Draft Theories and Systems I - General Theory

SWG777 asked me for some draft theory info. While there are more knowledgeable members on this subject, I did have a ton of draft info in the archives, so I put some together for this. Here's hoping it's of some interest.

About 3 months before this time of year, you start to hear terms bandied about, sometimes accurately, sometimes carelessly. The most common point of discussion is talked about as 'need' versus "BPA' or best player available. The fact is, no team drafts exclusively for one or the other. Both come into play when a team talks about any player. Let's start wth scouting and move along the path to the draft.

One of the complaints that you will hear yearly at this time comes from the scouts in the game. I'll explain in a little while. Some teams use services, like BLESTO (which was originally and acronym for the Bears, Lions, Eagles and Steelers scouting organization. National Scouting Service, knows simply as 'National' is the other larger scouting house. More and more, though, teams have their own scouts arranged usually by region or by conference. They may still subscribe to the info from the scouting services, but they do their own legwork once the early work is done.

You can tell by the grading or ranking numbers which scouting service certain draft sites use. National uses a 1-9 system, and 9 is the best possible grade, a player that you expect to come in, start his first year and eventually make the Hall of Fame. It's rarely awarded, as you can imagine. National breaks down the grades by several subcategories and many, like New Era Scouting and what was and has apparently merged with CBS, use their grading system. It's moderately intricate and helpful. It's a good start

BLESTO uses a 5-1 grading system in which 1 is the highest and 5 the worst. You'll see that out there, too. Again, what you see increasingly are teams that develop their own scouts. They have a term for it: 25 for 25. In other words, a 25 year old gets 25,000 (plus gas, transportation and perdiem) to start. Then there are regional supervisors, who in turn report to the heads of the scouting department. Sometimes there are layers in between, sometimes not. The complain that you'll hear from a lot of scouts is that their information is commonly ignored. GMs like Pioli from Kansas City and Bill Polian from the Colts are famous for making their own decisions.

That's not all bad. It wasn't long ago that the decisions were commonly made by the head coach. That didn't go well, really - there's just too much that needs to be looked at, evaluated, measured and considered for the HC to have the time to do it all right. Generally, now, there will be a small group in the draft room. The heads of scouting might be there, the GM will be as will the HC. Different teams have different structures, but in general, they call specific scouts into the room to answer questions, and then dismiss them. The same is true of position coaches - they do get input during the process, but they are rarely in on final decisions in the modern draft marketplace. So, what complaint do the scouts have at this time of year?

Being ignored. The scouts are commonly on the road for 200 days out of the year, watch endless film while spending much of their time on developing contacts who they believe they can trust. It's also getting harder - in our litigious world, coaches, trainers ADs and assistants are increasingly unwilling to make comments, even off the record, that criticize the player. Organizations who have good connections around the country (Belichick is a good example) will reap the benefits - a college coach or AD might say something privately to an NFL head coach that they might not to a 28 year old scout.

It's not only the scouts who feel ignored. Offensive line coaches have been ignored so often that they've formed a loosely knit group that meets at local restaurants after pro days. They call themselves the 'Mushroom Society', because often they fel that they are kept in the dark and fed uncomposted bovine waste. They share information on players and programs. The OL hasn't always been seen as the key to the game that some, myself included, feel that it is.

Another common complaint - When it comes to the big board stage, many scouts are astounded to find that there was an unannounced all-star game the day before. There must have been, because suddenly coaches and GMs have come in with their own feelings and moved the draft board around based on them, rather than basing their decisions on the work of the scouts, film and the personnel department. That doesn't happen as much in the organizations who draft well, but it's a fact of life. Post-Combine man-love affairs are very common. While the Combine should help to get the scouts and coaches to look at film more carefully on players they may have missed, great metrics do not a great player make. Teams overpay yearly for players based on what happens in a controlled setting in shorts, rather than on the field.

This is where having very good communication throughout the organization is essential. Brian Xanders, for example, handles things as the head of Player Personnel. He's talented at managing the cap and any other contract or salary issues. But Denver also has Xanders supervising the Broncos' football operations, labor operations, equipment, medical, video, football information systems and turf operations departments. It keeps him kind of busy. he has to understand the exact player specifications that each position puts into a manual, and he has to keep both short and long term issues clearly in his mind. It's a huge job. He has to have people around him that he trusts, and they have to be able to trust him when they disagree. It's a balancing act worthy of a world-class, high-wire circus.

