Teams must use time before draft wisely to avoid mistakes

We are about a month away from the 2011 NFL Draft. At this point, almost all of the individual workouts are done, the majority of the background and medical checks are compete and most draft boards are set. So what is left? Plenty.

This is the time general managers and personnel directors make a comprehensive to-do list and prepare for every possible situation that might occur during the draft.

The preparation for the draft is no different than a game. The person running the show must completely understand the areas of strength and depth in the draft as well as the weaknesses. He has to make a plan of attack and be prepared to adjust. The rhetoric from teams that they let their board do the drafting is really hog wash. No doubt the board is set, but understanding how to put your team in position to maximize it as the draft unfolds is paramount. While personnel men get paid for their player evaluations, their real value comes in how they develop the board before and during the draft.

Here is an example of a to-do list for the final month leading up to the draft.

Define lines of demarcation

Personnel men must now know exactly how many "blue players" are in the draft. A blue player is defined by words, not by saying he is a first-round pick. For example, a blue player becomes an immediate starter as a rookie. He is a prospect with physical attributes that will create mismatches and have an obvious impact on every game. He also will become one of the premier players in the league at his position. By defining a player this way instead of simply saying he is a first rounder, the process takes on a whole new light.

Let's consider Alabama running back Mark Ingram. Is he a blue player? Not in my evaluation. Yet, his name is often mentioned as first-round selection. If Ingram is a first rounder, he falls below the line of demarcation. Any team picking Ingram will know he might be a good, productive player, but he is not a blue player.

Once this line has been determined for each team, the next order of business is to define what players have blue traits but have not played consistently at that level in college. The wording on a potential blue player would be: This prospect will become a starter at some point during his rookie year. He possesses unique physical attributes that will create mismatches against most opponents and with more development will eventually become an impact player.

The Giants' Jason Pierre-Paul was an example of a blue-trait player in last year's draft. He was not ready on Day 1, but he might end up being the best player because he had unique blue traits. This year, it might be Missouri defensive end Aldon Smith. He has all the skills to be a blue, but is young and will need time to develop.

Once the blue players are defined completely, then the blue line of demarcation is set. No matter where a team picks in the first round, they hope to get a blue player. However, there are not usually enough blues or potential blues to satisfy everyone. With that in mind, the line of demarcation must be correctly set, so a team can then plan all its draft strategy regarding potentially moving up or down in each round.

Determine key positions

Each draft is unique and offers different points of emphasis. The key to the 2011 draft will be which teams correctly evaluate and define the entire defensive line class. There appears to be solid depth in this group, but whenever there seems to be a lot of talent at one position, teams must do their best work in evaluating all the players -- not just the top prospects.

The best way to ensure success in drafting defensive linemen is to define the role they can play. Is the prospect a run-down player only? If he can play all three downs, which position would it be on each down? These definitions must be precise, because they will place the players in the right spot on the draft board.

Why is the defensive line the key to the draft? When reviewing a draft after an extended period of time, we often look back to see that a team took a defensive lineman in the top 10, but he was not the best player available at his position. Take 2004, when the Vikings picked USC's Kenechi Udeze 20th overall and the Chiefs took Jared Allen in the fourth round (126th). The Cardinals selected Antonio Smith in the fifth round (135th), while the Seahawks took Marcus Tubbs 23rd overall. These are mistakes that must be avoided. Defining a defensive lineman's role can help a team avoid a big mistake.

Teams must go back over their defensive line evaluations and double- or triple-check their information to avoid buying the hype on some players.

Re-evaluate and then think conversions

An offensive lineman might not go in the top 10 of this draft. However, that does not mean there is not talent available. What it does mean, however, is that general managers must be divergent in their thought process. Just because there is not a top 10 prospect does not mean there are not players. Two things can help.

Two-round mock draft

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First, teams should try to find the next Donald Penn. Although he was a rookie free agent out of Utah State, Penn developed into one of the best left tackles in football. The Bucs actually stole him off the Vikings' practice squad. In this draft, there is a big, physical lineman somewhere who has the size and foot quickness to be a left tackle, but is being pushed down because he has bad draft grades. Now is the time for a general manager to go back over every offensive lineman, knowing the traits that Penn possessed, and see if a similar prospect slipped through the cracks. Penn was a four-year starter in college, but before going to Utah State, he was an All-State basketball player in high school in California.

The other way a team can be divergent with its thinking is to spend the next four weeks looking for any defensive lineman who might be converted to the offensive line. Teams should go over every marginal free-agent defensive linemen, researching playing backgrounds and looking for prospects who were All-State offensive linemen in high school, or were state heavyweight wrestling champions. Finding one player to convert is essential in a draft that is limited in depth. It might take time for the player to develop, but it will prove to be a worthwhile project. There is another Stephen Neal out there. The challenge is to find him.

With a month to go, there is still much to do. How each team approaches the next four weeks will go a long way toward having a successful draft.

Follow Michael Lombardi on Twitter @michaelombardi.

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