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13 Apr 2004
Guest Column by Barry Goodberg
There are plenty of related factors behind the rise of the NFL draft on the American sports calendar: The proliferation of sports talk radio and ESPN, the development of numerous draft mavens such as Mel Kiper, the increased sophistication of scouting techniques, and, in my opinion, the decline of baseball and rise of the NFL as the national sport. For these reasons and more, the NFL Draft has become as big an event for fans as it is for coaches and general managers. Just as baseball's "Hot Stove League" created a year-round fan interest in baseball, so has the NFL Draft created a year-round interest in football; but it has not always been this way.
Before the 1960s, NFL teams did very little preparation for the draft. This was due primarily to the fact that the NFL did not have the financial resources to have full-year scouting systems; and just about all the scouts of the NFL teams were used to watch their upcoming opponents. Collegiate scouting was limited essentially to the first round, pretty much the only round that interested most NFL fans. Much of the information received by NFL coaches and general managers was from personal opinions from players' collegiate coaches, a not particularly objective source. Many teams actually went into the draft room, held usually at the NFL Commissioner's office armed with sports magazines and newspaper articles. As a result, many teams ended up saddled with Heisman winners and collegiate stars who did not have the athletic ability to play at a higher level.
This all changed around the mid-1960s. The popularity National Football League was increasing dramatically and more money was coming in through gate receipts, as most NFL games were sellouts at that time, and through increased television revenue. Many NFL observers claimed that this popularity increased as a result of the dramatic 1958 overtime game between the Baltimore Colts and New York Giants, but the popularity would have risen even without that game. In my opinion, the rise of the NFL during the late 1950s-1960s was in direct correlation with the rise of the medium of television. In contrast to baseball's leisurely pace, the sport of football, with its more frenetic pace, was made for television; and fans, particularly those in areas without major college football teams, just could not get enough of it.
Even with the increase in financial resources, most teams were content to continue their antiquated ways of analyzing college players. This was until the Dallas Cowboys of the 1960s came along. The Cowboys had the ideal situation to innovate. They were an expansion team, so that expectations were not high; they had an owner in Clint Murchison who was willing to spend his money and for the most part let the football administrators run the team; they had a General Manager in Tex Schramm who had considerable knowledge of economic and public relations, as well as football matters; they had a coach who was already an institution in Tom Landry; they had a young head of scouting in Gil Brandt who was willing to innovate; and they had a loyal and knowledgeable fan base in probably the most football-hungry state in the country which was willing to suffer few a few losing seasons without widespread demands for personnel changes. This group developed a sophisticated method for scouting college players, including being the first NFL team to hire scouts for the sole purpose of evaluating those players. Such methods included the time in the 40-yard dash and number of repetitions players can bench press 200-250 pounds. NFL evaluation of college players was also aided by increased development of college game film for evaluation by NFL personnel.
As a result, the Dallas Cowboys for a period of about ten years outdrafted their opponents, coming up with draft picks, many from small-college teams, which left other teams scratching their heads. At about the same time, in the fledgling American Football League, Al Davis of the Oakland Raiders was developing a similar system (though with more limited success, due to the fact that the Raiders did not have nearly the resources that the Cowboys had).
Another important event affecting the NFL Draft has been the institution of free agency, with accompanying rise in player salaries. Many experts predicted that the importance of the draft would be greatly diminished by free agency, but this has not been the case. Thanks to free agency, teams no longer have the luxury of letting high draft picks (particularly quarterbacks) sit on the bench for a few years while learning their trade. This is because teams have to justify to the fans and players why a player eating up such a high salary cap number is not contributing and also because bench players are likely to sign with another team once their contracts end.
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The sophistication and secrecy with which NFL teams now conduct their drafts are now on a par with presidential political campaigns and international intelligence organizations. Most players expected to be drafted early are brought to the NFL Scouting Combine at Indianapolis in February, where these prospects undergo physiological and psychological testing leaving no stone unturned. Yet, because the combine is run by the NFL rather than by the teams, sometimes a player not invited to the combine can be drafted early because an astute scout can pick up on an overlooked player. Last year's player was Calvin Pace, rated as a third-fourth rounder by most teams but selected as the 18th pick in the first round by the Arizona Cardinals. The surprise pick this year appears to be cornerback Shawnte Spencer, overlooked by the NFL Combine and most draft experts but suddenly of interest to a number of NFL teams.
