Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

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There will be four teams in the inaugural College Football Playoff at the end of the season. What common characteristics will distinguish these teams above all others?

22 Apr 2009

Walkthrough: Made, not Born

by Mike Tanier

Welcome to Walkthrough, where we're posting a new, complete mock draft every hour! That's right: seven rounds, 256 picks, updated every sixty minutes, all week long. So keep clicking and re-clicking "refresh" like some stalker girlfriend waiting for a return e-mail, and we'll keep flooding you with breathless, ill-founded speculation.

1) Detroit Lions: Jason Smith, OT, Baylor. We've had Matthew Stafford going to the Lions in our last 12 mock drafts, dating back to last night. But then we wondered: What if the Lions' courting of Stafford is an elaborate smoke screen to confuse other teams? Granted, there's no good reason for such disinformation, and the Lions are barely able to target and sign players they want, let alone use skullduggery to mislead opponents. Still, there's a chance they'll go in another direction, take an offensive lineman, then grab a guy like John Parker Wilson later in the draft. Next hour, we'll explore the possibility of a three-way, six-pick deal involving the Lions, Eagles, and Broncos, a possibility we just dreamed up while shotgunning Red Bull in the middle of the night.

2) St. Louis Rams: Matthew Stafford, QB, Georgia. Marc Bulger is getting old, right? The Rams need to groom a replacement, don't they? This makes sense. Tell me it makes sense. Reassure me it makes sense. Please, I've been awake for 114 straight hours.

3) Kansas City Chiefs: Aaron Curry, LB, Louisville. Curry is a great player who perfectly fits the system the Chiefs plan to run this year. Whatever that is. Wait, who's coaching the Chiefs?

4) Seattle Seahawks: Michael Crabtree, WR, Texas Tech. So groggy. Something something despite signing T.J. Houshmandzadeh something something Jim Mora is a ninny something.

5) Cleveland Browns: Mark Sanchez, QB, USC. The presence of Sanchez and Brady Quinn on the same roster will cause a Golden Boy explosion that will destabilize the global precious metals market. Yes! Still got it!

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6) Bengals: B.J. Raji, DT, Boston College. Raji has been all over the board in recent hours. We had him in Denver with the 12th pick last hour, Atlanta with the 24th pick before that, and Green Bay with the ninth pick in the infamous 5 a.m. draft that was the talk of the blogosphere for more than 20 minutes. The marijuana allegations make Raji difficult to project. If only there was some precedent to base conclusions on -- say, a massive defensive tackle who battled pot allegations before the draft but went on to multiple Pro Bowls. You know, a guy who went through this about 14 years ago who proved that despite using marijuana, the most dangerous of the performance enhancers, a player can get drafted early in the first round and go on to great success. But there's no such player, not a single one, to use for comparison. So we'll keep ping-ponging Raji around the board and harping on the pot story, because it's more interesting than talking about his footwork.

7) Oakland Raiders: Jeremy Maclin, WR, Mizzou. Leave it to the Raiders to draft the fastest player on the board. Hey, you know what: I got paid to write that last sentence! You could have written it. Any football fan over the age of 15 could have made such an obvious, oversimplified remark. But I made it, and it probably netted me about 30 cents, prorated across my fee for this column. Isn't life grossly unfair?

8) Jacksonville Jaguars: Eugene Monroe, OT, Virginia. In an hour, we'll flip this pick with Crabtree and call it an "update."

9) Green Bay Packers: Brian Orakpo, DE, Texas. Orakpo is a good fit for a 4-3 team that needs depth and versatility on the defensive line. Wait, did Mayock just say something nice about Aaron Maybin on NFL Network? Red alert! Move him up the board!

10) San Francisco 49ers: Aaron Maybin, DE, Penn State. Nice work.

Commercial: Just a reminder that Hourly Mock Drafts continue until midnight, April 18th. After that, you can look forward to:

  • April 19th-20th: Mock Drafts on the Eights. Get a mock draft at eight, 18, 28, 38, 48, and 58 past the hour, plus local weather and traffic.
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11) Buffalo Bills: Brandon Pettigrew, TE Oklahoma State. The Bills need ... no, I quit. This is insane! It's all just idle speculation. I mean, we all know the top 20 to 30 prospects. Some teams have really obvious needs. But really, aren't we just shuffling a deck over and over again here? Is there any accountability? Is a mock draft any more interesting or useful than, say, a player profile? Or a study to determine whether 40-times are really valuable for running backs?

Oh wait: Mock Drafts generate eyeballs. Casual fans click the link, read about their favorite team for 30 seconds, then move on. It's a proven, easy-to-generate commodity in the marketplace. Heck, this isn't even that much work, even if I am chained to the keyboard and producing them round-the-clock. And in two weeks, it will be over, and I will be writing about actual picks by actual teams that will affect the future of the entire league. Hooray! I have found my motivation.

12) Denver Broncos: Brian Cushing, LB, USC. With two No. 1 picks and a host of needs on defense, the Broncos will try to shore up their front seven. That means grabbing a sure-thing run-stopping linebacker like Cushing, who will help blah blah blah blah...

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Scouting Reports of the Past

Here are some scouting reports from old Pro Football Weekly draft guides. Can you figure out who the player is?

Tight End, 1997: "A huge blocking tight end who could eventually wind up where he started his college career -- as an offensive lineman -- if he learns to translate his strength onto the gridiron."

Linebacker, 2002: "Negatives: Lacks height, does not look that fast or athletic. Was really helped by his team's defensive scheme last season."

Quarterback, 2002: "Has the tools to develop into an NFL quarterback if he keeps his weight down, becomes more consistent, and learns to play within himself ... Is not the second coming of Daunte Culpepper, but there are similarities."

Quarterback, 2004: "Very good size and instincts for the position. Can manage the offense and is efficient with good leadership qualities ... Reminds scouts of Marc Bulger."

Defensive Tackle, 2004: "If the light stays on, has the talent to be a starter. If he resorts to earlier up-and-down effort and plays without desire, he's just a big backup with the underachiever label."

Cornerback, 2004: "Instinctive zone corner with outstanding production. Limited by his size and man cover speed but is a good football player in the right situation. Training camp player."

Ready for the answers? Matt Lepsis, James Harrison, David Garrard, Matt Schaub, Marcus Tubbs, and Nick Harper.

Old scouting guides are like old farmer's almanacs: There are pockets of wisdom buried in vast canyons of outdated guesswork. It's fascinating to see scouts nail an inconsistent player like Tubbs or predict that Lepsis would turn into a quality tackle. The world where "Culpepper-like" was a compliment seems to have disappeared long ago: Did people live in straw huts back then?

But the Harper scouting report is the most interesting: a situational player, a training camp filler who could improve. Scouting reports like Harper's help us cut through the hype and remind us that for all of the draft talk, player acquisition is not as important as player development.

The Developmental Secret

Great players are made, not born.

If there's anything that eight years of draft analysis has taught me, that's it. Great players become great when they reach the NFL. They don't become Pro Bowlers or Hall of Famers in college, at the Combine or at the draft. They enter the NFL as raw material. They become players -- good, great, exceptional, legendary -- later in their lives.

