I was puttering around my apartment alternately adulting and watching the NFL Scouting Combine on a recent Saturday morning. Somewhere in between wondering how I could get an invite to a John Ross island beach party and learning that said beach party wasn't going to happen because Ross decided on non-island-approved footwear, I had a realization...
This is insane.
All of this is crazy. The hazy projections. The fine-tooth comb game tape analysis. The create-a-player comparisons. The prognostication based on the results of an undergrown American Ninja Warrior course in which few of the test proctors can even agree on the same grading scale. Each piece of this janky jigsaw puzzle intended to help us divine which incoming rookies are going to score the most fantasy points.
At this point, I can feel you rolling your eyes while digging through all of my past tweets and finding creative new ways to call me a hypocrite. Let me stop you right there. This isn't a rebuke of the Fantasy Football Draft Prospect Evaluation Industrial Complex. This gig has kept me up to my eyeballs in brightly-colored socks and superhero-themed cufflinks. But let's all agree that while this isn't completely an exercise in futility, it borders on drinking coffee with a fork.
Projecting the fantasy production of current NFL players is hard enough when you have a better idea of their skillset and their fit within a professional offense. Now we're turning the difficulty meter up to 11 by removing a number of the known variables in the equation. Let Gin Rummy tell it.
All Donald Rumsfeld references aside, there's an obvious corollary to this yearly boondoggle. We really have very little idea of how any of this works. That's not an insult. There are plenty of very talented, very studious people spending thousands of hours scouting players with various levels of success. That's key in looking at all of this. The only thing we can say with certainty is that this is all uncertain. That applies as much to the decision makers in your favorite team's front office as it does to that fantasy tweeter you love to hate.
With RGIII's release, 21 of 32 picks from 2012 1st round have either changed teams, are out of football, suspended, or unsigned free agents.â Andrew Siciliano (@AndrewSiciliano) March 10, 2017
Nevertheless we persist in tinkering in our ever-expanding laboratory. Shouting against the walls of the echo chamber until the cacophony rings throughout the Twittersphere. Yet we wouldn't keep doing this if there weren't some knowable factors among the confusion. Follow along with Sports Analysis Twitter (any sport) and you'll hear about "process" soon enough. But there is merit to it. After all, if the end results aren't always predictable, there should be a consistent method of how to get to a conclusion.
Because I believe in the scientific method (also because I like being helpful and am generally bored), I'm putting together a few suggestions to help you navigate the labyrinthine corridors of the Fantasy Football Draft Prospect Evaluation Industrial Complex. It's not exactly on the level of Christopher Wallace's 10 Commandments, but hopefully it's enough to help you keep your sanity over the next six weeks before the 2017 NFL Draft and maybe even give you enough confidence to pick out a couple of rookie sleepers for your next fantasy draft.
You'll probably be wrong. But at least you'll be confident. Which should count for something.
Other end of the pool
I once had a boss who always said that the best way to get a girl to notice you is to go to the other end of the pool. While the unwashed masses are splashing around trying to catch the eye of a cute someone, she's more likely to gravitate toward the quiet end of the pool. I could poke holes in the actual theory in practice, but the premise is what's important here. Those making the most noise aren't always worth paying attention to.
In case you hadn't noticed, the FFDPEIC (this is one of the rare cases when the acronym might be clunkier than the actual name) thrives upon some of its members talking loud without actually saying anything. With so many people offering combine analysis, it often takes hyperbole to get noticed. After all, if no one's paying attention then how else to justify the eight weeks of relevance between the end of college bowl season and the famed Underwear Olympics? It's why Leonard Fournette's poor vertical jump and Christian McCaffrey's underwhelming bench press can spark mass internet hysteria.
Those who preferred to take a long view of the situation weren't nearly as apoplectic, instead choosing to wait until the day was done before passing any judgment. That measured approach tends to avoid the up-and-down, "last thing I saw" nature that so often rules rookie prospect evaluations.
The 40-yard dash is an integral part of the evaluation process, but only one of those should be considered a true sprint.
Addendum: Don't put too much stock in early mock drafts. There's still so much of the process we've yet to see. Plus ... content. You're bound to see some semi-wild things simply because we all need clicks. Yes, me too. Popping out the exact same mock draft repeatedly for eight weeks isn't going to move the needle.
Smart doesn't always sound like smart
The best way for keepers of information to withstand the hordes at the gate is by creating language designed to confuse the layperson and create a reliance on the industrial divinity to spoon feed concepts. It's not by accident that elevated concepts in most disciplines seem muddy and convoluted to the average person.
The analytics side of this process isn't any different. As the Complex expands and new voices emerge, we see new metrics designed to find new ways of evaluating player ability and performance. Some of them are inspired and insightful. Others are just inglorious. If you can explain them all, you are better than me.
A better question is: can the creator of said metric explain it in a way that can be clearly understood? Does the reasoning come loaded with jargon? Is there reading that comes as a prerequisite for comprehending? Or can they explain it to you like you were a two-year old? If so, that's when you're on to something. A good rule of thumb is if you can't easily explain how it works on your own, you probably shouldn't be using it.
Addendum: Not being able to explain a concept doesn't automatically make it a bad concept. It's just not the one for you. But chances are, there's someone out there able to boil it all down to its simplest points. It takes a village to raise a Complex. Having a good teacher is key.
A right to be wrong
Remember when I said you were probably going to fall in love with a prospect and be totally wrong? Scroll back up. It's totally there. Anyway ... it's true. If the people who do this sort of thing for a living swing and miss on a fairly regular basis (and they do), what chance do the rest of us have?
So many things go into a player being a success at the next level. Talent and athletic ability are one thing, but team fits, usage and health also play a huge role. When all of those things come together, the end result is usually pretty good. If one or more are missing, things get a little sketchy.
The draft evaluation process is dark and full of terrors. Having a process you trust and believe in at least offers some protection against the intimidating nature of trying to sift through all of the chatter available. Be right or be wrong. But be sure. Enter the Complex with a map on how to navigate and you can exit through the gift shop believing you've made an informed choice.
Addendum: Or you can pick a name out of a hat. That's cool, too.
Marcas Grant is a fantasy editor for NFL.com. His snapchat (marcasg9) is a mixture of fantasy football and shenanigans. He's currently catching up on old episodes of Samurai Jack and wondering how Jack keeps climbing mountains with only wooden sandals and how he keeps getting his gi repaired or replaced every other episode. If you read all of that, congrats. Follow him on Twitter too.