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 it's 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.
In the face of this aural onslaught, what's the enterprising young draftnik to do? 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. Still, this is easier said than done.
Never fear, rabble's here. Two years ago, sitting on the cusp of Draft Season 2011, 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. My purpose was to weed out as many of the extraneous voices as possible, leaving only the guys who make a real contribution, whether by collecting good information, sharing a real eye for talent, or by being most closely in accord with NFL scouts' evaluations. As my evaluations were met with approval again last year, I though it appropriate to kick of my own offseason coverage by updating my previous evaluations, taking into account the scouting landscape's ever-changing topography.
Okay, here's Ol' Rabble's 2013 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 our own Archie B. 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. This is not to say that they trade in privileged information. No, 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. Sadly, their content is no longer free, which keeps them from getting a draftable grade in my book.
These sites function in much the way BTB does: as a clearinghouse for a group of writers - most of whom are ordinary Joes - 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, who tends to link to the very best information - frequently to the sites to whom I've given higher grades. 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 in this category, on the other hand, do a lot of scouting. For example, Eric Galko and the other gents at Optimum Scouting attend all the requisite All-Star games, Pro Days, etc., that the pro scouts do. To my mind, this places them ahead of the lower-round guys on this list. On the other hand, few, if any, of them have NFL experience. Galko's primary qualification appears to be the same eight-week "Football GM and Scouting" course offered by Sports Management Worldwide that I took last summer, and I wouldn't presume to call myself a scout - but then again, I didn't sit through all the Senior Bowl practices...
Draftek features 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 annually shows up in mocks here on BTB.
Mel Kiper (ESPN)
Now we're getting into the more recognizable names. I've reserved rounds 3-5 for pundits who are largely, if not exclusively, journalists; none has ever worked for an NFL team. A couple of these gents have been in the game for a long time: our solitary fifth-rounder, Kiper, has been instrumental in making the draft a prime time event since he joined ESPN in 1983. The problem is that he's a mediocre scout; indeed, over the years, he has taken a good deal of heat from NFL circles for his player evaluations. Mike Hickey, the Jets' former director of player personnel, once 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. He earns this mark due to quality service more than game-changing talent.
My fourth round is populated by good solid draftniks. Their takes on draftable players rarely seem singular or unique, which keeps them out of rounds 1-3, but they are more consistent and their player ratings tend to adhere more closely to those of NFL war rooms than the guys in the lower rounds. The senior member of the group, Draft Countdown's Scott Wright has been scouting and evaluating players for about twenty years now, always producing good, solid work. McShay and Brugler, on the other hand, are comparative newbies, but they have the game to run with a guy like Wright.
McShay trained under--and is the pretty-boy TV face for--respected former NFL scout Gary Horton (more on Horton below), so he earns high 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). Brugler is an up-and-comer in my book. At present, he's playing second fiddle to the more experienced (and higher-rated) Rob Rang at CBSSports. But with some seasoning, I could see him joining the likes of Rang and Nawrocki a round higher.
As with the NFL draft, my third round features guys who often turn out to be better players than second rounders, they just don't always have the same pedigree. Sure these guys are technically outsiders (to my knowledge, neither has been an NFL scout), but like the pros, each man spends hours evaluating tape and meticulously grading players.
The reason I have both of these men ranked higher than McShay, Wright and Brugler 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 (with some notable exceptions) and their criticisms of players tend to underscore the deficiencies in the athletes' games that in fact proved to limit or to derail their careers.
That said, I don't find their work as convincing as that of the former scouts upon whom I have bestowed second round status...
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."
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. It subsequently folded and Lande secured the National Football Post's draft expert perch abandoned by Wes Bunting.
Like Ourlads, Scouts, Inc., compiles and processes information as if they were an NFL scouting department. Although all three have been known to swing and miss (every scout does; it's part of the job), I find their evaluations to be thorough--their player profiles are extremely detailed--and accurate. That said, I don't find their work as convincing as that of the fine gentlemen - two of whom are first timers on this list - who received first round grades from the Rabblicious one.
Low First Rounder:
Here come the young bucks. This should not surprise; every draft season, we see more seasoned college seniors dropped in the rankings as soon as the talented eligible juniors put their names in the draft hat. 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. Mayock doesn't have the pro scouting skins that Horton, Lande or Shonka can boast. But, perhaps because of this, he displays an increased capacity for thinking outside the NFL scouting box. I respond positively to his passion for scouting and the keenness of his insight. On my board, I expect Mayock to come off the board anytime after pick 18...
Mid First Rounder:
Here's another surprise. Like the aforementioned Lande, Horton and Shonka, Broaddus is a former NFL scout, who toiled for years with the Packers, Eagles and Cowboys (before being summarily dismissed in Bill Parcells' purge of the scouting department). So, why don't I place Broaddus alongside the other former scouts? One reason: his information is Cowboys-specific. And it's good.
This is especially true since he joined the Mothership last summer. For some reason, he's been tremendously generous in sharing the inside information he gets from his pals who are still in the Cowboys scouting department. If you follow his twitter stream, you can assemble the better part of Dallas' 2012 draft board. So, sure, one limitation in Broaddus' game is the narrowness of its scope. But since the only team we really care about is the Cowboys, I see that as a real plus, because he's sharing real information from inside the organization.
Speaking of real information, this year's surprise Blue-Chipper does the same, with a wider scope.
For the past two years, this spot has been occupied by the Dallas Morning News' Rick Gosselin, who made his name not by evaluating players or compiling positional rankings, but by trading in privileged information. Over the course of many years in the business, he built up a lot of trust in NFL front offices, and developed connections with insiders who would share their actual player evaluations and ranking with him, trusting that these would be treated confidentially. Gosselin would simply compile these and, voilá, he had the most accurate measure of what the league thought of a given draft class.
Sadly, the DMN, due to financial woes, put the kaibosh on Gosselin's draft sleuthing, and he now covers all sports (reading him write on the Stars or Mavericks still feels like violation). Luckily, another writer, Tony Pauline, has emerged to perform a similar function. Pauline has been covering the NFL Draft for fifteen years and is widely considered one of the most knowledgeable dudes in the business. He uses connections developed over the years to compile a lot of the same kind of info Goose did (sources from NFL teams), and therefore compiles and distributes some valuable real information. He's not in Gosselin's class in terms of pure quality - or tenure - but nobody is (Goose annually did the best job predicting the first round and had the most players on his top 100 list go in the first hundred picks). However, he offers a similarly valuable and top-quality service; as a result, I pay extra special attention to his player rankings and list of top players.
How should you use the info these guys generate? Here's what I do: 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 employ 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 ESPN/ Horton on my computer screen and PFW's tiered player rankings my side.
That works for me; you've got to find whatever way is best for you. Developing a system is half the fun.
Happy Draft Season, everyone!