Preparing For The Cowboys' 2011 Draft: Scouting The Scouts

Now that Draft Season is officially upon us, we can look forward a 90-day saturation bomb of player profiles, game splits, height-weight-speed ratios, 3-cone drill times, and the like. For draftniks like myself, that's the good news. The bad news is that, as the draft has increased in popularity to the point that its just short of a national holiday, there are more and more pundits who are claiming to have access to important draft knowledge. As we crawl closer to April, they begin to speak more loudly, and all at once--until their voices join in a cacophonous uproar.

How is a knowledgeable Cowboy fan to glean good information from amidst this babel-like din?  The best tactic is to winnow away as many of the extraneous voices as possible, leaving only the guys who have a real eye for talent, and whose player reports accord with those of NFL scouts, thus eliminating the "experts" who merely regurgitate what the majority of media outlets provide.  But how can we do this? I thought it might be useful to subject these relentless evaluators to a little of their own medicine--to grade the graders, so to speak. 

So, here it is: rabblerousr's 2011 edition of Scouting the Scouts:

Camp Bodies:

Draft Ace
The Football Expert
DraftSite
Mocking the Draft

Sites such as these function in much the way BTB does: as a clearinghouse for a group of writers to write or, in the case of Draft Ace and Mocking the Draft, blog about the draft. In terms of draft blogs, SB Nation's Mocking the Draft, led by the esteemed Mocking Dan, tends to link to the very best information--often to the sites that I've included below. Draft Site and The Football Expert, on the other hand, feature a diverse collection of voices and opinions. There is little indication that all this diversity has much to offer in the way of originality or experience, however. These guys can be useful if you want to find some basic information on a specific player--but as soon as they switch from info to analysis, beware.

Seventh Round/ Priority Free Agent:

Draft Season
Great Blue North Draft
Walter Football

These guys-and a legion of others like them-are just like us: sports fans who know a little bit about college football. Unlike us, they have draft websites, most of them packed with information--some of them are even somewhat professional-looking. However, if you read through them, you'll find very little there that's original; rather than the results of hours of careful film study, there seems to be a lot of material from sports information guides. If you look at their mock drafts, you'll notice that they are in surprising agreement. This suggests that they trade in popular opinion, which tends to bear little resemblance to what NFL teams think of players. Again, good sources for basic info, but not for player evaluation.

 

Fifth- Sixth Round:

Mel Kiper (ESPN)
Todd McShay (ESPN)
Scott Wright (Draft Countdown)

This category is reserved for full-time draft analysts. A couple of these guys have been in the game for a long time. Since he joined ESPN in 1983, Kiper has been instrumental in making the draft a prime time event. Scott Wright of Draft Countdown has been scouting and evaluating players for almost twenty years. McShay is a comparative newbie, but he trained under--and is the pretty-boy TV face for--respected former NFL scout Gary Horton (more on Horton below). Each man spends hours evaluating tape and grading players. Kiper, as we all know, is highly opinionated and confidently (and vehemently) backs up his opinions on draft weekend.

Yet, many question whether he should have such confidence. In point of fact, these guys are principally journalists; none has ever worked for an NFL team, and only McShay played even college football (he was a backup quarterback at Richmond).  As the most prominent of the three, Kiper has taken the most heat for his views. Mike Hickey, the Jets' former director of player personnel, famously noted that Kiper "knows about as much about football as I do about nuclear physics." The historical record supports Hickey's view; Kiper hasn't demonstrated that he knows much more than the guys to whom I gave seventh-round grades. McShay and Wright have been slightly better but, to me, they remain a cut below the guys higher on this list.

Third-Fourth Round:

Dan Shonka (Ourlads)

Ourlads has been around for a long time; since 1983, they have been instrumental in introducing scouting language ("quick twitch," "bad feet," "bend and squeeze") into the sports geek's popular lexicon. Indeed, their 1986 guide was the first legitimate draft book I ever held in my tight little hands. Before coming to Ourlads, Shonka was a scout for the Eagles, Redskins and Chiefs. Consequently, he and the rest of Ourlads' scouts operate according to NFL protocol in terms of the way they watch film and process information. Indeed, Ourlads recognize that they do business differently; on their website, they proudly proclaim: "Whereas most others in this business scout with their ears and read numerous college press releases, Ourlads' policy is to reach independent conclusions based on what is seen."