Each draft class contains dozens of "potentially great" players, but each Michelangelo is still hidden in the hunk of marble. There's no secret method to reveal the masterpiece, because the master still hasn't carved it. The differences between the productive player and the bust, the good player and the all-time great, usually don't even exist yet on Draft Day.

Over the years, I've often been asked how so many teams could overlook Tom Brady. The answer is that he wasn't Tom Brady yet. He was just a second-tier Big-10 prospect with a decent arm and a good head on his shoulders. The Patriots coaches made him Tom Brady, and he made himself Tom Brady. To a degree, fate made him Tom Brady. A dozen other guys might have become Tom Brady, but instead became David Greene or Tim Rattay. Brady wasn't so much a draft-day steal but a triumph of postdraft management and development.

How did so many teams overlook James Harrison, an undrafted rookie in 2002? That's easy: Harrison wasn't Harrison. He was a raw, small-school athlete who wasn't even all that athletic. Justin Tuck wasn't Justin Tuck. Jeff Saturday wasn't Jeff Saturday. They were just athletes: very good ones, not exceptional ones. They became great in the NFL.

Archetypes: Every draft class includes a few outliers, followed by dozens of players that fall into one or more archetypes.

At the top of many draft classes are one or two transcendent athletes: Deion Sanders, Randy Moss, Michael Vick, Lawrence Taylor. These players are so gifted that the only force that can stop them is themselves. There is no such player this year.

Beneath them are usually two or three standouts whose gifts are not quite so preternatural: the Julius Peppers, Calvin Johnson, Reggie Bush, Darren McFadden class. Again, these players are capable of falling on their faces, but they are so talented that they look pretty good doing it. Michael Crabtree and Matthew Stafford are in this class. Andre Smith might also fit here. Standing beside these athletes are players with great athleticism and exceptional motivation and drive: the Ray Lewis, Peyton Manning types. Aaron Curry and Eugene Monroe fall into this category. With great work habits and top-notch skills, such players rarely go bust.

After the fifth or sixth pick, all the "can't lose" players are usually gone. What's left?

Two hundred-fifty-pound defensive end/linebackers, guys with a quick first step but raw pass rushing skills. Every draft produces about a dozen of them.

Tall wide receivers with 4.45 speed and great hands who never had to run a route tree. Again, every draft produces plenty.

Jumbo offensive tackles with good athleticism but bad footwork and exercise habits.

Cornerbacks who stand about 5-foot-10 and can outrun most wide receivers, but who know little about zone coverage or tackling and have king-sized egos.

Three-year starting defenders in Big-10 or SEC programs who are big, strong, and field smart but a step slow for the NFL.

Running backs galore, most of them around 215 pounds with good cutback ability and poor blocking skills.

And so on. All of these players can be ranked and graded, analyzed and scrutinized. One player has more experience, another played in a tougher conference. One left tackle has longer arms, another appears to have better balance. I can make a list, Mike Mayock can make his, Mel Kiper his, yours your own. The lists will be meaningless, for one simple reason:

The difference between the third and 13th best player at any position on these lists is infinitesimally small compared to the variables that will shape their growth once they reach the NFL.

When I put together draft lists, I usually follow a 1-2-3-Other rule. I study the first three to five prospects carefully, learning about their backgrounds, studying their game tape, reading about them and talking to experts. Everyone else gets a thumbnail sketch: stats, strengths, weaknesses, tidbits. I may list one prospect sixth and another 16th, but that's only for convenience, not because the sixth player is a significantly better prospect. The greatest experts in the world, be they Mayock, Kiper, or some Ravens scout on Ozzie Newsome's speed dial, may be able to discern a two percent difference between them. More likely, Mayock and Kiper are doing the best they can, and that Ravens scout is more interested in what his coaches need, and what they plan to do with their prospects, than in any two percent gradiation.

The Variables: Who is ranked fourth on your defensive tackle list? I have Evander Hood from Missouri. Who is 14th? Myron Pryor of Kentucky? Clinton McDonald of Memphis? All three of these guys are between 290 and 310 pounds, between 6-0 and 6-2. They all have pluses and minuses: Hood is the best athlete of the three and gets high marks for character, so he may be selected in the second round while Pryor and McDonald wait until the fourth or fifth.

Is Hood five percent more athletic than Pryor or McDonald? Ten percent? How do you calculate "athleticism" by percentage, anyway? Give Hood a half-step of quickness and a few pounds of strength over the others. Give him a few IQ points if you want. Those gifts will give him an edge. But these factors will have a much bigger impact on his future success than that edge:

  • The workout and conditioning plan given to him by coaches in minicamp.
  • The role he is expected to play, and his suitability that role.
  • The skills and techniques he is taught in camp, and the reinforcement he receives in those skills.
  • The advice and support he gets from family, agent, and teammates in the first months of his career.
  • The quality and success of the players around him.
  • Truly unpredictable factors, like dumb luck or freak injuries.

Most of these conditions are invisible or inscrutable to the mass media. We don't know what coaches teach in minicamps or how well they teach it, the exact minituae of each system and how well a given player fits it except at the most superficial level. So we focus on draft status, heights and weights, Wonderlics and scouting reports. We anoint "good drafts and bad drafts": silly articles the morning after, serious ones dissecting the drafts of four or five years ago.

If Hood plays for a decade and goes to four Pro Bowls, he was a good pick. If he rides the bench for four years, then washes out, he was a bad pick. Most likely, he was just an ordinary pick: a big guy who fills a team's need. Pryor and McDonald, in either order, will just be picks, though they could grow into superstars or private citizens. What we are really seeing isn't really scouting acumen; it's the difference between good coaches and organizations and bad coaches and organizations.

Situation Nowhere: Let's give Hood and the other tackles a rest. Let's talk about pass rushing ends; not elite specimens like Peppers or Dwight Freeney, but the garden-variety early round pick. We're going to take the same player, a 260-pound 21-year-old with 4.6 speed, excellent agility, and 30 sacks at a major conference program. Let's call him Sack Man. We'll put him in two different situations. We'll call the good situation The Steelers Program. The bad situation is called The Lions Program.

In The Lions Program, Sack Man joins a team whose coaching staff is in its third year but has had no winning seasons. They are on the hot seat, and the team has a mediocre defensive line with no other pass rush threat. Sack Man's coaches are below average by NFL standards. At minicamps, the drills aren't sharp and instructions are often confusing or contradictory. The defensive coordinator wants a point-of-attack defender, but the defensive line coach stresses finesse moves. Specific skills aren't reinforced, so Sack Man doesn't get careful instruction and correction to his footwork or pass rush technique.

Because the team is bad, Sack Man is expected to be an every-down starter from Day One. The whole playbook is thrown at him. He's expected to stop the run, blitz, stunt, and drop into coverage during zone blitzes. He learns slowly and is yelled at by the coaches. Priorities shift as coaches juggle the roster or add new plays in a desperate attempt to change their fortunes. Sack Man sometimes plays out of position or is given no-win assignments. The locker room atmosphere is negative during camp and poisonous as losses mount. Other players shrug off coaches' criticism or go through the motions during drills. Sack Man has a good work ethic, but the organizational malaise rubs off on him, and he lacks role models to show him the best way to improve himself at practice. He keeps trying, but some bad habits rub off.