Some coaches, including McDaniels and his former boss, Bill Belichick, begin watching film on players who the scouts are interested in way back during the NFL/college season. Belichick is famous for watching college player film on his laptop during flights to and from game cities. McDaniels is also heavy into film, and it's a year-round commitment. That helps. So does having the positional manuals, something that was not fully established in Denver until the 2010 draft. Happliy, Xanders and McD are both good at player evaluation. They often disagree, but that creates a chance for the position coaches and scouts to weight in. Once they have, they generally leave the war room at the draft.

Teams usually have both horizontal and vertical boards. The vertical board usually lists the players (anywhere from 60 or 70 to 200, depending on the team, I'm told) that your team finds to be good fits for their needs and systems. This is one of the most essential aspects of the draft - teams who consistently draft poorly usually look at overall skills but don't think about exactly how the player will fit into the team's scheme. Many fans would be shocked at how important the precise system is to the success of the player.

The horizontal board contains information that the team feels is important about a player and/or lists all the players at a given position. For example, a team may use the letter 'c' to indicate that there were unusual circumstances at issue, such as a transfer or a WR whose QBs were terrible and that skewed the numbers. A small case 'c' refers to character concerns, and you can add a second one for the Ocho whoevers - Andre Smith, last draft, earned at least two c's. That's what happens when you don't know if you're in the Combine or not... There are upper case letters that also convey information. Q, for example, often refers to a player who is vertically challenged - shorter or taller than the team prefers at this position. The team will use the vertical board only to list how they view potential players - most aren't interested in how any other system sees the players as a fit or grades them out, much less how draft sites see things. The only thing that matters is how player A will do for team X.

Josh McDaniels made a very good point on Friday of last week. Interspersed with the deliberate, talented and mannerly obfuscation of anything helpful on the draft choices Denver was looking at was the stated fact that Denver doesn't care how any other team rates a player. Despite how the fans often see it - player A is very good, therefore he'll be a very good player for Team X - it doesn't work that way, much as many fans are surprised by that.

investigating the background of players in extreme detail is now standard. By the way, the first man who was hired by the league to investigate the background of potential players was a fellow by the name of Gunsel, a name that was turned into a common reference to a tough guy in the 1950's and 1960s. You don't hear it any longer - folks have forgotten him for the most part, but his job lives on. Most teams now use retired FBI, police detectives and similarly trained men to ferret out on minor or major problems with the players. By the end of the vetting, teams know how the player did in 6th grade, what his grades were, the situation of his family life and his hobbies are. Does he really focus on football? Is it his life, or is he just putting in that time before moving on to a different career?

How about need? It comes into every draft, no matter what the GMs may say in public. Who is the best player available? Is that player a good fit for your squad, or not? How quickly will the player fit in? Many players, including 1st round players, will take two seasons to 'get' the system. The team tends to be less than concerned about that - at first. By the end of the second season, most players are expected to be fulfilling the vision that the team had for them at the draft. That may be special teams only, it might be a rotational player, backup or starter. There are different grades for each on both the vertical and horizontal boards. Generally, using the 1-9 National system or a close variation, you won't see an NFL team (Ok, maybe the raiders) take a player below the 5.5 cutoff line. Below that, you just don't bother. There are rare exceptions, such as projects who are changing position and so forth, but no one takes players who grade below 5.0

'Best player available' is always considered in light of the team's personnel and/or systems. The player who is best for Team X isn't the BPA for Team C. GMs who have the final word often concentrate on players who take more time to develop, such as QBs, CBs and DL/OL players. Xanders choice to take A. Smith and develop him is one example of that. Many coaches want the weapons - get me the big arm, the WR who makes circus catches, the RB who can leave good LBs on the ground. It helps if all of the front office knows the needs of the team and understands what the coaches want and why, and if the coaches are good with the approach. In rare cases, such as Jones in Dallas and Davis in Oakland, the owners also have input. This has not always met with success, but it still happens. You're always better off if the coach and the GM (and/or the owner) agree on the value of a certain pick.

You also hear the phrase, 'Building through the draft' very often, usually as either a goal to achieve or as a necessity to manifest. There's no question that the draft is one of the keys to a successful team, but most teams have about 7 picks per year, and some of those won't work out. In other words, you're doing well if you have 4-5 players from a draft who contribute consistently. Depending on the number of holes your team has (I look back at least year and shudder) it would take several drafts to really change the team. This is why free agency can be so important. If you're rebuilding, reloading or just trying to get past San Diego in the division, you're going to need FA success as well as draft success. No team, no GM and no coach has ever been always right. You learn from your mistakes and move on. And, perhaps you recognize when a player who can really help you comes along and you do whatever it takes to get him. Is the cost worth the value? Every team will make value based decisions of this sort in each draft.

