Recently, a controversy broke out over a very negative evaluation of West Virginia QB Geno Smith, made by Pro Football Weekly writer Nolan Nawrocki. The 2013 crop of quarterbacks coming out of college is judged to be one of the weaker groups in recent memory to begin with. Smith is seen by many as the best of the lot, and Nawrocki's rather biting evaluation (phrases like "nonchalant field presence", "mild practice demeanor" and "not committed or focused" pepper his comments) is seen by many as something that will seriously damage Smith's chance at being the first quarterback taken and a likely top ten pick.
This may not seem like it is of any importance to Dallas Cowboys fans, since the team just went all in with Tony Romo's contract extension. While Smith has often been linked with the Philadelphia Eagles in the draft and therefore has a possible NFC East connection, there is just about no chance the Cowboys will be looking to draft a quarterback in an early round.
But the story does bring up something that may be worth keeping in mind for the next few weeks. A lot of things can influence the way players are ranked on the boards we all like to refer to, such as the one at Drafttek, or CBSSports. A very negative report like Nawrocki's can stir up a firestorm, with discussions about how accurate it is (there are some denials that it has any basis in fact, and also some reports that at least some NFL teams concur with it). This is a valid point, since the reason for draft boards and scouting profiles of NFL prospects is to inform and entertain readers just like you. You want the most accurate information you can get, and you don't particularly like it when someone just gets it flat out wrong.
That all misses one important thing about these boards and evaluations on various sites: They don't mean a damn thing. That's right. All the boards we argue vehemently about, all the information we scour over, including what we do here, are in no way reflective of anything approaching reality as it exists in any NFL front office.
The real boards, the lists kept by each of the 32 NFL franchises, almost never are revealed (Dallas' 2010 board being a notable exception). Those are all that matters. A draft board is an exercise in trying to rank the top players, and it is not very applicable, since each team has its own board, and they are quite likely to be very, very different. A good example is how the defensive scheme affects teams. A player who might be perfect in a 3-4 scheme may not look nearly as good to a team running the 4-3.
As mentioned, Dallas is not likely to put a high value on a quarterback, or at least is coming with a different mind set than the teams that do not have a starter right now. Mock drafts try to come from the direction of figuring out how each team will be drafting, but the chances the people doing the mock drafting are correct is pretty slim. The best bet is a community draft, like the one currently underway at SBNation. Here, at least, each mocker is a writer who focuses on the team in question, so they may have some insight into what is going on with that franchise. But when one writer is trying to mock the entire league, they are not going to have much chance of understanding what 32 different teams are up to in the draft. These by definition have to be a whole bunch of semi-educated guess work. In the end, they tell more about who the writer in question likes than what teams likely think of him.
This also brings up the lack of influence such things have on the real draft. Each team has a scouting department. They are not identical, of course, and teams don't all use them exactly the same, but by and large, this is where the evaluation of the draft prospects come from. That is part of why a team is only going to have 100 or so players on their board. They can only devote so much time to researching them. If they are going after someone, however, they will dig hard. As the first article I linked to puts it:
Scouts talk, for example, to head coaches, coordinators, position coaches, strength coaches, current and former teammates that like the guy, and current and former teammates that don't like him.
The best scouts go even farther, talking to landlords and neighbors and the guy who washes the towels in the weight room and the lady who empties the trash cans in the film room and the clerk at the Kwik-E-Mart down the street from the player's apartment to find out how the player behaves when the player thinks no one who can impact their career is watching.
The teams have this information. A writer for the most part is going to rely on second hand info, most likely from some of the same scouts. And those scouts may have their own agenda. They may want to see a player slide to have a chance at them, or they may want to see them go early so a rival wastes a pick or leaves a more desirable player available. In short, unless a writer sits down and talks to a bunch of people himself, his data is suspect. The teams know this. They are not going to change their board because of a news article. In Smith's case, teams looking to draft a quarterback have had their own personnel sit down, look him in the eye, and ask questions, as well as go nose around the West Virginia campus to see what dirt they can dig up. They know how he practices, how he handles pressure, and probably any warts have long been discovered.
Teams are at the mercy of their scouting department, if they trust them, or they are largely guessing if they don't. Dallas has been putting a lot of resources into scouting since Jason Garrett took over, and the past three drafts give some hope that they know what they are doing, but there can still be mistakes. And even the best work can be sabotaged by bad information, such as is alleged to have happened at Auburn, where the team reportedly sabotaged WR Darvin Adams by giving scouts bad reports after he declared early for the draft against the coaches' wishes. But in the end, the team has to make its decision on the best information it can gather.
We all think we know who the Cowboys should draft. But we do not know what the team knows. Everyone should be aware that the Cowboys avoid certain character issues, like drug involvement, but we don't know what those snooping scouts may have found out that has not come out in the media. We don't know what may have shown up in a private workout or during an interview. And even in looking at video, we don't know what the team may be focused on that we might not pay much attention to.
All the discussions we have about draft candidates are entertaining. What else are we going to do while we wait for the draft? (Side note: If the NFL does push the draft back to try and generate some more ratings and income, I want someone flogged. Roger Goodell, John Mara, whoever. Just a bad, bad idea in my mind, since I am pulling what hair I still have out already.) But be very careful of making assertions, or "guaranteeing" anything. Unless you have gotten a look at a real NFL team draft board, you are just guessing and projecting your own preferences on things, just like all the writers are. Have fun, but don't make a jerk of yourself. The reality of the draft will likely do a much better job of that if you aren't careful. There will almost certainly be surprises and head-scratchers, some because not all NFL teams are equally good at drafting, and many because they are way better than we fans could ever dream of being. So just be nice and wait until after the draft, when the real fun begins: Criticizing and second-guessing.