Sack Man's rookie season is pretty good: six sacks, a bunch of highlights. But the team goes 6-10 again, and the coaches are replaced. The new coaches have new terminology, new roles, new procedures. The old squad wanted Sack Man to line up on the tight end's outside shoulder, twist inside, and attack the tackle between the numbers on a Texas stunt. The new coaches want him head-up on the tight end and attack the tackle-guard gap on the same play. Sack Man barely learned the basics under the old coach, and now he's trying to adjust. The new staff isn't markedly more competent than the old, and they are much less experienced. The new coach is eager to put his stamp on the roster, and Sack Man is under pressure to make a big improvement, even though his skills are still raw and he never had time to grow into his role. Suddenly, he's talked about as a disappointment, a holdover from a failed regime.

Where is Sack Man in four years? Maybe he keeps battling, rises above the turmoil, and becomes an All-Pro. More likely, he hangs around for a few years, garners a few more sacks, but starts to fade as his athleticism slips. If his work ethic sustains him, he becomes a high-motor guy with a little speed who becomes a rotation lineman. If he was drafted in the first two rounds, he's a "bust."

In the Steelers situation, Sack Man joins a team whose experienced coaching staff has run the same kind of system for years. The scouting department works hand-in-glove with the coaches, finding players with the exact skill sets needed to thrive in the system. The defensive line coach has a precise regimen he uses for new pass rushers, and Sack Man learns the basics during tightly run camps. Coaches knew they were getting a kid who needed to improve his footwork; they told the scouts that footwork wasn't a major issue for a player with Sack Man's other talents. The coaches are masters of footwork improvement, and that's what Sack Man works on most during practice.

Sack Man doesn't have to start as a rookie because the team's overall talent level is solid. Coaches can emphasize techniques instead of teaching him the entire playbook. Sack Man has time to develop. He learns to tackle by playing special teams. Coaches measure and monitor everything, including his workouts. There's no pressure to throw him into the lineup, because everyone's job is relatively secure.

Sack Man gets into some games as a situational pass rusher and notches a few sacks. In his second year, the coaches change his goals: He becomes a starter, though he still leaves the field in some packages. The new goals are clearly articulated, and practices are adjusted to prepare him for his new role. Sack Man didn't take a rookie pounding; instead, he bulked up and learned. He wasn't forced to change schemes, wasn't asked to play roles he wasn't ready for. In his second year, he records 10 sacks and makes a bunch of plays in the backfield.

Where is Sack Man in four years? A perennial Pro-Bowler, barring injury. If he was selected in the third round, he's a draft day "steal." No one wonders what might have happened to him in the Lions situation.

Variables and Possibilities: In between the Lions and the Steelers are 30 other teams, some with better coaches than others, better training staffs, better locker room cultures. Some coaching staffs can develop one type of player well but not another. Most staffs have mixed resumes, which is understandable since coaches are just a few of the thousand variables affecting player performance. Some teams have scout-to-coach communication issues, others don't. Some do a better job at player guidance and counseling than others. And so on.

No one can account for all of the variables, but we must admit that they are more important than predraft scouting reports for all but the most gifted or unusual players. In the right situation, Josh Freeman could emerge as a superstar, but if the 49ers draft him and throw him in the starting lineup, he'll flop. Michael Oher might get your quarterback killed as a Day One left tackle starter, but he could anchor the right side of your line after a year on the bench. As an in-space, Cover-2, weakside backer, Clay Matthews could play for 12 years. Make him play close to the line of scrimmage and battle tight ends on every snap, and he'll wear down immediately.

Even our FO metrics only take us so far. The Lewin Forecast is best used as a red flag, a sign that scouts grew enamored of a quarterback's size, speed, or arm, ignoring a (usually skimpy) collegiate resume. Speed Scores identify running backs who fit a mold: They can pick out the very good and weed out the very bad, but they only fill in a little detail for dozens of running backs who fall into an acceptable size-speed range.

Perhaps the best lesson learned by deep analysis is that we shouldn't analyze too deeply. Hour ten of film study won't tell us much about a fourth-round pick. The 21st scouting report on a player offers nothing that wasn't covered in the first 20. The time spent determining whether Chip Vaughn is a better safety than Patrick Chung would be better spent watching NFL game film, learning just how each team uses its safeties, determining if safety is a team's major need, and perhaps checking the coaching staff's track record in developing safeties. That kind of research can tell us if either rookie safety, or any other, is in good position to develop.

So as I assemble my scouting reports for the New York Times draft blog, I separate big from small, slow from fast, experienced from green. I write vignettes about the prospects: pertinent stats, interesting stories, jokes about their famous uncles. I add some color from my notes and tape study. But I don't micro-analyze the players. It's a fool's errand, searching for features that aren't yet there or haven't yet developed. The marble hasn't been carved yet. All we can say for sure is that there are many very promising slabs.

Posted by: Mike Tanier on 22 Apr 2009

89 comments, Last at 30 Apr 2009, 8:49am by Kevin from Philly

Comments

1
by Ryan Harris (not verified) :: Wed, 04/22/2009 - 12:43pm

Great article, one of the best of many superb from the FO staff.

21
by The Ninjalectual :: Wed, 04/22/2009 - 2:36pm

Seconded! My thoughts exactly.

"Just look at that pumpkin."
-John Madden, looking at the moon.

2
by James-London :: Wed, 04/22/2009 - 12:48pm

Bravo. The section on 'Sack Man' was excellent.

BTW, who is your 212th pick...?

Phil Simms is a Cretin.

3
by KyleW :: Wed, 04/22/2009 - 12:50pm

A good point well argued.

The idea that most rookies need to be developed does lend weight to the arguments for reducing the salaries paid to first round prospects. If you are not paying a guy millions of dollars a year you don't mind him not playing every down before he is ready.

4
by JCRODRIGUEZ (not verified) :: Wed, 04/22/2009 - 12:53pm

Right in the head!, the Situation is everything, well, almost everything, young kids should not be expected to be thrown into the fire and save by themselves failed organizations. Coaching Staff and Team Management should get most of the criticism regarding the failure to develop young players.

There are no saviors nor messiahs, just well thought plans and hard work.

5
by ChrisH :: Wed, 04/22/2009 - 1:00pm

Kansas City Chiefs: Aaron Curry, LB, Louisville

I think we meant Wake Forest there, right?

6
by Sophandros :: Wed, 04/22/2009 - 1:12pm

Nice Queensryche reference...

Great article during this silly season.

-------------
Sports talk radio and sports message boards are the killing fields of intellectual discourse.

80
by Todd S. :: Fri, 04/24/2009 - 10:45am

And nice Rush reference. Don't want to leave out our rockers from the Great North.

7
by c_f (not verified) :: Wed, 04/22/2009 - 1:16pm

Excellent point about organizational strengths/weaknesses and expectations placed on rookies. To be fair to the mainstream press, writers occasionally hypothesize that rookie QBs placed in bad situations will struggle to succeed, that Harrington or Carr never had a chance.

Is "Aaron Curry, LB, Louisville" an obscure reference? He's a Wake Forest product.

8
by Jacob Stevens (not verified) :: Wed, 04/22/2009 - 1:24pm

Spectacular article.

