NFL Draft  

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What goes on inside draft war rooms shapes the NFL landscape


The draft is less than a week away, and team war rooms are buzzing in anticipation of the event. General managers and scouts are finalizing their strategies and putting together contingency plans for all of the various scenarios that could potentially transpire during the draft.

With scouts readying for their annual Super Bowl, it is a great time to take a look at some of the events that will go down in various war rooms in the coming days.

It begins and ends with the draft board

The draft board is what the war room is all about. It stretches across one of the walls in the room and looks like the white dry-erase boards found in most collegiate classrooms. Players are listed with pertinent information strategically placed on the card. This information typically includes height, weight, speed, arm length, hand size and Wonderlic score. In addition, there are designations for some special labels or stickers that indicate certain issues relating to the player. This would include character issues and any medical information that pertains to the player’s long-term prospects.

The board resembles a life-size spreadsheet with the positions listed across the top. On the left hand side of the board is a column which is separated by the grades listed in the grading scale. The evaluation scale varies according to team but the grades correlate to the expectations associated with a prospect’s talent and potential. For example, on a grading scale that ranges from 3.5 (NFL reject) to 8.0 (Hall of Fame-caliber), a prospect who receives a grade in the 7.0-7.9 range is a first-round talent and expected to be a starter in his first season. Players graded in the 6.5-6.9 range (second round) are viewed as borderline first-year starters with the potential to become solid starters in time. The grades and expectations continue down the scale until they reach the bottom of the board.

The players are listed and ranked by position on the big board. In addition, the players are ranked on a separate board from 1-125, based solely on their talent. This is an overall ranking of all of the prospects available in the draft and is used extensively to determine the best available prospect. In theory, the “vertical board” is the board that general managers use to pick prospects on draft day. If they subscribe to the theory of taking the best player available, then the process should be simple as they work off the vertical board on draft day.

The vertical board is crafted after the general manager and scouts work through the various scenarios involving possible prospects being available at the same time. For example, if cornerback Malcolm Jenkins and defensive end Everette Brown are available, which one would we take with our first-round pick? By working through these situations in the days leading up to the draft, the general manager has no reason to deviate from the established order on draft day. He simply picks the best available prospect regardless of position, and moves on.

It sounds simple in theory, but general managers must avoid numerous temptations to make the tactic work; one of those persuasions is drafting solely for a need. Therefore, a team in desperate need of a middle linebacker may place the best available prospects at the position in a higher round to guarantee that they have one available at their pick. This process is called “reaching”, and teams that fall for the practice often make huge mistakes in the draft.

Another common error made by scouts is letting a prospect’s workout push him up the board. Too often, scouts and coaches fall in love with a prospect after watching him perform at the scouting combine or his pro day. Players who look great in shorts dazzle evaluators with their agility and explosiveness in drills. Their impressive display of athleticism causes scouts to ignore the holes in their game that repeatedly show up on tape. Coaches suggest that they can get the unseen production out of them, and are often tempted to take a chance on “workout warriors” due to their untapped potential.

Thus, it is up to the general manager to keep the coaches and scouts focused on taking the best “football player” on the board, not the best athlete.

The draft begins and ends with the draft board, but scouts and coaches must stay true to it for it to yield quality results.

Character counts

With the advent of the 24/7 news cycle, it appears that more and more players run afoul of the law. And their occasional transgressions make it appear that teams don’t value character when evaluating prospects. However, based on my experiences in the war room that's just not true.

Character, which can be split into two categories: Moral character and football character, is heavily scrutinized by evaluators throughout the pre-draft process. Scouts talk to numerous coaches and administrators on school visits to properly assess the reputations of draft hopefuls. Hours upon hours are spent researching the pasts of each individual listed on draft boards. Teams call middle and high school teachers to see how these young men were as adolescents. Some teams have been known to deploy scouts to the respective hometowns of certain prospects on fact-finding missions.

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Teams hire security firms to run extensive background checks on players to see if there are any unreported arrests or warrants associated with the prospect. Sometimes these searches reveal more information than the official background checks conducted by the league, and their revelations allow teams to remove “high risk” individuals from their board.

In addition, some teams follow mandates issued from ownership on what types of transgressions are deemed unacceptable by a franchise. These misbehaviors can range from domestic disputes to various drug-related offenses, including drunk-driving arrests or charges. Whatever is perceived by ownership to be a “hot-button” issue could cause public backlash or ridicule.

Coaches have a tendency to focus more on football character, which consists of work ethic and professionalism in football-related endeavors. Prospects must show that they are willing to do the work necessary to become a valuable team member and contributor. This may include showing up on time for weight training or film study sessions. Or it could relate to how well a player receives coaching. Regardless, coaches want players who will buy in and those who have not demonstrated the ability to cooperate can be taken off the board.

