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NFL Draft Focus

Random thought from a Draft junkie

NFL: APR 25 2019 NFL Draft Photo by Michael Wade/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Not everyone develops at the same rate during their life. I was a 5’ 8 1/2” 141 lbs cornerback and wide receiver my senior year in high school. By the time I was a college senior I grew to be a 6’2 230 lbs man. People grow emotionally as well. I had no idea who I was until I was forced to take the world on by myself. As you mature you find your sense of purpose. For some that takes a lifetime. For others like a Peyton Manning it happens early in life.

All college football players are somewhere in that mixture of maturity/learning/focus. Young people can float through life having a good time, just getting by. Then they might have an epiphany that forces them to look at their lives. It could be anything that causes this awakening, a TV show, a coach, a friend, a news report, or a tragedy. Whatever causes it, it can be significant.

Every college player drafted needs to develop to become a premium NFL player

As a person who has scouted the draft for over three decades now I have seen the maturation of many players who didn’t even register on my radar at the time but became great players. James Harrison, Nate Newton, Brian Waters, and Cliff Harris were all UDFA’s who became superior players but showed little before the Draft. That wasn’t because I missed on my scouting but because they matured as people then focused on their futures. They took the NFL coaching they received then developed. They had talent, but it didn’t shown through until they developed.

The worst thing a scout can do is make judgements on college stats. Really all the stuff that happens on the field has little to do with the player and more to do with the team. Sure you want to see players making great plays, but a QB can’t make that great throw if he is laying on his back with a huge DE on top of him. He also can’t catch a ball he throws. The receiver has to do that. Point being that players (especially QBs) can look like world beaters if they have a clean pocket and reliable receivers. QBs who play behind a sieve of a line or receivers who can’t separate will appear to struggle. If a player’s team is overmatched by a dominant team the player you are watching will not do well statistically.

This is why you need to look at the traits along with the athletic ability of the player and not just stats.

When you look at stats players on the best teams tend to shine. So do players (like a RB) who are the focus of their team’s system. I am sure these players have talent, or they wouldn’t have been recruited by such great programs. Still how good are they really?

The QB might have talent, but if you have a workhorse type RB with a good offensive line a coach may want to run the ball all the time if he has a poor defense. The coach is trying to win games and keep his job.

Never take into account the grade a player has coming out of high school. If you are scouting them for the NFL Draft the Rivals grade given to a player out of high school means less than nothing. It may actually influence you into giving a higher grade than he actually deserves. Players develop a lot after leaving high school so an arbitrary grade given out by some scout who is at a high school game watching a high school junior is worthless.

Beware of power teams

I have always graded college coaches as well as players. The reason is great coaches wisdom to get their players to achieve more than other coaches. Every coach has his strengths and weaknesses, but there are some coaches who really stress fundamentals and teach technique. When you have a great coach with a great program who has unlimited power to recruit then you have the makings of a powerhouse.

My top three coaches in football are

#1) Bill Belichick- He has an understanding of football fundamentals that few could comprehend. He is on a higher level because of his focus and longevity.

#2) Nick Saban- A great coach with autonomy over his program. He may be the best defensive secondary coach who ever lived. He could pretty much recruit 7 of the top 10 players in the country to his program if they fit his scheme.

#3) Kirk Ferentz- He is not in a power program, but he is a terrific coach. His players are well schooled in fundamentals and are usually very football smart. He may have the best weight training program, and his desire to recruit linemen who also wrestle works well.

As a rule I will grade an Alabama secondary player far more harshly than any other college team players unless I have knowledge of superior talent or work ethic/skill from the player. When you have one of if not the best teachers of secondary play in Nick Saban, how much more development is going to occur in the NFL compared to a player who doesn’t have near that level of coaching?

When the Jets drafted Dee Milliner #9 in the 2013 draft I almost had a fit. I knew he was not a superior athlete. He had a severe injury history and was overrated as a prospect. Other than that he was okay. (Just kidding.)

