It's about a week before the draft and most NFL clubs consider their draft boards just about set, with only a few minor adjustments to be made as new information enters the equation in the final days. A recently failed drug test result, an off-the-field issue or a medical recheck that turns up negative are all factors that can alter the final stacking of a team's board.
Sparked by a Denver Post story on how Broncos coach Josh McDaniels uses a "short board" like his old boss, Bill Belichick, a conversation has arisen on how big or small certain draft boards are around the league. The story explains that the Broncos made 10 picks last year from a list of fewer than 100 names. The story goes on to say the Patriots, in some years, operated with a board with as few as 25 prospect names.
Here's something to keep in mind when trying to decipher the truth in this matter: 255 players will be drafted next week and there's no way of predicting who will be taken and in what slot they will go. Therefore, the idea that any team could be totally prepared for a draft -- plus go after prime undrafted free agents moments after the final pick -- without extensive information on a minimum of 300 players is unrealistic.
During my time in the NFL, I had the privilege of seeing two draft board philosophies. I was trained in the Dick Steinberg system, which basically graded every draft-eligible player and stacked a board with close to 300 names by rounds and an even deeper board by position.
As one old-time scout used to say to me every year, "We scout for the whole league in this draft room." Rarely was a player ever drafted who we didn't have up on a board somewhere. When the draft and the undrafted signings were complete, which usually meant 255 picks and another 200 players signed, we still had names on the board.
The other system narrowed the draft board down to around 100-120 players we had targeted and not be concerned about guys who didn't fit the standards for being on our roster. That's the way Bill Parcells, Bill Belichick and Scott Pioli liked to set up their draft board during the year I worked with them on the process.
Keep in mind, to get down to closer to 100 prospects you still had to do all the legwork on most of the draft-eligible players in order to eliminate names. As Jimmy Johnson once said to a colleague of mine, "Make sure you get the players you want in the draft." Meaning, trade up or down to hit those targeted players.
What rings clear in the two philosophies is that coaches with final say on the roster will generally have a short board and personnel people with general manager powers are inclined to grade the whole class and produce a bigger draft board.
I had a chance this week to sit down and talk with someone very familiar with how Belichick operates in preparation for the draft. From my own experience, Belichick was the most passionate coach I've known when it came to personnel and the draft process. As one of his former employees reminded me, Belichick started studying prospects by October and regularly watched college players on plane trips to and from away games. When it came to setting up the draft board, the quote was, "Bill does it all."
The people who scout for the Patriots are basically information gatherers and not involved in the decision-making process. I can't recall a coach who did a better job than Belichick in terms of training his scouts about what he was looking for so they wouldn't make mistakes. There's a very small circle of people involved on draft day for the Patriots and a number of those select members have gone on to other places.
Thomas Dimitroff's in Atlanta and Pioli's with Kansas City. Both of them are looking for the same type of people Belichick wants, which only means the draft board might have to grow in size, not shrink.
Compounding the challenge for the Patriots -- just like any philosophy that deals with expansion around the league as the West Coast offense did and now with the growth of the 3-4 defense -- there are former New England coaches like Eric Mangini and McDaniels who want the same type of people Belichick covets. When it comes to character traits, football intellect, and skill sets, the Chiefs, Falcons, Browns and Broncos are in pursuit of what they learned from their days in New England. Again, this leads to a bigger board, not a smaller one.
When you hear things like a draft board with 25 names, those are the players targeted by a club, but certainly not the entire list.
The former Belichick employee told me there was a draft that New England's board of 120 was down to four or five players as the fourth round was ending. While the players the Patriots really wanted were all off the board, that didn't mean they didn't have plenty of information on other prospects and were able to easily continue. He also described a situation in the seventh round where a linebacker from New Mexico came up in discussion. Belichick had watched his tape and recalled the player as clearly as he knew any first-round talent.
With three picks in the second round, Belichick has likely already targeted who he wants. If those players aren't there, he will trade those choices at a premium price, such as a 2011 first-round selection. As Gil Brandt said, there's little difference in the player graded at No. 20 and the guy at No. 45.
As for the draft day process, I've seen it both ways. I've been in the war room with all the doors open and the room jammed with anybody and everybody who worked for the club. I've also been around draft rooms where only a small group of people were included, however, no scouts or coaches were in the room. They may occasionally be called in individually for a comment about a player but then are excused before the final decision on a selection is made.
I prefer the small group method employed by Belichick and his former employees around the league. Still, no matter how teams stack their board or run their draft room during the selection process, they're all entering a new world with the night off after the first round to regroup and attack the second and third round on Friday.
There will be plenty of time to restack and call teams trying to trade up or down. Look for plenty of action heading into Day 2 and, once again, Belichick will likely be the power broker.