John Dorsey is the plain center of calmness surrounded by chaos and worry. The NFL draft is a hungry monster, one of the most-watched sports events in a sports-obsessed country and certainly the most-watched sports event that does not feature an actual game. Careers and reputations are built on and lost on it.
Dorsey is the Chiefs’ general manager, a job he earned largely through his influence and involvement with the Packers’ drafts when he worked in Green Bay over two decades. Dorsey earned a reputation for staying level even through the storm, a trait that’s equal parts natural and borne from preparation.
As the top of last year’s draft unfolded, Dorsey found his calm. He knew the player he wanted. He had fallen in love with this player while watching hours of video, attending days of meetings and reading stacks of reports. This player was perfect. Dorsey rated him as a top 10 talent in the draft but figured he’d fall to the Chiefs at No. 18 because of a messy history that included being kicked off his college team.
What Dorsey didn’t tell anyone outside the organization was that where other teams saw concern, he saw strength. But could this top 10-caliber guy really drop all the way to the Chiefs?
“I went to Mass the weekend before,” Dorsey said, joking. “I was hoping that would help.”
The NFL draft is an unpredictable and often tempestuous beast. Men like Dorsey spend most of each year preparing for these three days, and they know better than to think it will play out the way they expect. Too many variables. You never know when a team will trade up, or when an owner will step in, or what internal dynamics of other teams will lead to surprises.
Still, Dorsey couldn’t help himself. He really liked this player. And he had done something he rarely, if ever, does.
A month before the draft, he was talking to Chiefs chairman Clark Hunt. He brought up Marcus Peters, the cornerback from Washington with terrific talent, an advanced football mind and the background that Dorsey had grown to appreciate but might scare off others.
“We’re picking that guy,” Dorsey told his boss. “I’m telling you now.”
Football people like to say you need at least three years to make the first judgments on a draft pick or class, and in many cases that’s true. Peters has the look of an exception. He grabbed a interception on his first NFL snap, and by the end of his rookie season made the Pro Bowl and led or tied for the league lead in interceptions, interception return yards and nonoffensive touchdowns.
Top five picks don’t often present so much immediate production. So how did Dorsey and the Chiefs come to select Peters 18th overall last year?
The short answer is a mix of preparation and luck.
The first Dorsey ever saw of Peters was video from his matchup with Arizona State star receiver Jaelen Strong. Dorsey has a different way of watching receivers, but with corners, he always starts with video against their toughest opponent.
The video showed Strong scoring a touchdown on Peters, but on a play where Peters may have been expecting help on the inside. Otherwise, Peters outplayed Strong, blanketing the bigger receiver with a combination of strength, anticipation, guts and feel.
“You could just see it,” Dorsey said of that first watch. “He did a wonderful job against Jaelen Strong, who supposedly at the time was a big-time guy. Basically shut him down.”
The “Can he play?” test is obviously the most important, but it is also only the first of many steps.
NFL draft evaluation is famously the most intensive in American sports, and if we’re honest, it has long since passed the point of going overboard. When the league pushed the draft date back recently, it only made this more so. Dorsey is among the NFL executives who say they could be ready by early March.
But the extra time — last year, there were 108 days between the college football championship game and the draft, and nearly all evaluations start long before the end of the college season — will be put to use.
For the Chiefs, and with Peters, that meant using those 15 weeks to go from never meeting the player face-to-face to knowing him the way they knew their own friends — family background, influences, favorite things to do away from football, everything.
Peters’ case was more difficult than most, and not just because teams had more to sift through — a failed drug test, three separate suspensions, a sideline tantrum and finally being kicked off the team. Adding to the complexity was that Peters played for two different coaching staffs.
Dorsey likes to do this anyway, but the context made it even more important to know what Peters’ teammates thought of him. So the Chiefs talked to about 15 teammates, from each of Peters’ three years at Washington. What they began to hear was that Peters had some rough edges, sure, but he always came from a good place. His teammates saw him as someone who wanted so desperately to be great but hadn’t yet mastered how to harness his emotion.
Just to make sure, Dorsey sent director of football operations Chris Ballard to Peters’ hometown of Oakland, Calif. He talked with Peters’ parents, coaches, friends, teammates, teachers and anyone else who might know him.
