Last year, in early February, I thought it might be useful to subject the seemingly endless litany of draft "experts" to a little of their own medicine--to grade the graders, so to speak. I wanted to weed out as many of the extraneous voices as possible, leaving only the guys who have a real eye for talent, and whose player reports accord most closely with those of NFL scouts. As my evaluations were met with approval, I thought I'd update my evaluation, based on the scouting landscape's changing topography.
Ol' Rabble's 2012 edition of Scouting the Scouts:
These guys--and a legion of others like them--are just like us: sports fans who know a little bit about college football, but a whole lot less than Chia Crack. 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, there seems to be a lot of material from sports information guides or links to more polished and professional scouting materials. 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. 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.
Priority Free Agent:
The Huddle Report merits its own category, as it stands alone among NFL Draft sites. THR's primary claim to fame is their own version of "scouting the scouts"; each year they compare all the various draftnik's "top 100" lists to the players actually taken and grade them accordingly, both by the year and over a five-year period. It's Huddle's assessments that first alerted me to the sustained excellence of the man who sits atop my ranking for the second consecutive year...
These sites function in much the way BTB does: as a clearinghouse for a group of writers to blog about the draft. If you can only choose one from this group, I'd suggest SB Nation's Mocking the Draft, helmed by the esteemed Dan Kadar, which tends to link to the very best information--often to the sites that I've included below. So, if you want to catch up on top-shelf draft info in a hurry, hit our draft-related sister site and enjoy Mocking Dan's fine work. Both Draft Ace and GBN Draft also offer worthy links in addition to player rankings and updated mocks. What they don't offer is much actual first-hand scouting, which is what keeps them from going in the higher rounds.
The guys at Drafttek, on the other hand, do a lot of scouting. They feature a cadre of team correspondents, and have various scouts grading their respective positions of expertise (BTB member Long Ball, an expert on Offensive line play, is their Cowboys correspondent). So, they benefit from specialization, both in team evaluations and positional rankings. What makes them singular, however, is a special proprietary feature they have developed: a cool online draft simulator, which readers can use to create mock draft simulations by changing a variety of inputs: accommodating trades, changing a given team's priorities, "locking out" a specific player by assigning him to a given team. It's very cool, and a lot of fun--and it's likely to show up in mocks here on BTB.
This category is reserved for self-made full-time draft analysts. These guys are principally journalists; none has ever worked for an NFL team. A couple of these gents 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; Draft Countdown's Scott Wright has been scouting and evaluating players for almost twenty years; Rang has over a decade of player evaluation under his belt. Like professional scouts, each man spends hours evaluating tape and grading players; what separates them from the Gary Hortons of the world is the accuracy of their evaluations. None of these guys (Kiper in particular) has demonstrated that his assessments are significantly more accurate than those of the draftniks to whom I gave seventh-round grades. Wright and Rang, though better than Kiper, remain a cut below the guys further down this list.
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), so he earns higher marks for being one degree of separation removed from actual NFL war rooms. In addition, he has at least played the game, albeit as a Division III college 'baller (he was a backup quarterback at Richmond). McShay's takes on draftable players rarely seem singular or unique, which keeps him out of rounds 1-3, but they are more consistent and seem to accord more closely to those of NFL war rooms than the guys in the lower rounds. So, he sits alone, in round four.
Dan Shonka (Ourlads)
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. So, what keeps Ourlads out of the second round? Historically, I haven't found their "independent conclusions" particularly persuasive. 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 Ourlads stand by their evaluations, they swing and miss too often for my liking.
Like Ourlads, Scouts, Inc. compiles and processes information as if they were an NFL scouting department. Scouts, Inc.'s head honcho, Horton, spent 10 years in the NFL as a scout with Tampa Bay and Cleveland. As a result, ESPN's player evaluations feature the expanded categories (including intangibles, positions specific skills, etc.) that we'd expect to find on pro scouting evaluations. Although he can't boast Horton's NFL credentials, Nawrocki's evaluations belong in the same conversation. Like Kiper, Nawrocki is primarily a journalist (he's an associate editor at Pro Football Weekly); unlike Kiper, he has a keen scouting eye; to my mind, PFW's annual Draft Guide is required reading every April.
The reason I have both of these men 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.
Every draft season, we see a lot of top-flight college seniors dropped in the rankings as soon as eligible juniors declared for the 2011 draft. Similarly, these more recent arrivals on the scouting scene have demonstrated more electrifying skill sets than their elders, and have pushed them down the list. Neither Mayock or Bunting have the pro scouting skins that 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, and then use these guys--the first rounders--to establish my conception of how players should be graded and where they should be slotted.
Goose Gosselin (Dallas Morning News)
Goose Gosselin, the Dallas Morning News' NFL beat writer, isn't a scout, nor does he pretend to be; he doesn't watch any tape, nor attend any pro days. But more than any other journalist, he has his ear to the keyhole of every team's war room door. 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. Almost every year, according to the Huddle Report's rankings, Gosselin blows away the competition when it comes to predicting the first round and in calculating which players will go in the top 100 picks.
The drawback? Because he trades in real information, Gosselin doesn't release his position lists until mid-April, and his annual "top 100" comes out the only the day before the draft. So, you'll have to wait until the last minute to get the best stuff. But what do they say: good things come to those who wait?
I'm willing to wait, but the anticipation is killing me: April can't come soon enough!