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The NFL Draft is Not About Combine Numbers

5 things that many don’t look for when scouting

NFL: APR 26 2018 NFL Draft Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

With the Jets’ season over it is time to turn some of our focus on the upcoming college Draft. The Jets are in control of some solid Draft capital. It is imperative that the Jets find some difference makers on both sides of the ball. Fortunately there are enough high value players available to help the Jets become competitive if they select the right group of individuals.

Currently the Jets own 4 selections in the top 38 spots in the upcoming Draft, but even if they hit on all 4 as immediate contributors, that alone won’t make enough of a difference to turn the Jets into title competitors. You have to assume that some of the current starters for the Jets will not be around in 2022. Joe Douglas will inevitably let go of some under performing and/or overpriced players.

Counting on free agents to make up the for the lack of talent is fool’s gold. Any player looking to win will not have the Jets on their radar. So that leaves players looking for a payday to fill their bank accounts before they retire. Joe may find a few middle of the road players looking to salvage their images, but you can’t rebuild a team through free agency. The Jets would have to become winners or at least an exciting, up and coming team to attract the best talent sometime in the future.

So the way to become an up and coming team is to hit on those 4 top 38 picks but also find a couple of diamonds in the rough with the other 5 selections in the 3rd thru 5th rounds. I’m sure Joe will do some wheeling and dealing (I have a few ideas myself.) so there may be more selections than we currently have.

The key to doing this is to use a template of characteristics you look for in prospects then scour the Draft class looking for those type of players. It takes research into each player to find which players have the aspects you are looking for. I have used this type of approach for years with (in my opinion) great success in my Draft report. It’s a given that every player the Jets are looking at has at least the basic skills and athleticism to play in the NFL. Some of the things I look for in a complete prospect are:

Leadership

It’s easy to use the word leadership, but you have to understand what that word means. You can’t have 53 players all as leaders of the team. You can only have a few true team leaders on both sides of the ball. These are players who have great insight into the offensive/defensive schemes along with a respected voice in the locker room.

Leadership is earned, not given. A player from another team can’t just be signed then have a huge leadership role on your team. There are exceptions of course like if Tom Brady comes to your team. Sure, Brady is the leader on any team he is on from day 1. For mere mortals, leadership is earned. Players have to believe in a person before they will follow that person.

Leaders don’t need to scream and yell at others to make their point. They have a method for making others follow their lead. It was once written that “average leaders raise the bar on themselves; good leaders raise the bar for others; great leaders inspire others to raise their own bar.” Leaders are always looking for the positive and will do what it takes to make their team situation better. It could be as simple as a high level starter working on special teams to inspire others to put forth a better effort without asking for it as a command.

You don’t have to be the leader of the entire team to have the ability to make a teammate raise his play, expectations, level of commitment, effort level, focus, etc. Look for players who can be leaders even if it’s just in their own room (ie DB room, D-linemen, WR’s). Some inspire by example, but the bottom line is that you have to have some leadership ability in order to lead. The more of the leader type players you have, the more cohesive and dedicated your team will become.

Team leaders can control a locker room. They keep dissent from starting. They keep everyone on the same page. The success of the Patriots can be linked back to Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, but that is not the whole story. Belichick was the ruler of the team, and he laid down a strict set of laws on how things will be done. Yet the leaders on that team handled the policing of that edict. Players like Willie McGinest, Richard Seymour, Mike Vrabel, Ty Law, Matt Light, or Tedy Bruschi kept the team on the right track on the field and in the locker room. This was the backbone of the Patriots prolonged success, the same offensive/defensive systems with players who held each other accountable.

You find out if a prospect is a leader by talking with coaches, other players, the guy who cleans up the locker room, or the guy who does the laundry. Insight can be given from some unlikely sources. The more information you have, the more you will find a consensus in your research.

Intellect

Every team is looking for the guy that has burst. No matter what position, every team wants the guy with a little more speed or quickness or lateral agility. What they don’t emphasize and often overlook is the intelligence of the players.

When I say intellect I’m talking about players who can think on their feet, decipher situations quickly, and understand complex schemes and football language.

I remember in 2003. the year after the Buccaneers won the Super Bowl they had their top RB go down injured early in the season. The Bucs traded for a productive RB who had been playing in the NFL for over 3 years. That player never played a down because he could never understand the insanely complex language in Jon Grudens playbook. He had tutors and other players helping him but to no avail; he was useless to the Bucs.