The lengths to which NFL teams mask their true intentions are known far and wide. These tactics include:
Using members and friends of the media to convey false information; some may even be willing participants. Examples of this include "leaking" false trade rumors, as the Cincinnati Bengals did last year. The Bengals were desperate to trade out of their #1 spot and avoid paying a monster rookie contract to Carson Palmer, who they rated highly, but not as a sure thing. Since no other team could be found that had a can't miss opinion about Palmer, any other quarterback, or any other player worthy of the #1 pick (with the commensurate signing bonus and salary to go with it) Cincinnati had no choice but to take its top-rated quarterback prospect with that pick. But, before then, Cincinnati created all sets of bogus rumors about teams wanting to trade up for that pick in order to try to get a decent price for trading down.
Another apparent example is occurring now. The San Diego Chargers, who hold the first pick this year, seem to be willing to trade out of that pick. The New York Giants, who hold the fourth pick, are looking into all options of what to do with it, including trading up. The Giants made contact with San Diego inquiring about the price of the pick. Right after that conversation, the San Diego management leaked the information about that call to a reporter, most likely for the purpose of driving up the price. This action, though, appears to have backfired, resulting in an angry New York Giants GM without other teams not rising to the bait.
Intentionally creating a false impression. This practice was used successfully by Red Auerbach of the Boston Celtics, who was regarded highly by other NBA teams as a talent evaluator and was being watched . One example of Auerbach's acts was, after watching a player for about a half, abruptly left the arena with a look of disgust. This scared off other teams, and Auerbach subsequently selected all-star center Dave Cowens.
This activity has been used with less success this year by the Pittsburgh Steelers. Word is out that the Steelers, looking for an eventual (or immediate) replacement for Tommy Maddox, are looking toward using their first-round pick (#11) on a quarterback. One of the quarterbacks thought worthy of that pick is Philip Rivers of North Carolina State. When Rivers held a private workout, however, Pittsburgh did not send a representative. This tactic fooled no one. With Rivers's combine results and game film, Pittsburgh had more than enough information, and the current thinking is that the Steelers would jump at Rivers if he were available for the Steelers in the first round.
Creating an atmosphere of secrecy around your team. Otherwise known as "being the Raiders." Al Davis, who has a suspicious nature to begin with, is stone silent about whom he wants with the second pick, possibly hoping that teams will contact him and offer a substantial price to move up. Or, perhaps Davis is concerned that if San Diego or another team gets wind of whom he wants, that team will make an effort to trade with San Diego, move ahead of the Raiders, and take the player that the Raiders want. Or, perhaps he's just cranky.
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There is such sophistication about the draft that, just as teams rely on charts to determine on whether to go for a two-point conversion or on whether to pass or run on third down, draftors rely on charts to determine the value of a draft pick in terms of other draft pick. Here's a sample chart from the website NFL Draft Blitz.
Of course, these charts are used only as guidelines, as there are a number of variables which would change the value of each pick. For example, the availability of a player such as John Elway or Lawrence Taylor would markedly increase the value of the first pick, as would a draft year such as 1991, the year Rajhib Ismail signed with the Canadian Football League and there was no player left considered a worthy first pick (New England made a trade with Dallas, who selected Russell Maryland with that pick). The most atypical year I can remember was 1989 where there were five bona fide super prospects. Those picks were drafted in the following order: (1) Troy Aikman (to Dallas); (2) Tony Mandarich (to Green Bay); (3) Barry Sanders (to Detroit); (4) Derrick Thomas (to Kansas City); and (5) and Deion Sanders (to Atlanta). In that year, the cost of trading from sixth (where Tampa Bay selected Broderick Thomas) to fifth likely would have been as much as trading from the near end of the first round to sixth.
The NFL has gone from the days where there was not enough information to where there now is too much information. ESPN, sports talk radio, the Internet, and other factors have created a situation where so much information is generated that it is difficult to tell what is accurate and what is not. The NFL draft has become a second industry of its own, and neither the NFL, the fans, nor the media have any desire to change this.
Barry Goodberg is a Football Outsiders reader and Patriots fan. This is first guest column. If you are interested in writing a guest column, something that takes a new angle on the NFL, please email us your idea at info @ footballoutsiders.com