The men who make their living and reputations on the razor’s edge that separates the legends from the losers in the NFL have a secret they don’t want you to know. If you found out, so much of what they talk about and depend upon will be seen so differently, the status quo works for them.
It’s good that the process of selecting players in the NFL Draft is seen like some form of advanced neurophysics, instead of the educated guessing game that it is.
It’s good that the focus is more about what these smart football men — and that’s not sarcasm, they are very smart football men — can see instead of everything they cannot.
“We’ve gone from kindergarten to MIT,” says Gil Brandt, the longtime personnel director for the Cowboys who remains involved in the draft.
When Brandt makes that analogy, he is talking about how much more involved the process is now compared with just a few decades ago. And on that point, he is absolutely correct.
Back in the 1970s, a scouting department might have consisted of two people who were sort of like errand boys for the coaches — get the film, do basic handwritten reports and prepare to be overruled.
Now, the Chiefs have 15 full-time scouts. The reports on each player can be as thick as a book. Most important, video is essentially ubiquitous — at any time, any NFL scout or coach can watch a cutup of any draft prospect’s play, as specific as a receiver’s drops or a defensive lineman’s bull rushes.
Also, teams now spend hours and days and weeks finding out as much as they can about a player away from the field. The work is of varying quality, of course, but generally involves talking to teachers and friends and janitors — anyone who can give insight to a player out of pads.
Chiefs general manager John Dorsey says this emphasis on character and a similar convergence with technology that’s happening everywhere are the two biggest changes in scouting.
The Chiefs, for instance, felt particularly good about drafting Eric Berry fifth overall in 2010 after hearing he used to sneak into Tennessee’s equipment room the night before games and help shine helmets.
They spend more than $50 million to scout, evaluate and select the world’s best football players. That’s, well, much different from the old days when teams had the request film from colleges and then would purposefully procrastinate sending it back to mess with other teams.
“Let me tell you about when we drafted (former Pro Bowler) Jack Tatum,” says Ken Herock, who was a player personnel executive for three teams and now advises draft prospects. “We saw him in an All-Star game, and that was it. We never timed him. We just knew the coaches there said he was fast.”
The process of drafting players has greatly improved, but the results may not have. Look through recent drafts, and you see more indications of guesswork than absolutes. Along with coaching, the greatest single factor for sustained success in the NFL is drafting. Teams know this and spend countless hours and resources improving the results.
It’s striking how much improvement is still to be done.
This is of particular interest this week, as the Chiefs play the Packers here tonight. The Packers are widely regarded as one of the league’s best draft-and-develop organizations, the biggest reason Chiefs chairman Clark Hunt hired Dorsey away from Green Bay in 2013.
The game will also, apparently, be tackle Eric Fisher’s first start of the season. It’s been a rough ride for Fisher, the controversy over his status the first two weeks of this season only the latest example. Through no fault of his own, Fisher has been a flash point for Chiefs fans, literally since his first day with the team.
He was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2013, which happened to be Dorsey’s first pick with the Chiefs and the franchise’s first No. 1 overall pick since the merger. That was a strange draft, and not in a good way for the team drafting first. A year earlier, and the Chiefs could’ve had Andrew Luck. A year later, and they could’ve had Jadeveon Clowney.
Instead, they had the best pick in what many called one of the worst drafts in recent history.
Essentially, the Chiefs were deciding between two left tackles: Fisher, the more athletic but raw prospect from Central Michigan, or Luke Joeckel, the Texas A&M lineman generally thought to have a higher floor but lower ceiling.
The Chiefs chose Fisher, and they’re mostly waiting on those results. He struggled with a position switch, then lost an offseason’s worth of strength training and has been dragged by injuries ranging from a bad shoulder to concussion to high ankle sprain.
Internally, the Chiefs are adamant that Fisher will still be a good player and that they made the right pick. They are not alone.
“If I was picking, I would’ve picked Fisher, too,” Herock says. “I think that was the majority. All the signs were, there’s a player who can be a star.”
Fisher has struggled, but as badly as Joeckel, who’s had worse injury problems. As it’s turned out — at least so far — the best tackle from that draft was the fourth one taken, D.J. Fluker of the Chargers. If you redrafted the first round that year, it’s entirely possible that neither Fisher nor Joeckel would make the top 10.
Jets defensive lineman Sheldon Richardson, Bears guard Kyle Long, Cowboys center Travis Frederick, Rams linebacker Alec Ogletree, Panthers defensive tackle Star Lotulelei, Texans receiver DeAndre Hopkins, Falcons cornerback Desmond Trufant, Vikings cornerback Xavier Rhodes, Vikings defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd and Lions pass rusher Ezekiel Ansah would all likely be selected ahead of Fisher and Joeckel.
But this is not a column criticizing the Chiefs’ selection as much as it’s a column pointing out that this is a surprisingly common problem in the NFL. Tom Brady being selected in the sixth round in 2000 is often mentioned to illustrate the draft’s unpredictability, or how a team can strike big away from the top of the draft, but the truth is his selection with the 199th pick is merely an extreme example of a widespread problem.
Year after year, teams spend endless hours and resources evaluating draft picks, and year after year they get it wrong.
NFL teams want you to believe there is a level of certainty in their evaluations, but the truth is they are guessing. They are human beings predicting the future about human beings. They should measure their results much more like horseshoes — get close — than surgery.
Looking at the drafts from 1990 to 2009 — that’s 20 drafts, with at least six years of performance for every player — and using Pro Football Reference’s Career Approximate Value as our measurement, the No. 1 pick has turned out to be the best of the first 32 picks only twice.
Twice. That’s it. Peyton Manning in 1998, and Orlando Pace in 1997. Every other year, the team choosing first did not end up with the best player.
In fact, in those 20 drafts, the best of the first 32 players chosen has been selected with the average of the 13th pick. Six times, the best player has been selected 24th or later. In 2005, the best five players were each selected outside of the top 10.
Missed opportunities are the norm, not the exception. Every draft pick is a calculated risk, and the calculations are far from perfect.
The Packers are part of this, too. In 2013, receiver DeAndre Hopkins went to the Texans with the pick after the Packers took defensive end Datone Jones. Green Bay cut its first third-round pick from 2014 (defensive end Khyri Thornton) before he ever played a game.
One personnel man said the Packers’ reputation is outdated and diluted, pointing to some of the mistakes in the paragraph above and mentioning that multiple teams — the Chiefs included — use the same system.
Another personnel man said the reputation comes from the fact the Packers have had a Hall of Fame quarterback for each of the last 24 seasons. You cover a lot more mistakes when Aaron Rodgers is throwing lasers across the field, across his body and in between multiple defenders for touchdowns.
There was a somewhat famous experiment done once in which Matt Millen’s drafts with the Lions as general manager were supposedly outperformed by a writer literally throwing darts.
And there are enough hits by teams like the Seahawks to believe some are better at navigating the uncertainty of prospect projections than others.
These are smart and diligent men with every resource and motivation to make the right decisions. But they are also trying to predict the unpredictable, no matter how much they position their processes as science rather than art. In the end, they’re all guessing, and they’re all hoping.