“Button it all up,” Dorsey remembered telling Ballard, “so there’s no questions left to be asked.”
By the time Dorsey met Peters for the first time at the NFL scouting combine, the GM said, “I knew everything about him.”
Even so, the face-to-face meeting is important. Dorsey had fallen for the player, but now he needed to fall for the man.
This is more art than science, with the added difficulty of staying open-minded both ways — a good way to make a mistake is to go into a meeting with the expectation of liking or disliking a player.
Dorsey likes to test players in these meetings. He won’t say exactly how he does this, but some of his colleagues have taken deserved criticism for going too far. Once, a prospect was asked if his mother was a prostitute. Another time, an executive asked if a prospect was gay. Dorsey has never been accused of anything inappropriate, but the mistakes of others are an example of what a strange process this has become.
“I’m pretty good at reading guys,” Dorsey said. “And I didn’t see the maliciousness that I heard about” with Peters.
In fact, where others saw danger, Dorsey saw value. He wants his players to be hypercompetitive, particularly the cornerbacks. Peters played the way Dorsey likes. Any concern about the times it tipped too far was diminished by Peters’ devotion to the sport, particularly a thirst for watching video and learning tendencies of both players and systems.
Peters grew up around the game, and that’s literal — his childhood home is across the street from his high school football stadium.
“It’s not swagger, not cockiness, not any of that,” Dorsey said. “He’s a guy who wants to be really good. So I don’t mind that one bit. If you can play the game, and you want to be really, really, really good, then go for it.”
Still, Dorsey wanted everyone in the building to be on board with the pick, so he brought Peters to Kansas City for what was essentially an all-day interview. Dorsey took the lead that day but made sure to put Peters in contact with about a dozen people in the building — coaches and support staff, mostly.
The consensus analysis of Peters was “talented, but ...” Dorsey thought those things were being written and said mostly by people who didn’t know or didn’t understand him.
Different coaches and different scouts have different views on players. That’s the point, after all. But with this player, Dorsey wanted the views inside the building to be based as much as possible on real interaction. Peters dressed for the part and backed it up.
“I really thought he did a nice job of letting everybody he encountered here see him for who he was,” Dorsey said. “Instead of listening to the noise of the past, you see the person of the present.”
This was the rare instance of everything seeming to line up. General managers dream of drafts like this. Here, Dorsey had it — a player he loved, at a premium position of need, with concerns he didn’t think were valid making him available for a value pick.
“Very uncommon,” Dorsey said.
Still, Dorsey is a pragmatist. And any football man who hasn’t had his heart broken on draft day hasn’t been around long enough. Dorsey sometimes tells the story of the 1996 draft. He was with the Packers back then, and they loved a middle linebacker from Miami. They were picking 27th, with Baltimore 26th.
Once the Ravens were on the clock, the Packers had their guy on the phone, ecstatic with their good fortune. The Ravens didn’t need a middle linebacker, so Dorsey and the rest of the Packers celebrated and joked about sprinting the card to the commissioner as soon as they could.
Then Baltimore took their guy, Ray Lewis, who of course became one of the game’s best all-time linebackers.
And Green Bay ended up with John Michels, a tackle from USC who was out of the league in two years.
So last year, Dorsey waited. With each pick that went by, he grew a little more confident that his guy would be there at 18, enough so that he didn’t consider trading up — even as Minnesota (Trae Waynes, 11th) and Houston (Kevin Johnson, 16th) took cornerbacks ahead of the Chiefs.
When the 49ers put the Chiefs on the clock by selecting defensive tackle Arik Armstead 17th, Dorsey finally knew that a year’s worth of work had led him to the player he wanted all along. Maybe going to Mass that week paid off. Dorsey fielded calls from three different teams about trading the pick — at least one of whom he’s sure would’ve taken Peters — but never seriously considered it.
He had his guy.
Once they put the draft card in the commissioner’s hand, Dorsey allowed himself a moment of satisfaction. But only a moment. Even the best thought-out picks sometimes don’t work, and the fliers sometimes do. Besides, this was only the beginning.
A year later, Dorsey is asked his first thoughts after the Peters pick.
“OK, how many picks away are we for the second round?”