stressful game plus the media and fans can be unmerciful. A player is going to face adversity at some point, and it could be intense adversity. It’s not a question of if but when. How a player reacts to that adversity is crucial. It has been said that great teams are forged through crucible of battle. You have to go through adversity together to truly believe in your teammates. You need great character to stay committed to the team when harsh times happen, trust is hard to make and easy to break. Your teammates need to believe in you and each other to have a successful team.

4) Thoroughly assess your own team first

You have to scout your own team first (including coaches) to see where you are in need of help and where you are strong. How would you know what you need as a team if you truly don’t know what you have already? Which players fit your long term plans? Who can you get rid of while they still have value? Baseball legend Branch Rickey said, “Trade a player a year too early rather than a year too late.” This process (trading a player) cannot be rushed. It must be thorough and done without sentiment. You owe it to yourself and the rest of the team. If you can upgrade your coaches then do so, as long as it doesn’t hurt the synergy of the coaching staff. This should be done with the approval of the head coach. The head coach and GM should work together like a well oiled machine. If the two are not pulling in the same direction then they are working against each other. It is essential that the GM and head coach are on the same page. If not they both will probably be out of a job in a short period of time.

5) Character matters

A person with great character is usually dependable and will make choices for the right reason. Talent is innate while great character is something we choose. Only character will keep a team going in the correct direction during lean times, and all teams endure lean times. Then when a team fights through those lean times they become stronger because the trust factor is now truly there. A team that fights together through adversity will always become better, and the only way an entire team can do that is with great character.

You can’t just scout the talent on your team. You must also know the character make up of your team in depth. How stable and strong is your locker room? Who are the leaders on your team? Do they lead by example, or do you have people who make other players better? A locker room is a dynamic place, and a storm can be whipped up in a heartbeat. Do you have players who can quell such a problem, and do you have players who will have the faith in the coaches and the scheme they run?

One of the unappreciated strengths of the Patriots dynasty was the leaders in their locker room. Bill Belichick always had his kind of guys in the locker room year after year. The 2004 Super Bowl winning Patriots had Willie McGinest, Richard Seymour, Tedy Bruschi, and Mike Vrabel. The 2007 16-0 Patriots had Matt Light, Dan Koppen, Vince Wilfork, and Rodney Harrison along with Bruschi and Vrabel. 2011 AFC Championship team had Logan Mankins, Rob Ninkovich, Patrick Chung along with Wilfork and Light.

All throughout the years Belichick had 5 or 6 guys he could count on to control the locker room. They didn’t have to be stars, but many were key role players who could keep an iron grip on the team and keep them focused. It has been written that free agents who come to the Patriots are often called by players to see the mindset of the people coming to their team. The free agent knows right away he has to earn his stripes or face a harsh judgement by his peers. Coach George Allen said a team that is together and focused can’t lose. Many players in New England take that to heart.

The correct team dynamic is paramount to winning and sustained excellence. Without that you are swimming upstream against a flood. Why do you think the Patriots have won so much over the years with different players and sometimes mediocre personnel? For years they had a decent slot receiver and poor boundary receiving talent but keep chugging along. Their defense used to give up the some of the most yardage in the league, but they still win; it’s not by happenchance or luck.

The Oakland Raiders this year had a plethora of picks and made some questionable choices with some premium selections (at least where they were picked). The one constant was the fact that all the players they took were considered high character players, and for a team that was said to quit last year; you can’t fault the logic. You can’t change the culture of a team without changing the locker room. Oakland GM Mike Mayock believes in character, and proved that point on draft day. Time will tell if he picked the right guys, but his thinking was sound.

This is part of the Draft strategy you need to address and focus on to be a winner. When you develop a strong core of leaders you must continually add new ones to augment the possible departure (through injury or usefulness) of some of your leaders. The Patriots traded strong character players like Richard Seymour and Willie McGinest when the time was right. Again the old Branch Rickey quote holds true.

When you have that strong locker room dynamic you can bring in a talented but troubled player like a Randy Moss or pick players with questionable character. Many players seem like bad kids, but in reality they just need guidance. Some have had to fight for themselves most of their lives, they have a hard time adjusting to new surroundings. Some are from very rural towns. They can get lost or swallowed up by a big city. Coaches are at times more like a strong father figure, but players listen better to a peers to help them along.

My ideas about the Draft

1) Your team should have two vertical Draft boards

Most teams have two draft boards already, two different draft boards with the same information set up differently. They have a vertical draft board which just lists the players, by grade set up from 1 to approximately 350 with #1 being the highest grade and #350 being the lowest.