9
by Temo :: Wed, 04/22/2009 - 1:31pm

This article reminded me of an article I'd read a while ago over at Baseball Prospectus (http://www.baseballprospectus.com/article.php?articleid=4026).

Essentially, after a lot of data analysis, the writer comes to two conclusions about the amateur baseball draft:

Draft Rule #1: The greatest difference in value between consecutive draft picks is the difference between the first and second picks in a draft.

Draft Rule #2: There is surprisingly little difference in value between second-round and third-round draft picks.

Of course, this is baseball and not football, but I'd love to see similar studies in football to try and fit with your theory that for the vast majority of players (those that are not preternaturally gifted), the spread of talent is pretty much equal, as seems to be the case with baseball.

"Then again, I'm a Bobby Carpenter believer." -- Barnwell

10
by BroncosGuy (not verified) :: Wed, 04/22/2009 - 1:34pm

Outstanding. This is one the best, most rational pieces I've ever read on the draft (and scouting and organizational development more broadly). Well, maybe not the mock mock, but even that was more rational than other things I've read lately. Context is extraordinarily important to how well a player performs (as well as how we perceive that performance). Excellent job.

11
by Dean :: Wed, 04/22/2009 - 1:35pm

Nice return to form, Mike.

Although, I must admit, it may be a fools errand, but I still want to know who's a better prospect - Eugine Chung or Chip Vaughan.

29
by Tundrapaddy (not verified) :: Wed, 04/22/2009 - 3:09pm

I don't think there is a 'Eugine Chung' in this draft. There is a Patrick Chung, who played at Oregon (my alma mater) in Eugene, though. Three- or four-year starter (not that a 3- or 4-year defensive starter at a non-defensive program necessarily means much).

Re: Harmonica Hero. I'm starting slow, on the Neil Young setting. 'Heart of Gold'.

Brilliant, Tanier.

39
by Dean :: Wed, 04/22/2009 - 4:13pm

My bad. There was a Eugine Chung who played OL a few years back. I want to say he was on the Pats.

51
by TerryW :: Wed, 04/22/2009 - 6:24pm

Mr. Chung:
http://www.nfl.com/players/eugenechung/profile?id=CHU131144

Played for the Pats from 92-94, then on to the Jags and Colts.

62
by Dean :: Thu, 04/23/2009 - 9:18am

So he's about the right age. I wonder if he's the father?

12
by Soulless Merchant of Fear (not verified) :: Wed, 04/22/2009 - 1:51pm

At minicamps, the drills aren't sharp and instructions are often confusing or contradictory. The defensive coordinator wants a point-of-attack defender, but the defensive line coach stresses finesse moves. Specific skills aren't reinforced, so Sack Man doesn't get careful instruction and correction to his footwork or pass rush technique.

This happens? Dude, that's not just an excellent cause to fire coaches. By football standards, that should be a hanging offense. Jeepers. I'm a football idiot who's never played the game, and even I know you can't do that.

I wonder if it's that the higher-level coaches fail to make clear what they want to the position coaches, or if the position coaches simply do what they think is best? And if it's the latter, do the higher-up coaches not notice, or do they figure that the position coach "knows what he's doing?" I'm sure it's all of the above, but which is the most common reason? Ye friggin' gods.

67
by Chocolate City (not verified) :: Thu, 04/23/2009 - 12:46pm

The problem on that unsettled staff that Mike described is that football practices are very compartmentalized. It is quite possible for the position coach and coordinator to be on different pages, technique-wise. They shouldn't be, but it happens. Unless somebody notices, Sack Man could get two different sets of instructions. Or, it could be that Sack Man's been so dang dominant all the way through college that he hasn't had to worry much about technique. The same two moves have done just fine and the rest of the college scheme was based off of what he was doing. It's possible that the walk-on OLB Sack Man pushed aside has a better grasp of the scheme than the superstar. Now, add in an unsettled pro coaching staff that assumes that he knows stuff he doesn't, a timid rookie who doesn't want to piss anyone off and doesn't say anything, and you've got a situation that sets Sack Man up to fail.

13
by JasonC23 :: Wed, 04/22/2009 - 1:59pm

I. Want. Lego. Pulp. Fiction.

The rest of the article was good, too.

14
by PatsFan :: Wed, 04/22/2009 - 2:04pm

Re: 12

I'd have a similar reaction as you.

However...

Over the years there have been multiple quotes from multiple free agents signed by the Patriots expressing surprise at the amount of situational practice that NE does. The thing is, the stuff the signees are talking about is (to naive me) basic situational practice that I would have thought every team would do.

Now, while I'm sure there's at least some puffery going on, it leads me to believe there really is a significant, meaningful difference in coaching quality across the NFL teams (and not just in terms of gameday Xs and Os).

15
by Pete (not verified) :: Wed, 04/22/2009 - 2:11pm

Raji to Cinci's pack of thugs! Brilliant!

30
by Tundrapaddy (not verified) :: Wed, 04/22/2009 - 3:15pm

He'd probably prefer to slip one more spot. That way he could follow the footsteps of a certain 'other' defensive tackel-with-marijuana-issues.

And Oakland is a lot closer to Humboldt, CA.

37
by BD (not verified) :: Wed, 04/22/2009 - 3:42pm

Cinci's pack of thugs!

Trollish, baseless, and an old dead horse anyway.

16
by panthersnbraves :: Wed, 04/22/2009 - 2:21pm

Great article.

Given the Panthers' lack of a first-round pick, I find the fan/pundit speculation about who might still be available at pick 59 to be incredibily funny.

17
by Kevin from Philly :: Wed, 04/22/2009 - 2:24pm

Are you telling me that if the Eagles had drafted Chad Johnson or Reggie Wayne instead of Freddie Mitchell, they'd have been busts? It may take a Michaelangelo to carve a masterpiece, but I'm pretty sure you need a REALLY good chunk of marble, too.

31
by Tundrapaddy (not verified) :: Wed, 04/22/2009 - 3:19pm

A first-round wideout, even from a 'really good chunk' of marble, is probably not going to have soft hands.

...

(sigh) Sometimes I'm more funny, sometimes less. Sadly, I can't filter this myself.

89
by Kevin from Philly :: Thu, 04/30/2009 - 8:49am

His hands were never the problem. It was his mouth (which never stopped) and his feet (which never got going). FredEx couldn't get separation if he gargled with skunk juice.

54
by Yaguar :: Wed, 04/22/2009 - 9:58pm

Nope. He's saying that Reggie Wayne was about as good as Freddie Mitchell at the time, but several people, including Wayne himself, helped Wayne to become far better than he was on draft day.

It's not hard to imagine that there is something intrinsic about Wayne's character that meant he would try hard to continue to get better. Manning, Dungy, and Moore obviously helped him, but he also clearly chose to put a monstrous effort in to improve.

Maybe Freddie Mitchell tried to improve, but I doubt he tried as hard as Wayne did. I seem to remember that he was yelled at for not learning the Eagles' playbook well. Maybe some of that is that he was dumber than Reggie Wayne, but I bet some of it is simply that he didn't put in the effort.

