NFL draft smoke screens make it hard to know what teams think

Earlier this week, as the Kansas City Chiefs were setting their schedule to host West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith on April 1, word emerged they were "fascinated" by the strong-armed prospect. They'd watched his every throw. They were enamored enough to say that the way he carried himself reminded them of a young Donovan McNabb.

That's what I reported Tuesday. The cries of "smoke screen" came loud and clear. Never mind that Smith was, to many, the draft's top QB. With Kansas City holding the No. 1 pick in next month's draft, skeptics doubted that coach Andy Reid, general manager John Dorsey and company viewed Smith in the same company as, say, Texas A&M offensive tackle Luke Joeckel. But the words were real. And I trust the source.

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Still, the caveats must be added regardless.

The truth? We won't know until draft day. And even then, we'll never know. Because maybe the Chiefs do view Smith like McNabb, who was the second overall pick in 1999. So in theory, they could take someone like Joeckel at No. 1 but still believe Smith to be the second-best player in this draft, like McNabb was perceived to be.

There is a guessing game in the pre-draft process. It's why draft guru Daniel Jeremiah joked on Twitter recently that he stops believing most of what his scouting friends say in the last couple of months before the show at Radio City Music Hall. Who can believe anything anyone says? Everyone wants to increase value for a possible trade.

It's what makes the job of reporting news more difficult during this time of year. The reality is, the threat of a smoke screen -- feigned interest -- isn't the only problem. Faking a smoke screen is just as frustrating. No one knows what anyone is really thinking.

It's not new, either.

Which brings to mind the story of an all-time legendary smoke screen. It's one example that illustrates how blowing smoke -- not just to reporters, but also to fellow teams -- actually works.

It was mid-April in 1990, with the Atlanta Falcons holding the first pick in the draft and the Indianapolis Colts wanting a quarterback. The prize was Jeff George, the big-armed Indianapolis native who attended Illinois and was the clear-cut choice at No. 1.

George's agent, Leigh Steinberg, told the Falcons that the quarterback wasn't going to play for them, that he'd rather sit out the year than do so. But George was the best player in the draft, so it presented the Falcons with the problem of trying to trade the pick for value while the entire world knew they were trying to do so.

Steinberg told then-Falcons vice president for personnel Ken Herock, "If you can trade this first pick to Indianapolis, go ahead. We won't tell Indianapolis anything."

To remedy the situation, Herock arranged a workout for George on the Colts' practice field, with Indianapolis' top brass (including owner Bob Irsay and coach Ron Meyer) watching intently. Let them see for themselves. And ... well, I'll let Herock tell it.

"We're going through this workout, and let me tell you, this workout is phenomenal," Herock told me Thursday from his home in Georgia, where he runs a company aimed at helping prospects prepare for the NFL Scouting Combine and draft. "I'm going, 'Holy (expletive)! We're gonna trade this guy?? Not one dropped ball. Every ball is on target -- short, medium, long. Why would I trade this guy? He looks phenomenal!' "

With 15 minutes left in the workout and George showing no sign of slowing down, Herock, who famously drafted Brett Favre to Atlanta, went out on a limb in a move that sealed his team's draft fate. In a flurry of words, he proved why smoke screens can work.

"All the sudden I said, 'Hey, that's enough, guys! I've seen enough, guys! I don't think we can go ahead and do any type of a trade here,' " Herock continued. "'Shut it down. I'm not interested in that trade, guys. This is it. I like this player.' And I could see them scrambling."

After persuading Falcons owner Taylor Smith that he wasn't crazy, Herock ended the workout. As he put it, the Colts were perplexed. They couldn't tell if he meant it. But they took no chances, immediately feeling they had to do something special to trade for George.

"Next day, we get a call, the deal is getting better," said Herock, who eventually received receiver Andre Rison, tackle Chris Hinton and two picks in a trade he had no choice but to make.

The lesson? Even if words are true, they are spoken with a purpose. Sometimes, they aren't even true. Herock revealed that when legendary New York Giants general manger George Young was asked about prospects by reporters, he would simply quote the scouting guide written by ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr., pretending the words were his own. Really.

Which brings us back to the Chiefs. I believe what I reported. I also know the Chiefs liking Smith doesn't necessarily mean they will draft him. I also know Kansas City hasn't set its board yet, and Smith is very much in the running to be atop it -- along with several other players.

When I posed the question to two high-level executives, one told me Smith was the best quarterback in the draft and the Chiefs picking him would make sense. The other told me no way Kansas City passes on Joeckel.

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Reading the tea leaves for other teams is just as hard. No one knows what the Jacksonville Jaguars and their new regime will do at No. 2. The Oakland Raiders' quarterback situation is in flux, so maybe Smith falls to No. 3 and they grab him. But word is the Raiders also love Florida defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd. Wait, the Philadelphia Eagles worked out Smith, too, even taking owner Jeffrey Lurie to Morgantown, W.Va., to do so. Are they in play for Smith at No. 4?

And on and on.

The truth? We'll probably never know it. That's the way teams want it. But hey, there is less than a month until the draft, and then we can find out the truth. Well, at least some of it.

Follow Ian Rapoport on Twitter @rapsheet

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