A horizontal board has the same information set up by position. So you will know how many wide receivers you have graded in the 1st round or 2nd or 3rd. It gives you a visual understanding of the depth of a position. It’s nice to have when you are targeting a player. You know if there are only a few at that position with a high grade they will be in a high demand.

I would set up two vertical Draft boards, one for how you value each player for your team and the other done just by rating each player by talent alone This will give you some idea on where a player may go in the Draft relative to your team. It gives you some idea on how players you want to target match up against players you really have no interest in. If done well you will have an idea when you need to trade up for a player or when you can trade down and collect more picks.

2) You should always try to add picks in the next year’s Draft.

After John Idzik wasted 12 picks in 2014 there were only 6 picks in 2015. He made no trades but had four 6th round picks. He probably could have traded a 6th for a 2015 5th. You can never have too many picks. They are that valuable. Plus the more picks you have the more flexibility you have in moving around the draft board. Seattle had only 5 picks entering the 2019 draft but ended up with 11 total picks because of draft day trades. The Seahawks also have an additional 2nd round pick in 2020 but are almost assuredly be trading around the board again.

3) Target certain players in the Draft who can help your team.

It doesn’t have to be a really high pick. You scout the players and try to pick the players with the most talent. I have said before that the “best player available” scenario is more a smoke screen than reality. Sure if you have an Ezekiel Elliott or a Joey Bosa to choose from that is easy, but the farther you get down the board, even in the first round it becomes murky. For every Jalen Ramsey there is a Corey Coleman or an Artie Burns who is supposed to be special but is far from even average.

Trading down is not a sin in the draft world, it gives you more opportunities to be correct rather than selecting the BPA when he really is not. In that same draft with Burns and Coleman there were Michael Thomas, Jarran Reed, Nick Martin and Deion Jones all available in the middle of the 2nd round.

4) Don’t be cheap

It is amazing how teams have $190 million budgets for players plus all the administrative costs inside an organization. Teams will sign players who never play for their team giving them inordinate amount of money.

The same way you can save money by investigating draft picks you can also find out the scoop on a player you want to bring in in free agency. The Trumaine Johnson signing was a travesty and should have never happened. A full and detailed inquiry needs to be done on any player you want to give $45 million of guaranteed money especially when the team that drafted him did not want to sign him long term. What was the reason? Sure every player want top dollars but every team seems to have the money for their premium players. If the Rams did not consider Johnson a premium player then you would have to have a very compelling reason to hand a player (you don’t really know at all) a $72.5 million contract with a $20 million signing bonus.

You could have run investigations on any player you want for the next 25 years with just the money from the Johnson contract. Now mistakes are going to happen, but you just can’t miss when you hand a player that kind of money.

I could go into a myriad of scenarios where using resources can prove to be beneficial, but I don’t want to turn this article into a manifesto. Let’s just say if you spend money before you buy, you can save a lot of money and increase the health of your team.

5) Draft with an eye towards special teams.

Special teams are a place where even bad teams can get a boost when they bring in the right type of player. A great coverage team and great return teams can improve field position, get cheap TDs and help a defense. Special teams can also give a huge momentum swing to a struggling team.

The quality teams will have players on the roster who play little to no offensive or defensive snaps. Yet they have secure roster spots for years and are like coaches on the field to ensure that everyone is on the same page. It also shows the other players on the team the importance of the special teams and the three parts working together. Special teams is not a place to hide a rookie who is in need of seasoning; he must earn his way on that team.

Drafting (especially in late rounds) should definitely look for players with backgrounds in special teams. Also UDFA players should be looked brought in for that purpose as well. In terms of team development all three phases of the game should be looked at and be supplemented in the draft. Just like you wouldn’t draft a defensive player to play offense you shouldn’t draft an offensive or defensive player and expect him to make the 53 man roster on the special teams without any prior experience.

Sure you can develop a rookie into being a special team player, but now he has to learn a new system (either offensive or defensive) while at the same time learning a new skill (special teams). That is a lot for a rookie and could hurt his overall development.

These are just ten ideas I have about the Draft process; I have more, but this article is already beginning to look like a tome, I can revisit other aspects of the draft later.

It is interesting to know that I started writing this article a few weeks ago, and since then we have added a new GM. Interestingly while I researched Joe Douglas I found that he adheres to many of the same philosophies I wrote about here. Maybe that is why I like the hire so much. Only time will tell if he is successful but I really like the way he thinks.

Tell me what you think.