Now not every situation is going to be that obvious, and I really think players today can handle the offensive language because so many playbooks across the league are similar. Yet I do think a player needs to be able to read a play as it unfolds and know what to do. Like I said before, every team is looking for that burst from a player. But if it takes longer for a player to decipher what is going on in front of him a slower player will get there much faster to make the play than the guy with the great burst

Defenders need to be able to remember their work in the film room and use it on the field. When they see a certain formation it can give them insight into the play being run. If you can remember route combinations, it can be the difference in an interception or a long TD pass play.

Usually you can find out a prospect’s grade point average, their major, and whether they graduated or not. If you can’t find out anything about their grades and they haven’t graduated, it’s a red flag that needs to be checked.

Every fan wants the guy who runs the fastest 40 time, but the winning teams have smart players who can make plays, not just run fast in a straight line. By the way, the guy who ran the fastest 40 in combine history has played in parts of 5 seasons and has a grand total of 62 receptions for his career.

Character

I cannot say enough about the need for high character players on your team. The NFL season is a long and arduous journey that will have many peaks and valleys. You have to stay focused with a great attitude to continue working when you have nagging injuries or bumps and bruises. You have to put in the work to get the right result. It’s easy to tell yourself you don’t really need to do something that you really need to do.

It has been said that “adversity builds character” but that is a lie. = In reality adversity shows your true character whether it be good or bad The great Bruce Lee once espoused, “Knowledge will give you power but character will garner you respect.”

Great character is a mental property that supports a moral and/or ethical nature of a person through adverse conditions. Character keeps you doing the right things to make you better even when things are not going well. A person like this never gives up or gives into negativity even in the worst of times. These are the types of individuals you want to find when you are building a team.

No player is perfect, but eleven players who are committed on one side of the ball are tough to beat. When you have both sides of the ball with skilled players like that you have a championship caliber team year in and year out.

Find players with desire/passion

Many of the players in the Pro Football Hall of Fame are not the players who had the best talent but the ones who had the greatest desire. John Randle was an interior defensive lineman who was too small to play at 6’1” 244 lbs. He was told he had to weigh at least 250 lbs for the Vikings to sign him to a UDFA contract. He hid a heavy chain under his clothes to make the weight then worked hard to put on the muscle needed to play in the NFL. In the end he played at 287 lbs (still to small) but had a desire that was unmatched. He finished his Hall of Fame career with 137.5 sacks from the nose tackle position. He used to yell “six footers for life” to his opponents to mock so many for questioning him because of his size.

There are 16 players in the NFL hall of fame who were UDFA players. That is including when the draft was 30 rounds long, not just the 7 rounds like today. There are so many great NFL players who were either under drafted or not drafted at all. The Jets’ own Wayne Chrebet was considered too small to play in the NFL. He was even cut by the Baltimore Stallions of the CFL after one practice. Only the fact that the Jets were horrific under coach Rich Kotite gave Chrebet the one shot he needed to shine. He finished his career with the 3rd most receiving yards in team history and the 2nd most receptions. If not for the concussion that ended his career he most likely would be the Jets all-time receptions leader.

These are a few of the most extreme examples of players achieving because of desire. Many other were undervalued because there desire was not taken into account as an ability but rather an unappreciated trait. I will espouse my thoughts (shortly) on a player I had as a 1st round talent, yet I was told I was crazy to think so.

Physical abilities

This may sound foolish, but you need the right type of players who suit your offensive/defensive systems. Most teams do a great job at this, but they often overlook certain aspects of a prospect in order to get a player with a desired trait. For example: a teams covets a quick/fast edge rusher. They pick one then find out he can come off the edge like they wish. Yet he cannot hold the edge in the run game. Time and time again opponents will run at him with great success. The team ends up with a 10+ sacks a year from the player but gives up huge yards in the run game. Soon that player is a situational pass rusher, and the team needs to find a first and second down answer on the edge.