Character means something different for everybody, but it is one of the critical factors that can determine whether a team pulls the trigger on a prospect.

Draft-day trades are not spontaneous

While the flurry of draft-day activity appears to be spontaneous in nature, most of the trades that occur on the draft’s first day have been arranged prior to the event.

Teams spend the days leading up to the draft identifying possible trade partners, and exchanging various proposals with the intent of securing a deal. The teams will agree to the basic parameters of an agreement prior to the beginning of the draft, but the agreement often hinges on the initiating team’s coveted prospect still being on the board at the time of the pick.

If the draft breaks according to plan, the teams exchange a phone call prior to the pick, and consummate the deal while one team is on the clock. So even though the trade and the resulting pick looks like it happened quickly, the reality is that the deal probably had been in the works long before the commissioner announced the transaction.

Not everyone gets a vote

While most outsiders assume that the war room is buzzing with scouts exchanging various opinions on draft day, it would surprise many that some teams don’t include their scouts in conversations once the draft has begun.

Some organizations only allow their decision makers (owner, head coach, general manager and college scouting director) into the war room during the draft, and request that their scouts sit in another room during the event. Organization leaders are fearful of scouts sharing too much information with their cohorts, and believe restricting their access to the draft board and to private conversations will prevent an inadvertent slip of the tongue.

Though scouts occasionally are asked to enter the room to read a report or answer a question on a prospect from their assigned region, they are quickly dismissed after relaying the necessary information.

The exclusion of scouts from the war room often results in an unappreciated feeling in the other room, but the desire to maintain a high level of confidentiality outweighs bruised egos in the minds of some decision makers.

Free agency starts before the draft ends

Each year, a handful of undrafted players makes a splash in the league, and you may be surprised to learn that the process of securing those overlooked talents starts well before the draft ends.

Area scouts, who do the bulk of the negotiating with undrafted free agents, begin wooing prospective players and agents with a bevy of phone calls near the end of the fifth round. These initial phone calls insinuate the team is considering drafting the prospect in a later round, but set the stage for the rapid negotiation that takes place immediately after the conclusion of the draft.

Prime free agents can secure signing bonuses in excess of $20,000, so the bidding war can escalate quickly when the draft concludes. Though most undrafted free agents are signed to deals that offer $2,500-$5,000 in upfront money, scouts must effectively sell prospective players and agents on the notion that there is an opportunity to earn a roster spot.

While some agents like to drag out the negotiating process by entertaining multiple offers at a time, shrewd scouts are quickly able to assess whether money or opportunity is most important in the mind of the player. And they often move on to the next prospect if the give-and-take drags too long.

Teams such as the Colts, Steelers and Ravens have made a living off finding overlooked talents, and their ability to quickly reach agreements with undrafted free agents has been critical to their success.

Therefore, when the draft reaches the latter stages this year, just know that several teams have already started locking up the next James Harrison or Willie Parker.

Teams mock the “mocks”

Contrary to the widely held notion that coaches and front office personnel don’t pay attention to media speculation on the draft, most teams track the various mock drafts that pop up throughout the pre-draft season. Teams believe that some of the more established draft experts are closely tied into various teams throughout the league and that the information that they use to compile the mock draft is relatively accurate.

Some teams rely on media-types to feed them information in regards to what another team may be thinking at certain picks. Though everything uttered is not believed to be true, the astute evaluator takes in all of the information gathered and makes solid predictions on what may happen at certain stages of the draft.

So, the next time you hear a general manager or scout dismiss a mock draft as pure speculation, rest assured that someone in the war room has tracked the list of predictions and is working hard to connect the dots to help the team gain an edge on draft day.

Post-draft grades matter

Each year, various media outlets evaluate the draft classes of the 32 teams and offer up grades based on the procurement of talent. While these grades are meaningless because it takes three years to fully assess a draft class, no owner or general manager wants to see a poor grade attached to the team’s draft class in the days following the event.

The league is founded on the optimism that builds throughout the offseason, and the draft plays a huge role in giving fans hope for the coming year. Therefore, it is imperative that outsiders view the team’s draft class as one of the best in the league.

Furthermore, the perception of the team’s draft haul enhances the status of the decision-makers and scouts within the war room. Owners read papers and often compile short lists of potential job hires based on recognition and reputation. With the recent trend of owners naming former college scouting directors to general manager positions, it is important for aspiring executives to receive glowing draft reviews from their peers and outsiders. A ringing endorsement not only represents a positive assessment of this year’s class, but it serves as a resume builder that may lead to better opportunities for all involved in the draft process.

History has proven that the best way to set up a franchise for long-term success is to effectively acquire talent through the draft, and the process all starts within the walls of the war room.

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