Consider an example with the Houston Texans. They got DL player Travis Johnson in the 1st round and he never panned out for them. Last season, he was sent to San Diego for very little and had a much better season there, putting in some snaps at NT and at DE. He had his focus on the game, his head was on straight and he both started and rotated in as a NT. He did well at that position, too, as well as at DE. What's interesting is that one of the knocks on Johnson was that he didn't seem to put out enough effort (the other was a high injury rate). Sometimes, a player isn't in the right situation and a change of scenery fixes many of his problems. This seems to be one of those.

And that brings up a major issue - What system is the player going to? Belichick noted once that his FO didn't care if a scout claimed that a QB was a 1st round player, yet that player went to another team and tanked because the teams are so different and the systems don't always match well enough to compare. Eric Mangini was upfront about his belief that neither Quinn nor Anderson fit his system because he's looking for a QB with a big arm (I have no current word on how Mike Holmgren feels about that). McDaniels believes that Brady Quinn can fit his system, however, and he may be right. Dan Fouts would have been miserable in a west coast offense - the original version, at any rate, since you can argue that what passes for WCO currently isn't that close to the one Bill Walsh developed - but he thrived in the vertically based Air Coryell offense, while giving credit for maximizing his QB skills to Walsh, who coached him early in his career (see The Blind Side, by Michael Lewis).

The QB position is a lot more than chucking it downfield. The player has to fit the specific system. If you take a guy out of a shotgun offense and demand that he learn to analyze formations from under center in one summer's training camp, you're not likely to see success. Give the same player time, coaching and teaching (film room) and you could see a different outcome. Drew Brees didn't fit the Chargers needs, but he won a Super Bowl in NO. It's not an uncommon story.

Take linebackers, who demonstrate both the issues of scarcity and of scheme appropriateness. For the Fairbanks-Bullough, a variation of which Denver now runs, you want bigger guys at LB since your entire D rests on them first and foremost. With more and more competition for those guys, you start to see a run on DE/OLB hybrids, some of whom are even being moved to ILB. Why? Scarcity is increasing for players who match that type at that position. Since it takes up to 8 LBs, 4 each of ILB and OLB and there are now greater numbers competing for them, you have a challenge in getting players of the quality that you need at these positions. Phillips 3-4s may take somewhat smaller LBs, but some of them don't. Great scouting can make up for much of that problem, but it can't manufacture a player magically from thin air.

Nose tackles are another position where competition is on the rise and players may start to see higher degrees of competition - which can also lead to increased financial compensation. I don't expect a lot of Albert Haynesworth contracts in the near future, but players who can do something that not many others can tend to see an uptick in their contract values. Good NTs may be worth more than good DEs - in degree, and depending on the specific scheme. In terms of the DEs, in the 3-4 you have to find players who can move out to the 5 technique, and not all of them can. Last year, that led to Tyson Jackson being a very, very happy man who was given millions of dollars but who would probably have been a 2nd-3rd round player in this draft. Drafting the kind of players who are very good when they are available is also a necessity, and a hard one to predict. Some players are perfect for the 4-3, but not the 3-4. You have to know the player's preferences,tendencies and skillset inside and out.

It's not just on defense. Pat Bowlen was the first owner to play guards and centers over 1.5 million dollars (Brian Habib, G, and Don Maggs, LT) and it caused a scandal at the time - for about 5 minutes. Then there was a rush to find and pay LTs in particular and even guards to some extent. Center may be next - guys with the ability to take on a NT one on one are rare and will be increasingly valuable (in some degree, yet to be determined) when, or if, they show that they can nullify most NTs without a double-team. Centers have ben groomed from the ranks of extablished OL players who are then taught the position as much as they have been drafted, but that could change as the game does.

A team who runs a vertically based, Coryell-like passing game is going to want slightly different receivers than a WCO-type team, and a team who runs a variation on the Erhardt-Perkins system will take slightly different players as well. The vertically based team may want more speedsters, because the faster they are downfield, the more quickly the QB can get rid of the ball and he and the OL can relax. WCO-based teams will generally be more concerned with 'possession' receivers - tall guys who can go up for jump balls more often. A note on that - unique players like Brandon Marshall can thrive in most systems, but since he, as an example, has trouble catching over his shoulder, he is unlikely to go to a Coryell-based system. It's not at all impossible - those systems need possession receivers, too - but he's less valuable there.

Again, this is one reason that 4th round players may become All-Pro and 1st round players may vanish without a trace (other than the money the team has tied up in them). The better you understand and define exactly what you need from each player at each position, the better this will go. Most teams also recognize that many players, including 1st round players, often require 2-3 years to develop, especially QBs, CBs and DL players. WRs struggle with the speed of the game and the complexity of the offensive and defensive formations. So do players who are targeted for changing positions. These things, too, have to be carefully weight, balanced and considered.