Mac Jones is a perfect example of a player with good skills (not elite) who played on a superior team with a superior offensive line. Talentwise Mac Jones is a quality backup QB and nothing more. He can win you games off the bench once he learns the offense but he has few movement skills so his offensive line better be awesome. He had top receiver talent. He didn’t need to fit the ball into tight widows like he will see in the NFL. If you have a stacked team Jones could be a placeholder until you find a player with elite skills to take you to the next level.

With power teams the players who have specialized roles have an advantage. They can exploit their opponents through game planning, being put into favorable matchups.

Power teams are WOW teams

Teams from the Power 5 conferences have a definite advantage over other smaller schools because of TV involvement. They also usually have a larger enrollment. With more students you get more state funds but also more alumni involvement. Teams like Michigan, Ohio State, Florida, USC, Nebraska and a couple dozen more can have a great program if they can recruit. Boosters will often build state of the art training facilities for their alma mater without any cost to the school. This not only prepares their team better but also is a huge prize in recruiting.

When scouting you have to see who is playing alongside the player you are looking at. Clemson had three defensive linemen drafted in the first 17 picks of the NFL Draft in 2019 with the fourth player (Austin Bryant) drafted a year later by the Detroit Lions. All three drafted (Clelin Ferrell 4th, Christian Wilkins 13th and Dexter Lawrence 17th) had great college careers, but I surmised they had no elite traits. In fact I thought Lawrence had the best skill set of the three for his position as a one tech. All three have been decent NFL pros, but none are considered Pro Bowl talents as of yet.

I didn’t have a 1st round grade on any of these players even though I thought them to be solid rotational players who could help a team. In college they were playing against many opponents who will never make it to the NFL. With all three working on the same line no team could double team them all. There were not enough blockers. By contrast a Quinnen Williams or an Ed Oliver (from the same draft) were often doubled or tripled teamed on occasion. There stats looked worse, but their skillsets were much better than the other 3.

Dwayne Haskins was my 85th ranked prospect in a year with limited talent at the QB position. There was Kyler Murray and pretty much everyone else. Yet Haskins played on an all-star team in college. They averaged over 42 points a game. Haskins had 50 TDs and only 8 INTs for a whopping 4,831 yards passing in 14 games. To put that into perspective the Jets record for passing yards in any season (14 or 16 games) is 4,007 by Joe Namath.

Haskins had talent but not franchise QB talent. Some of what I wrote about Haskins was:

Haskins is a pocket passer with plus arm strength, good size and excellent accuracy in short or intermediate areas. He can make a long throw to the far hash without much problem; he has an effortless throwing motion. He keeps his cool in tense situations, knows how to stay on the field on third and fourth down. He reads defenses fairly well, goes through his progressions. He throws with good anticipation, not afraid to pull the trigger on a throw he believes in and is usually smart with the ball, 6 to 1 INT rate as a starter. He played well in some big games; wins against Penn st (a come back) and his beatdown of Michigan and their vaunted defense.

He had prodigious numbers as a starter with 50 TDs, over 4,800 yards and led his team to the brink of a championship in his only year as a starter. Haskins has talent but is a one year starter who has much to learn as an NFL QB. His throwing mechanics need work as he has a inconsistent release point and he opens up his hips too quickly at times. His deep ball accuracy is poor and will continue to be so unless he can iron out his mechanics. He will throw off his back foot when he does not have perfect throwing room in front of him.

This leads to inaccuracy and the ball sailing high. He is not fast or fleet of foot but he has functional movement in the pocket but has poor escapeability. Pressure is his poison, he needs a quick route to throw to, he has limited wheels to run away. He is not good throwing on the move and his accuracy drops when he is moved off his spot. Will hold the ball when the perfect throw is not there, he needs to learn what a good throw is.

Haskins was drafted 15th overall by a Washington team in dire need of a franchise QB. Two years later Haskins is gone/ Washington is still in dire need of a franchise QB.

How poor Draft decisions hurt now plus in the future

In the previous discussion if the team from Washington had passed on Dwayne Haskins they could have traded down to gain more Draft capital. If they had stayed in that spot they could have drafted a Brian Burns (who went at #16) a DE who has accumulated 16.5 sacks in two seasons in Carolina.

