Right now, the Dallas Cowboys and all the other NFL teams are putting together their draft boards. On these, they will list the names of players the team is interested in, ranked in order of which players they want the most. The boards are shrouded in secrecy, since no team wants to tip its hand going into the draft. This board, which at least in the past, used a bunch of magnetic tags and handwritten notations on a white board in Dallas, is what is going to make or break the team on April 25th. How those names stack up will be the biggest determinant of who the team picks, at least as long as the names on the board last. A wise team puts all the work into building the board and establishing a strategy, and avoids spur of the moment deviation.
But how do you build a board? How do you rank a hundred or so college players to try and maximize the talent the team is acquiring?
There was a long and informative series of tweets by a guy who uses the handle NFL Philosophy on Monday. He, in turn, linked to an article by Albert Breer at NFL.com discussing the role of pro days and how things are changing in the NFL. Based on that, and what I have gathered in general over the past couple of years, there are basically four ways teams gather information about players. I have put my own ranking on them, based on what I have gathered, presented here in reverse order of usefulness.
Pro days. Between the NFL combine and the draft, there is a lot of hoopla and attention paid to these. But the crux of Breer's article is that the pro day, while not useless, is not all that important. The biggest problem is that they are very much scripted events, designed to showcase the strengths and mask the weaknesses of the players involved. If a player has one bad event (say, like S Kenny Vaccaro of Texas, who ran a mediocre 40 at the combine), he may train to just redo that event. This may give a better number for that event, but does not say he will be able to maintain it without sacrificing other parts of his game. In general, teams are not putting as much effort here as in the past, pro day attendance is down, and teams are even beginning to pool resources, particularly for smaller programs, with one team doing a scouting report that is shared with the league. The value is limited and a lot of scouts don't like them at all.
Again, just my opinion, but if a team moves a prospect on their board significantly because of a pro day...well, then that's their own fault— NFL Philosophy (@NFLosophy) March 25, 2013
There has been some traffic going on about what pro days the Cowboys are showing up for, and which ones they skip. Interestingly, in answering a question about what he would be looking for at the upcoming Texas pro day, the mothership's Bryan Broaddus mentioned something else that teams find out.
You can learn a lot by who are working these players out. In the case of Vacarro I want to see what defensive back coaches drill him. Are they teams ahead or behind the Cowboys.
So the pro day is also a place to try to gather some intel on the competition. This leads to the question of whether a team may try to do a little deceiving here. It has been speculated that our own Cowboys will avoid a player they really target, just to keep from tipping their hand. I'm not sure it really happens. But it does sound like something Jason Garrett (who never met a question he couldn't talk about indefinitely, without ever answering) would do.
Individual workouts. These would seem to be the most valuable, where coaches and scouts can run a player through specific drills (Breer talks about how teams will bring their own receivers in to work out quarterbacks), and they also get to spend one on one (or, in some cases, a bunch on one) time with the prospect to get a better read on the intangibles. One problem: This is extremely labor intensive, and the team can only do this a limited number of times. It would best be used for a player who may be seen as on the bubble between rounds. A one on one workout may move him up or let him slide on the team's board. I am sure all NFL teams would like to do these with every prospect on the board, but that is impossible. So it needs to be targeted, most likely to answer some final questions.
NFL Combine. That's right. The Underwear Olympics have become far and away the most important part of the post-season evaluation process. First off, it draws the best players, the ones teams are looking at most closely. This is by and large the talent pool that the early picks will all come from, and teams are obviously far more concerned about how they use a first round pick than a seventh round supplemental slot. And with the advent of extensive coverage and a growing sense that this is the main forum, more and more of the top players are actually showing up and participating. Teams like it, because here the drills are designed to reveal both the strengths and the weaknesses of the players. The standards are the same for all, things are not staged to favor the players, and the teams get to see them side by side against their peers. There is even an air of competition, which can show something about how a player will respond to things.
Game Video. But all workouts and drills are trumped by one thing: How did the player do in live action when the score counted? Game video is and will almost certainly always be supreme. Here is where scouting departments earn their money, spending long hours hunched over a hot monitor. Plus, it is not limited to the post-season, but starts as soon as the first games are done in late August. The teams better have a pretty good idea of who is on their board and who isn't before the bowl games are played. And the advent of computer technology has to be increasing the effectiveness here by leaps and bounds. Digital images are so much easier to manipulate (with the right software) than DVDs or videotape, and it is hard to imagine how this worked in the days when game film meant real, reel to reel movie film.
More importantly, scouts and coaches can make sure they are seeing what they really think they are seeing. They can go over all the games, in all kinds of situations. They can see if a player takes a few snaps off, if one particular move always gives them trouble, if they play well in flashes or streaks, or stay pretty much level at all times.
And it means they can replay things. An individual workout is great, but you can't break down everything, and the naked eye is not that reliable. Any police officer will tell you that eyewitness testimony is very questionable. The video doesn't lie. If you can't get a clear look at, say, a lineman's footwork on one play, there are 50 or more other plays you can see in that game, and hundreds in a season. You build up a picture from an entire body of work, not one day where the player is focused specifically on impressing you.
Jamarcus Russell and Blaine Gabbert both supposedly looked phenomenal at their pro days. Just sayin'.— NFL Philosophy (@NFLosophy) March 25, 2013
So beware of late moves in draft boards, especially after pro days or individual workouts. That can be a sign the GM and/or coaching staff does not trust the scouts. And in the NFL, the scouts are going to make or break your draft. One of the issues perceived in the Wade Phillips era was that Phillips would fall in love with some highlight video and override the scouts. There is a lot of anecdotal evidence that this happened more than once. Word out of Valley Ranch is that Jason Garrett and/or the Jones family is putting money into the scouting operation and relying on what they get as a result. And based on Tyron Smith, Bruce Carter, DeMarco Murray, and Morris Claiborne, plus hopefully some others to emerge from the 2012 class, just maybe they are getting it right. We'll get a chance to see if they can continue the trend in a month.