Then you have the question of how and how often you want to use the tight ends. There are blocking TEs, which are coming back into style and demand, and there are receiving TEs. Then there are rare ones who do both well, and they are in high demand. I saw at least three teams, including Denver, using a 3 TE set last season - what Steve/HT called the 'Magic 3' option may be on the rise, and with it an increase in the number of TEs taken or converted from other positions (DE or OL aren't uncommon). This will also change your board - if you are one of the teams that wants to go to using that formation more, your need for the position increases, and with it, the positions' overall value to you. There are times when you can't separate need versus value, or versus Best Player Available.

Finally, it's up to the GM, most of the time, to be looking three or 4 seasons down the road. You may not need a player at TE right now, but you might have a player turning 30 soon who is starting to have more injuries. Perhaps you've got a very good TE and you have reason to believe that he's going to demand too much money - you get ready for that if you can. Many times, you consider that when drafting. The GM also has to have the capology down, whether he does it or they have a specialist on staff.

There is an argument that you don't draft someone in the first round to sit on the bench, or to get small numbers of reps. Actually, good teams do it all the time. That's why Denver was able to have poached Ryan McBean from the Steelers' practice squad - he happened to be a fourth rounder, or he wouldn't have been on the PS, but PIT had so much depth at DE that he couldn't get on the field no matter when he'd been taken, even if he was one of the 53 on the main team. The players ahead of him were too good, but Pit also knew that they would need new DEs in a couple of seasons, so it was worth the risk to draft him and place him on the PS. Denver benefited, but that's a chance that you sometimes have to take.

How about the teams that draft a player that they don't immediately need at all, but who is an upgrade over their starter? No problem there. The best player available does fit their need - their need to upgrade at any position of impact. Impact has to be looked at in light of the team's personnel, but again, it's keyed to the teams' precise schemes and systems. You can't separate them entirely. If it seems complex, it is, and it should be. There aren't easy answers. It's true, though, that almost every possible option has been studied and the discussions of each may take a few moments or a few hours, depending on the players and the importance of that decision. By the time a team walks into the war room on draft day, they should have covered every contingency.

Every team does certain things differently. Some have war rooms that are fairly packed, others only permit about four or five people to be present, feeling that more interferes with coming to conclusions or consensus. Scouts and position coaches wait close by to answer any last moment questions, and teams that are less prepared will make multi-million dollar decisions based on a phone call and a quick word with a coach. Some teams use scouting services predominantly, others have their own scouts from the freshman year in college onward, and the local/regional or conference scouts report upward to others who watch extensive film of the players that the scouts feel are the best fit. Then there is the head of scouting and the head of player personnel. Some teams, like Atlanta, also have their president (Rich McKay) in the war room, while others do not.

The president may be the owner, and that can create problems. No one wants to be arguing with the owner and mistakes can come out of that, yet Jerry Jones and Al Davis still call most of the shots. Jones has been surprisingly effective oveall, while Davis' scout are now reputed to add time to the 40's of the fastest runners to keep Al from grabbing them on that alone. Cincinnati's Zygy Wilf loves the experience, but he lets Mike Brown made the final decisions. The Titan's Bud Adams insisted on taking Vince Young (which may be working out) while Bill Parcells and Jerry Jones nearly went mano y mano over DeMarcus Ware (Parcells) vs. Shawne Merriman (Jones).

Years ago, they didn't use telephones to call in picks - they brought up a folded piece of paper. Then, one team sent up the wrong paper and wound up with a 5th round player in the 2nd. Every team saw that and upgraded how they handled the war room. Communication is key, and that's true from the bottom up. Paul Brown was the first to place a phone on the table of his organization, back in the 1950s. Paul Brown and LA's Dan Reeves pioneered much of the scouting that we see today.

In a few more days, the moment that teams, fans and players have been waiting and preparing for all year begins. The war rooms will be filled, the boards up, every contingency that can be thought of will have been game-planned from every known angle and soon the trades and changes that happen every year will toss much of what you thought you knew onto the compost heap. Given the new structure, more time in arguing, debating and reconsidering may also be high. It's Xmas, birthday and New Years rlled into one for the fervent fans who live for this sort of thing. And three days later, you'll have new pieces on your team and will be wondering what on earth your team's reps were thinking.

And then the articles will pour forth, debating options, commonly castigating culprits and praising performance and performers in more rarefied situations. We'll all look at what was done, debate what should have been and begin to acclimate ourselves to the new players that will hopefully fill out and aid the team. OTAs start shortly after, and then the teams will begin to do it all over again. Spring football already has one televised game under its belt, and you can bet that the NFL had scouts there, beginning the process again in endless cycle.

Isn't it grand?

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