Cowboys Draft '09 -- Managing the Vertical and Horizonal Controls

The National Football Post's Michael Lombardi writes a long and illuminating piece on the deliberations the New York Jets are having with respect to Miles Austin.  Lombardi breaks down the two types of ratings every team creates when it puts together a draft board -- horizontal ratings and vertical ones.

Vertical ratings refer to a top-to-bottom listing of players at a particular position.  Think of the hubbub last year when a photo showing then defensive coordinator Brian Stewart leaked onto the internet.  The photo showed vertical listings of several defensive positions, most notably cornerbacks. 

The key to effective drafting, as Lombardi points out, comes from the horizontal listings of these players.  Say you have the top ten outside linebackers.  Which ones deserve a first round grade?  Which ones deserve a second round grade, and so on? 

What's more, within the round, where do those linebackers rank with similarly graded players at other positions?    How does that linebacker rank relative to a second round rated guard?  Or offensive tackle?  Or safety?  Or quarterback?  Lombardi sees this horizontal ranking ability as the make-or-break skill for an organization:

The key to setting up the draft board lies not in the vertical ranking of the positions but rather having someone who can value the horizontal value of the whole board.  That person must have a full command of the board and know, for example, that the need might be at wide receiver but the value is to take the corner. I know most of you feel that line of thinking is a given, but in the draft rooms I’ve been in, this is not always handled very well.  Most mistakes come from the horizontal value of the board, not from the vertical ranking. 

Bloggers on this site reacted to Grizz's piece last night by analyzing whether Dallas should match a Jets offer sheet to Austin in mostly vertical terms -- many asked, "is there a wide receiver who can be obtained with the 52nd pick (the pick the Jets would forfeit to Dallas if the Cowboys failed to match a potential offer) who is better than Miles Austin?

Lombardi cautions that the bigger question appears to be "is there a player on the board at the 52nd spot who rates better than Miles Austin?"  The fans may feel the wide receiver spot could be weakened but if Dallas can get a player they feel is better than Austin there, even if he happens to be a defensive end, or linebacker, then they are better off letting him go.

I spoke to Dallas scouting director Tom Ciskowski last summer and he explained the way the team self scouts

Yesterday Jerry Jones told the press that his scouts had completed their preliminary report on the team before heading out onto the road. Today I asked Tom Ciskowski, the Cowboys’ Director of College and Pro Scouting to describe the process.

He told me that in the initial [training camp] practices each scout is assigned a single position to evaluate. They then produce a unit evaluation, where each unit is ranked from its best player on down. The scouts do not write full reports but offer “one liners” of each player’s game.

When the Cowboys begin playing opponents, the scouts are sent DVDs of the games, so that they have an understanding of each player’s performance in live action. The reports are used as baselines; when the scouts evaluate college players, they do so in relation to the talent on the roster. “For example, if you’re grading a center and he’s similar to Andre Gurode,” he said, “you would compare him to Gurode.” “You don’t want to bring in players who are not as good or who can’t compete with the talent you already have on your squad.”

You can see vertical scouting goes on at the college and the pro level.  If the scouts have done their work effectively, they have been building vertical lists since last fall which not only rank college prospects relative to one another but relative to the players already on Dallas' roster. 

Ciskowski and his guys should know today how many wide receivers waiting to be drafted are better than Miles Austin, or Roy Williams or Patrick Crayton, because they've been making these comparisons all along. 

They'll have a firm opinion on whether Miles Austin is worth the 52nd pick in the draft.  Their actions -- assuming New York actually gives Austin an offer sheet -- will tell us everything we need to know.

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