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Preparing for the Cowboys' Draft, Part Six: Your Book is Only as Good as the Gene Pool

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Everyone commenting on the draft here relies on a draft publication. Be it Mel Kiper's, Pro Football Weekly's, Scouts Inc.'s, The War Room's, Ourlads' or some other publication, draft books have become necessary items for fans serious about assessing their team's future.

While these books get you closer to the actual war rooms, how accurate are they? How much can they be trusted? After all, if Mel Kiper was such an ace talent evaluator, wouldn't some NFL team have snatched him up by now? (There is a story, which may be apocryphal, that the late Joel Buchsbaum of PFW was offered a pro scouting job but turned it down.) While these books provide reams of data and some very bad prose, how many of these assessments come from the writers and how many are second-hand comments from "anonymous" sources in honest-to-goodness personnel deparments?

I pulled out my cache of old Pro Football Weekly Draft Previews from the '90s and decided to grade the talent graders. Enough time has passed to figure out whether these books really do give you and edge over the casual fan. The books are broken down by position and offer at "Top Ten" at each major position for each given year. My method was simply to award points for every player in each top ten that turned out to be an NFL starter.

I found that at certain positions, like offensive line, wide receiver and linebacker, the books were consistently good. Take the '96 top ten for wide receivers: Keyshawn Johnson, Terry Glenn, Marvin Harrison, Eric Moulds, Eddie Kennison, Derrick Mayes, Bobby Engram, Amani Toomer, Muhsin Muhammad and Alex Van Dyke. Not bad. Seven of these players are still productive starters, and Kennison have managed to stick around. Only Mayes and Van Dyke can be labeled busts.

At other positions, namely quarterback and running back, the ratings were downright awful. (Defensive line and secondary players were erratic -- very good some years and mediocre others.) Look at the '92 RB top ten: Vaughn Dunbar, Tommy Vardell, Tony Smith, Tony Brooks, Siran Stacy, Amp Lee, Kevin Turner, Edgar Bennett, Derrick Moore, Rodney Culver. Pure dreck. Bennett had a nice career with the Packers, but everyone else is forgettable.

Maybe it was just a bad year, you're saying? Positions can run hot and cold. Take the '95 list as a test: Ki-jana Carter, Tyrone Wheatley, Rashaan Salaam, Napoleon Kaufman, James Stewart, Ray Zellars, Sherman Williams, Rodney Thomas, Zack Crockett, James Stewart. (There were, in fact two James Stewarts that year.) Wheatley, Kaufman, the Tennessee Volunteer James Stewart and Crockett were the only names to stick. None of those four has had a stellar career. In fact, for most of the '90s, the percentage of runners in the top ten who panned out was between 30 and 40 percent. The '94 class, topped by Marshall Faulk, was the only group where more than half of the top ten went on to become starters.

Maybe it's simply a bad gene pool? There are in fact years when entire classes at a position are sub-par. The '92 QB class is a case in point. Only two of the top ten -- Tommy Maddox and Ty Detmer, spent any significant time as starters. What's worse, of the entire 24 man list, only Brad Johnson, a ninth round pick, has had a consistently above-average career. Can we really blame the draft books if the talent is bad? Didn't the personnel offices make the same mistakes as the draftniks?

In most cases the answer is yes. A draft book's top lists may suck, but the guys at the top of those lists were taken with high picks by real teams. What's worse, those annoying draft grades that ESPN and USA Today hand out the Monday after the draft are based on the premise that the boards people like Kiper put together are gospel. So if your team "reached" for a player not rated highly in the books, their front office will be roasted in print, even if the picks turn out to be wise.

In cases like this, it helps to have front office people whose own boards are not only different, but better than those you and I can buy. Take the '90 draft. The Cowboys entered it with more picks than any other team, including five in the first three rounds. Yet, Dallas left it with only five players, and did not take anybody between the fourth and eighth rounds. Was Jimmy Johnson crazy? No. He had determined that this was a very shallow draft, with a steep dropoff in talent after round three. He got lucky with Kenny Gant in round nine, but for the most part lost interest after selecting DT Jimmy Jones in round three. History has shown he was right to bail early. '90 was one of the weakest drafts of the past 20 years.

Another example is Bill Parcells' success with running backs. In '95, seven other running backs were taken before he selected Curtis Martin in round three. Though Martin was not in my draft book's top ten, he has had a Hall of Fame career. Last year, of course, Julius Jones was rated sixth on some lists and was the fifth back taken, after Stephen Jackson, Chris Perry, Kevin Jones and Tatum Bell. No rookie had a more promising first season.

A more daring pick was CB Ty Law, who was the tenth-rated CB in the '95 PFW book, right after Cowboys' draftee Alundis Brice. Law's player grade suggested he would be selected in the third to fourth round. Parcells made him a first rounder. History shows Parcells was right. The book was not even close.

The bottom line with any draft book is to use it with some humility. It will give you much deeper insight into the process than you would have without it. But know your author's or authors' weakness(es). What positions do they nail? At what positions are they weak? Furthermore, know the positions, like running back and quarterback and defensive tackle, where everyone is weak. This will make you a better and bolder predictor. It will also let you know whether the Cowboys are playing the percentages on draft day or making repeated rolls of the dice.