Wayne and Mitchell were about equally good at playing receiver when they were drafted. But Wayne was intrinsically better at getting better at playing receiver.

71
by Gringo Starrr (not verified) :: Thu, 04/23/2009 - 1:49pm

Wayne also had Marvin Harrison as a role model, and Harrison's pretty much the platonic ideal, especially when you stack his work ethic and behavior up next to guys like T.O., Randy Moss, Ocho Cinco, etc. Whereas I don't remember the Eagles having any other receivers on the team. Granted, there may have been other stand-up guys on the team, but you don't learn how to be a good receiver from Troy Vincent, you learn from a good receiver.

77
by Rich Conley (not verified) :: Fri, 04/24/2009 - 10:20am

especially when you stack his work ethic and behavior up next to guys like T.O., Randy Moss, Ocho Cinco,

Now, Randy Moss has been accused of taking plays off, but Ocho Cinco and TO are both gym rats who spend a ton of time working out and preparing themselves. They both have great work ethic.

Ocho Cinco is a good example here of a player rising above terrible coaching because of his talents and work ethic. Its not surprising that hes disgruntled with the coaching staff and their inability to put together even a decent team.

18
by panthersnbraves :: Wed, 04/22/2009 - 2:25pm

I guess the made/born deal could be used to explain the UFA's who lead their teams to the Superbowl after having been on the couch or bagging groceries or whatever.

19
by Michigan Dude (not verified) :: Wed, 04/22/2009 - 2:29pm

Sack Man piece was epic......i think there is a ready made example in Michigan's very own LaMarr Woodley, i just shudder to think what might have happened to him if the Lions had drafted him early round two, his career would have progressed exactly as you had laid out. There was great angst amongst the M community towards the Lions for missing out on a great prospect and picking up a mediocre one (Stanton), a Sparty no less. But thank god he went on to join a winning organization and is headed for an excellent career (already has a ring!!), a second round steal for the folks in Steel city.

20
by Michigan Dude (not verified) :: Wed, 04/22/2009 - 2:30pm

Sack Man piece was epic......i think there is a ready made example in Michigan's very own LaMarr Woodley, i just shudder to think what might have happened to him if the Lions had drafted him early round two, his career would have progressed exactly as you had laid out. There was great angst amongst the M community towards the Lions for missing out on a great prospect and picking up a mediocre one (Stanton), a Sparty no less. But thank god he went on to join a winning organization and is headed for an excellent career (already has a ring!!), a second round steal for the folks in Steel city.

22
by Roch Bear :: Wed, 04/22/2009 - 2:39pm

Big fan of FO and Mike T., ..... BUT there is really little evidence that the "NFL nurture" hypothesis put forward here is right. One could just as easily say it's all nature (i.e., the athlete and 'work ethic' football IQ etc. package inherent in the guy). The variability *might* be in development (across teams) as argued above, or it *might* be in the guys, and the problem with drafting is the complex of talents is so unreadable.

A test? If there are good developmental teams, then they should win more and if there are really bad developmental teams they should lose a lot. So a comparison of (say) the careers of first picks of the third round (make by winning teams) to those of the last picks of the second round (similar overall pick position in an attempt to control for nature) should reveal an interesting reversal. The high third rounders should have better careers. Obviously the test could be generalized to other rounds of the draft.

Just a thought.

I am nobody; Nobody is perfect: Therefore, I am perfect

28
by rk (not verified) :: Wed, 04/22/2009 - 3:08pm

Shouldn't it be the other way around? The first pick in the 3rd round goes to the team with the worst record while late 2nd rounders go to Super Bowl participants and the teams with the best records.

42
by Roch Bear :: Wed, 04/22/2009 - 4:41pm

You are right, of course. So, a slight correction, say by regression fit, to compensate for the small draft position difference should do it. thanks for spotting the switcherroroo. jim

23
by rk (not verified) :: Wed, 04/22/2009 - 2:54pm

Solid argument for development over talent, but obviously nothing is as simple as that. The Steelers drafted Alonzo Jackson in the 2nd round and developed him into a player that couldn't even cover a kick. James Harrison had the same coaching staff and became DPOY. It's still up to the player to be coached.

24
by Rusty G. (not verified) :: Wed, 04/22/2009 - 2:57pm

Very good stuff, and spot on in a lot of different ways.

I might humbly submit, however, that some of the "randomness" may actually be something akin to true hidden potential that would develop independently of the team or situation, or at least that could be driven by factors more "internal" to the player. A couple examples come to mind - Steve Largent, Jamal Anderson, Tony Romo, TJ Houshmandzadeh. I would have trouble arguing that any of these guys were really put in team and coaching situations that set them up for success, but they achieved it anyway.

I think a lot of players that seem, on the surface, to be relatively indistinguishable from others in their class are in fact substantially different in real potential, completely independent of their team/coaching situation.

That doesn't mean that those characteristics are consistently scoutable, though...so no real conflict with the article, which, again, I think is pretty admirable work.

33
by tuluse :: Wed, 04/22/2009 - 3:26pm

Tony Romo, really? You think an undrafted rookie out of Eastern Illinois would have succeeded in the NFL regardless of the situation he was placed in?

40
by Dean :: Wed, 04/22/2009 - 4:21pm

I think, here, that maybe the theory is that Romo ALREADY DID succeed in spite of his situation. Given the klusterf#ck that position had become since Aikman retired, it's worth considering.

25
by Arren (not verified) :: Wed, 04/22/2009 - 2:59pm

Pitch-perfect mockery of mock-draft madness — loved it.

26
by MJK :: Wed, 04/22/2009 - 3:06pm

Wonderful article. Loved it. I think underestimating the role of coaching and development is one of the biggest mistakes casual fans often make (I remember one thread where one FO poster was claiming that the coaching staff accounted for 10% of a team's performance and the rest was about the players...).

I like the marble metaphor. To answer Kevin from Philly: I don't think Mike is saying that if the Eagles had taken Wayne instead of FredEx he would have been a bust. I don't think you need a really good piece of marble...you just need one without any flaws. FredEx had some collassally big flaws in the middle of his marble block, and once the Eagles started sculpting they exposed them and he fell apart.

A player needs the raw physical tools to succeed. A very small percentage of people have those tools. They are the ones made of marble. Everyone else is granite.

Some percentage of those "marble" people have some critical flaw that has nothing to do with their physical tools (e.g. PacMan's propensity for stippers, night-clubs, and troublemakers) that will cripple their development. These people have big old cracks in the marble. Sometimes these cracks are visible, and sometimes you can judge that they are very small and can be chipped off without compromising your sculpture. Others you judge that the crack is too big and avoid that marble block. Sometimes you misjudge the size of the crack, or it's inside and you don't see it until you buy (draft) the marble and start chipping, and you sculpture is a bust.

But assuming you have an unflawed piece of marble, what kind of sculpture it turns into depends on the sculptor and his tools. The one thing the metaphor doesn't take into account is the player himself. Tom Brady didn't just become Tom Brady because of Belichick, Weis, and McDaniels, but also because HE was highly motivated, where as Bethel Johnson just...wasn't.

Now, granted, some players have more tools than others. They are purer or whiter marble. For the same level of development, the same skill of the sculptor, one will produce a prettier sculpture. However, anyone can have their sculpture derailed by a big flaw, and anyone can take a perfect piece of marble and shatter it.