So, what keeps Ourlads out of the second round? Historically, their "independent conclusions" haven't been in concert with that of NFL teams or players actual careers often enough for my liking. Also, their otherwise extensive guides often fail to include an unsettlingly high percentage of players who are drafted in the late rounds. So, while I admire the degree to which they stand by their evaluations, from time to time they step to the plate and miss completely.

Second Round:

Russ Lande (Sporting News)
Gary Horton (ESPN/ Scouts, Inc)

Both Lande and Horton are, like Shonka, former professional scouts who now run a "scouting department" for a major journalistic enterprise as if it were an NFL war room. Horton spent 10 years in the NFL as a scout with Tampa Bay and Cleveland; Lande worked for the Rams and Browns (apparently, former Cleveland scouts have trouble finding NFL jobs; could the Browns long run of awful drafts be to blame?). At any rate, Horton created the "The War Room," a start-up scouting publication, which soon became a key feature of The Sporting News's NFL coverage. In 2006, ESPN purchased the business and changed the name to Scouts Inc., and The War Room, which remained with TSN, was taken over by Lande.

Like Ourlads, Scouts, Inc., and The War Room compile and process information as if they were an NFL scouting department. The reason I have them ranked higher than Shonka is because I find their evaluations to be both more thorough--their player profiles are extremely detailed--and more accurate. When I compare draft guides after the fact, these guys' top 100 player rankings tend to correlate pretty well to where players were drafted and their criticisms of players tend to underscore the deficiencies in their games that in fact proved to limit or derail their careers. That said, I don't find their work as convincing as that of the draft gurus upon whom I have bestowed first round grades.

First Round:

Mike Mayock (NFL Network)
Wes Bunting (National Football Post)
Nolan Nawrocki et. al. (Pro Football Weekly)

In recent weeks, we've seen that a lot of college seniors who were initially thought to be top-flight candidates have dropped in the rankings since younger, more talented underclassmen declared for the 2011 draft. Similarly, these late arrivals on the scouting scene have demonstrated more electrifying skill sets than their elders, and have pushed them down the list. Neither Mayock, Bunting nor the guys at PFW have the pro scouting skins that Lande, Horton or Shonka can boast. But, perhaps because of this, their ability to think outside the NFL scouting box is far stronger. They tend to see different things in players and, as a result, I find their analysis to be keener and, when looking back at their grades several years after the fact, to cohere more closely to actual NFL production.

As I build up information on draftable college players, I use our second and third-round NFL scouting types as sources to build my knowledge base, but use these guys--the first rounders--to establish my conception of how players should be graded and where they should be slotted.  Come draft weekend, as a way to cut through the noise, I'll have pared down to one source in each media category: I watch the draft on the NFL Network, so I can listen to Mayock (and tune out the Cowboy-hating Chris Berman and the blowhard Kiper), with Bunting on my computer screen and PFW's Draft Preview by my side. Oh, and I'll have one precious printout, to which I'll refer religiously during the first three rounds or so....

Blue-Chip:

Goose Gosselin (Dallas Morning News)

...and that's local scribe Goose Gosselin's annual list of the top 100 draftable players. Gosselin is not a scout; he's a journalist--the Dallas Morning News' NFL beat writer. He doesn't watch any tape, nor attend any pro days. But more than any other journalist, he has his ear to the door of every team's war room. Instead of evaluating talent, he makes lots of phone calls to guys who are on the inside, setting up draft boards. Over the years, he has built up a lot of trust in the NFL's inner sanctum, and so he gets real information, not smoke screen stuff. He then merely compiles his list based on what he hears, without bias. As a result, his top 100 is the most accurate measuring stick of what the NFL thinks of the eligible player pool. For example, before the 2009 draft, nobody in the media was talking about Robert Brewster--but scouting types were. As a result, Brewster was ranked 84 or so on Gosselin's list and, as it turned out, was taken by the Cowboys about where the league thought he should be. Gosselin was the only source that I came across who knew that the league saw third-round potential in Brewster.

And this scenario, wherein Gosselin slots a player differently than everyone else only to have the league substantiate his ranking, plays itself out several times every draft.  And, almost every year, he blows away the competition when it comes to predicting the first round and in calculating which players will go in the top 100 picks. Because of this, I have often wondered whether I wouldn't be better served eschewing all my draft prep work and simply waiting until Goose's list comes out (it typically appears in the Dallas Morning News a day or two before the draft), and just use it as my sole reference.

But what would be the fun in that?

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