Here’s another example. A team drafts a wide receiver with great speed who can get in and out of breaks well but has suspect hands. They will try to work on that trait ad nauseum in practice, but he still has problems making routine catches. Catching the football is one of the first things I look for in a WR prospect before speed, quickness, elusiveness. These are all traits I also look for, but I look for the ability to consistently catch the football first. The ability to track and catch a football is harder to teach than many think. Most players who catch the ball well have strong hands and look very smooth and natural catching the ball; it is almost innate. To me a drop on a third down pass that had the needed yardage for a first down is like a turnover. The Jets had far too many turnovers like this during the 2021 season. If I were building a team I would demand WRs with not just good hands but players with exceptional hands.

Sometimes teams put too much value into Combine numbers and forget about the totality of the player in football terms. The NFL Combine I find incredibly useful as a tool to define the skill set of a player, but there is also a reason the event is mocked as the Underwear Olympics. It showcases the physical tools that many players have, but football is played in pads, on a field, against a lot of determined opponents.

I once was mocked by some peers in the draft community for listing Anquan Boldin as a first round talent back in 2003. I had watched Boldin play at FSU, and you could see the talent but also that inner desire he had. He was a winner as a player. Yet his Combine numbers were horrible. He ran a 4.73/40 and had a poor performance in every testing category. Today he would be hard pressed to be drafted before the 6th round.

In 2003 the highest rated receiver was Charles Rogers from Michigan State who was drafted 2nd overall and was out of the league 3 years later. Anquan Boldin played 14 seasons in the NFL. I, was in 202 NFL games, he had 1,076 receptions for 13,779 yards and 82 TDs. Just so you know the Jets traded up for a player who made a huge rise up the Draft boards in Dewayne Robertson from Kentucky who was out of the league in 5 years.

More recently Cooper Kupp came out of Eastern Washington back in 2017. Kupp ran a 4.62/40 time which turned off many teams. He didn’t play Division I football, but I watched as he roasted two of the best college corners (Marcus Peters and Sidney Jones) when he played against them. Kupp was drafted in the third round that year (#69 overall). I had him as my 46th ranked player.

Some of what I wrote in my draft report that year...

Kupp is a highly productive receiver who ran a slow time at the combine; just like Jarvis Landry. It hasn’t seemed to bother Landry much and I think it won’t bother Kupp either. Kupp is an incredibly competitive baller who will be just fine in the NFL. He is a natural wide receiver who catches everything thrown his way and has subtleties that few players ever learn. Don’t be fooled by 40 times; this kid will be an excellent, highly targeted #2 receiver and be a chain mover of the highest degree. He is uber confident and as competitive as they come, God help us if Tom Brady gets him, he might not ever retire.

Even I (who loved Kupp coming out in 2017) undervalued him as a receiver and never thought he would be the top receiver in the league in a few years. Kupp has 138 receptions for 1,829 yards and 15 TDs this season so far.

The point of this is you can’t rely on just physical abilities to determine who the best player for your team is. Football is a very physical game. You have to ratchet up the physicality 3 times from the college game to the pro game. Seasoned pro players are like sharks as they can smell blood in the water. If a rookie player is intimidated or appears in over his head, NFL teams will target that player whenever possible. The NFL is full of incredibly great, physical players so teams will use those players to target the weakest link in the chain.

On the other hand great players are great because they have a natural ability to be effective in the NFL whether it’s Cooper Kupp with his stutter step, leaning one way to go another or Tom Brady’s average arm that just gets it done. Don’t just look at height, weight, and speed,. Look at the player and what makes him special or ordinary.

These 5 things are but a few of the things I look for in NFL prospects. Still these are some of the most important aspects to keep in mind. It’s a daunting task to sift through the 2,000+ players who are eligible each year for the Draft. The easy thing to do is rate prospects by stats which is a recipe for failure It takes a lot of hard work to find the players who fit your system the best, then decipher which are the best prospects from that group.

I hope this gives you a little insight into a few of some important aspects I look for that I believe are undervalued by some scouting depts. Every team grades players on a different basis because of the schemes they run. Even if all the players had the correct grades each team would rate them differently because of the variations and the nuances of their systems.

I will try to show you a vast array of prospect from first round graded prospects to some diamonds in the rough that do not have the type of hype some of the most well known players have. I hope you find them informative and interesting. The Jets need talent and the draft is the most efficient and inexpensive way of bringing in talent to the roster.

I will be back with more soon.

And

GO JETS