35
by Tundrapaddy (not verified) :: Wed, 04/22/2009 - 3:30pm

Actually, it wasn't so much a 'colossally big flaw' in FredEx's marble block, but rather that he had hollowed out his marble block to transport weed to his rib joint. He did the same with his hair.

Anyhow, the point appears to be that a successful pro depends on not only his own 'potential' (as displayed by a combination of college production, interviews, and other statistics), but also on successful scouting AND successful development.

And the Eagles either can't scout or can't develop wide receivers on a regular basis. The WR position is Andy Reid's kryptonite, just as defensive backs were Shanahan's.

43
by Whatev (not verified) :: Wed, 04/22/2009 - 4:43pm

Your sculpture... is a... bust?

81
by Theo :: Fri, 04/24/2009 - 10:59am

Nice.

27
by Chris (not verified) :: Wed, 04/22/2009 - 3:07pm

In the nature/nurture debate, I generally agree with nurture, but the HOF quality, Deion Sanders type talents will be good wherever they go. At worst, maybe you see these great guys as only "good".

By definition, most guys are going to be average or slightly/better or worse. That's where the scheme will come into play etc. That's where Bill Bellicheck/Josh Mcdaniels can make Matt Cassell look good whether or not he is. ( You can replace this with Elvis Grbac, Scott Mitchell or anybody else) because Matt Cassell might be good for real.

I think in your article you tended to overrate "drills" players participate in, you tended to overrate "locker room chemistry", but the biggest thing that depends on success or not is Scheme and WHAT YOU ASK THE PLAYER TO DO!

Are you throwing 5 yard slants to Wes Welker, or are you taking 7 and 9 step drops before your offensive line gets you killed? Are you playing an aggressive 1 gap system on defense or are you playing a more passive 2 gap system? Is your receiver to told the route called in the huddle, or is he going to have to read the defense and make adjustments. Does your coaching staff allow your RB to cut back against the grain on the play when he feels it will work, or is your RB told to strictly hit the A gap when the the run is called through the A gap. Are you offensive lineman doing zone blocking or man/man blocking? Is your lineman asked to pull and run and think or is he asked to just overpower the guy in front of him...

It's about what you are asking players to DO, and how well coaching staffs know their personel and USE them. It's about play calling, philosophy, scouting the other teams and a whole lot of stuff. Some coaches are comically predictable in their play calling ( Hey it's 3rd and 11, I'll bet you 100 bucks they run a draw), while others keep you on your toes.

The hyperbole and jokes as usual didn't make me laugh ( as usual). But I agreed with the main part of your thesis. ( Hey, a little constructive criticism?) Oh, and the Aaron Curry slip up was pretty big... But Congrats on the NYT gig Mr. Tanier.

78
by Rich Conley (not verified) :: Fri, 04/24/2009 - 10:29am

"I think in your article you tended to overrate "drills" players participate"

I don't Chris. Football is definitely harder to judge, but in MLB, you have some players who have been in professional organizations, since they were 18, have been trained by professional coaches, and still have simple mechanical flaws in their swings.

They're still teaching fundamentals even at the pro level. Sometimes the kids with the most natural talent are the ones with the worst fundamentals. They've never needed to fix the poor swing because they still crushed HS pitching with it.

32
by John Morgan (not verified) :: Wed, 04/22/2009 - 3:25pm

"The difference between the third and 13th best player at any position on these lists is infinitesimally small compared to the variables that will shape their growth once they reach the NFL."

But it doesn't conform to reality. As Brian Burke, who is studying this, concludes:

"The continuing theme in this series is that the best players really do come from the top of the draft. No surprise there. But the top players have more than just an incrementally higher chance of great success, but double or triple the chance. The scouts and GMs do have an ability to recognize the players with the most potential at every position we've looked at so far. It's interesting to see just how steep the drop off really is after the first few players."

Mike Tanier's argument has two problems as I see it. You try a lot of angles, sort of overwhelm with ideas, but none of those angles are substantiated. You also attempt to prove that talent development is highly unpredictable, but do so by citing unusual players like Harrison and Brady.

38
by Scott P. (not verified) :: Wed, 04/22/2009 - 4:05pm

The article you link to doesn't contradict Tanier's thesis. Note that MT is saying there is little difference between #3 and #13 at a given position.

Note that Burke concludes: "It's interesting to see just how steep the drop off really is after the first few players." Which is what Tanier is saying. Maybe placing the cutoff at #3 is too high, but the general rule seems to be borne out.

41
by John Morgan (not verified) :: Wed, 04/22/2009 - 4:32pm

and all experience a steady decline with each subsequent pick. I think this is all like the news paradox. People are so enamored with the uncommon, and the uncommon is therefore more interesting and newsworthy than the common, that people begin to think the uncommon is common and the common suspect. Like, it's common for a sixth round pick to become Tom Brady, common to be attacked by a shark, and uncommon for a first round quarterback to become a star.

46
by Tom Gower :: Wed, 04/22/2009 - 4:58pm

The problem with Burke's piece is his primary graphs are Pro Bowl selections, which are in part a measure of how famous the player is, which is in part a function of how high the player is drafted. The story he's trying to tell is significantly noisier if you look at the last graph-number of years as starter. There's a clear premium for 1 and 2, but 8 is about as valuable as 6 and nearly as valuable as 4, significantly more valuable than 7 and a little more valuable than 5. 16 is almost as valuable as 12 and significantly more valuable than 13. The best-fit line evens out this noise, but doesn't hide the real conclusion: for the 2nd-13th LBs chosen, make sure you take the even nth linebacker, not the odd nth one.

48
by John Morgan (not verified) :: Wed, 04/22/2009 - 5:33pm

The third pick averages over five years in the league. The 13th pick averages about one and a half. From three to 13 it's a clear and reasonably steady decline. Yes, there's some up and down, but the ups and downs get progressively lower. In other words, there's a clear and recordable difference in the quality of the third linebacker taken and the 13th linebacker taken, and the value declines pretty steadily by pick.

57
by Thok :: Wed, 04/22/2009 - 11:59pm

Read the context: it's not the third pick versus the thirteenth pick, but the third QB or WR or LB versus the thirteenth player at that position.

For example, he's comparing Josh Freeman's chances of success to whoever the thirteenth highest rated QB in the draft is, not Aaron Curry to somebody like Josh Freeman.

75
by John Morgan (not verified) :: Thu, 04/23/2009 - 8:05pm

I am talking about third versus thirteenth at x position, and so is Brian Burke.

64
by Scott de B. :: Thu, 04/23/2009 - 10:40am

Right, which is why Scott P. said you might put the cutoff a tad lower. The 3rd pick averages 5 years in the league, but by the 6th pick you're down to just over 3. I don't see much difference between the 9th pick and the 22nd pick.

74
by John Morgan (not verified) :: Thu, 04/23/2009 - 7:01pm

No one is arguing the difference between the 9th pick and the 22nd pick. That's a complete abstraction. The argument is that the third ranked player at x position is equal to the 13th ranked player at x position, and that argument is provably false.