Then in 2020 they had the #2 overall pick which turned out to be Chase Young. They were contacted by many teams (it was reported) for a trade of that pick. If they had stayed at two they would now boast the best tandem of DEs in the NFL with Young and Burns, which would actually make both players better. An offensive team can’t double team both ends so that would leave at least one player in a one on one situation.

If they had decided to trade down to Miami or the Giants they could have received a couple 2nd round picks in coming years then drafted Justin Herbert. This would have given them more picks to build their team plus the franchise QB they were looking for. As of now they only have Chase Young to show for two first round draft picks with nothing extra in the future. The Draft mistakes made in a single year have far reaching effects on the future of the team and which direction it will go.

Jets fans also know the follies of poor draft selections. In 2013 the Jets selected Geno Smith in the 2nd round then spent the next four years trying to squeeze gold from a stone. The Jets could have traded down to collect some picks or drafted Le’Veon Bell, Jamie Collins, Travis Kelce, Tyrann Mathieu, or Keenan Allen (which was my wish).

The only positive of drafting Geno Smith was it kept the Jets from drafting Johnny Manziel which was my worst fear. It didn’t help that we drafted Geno, but a Manziel pick would have been another awful stain on the Jets franchise. Cleveland bears the burden of that gaffe.

The forced pick of Geno Smith had the Jets folly in trying to develop a QB with a college skill set and not a pro one. This lead to the even worse selection of Christian Hackenberg in the 2nd round of the 2016 Draft. The Jets using a 2nd round pick on a player who would never take a regular season snap was one of the worst picks of the modern era. They also did this while Dak Prescott was still on the board. I didn’t have Prescott as a 1st round talent, but he was a 2nd round grade in my book with huge upside as a developmental prospect. I had Hackenberg as a late 6th round talent. PFF had him as undraftable which was one of the few times PFF was better at draft prognostication than me.

You have to know when to hold ‘em and know when to fold ‘em

If you are a scout or GM you have to know what grade you put on a player and what that means for a franchise. The grade you put on a QB prospect is the most important grade you can give to a player. Finding the right QB is of paramount importance to the future success of the franchise for at least the next decade.

You can’t jam a round peg in a square hole and expect to be successful. You have to grade your players then use those grades to build your team. By doing so you draft Travis Kelce rather than Geno Smith. Instead of drafting Christian Hackenberg you draft Yannick Ngakoue.

It is okay to not have a franchise QB for a few years. When one is not available you build your team with the best players available. You can use a Matt Cassel, Ryan Fitzpatrick or a Josh McCown as a stop gap until you find that guy. The Buccaneers did that the past few years and found their way to the Super Bowl with an old GOAT.

Scout with a cynical eye and don’t follow the hype

The one thing you can never do is fall in love with a player as a scout. Find something you don’t like about the prospect then go from there. It sounds bad, but you don’t want to have a rooting interest in a prospect. This leads to poor evaluations and then poor results. I really hope the best for every player in the NFL Draft, but I have no favorites. They are all just people I grade with a detached view. By being impassive I ensure my grades are truly the result of proven scouting techniques and not sullied by emotion.

That is easier said than done because I like to find out about the personal side of a player. I want to find out his character plus what makes him tick. It’s easy to feel for these kids because many are just great young people with a bright future. I must use that information with an unemotional view as much as I possibly can.

Never let hype sway your thought as you will be looking like an idiot akin to John Gruden who was banging the table on ESPN saying Johnny Manziel needs to be the 1st pick in the NFL Draft. Then talking head Mel Kiper disagreed saying Johnny was only the tenth best player in the Draft. I watched all the film and had Manziel as my 171st player. I couldn’t believe there was so much hype surrounding a player with a limited skill set along with a terrible undisciplined playing style.

Hope springs eternal

This year the Jets have more Draft capital with a chance to reboot the franchise with a solid QB choice. If the Jets trade Sam Darnold then that will only add to the anticipation.

You can’t rebuild a team in a year, but the Jets can make significant strides in the right direction with shrewd drafting and some key free agents. After a couple of years the Jets could be on that big stage with the world tuning in.

We can always hope.