Before a team develops an approach to the NFL draft, it first must decide where the exercise ranks among the options for player acquisition. With players available nowadays via free agency along with the traditional method of trades, waiver transactions and the draft, the options are more varied.
And so are NFL opinions.
Take former NFL general manager Bobby Beathard, who through 38 years of toiling in NFL personnel reached seven Super Bowls and won four, and former NFL personnel executive John Wooten, who spent 30 years scrutinizing college talent. Both agree that the draft should be every team's nexus.
"I think it is the foundation of the entire league," Beathard said. "It's the most important part of putting your team together. You build everything around the draft. You mold your team around the draft. For me, free agency, what you are getting sometimes, is too risky."
Wooten added: "It's the lifeblood. It's a great time, a whirlwind. You stay on top of it, you massage it, you make it yours -- or you get left out."
"I believe strongly in all player acquisition phases," Fox said. "I understand why some people lean more toward the draft. In free agency, sometimes you just don't know what you are getting. If you draft a player, you tend to have them longer, and they understand your organization, environment, coaches, ownership, city and fans. I would guess that most Hall of Fame players were drafted and spent most of their time with one team.
"But Reggie White started in Philadelphia and through free agency won his Super Bowl in Green Bay. Albert Haynesworth started in Tennessee and he just arrived in Washington through free agency, so, we'll see how that works out, but his biggest mark just might be made there. Nothing is 100 percent. It is a changing and new landscape. Every draft takes on its own personality. It's just like an NFL game in that way. And the beauty is in the eye of the beholder."
The pre-draft attack
Preparation for each draft often encompasses an entire year. The repetition in video study and analysis sometimes seems infinite. The discussions and rankings of players voluminous.
Most NFL teams early in the process send their scouts nationwide to view players from the smallest to the biggest towns and schools. Teams combine information from national and league scouting services they employ with their own scout analysis.
Once the combine rolls around in February, NFL teams have a feel for players they like, while being open to those who flash at the combine.
Soon afterward, the NFL's version of "March Madness" arrives.
"I call that the period in March where players are having their private workouts on campuses," said Wooten, who spent his first 16 years in NFL personnel with Dallas and finished his career with Baltimore in 2003. "Most teams will send their position coaches out with scouts to those workouts to connect the player with the scheme and the team. Then you return and start building your board. Some teams rank players by need, but I always believed in ranking players by talent and always drafting them in that order. We would use clusters and bunches, giving ourselves three or four players that we liked at a certain draft spot. You are working to get that board to a point where you can't deny it, that you trust your people, your judgements, and that on draft day, if it is put together the way it should be, there is no sudden change."
Beathard, who won three of his Super Bowls as Washington's general manager, said he used exceptions.
"You hope you do have three or four guys you like at a certain spot, but let's say one ranks 8.0 on a scale of 10 and the next two are 6.9 and 6.5. In the early rounds, I would not jump down to the lower rated player. But in the later rounds, in that instance, it was a possibility, especially if you are talking about a position like offensive tackle and there is a need."
Mock drafts begin surfacing among fans and the news media several weeks before the draft. NFL teams create them, too.
This leads to the game of "What If's," Wooten said.
"You could always expect a call from Bobby before the draft and during it to talk about deals," Wooten said. "You had to prepare for his calls and other calls. Tex Schramm with the Cowboys used to always say, 'You have to scout everybody: Assistant coaches, head coaches, scouts, the teams.' You keep working your board before the draft, calling around, taking calls. You can't isolate yourself. You have to have an open door despite any shenanigans. You are guessing what the teams in front of you will do -- if they do this, then we can do that."
Coaches get involved on the final draft board. Oftentimes owners, too. Draft day arrives. "Trust your stuff," Beathard said.
NFL teams usually arrive at their respective draft headquarters four to five hours prior to the start of the draft. Each team's personnel at the NFL's New York draft site is contacted. "Speed lines" to NFL teams are activated. All pre-draft activity in terms of trades or possible movement is monitored.
The "What If's" start to roll.
Beathard said: "We'd call our last draft board our 'Final Stack.' The draft begins and there is a lot of excitement. A lot of waiting. A lot of disappointment. A lot of 'Oh no, they took that player that high? Well, there goes a guy we thought we could get.' When the worst happens, and you are picking low in the first round and there are not that three or four guys you feel great about, you trade down."
Fox and the Panthers do not have a first-round pick this season since they traded it to the Eagles in last-year's draft. The Panthers wound up with two first-round picks last year and they used them on running back Jonathan Stewart and left tackle Jeff Otah. Thus, the Panthers will select for the first time on Saturday at pick No. 27 in Round 2, the draft's 59th overall selection.
"The top of the draft has become very expensive and therefore more critical to get right," Fox said. "And the draft used to be 12 rounds, but now because it is only two on the first day and five on the second, that makes it more a constant exercise of review. Where we pick in the (second) round, it is very hard to project the player. If you are at, say, 16, you have a pretty good handle on the first 15 players. But the first 60 or so could mean a lot of things in terms of who is off the board and who is on it."
NFL teams, after the first two rounds of the draft are complete, often spend Saturday night into early Sunday morning revamping, restructuring and re-thinking their draft boards. Oftentimes, several draft trades are made among the first 10 to 15 picks at the start of Round 3 because teams have boldly decided to make a move for players they have identified as primary targets for Day 2.
Beathard said: "There is some tendency today in the league to rely more on computers than on football knowledge and this new breed in the league makes me wonder, do some of these guys really know football players? I think you always have to remember in the draft to trust your eyes and trust the film and production."
Fox calls the group of players who will not be drafted part of "The Backboard." Every NFL team has a plan in place to woo those free-agent players they like into their camps. The scramble for those players can be as competitive as the draft.
Here is how Wooten views some of the top storylines in the 2009 draft:
» Offensive tackles: "The big ones and the best ones will fly off the board pretty early, like they usually do, because that is a vital and difficult part to fill for nearly every team."
» Detroit: "They have to be tempted by the tackles, but I think they will take the top quarterback, (Matthew Stafford of Georgia)."
» St. Louis: "They have to replace Orlando Pace. They will do that with one of the better tackles."
» Kansas City: "I get the feeling (Aaron) Curry is the pick, but he could drop. I don't know if you can take a guy that high at that position who does not rush the passer in a dominant way."
» QB Josh Freeman: "He could go in the top 10 or slide and if that happens, I don't want to see him languishing in the Green Room. Hopefully he goes high, since he has been invited to New York and will be there. If not, somebody has to get him out of there."