34
by Chris (not verified) :: Wed, 04/22/2009 - 3:29pm

Roch Bear - You mean players drafted by good teams ( in the late 2nd round) would perform better than players drafted by bad teams ( in the early 3rd round) of pretty much equal ability.

Charlie Casserly was on the NFLN talking about physicals, intelligence etc. and he said they really didn't care if you didn't do well on your aptitude tests, if you were really competitive and wanted to win, wanted to work hard ( I think of Tom Brady or Antonio Pierce) that you could make up for defencies in other areas.

Early on Mary Schottenheimer went to Antonio Pierce ( one of the least athletic MLB's in the league) and told him that if he ever really wanted to make it, he would have to commit himself to the film room to develop those insticts ( which he did). He's one of the smartest MLBs in the league ( and least athletic), which has worked out pretty well for him. Pierce was hungry, and commits himself and has been allowed to move guys around, he can diagnose players sometimes before they are run etc. While some coaches might have saw a very slow, unimpressive MLB, Marty saw success in him. There are countless other examples of the "nurture argument" with undrafted and lower round picks or guys that used to bag groceries and then won super bowl MVPs.

I also find it interesting the Giants ( who draft well), have that huge long psychological test that everybody complains about... " are you a cat or a dog" etc.

but don't forget, a lot of guys BUST due to injuries or it heavily contributes to their failures.

36
by Chris (not verified) :: Wed, 04/22/2009 - 3:31pm

Tuluse- I thought the Tony Romo example was pretty iffy too.

44
by Chris (not verified) :: Wed, 04/22/2009 - 4:44pm

41. I am going to quote Charlie Casserly again ( why do I keep doing that), but he said that he did NOT watch highlight tapes of draft prospects.

The casual fan does NOT watch teams outside their own ( and national TV games) very often and their lack of sample size is substituted by ESPN "highlights". If you watched Michael Vick have a whole game full of stupid plays and squandered opportunities only to have one really cool 20 yard run... guess what John Anderson is going to be showing when he recaps the Falcons game? The passes that fly 10 feet over Brian Finner's 6'5 head or the 20 yard scramble?

If all you saw was Barry Sanders highlights, you'd think that all he did was run for 40 yard touchdowns (instead of doing it once or twice per game), and you'd miss all the times he tried to juke people, cut back, and lose 1-4 yards.

You are more likely to die in a car crash on the way to the airport than to die in a plane crash, your kid is more likely to drown in the back yard pool than die from the gun locked up in the gun box etc. etc. etc.

but the vast clump of players are more similar than you'd think physical talent while you do get some freaks at the top (whether or not they can play anywhere near their potential and stay healthy.)

53
by AlanSP :: Wed, 04/22/2009 - 9:47pm

Agree about the highlights, with one caveat: in some cases, highlights can indicate certain skills that a player lacks. For example, if you watch a running back's highlight reel and don't see him making guys miss in space, it's probably because he doesn't make guys miss in space very much (since that's exactly the type of thing you'd expect to show up on a highlight reel).

Problem as a fan is that you don't have much available other that highlights as far as things you can watch yourself, at least for players on teams you don't follow. It would be really nice if people put together more complete footage of players in college (e.g. show the passes that a receiver dropped rather than just the ones where he made the catch).

45
by deep64blue :: Wed, 04/22/2009 - 4:54pm

Excellent article - plenty to chew over.

47
by The Guy You Don't Want to Hear (not verified) :: Wed, 04/22/2009 - 5:12pm

When you mentioned "MindCrime," I got excited for a whole bunch of upcoming Queensrÿche references that never materialized.

Couldn't you have at least named the Lions' coach Dr. X or something?

Otherwise, excellent, as usual.

70
by Sophandros :: Thu, 04/23/2009 - 1:26pm

I was afraid that I was the only one who caught that and felt the same way...

-------------
Sports talk radio and sports message boards are the killing fields of intellectual discourse.

49
by Subrata Sircar :: Wed, 04/22/2009 - 5:46pm

There's no way the dropoff in talent is linear, unless you're using log-log paper and a fat marker. Decades of census data alone will tell you that all the physical points that make up potential/talent occur in a Gaussian distribution - a bell curve.

Anyone on the left-hand side of that curve doesn't play organized sports long enough to matter, so throw it away. Now, take away the first half of the remaining part; those are all the folks who play high school ball but don't take it seriously or can't make it in college, etc.

Now take away the left 90% of what's left. Those are the 3000+ players on college programs who don't get drafted or picked up as UFAs. The 300 players left started out as the far, far right of a bell curve; every one of them dominated every field he was on since he put on the uniform. Their gifts are ridiculous compared to those of us sitting on the couch watching them play.

And yet, just as you'd predict from the initial bell curve, there are way more guys on the left of the curve i.e. with the same basic talent/drive level and most of those folks are fringy NFL players at best.

Talent is *not* distributed linearly. The top guys at a position are, in general, going to be a lot better than the next few, and those guys will have fewer differences from the guys below them, until you end up with a lot of people who are essentially the same.
-----
John Morgan, the trouble with using "years in league" as your measure is that it is entirely dependent on the same context that Tanier is describing. If Sack Man gets drafted by a good context team, he'll last for longer even if they take him later. If Sack Man goes to a team with fifteen Sack People and bad coaches, he might not make it even if he was a 3rd round pick.

Do you have numbers on a per-team basis? That is, is there enough data for, say, the Steelers to look at their 3rd round linebackers, and their 7th round linebackers and plot the results? I'd bet that if you look at that way, the best second order fit isn't linear, but more tail-Gaussian.

-----
Stepping back for a minute, what I see Tanier as saying is:
A. The first few picks at a position have better chances at succeeding no matter what their situation.
B. The rest of the picks at a position will have success more dependent on their situation than themselves.

That makes a lot of sense to me, and it's underreported in talking about the draft.

79
by Rich Conley (not verified) :: Fri, 04/24/2009 - 10:36am

"Talent is *not* distributed linearly. The top guys at a position are, in general, going to be a lot better than the next few, and those guys will have fewer differences from the guys below them, until you end up with a lot of people who are essentially the same."

While I agree with the talent distribution point, I don't think that the information is perfect here. Teams draft guys based on thinking they're on the far right of what is left, and very often, they're not.

50
by Subrata Sircar :: Wed, 04/22/2009 - 6:00pm

As far as coaches not making a difference, I can't speak to the teaching aspects; I have no idea how to measure that other than success on the field. I have anecdotal evidence about players like Woodley (i.e. guys whose college careers I watched some fraction of) and can note that the Steelers seem to have shored up his weaknesses (footwork and leverage) while playing to his strengths (football smarts, speed).

However, when it comes to tactics on the field i.e. go for it on 4th down? call a slant or not? etc. - coaches can only really lose the game. The art of coaching in sports really has three parts:
a. Be the public face of the team. This is all about media relations, because only management - someone who has the power to influence policy and actually make changes - should be critiqued on those issues and should be controlling the information.
b. Get your employee's focus and best effort. This can involve "keeping the clubhouse loose", and "not losing the team"; it's about getting people to go the extra mile for your after they've already gone 25. This is where the "leader of men" meme comes in.
c. Put your employees in positions to succeed. Call plays that play to their strengths and cover their weaknesses. Ask them to do things that they can do, not that they can't. Over time, you can try to mitigate or eliminate their weaknesses and bolster their strengths, but that can take longer than the average coaching lifespan. The fundamental factor is to know your team and what it can and can't do; if you do, you'll throw away fewer games than the next guy.

Obviously they interrelate; players will go the extra mile for you more easily if they see that you are working to make them look good and not bitching at them in the media.

Anyway, the central point is that most of a coach's job is actually done when the team takes the field. At that point, most of the decisions you can make won't win the game; at worst, they'll lose it. At best, they'll put the players in a position of strength that might let them win the game more often.

52
by AlanSP :: Wed, 04/22/2009 - 9:35pm

Really well-written article, but I don't really buy the basic premise, at least not to the extent to which you're trying to push it. Tom Brady might not have been Tom Brady in college, but Jared Allen was Jared Allen and Robert Mathis was Robert Mathis; scouts just missed it. Also, you don't really offer any way to distinguish the influences of coaching and player quality. I like the test that Roch Man proposes, comparing the last few picks of a given round to the first few picks of the next round (good vs. lousy teams), but that still doesn't really distinguish between good player evaluation and good player development.

I think people give up too easily with regard to figuring out how to identify the good players in the draft. It's easy to say that it's all largely a crapshoot, or that there isn't much difference among guys in the draft and it's all coaching etc. Part of the problem is that the process simply gets repeated year after year without thought as to how and why teams got it right or wrong before. Kiper is saying the same things he's been saying for years and teams keep right on drafting those QBs with big arms and lousy accuracy regardless of the past track record. No, things like Lewin projection and speed score aren't perfect, but they are also fairly early efforts in a very difficult endeavor. More important than any specific statistical model is the effort to systematically look at what's happened before so that you aren't endlessly repeating the same mistakes. That the league as a whole isn't getting better at drafting suggests to me that teams aren't really doing this.

59
by tuluse :: Thu, 04/23/2009 - 12:40am

I don't think scouts missed that badly on Mathis.

1) Look at what he did without Freeney (or with an injured Freeney).

2) I don't think he would have worked out on many teams. Nearly every team in the league has a bigger d-line than the Colts.

55
by coboney :: Wed, 04/22/2009 - 10:37pm

Great article and goes over a lot of things that people forget or never even consider.

In fact exactly what the position coaches do in percise details is left mostly to the area of unknown.

56
by Xeynon (not verified) :: Wed, 04/22/2009 - 11:00pm

I think what makes it difficult to come to a satisfactory one-sided answer in the "nature vs. nurture" debate is that there isn't one. Good coaching and player development matters, yes, but so does opportunity, luck, the player's personal competitiveness and desire to succeed, etc. I recently read an interview with Tom Heckert, the Eagles' GM, in which the interviewer asked him why the team had missed on some of their draft "busts" of recent years. Without naming names, he basically said that none of the players they'd taken who'd failed lacked the talent to succeed in the NFL, but that a variety of factors prevented them from developing once they got there. Some got hurt, and with others, the coaches discovered once they got into the league that the guys lacked the desire to be great NFL players and didn't work hard at their craft. He also said that it was difficult for a team to be able to consistently differentiate between the two groups given that teams are evaluating 500+ prospects every draft season, every college player will work hard to cash a big pro paycheck when they enter the NFL but that some won't continue to do so afterward, players/agents/colleges have a vested interest in concealing character flaws like poor work ethic from NFL scouts, etc.

I haven't followed every NFL team's draft classes closely, but it certainly seems to make sense when looking at the Eagles' drafts of recent years. Trent Cole, who was a raw 235 pound OLB when drafted, worked hard, bulked up, constantly improved his technique and became a Pro Bowl DE. On the other hand Winston Justice, a highly regarded prospect from a top program with all the measurable ability in the world, is on the verge of washing out, even though he's had no significant injuries and is being coached by a top offensive line coach with a history of successfully developing players at his position and is surrounded by quality teammates. The other variables all seem to have been in his favor, so ultimately the most likely explanation of his failure is a lack of some personal characteristic (work ethic, heart, whatever) necessary to succeed.

The fact that bad teams fairly often develop good prospects into great players (e.g. the Raiders with Asomugha, Texans with DeMeco Ryans, Cards with Boldin, etc.), and that good teams equally frequently fail to develop what are considered good prospects into any kind of player at all (the aforementioned Jackson example with the Steelers, the Patriots with Marquise Hill, the Titans with Andre Woolfork, etc.) also tends to undermine the "scouts are good at their jobs, it's all in the coaching" thesis. I think that the best explanation is the common sense one - success is the result of a combination of factors, and that teams that have both good scouting operations AND good coaching will tend to be the best at drafting and developing homegrown talent, probably via the mechanism described above - by looking for players who fit a role in their system and then coaching them to do so.

58
by justanothersteve :: Thu, 04/23/2009 - 12:19am

Packers: Brian Orakpo, DE, Texas. Orakpo is a good fit for a 4-3 team

Why would a team converting to a 3-4 defense draft a 4-3 DE?

60
by Mr B (not verified) :: Thu, 04/23/2009 - 8:22am

Isn't there also the point that each year we act like we expect the whole of the first three rounds or more to make the roster, contribute and become starters very soon.

The NFL already has the best athletes out there who want to play football. Each year a new crop are drafted but they are competing with veterans who know more than they do and have more experience.

Really, how many spaces are there where you can expect a rookie to be better than what's already available? This year's rookies are going up against last years rookies. Nothing says they're going to be better.

Does anyone have the stats on average turnover of roster spots per year and how many rookies hang around a year or more?

63
by Theo :: Thu, 04/23/2009 - 10:32am

I found some numbers from here:
http://www.nflplayers.com/user/template.aspx?fmid=181&lmid=349&pid=0&typ...

"...of the 100,000 high school seniors who play football every year, only 215 will ever make an NFL roster."

"The average length of an NFL career is about 3 and a half seasons."

53 players times 32 teams is 1696 players on NFL teams during the season.
1696/3.5 is about 485 players leaving the league every year.
If they say that only 215 new players enter the league, the league player pool would shrink with 270 players every year.
I don't know wich number is correct, or where I miscalculated, but something isn't right.
Either there are a lot of juniors playing, a lot of undrafted/street free agents playing, or the average NFL career is more towards 7 or 8 years.

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by Fan in Exile :: Thu, 04/23/2009 - 11:13am

Theo,

I think the obvious problem is that you're using the average for the NFL career. The number is skewed by a large number of players who have very short to non-existent careers.

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by rk (not verified) :: Thu, 04/23/2009 - 1:22pm

Also, there are more than 1696 players in the league each season because players get injured or cut and replaced with practice squad/street free agents. About 2000 players were on 53-man rosters last season.

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by JMM* (not verified) :: Thu, 04/23/2009 - 3:45pm

If the only way you could add a player was through a 7 round draft, players would have to have 7-8 year careers on average.

I sometimes look at rosters as 30 starters and significant role players, SSR, plus 23 back-ups and general purpose, GP, players. The GP players have 1 contract (1-3 years) expected lives and the SSR players average 2-3 contracts ( 7 to 12 years.)

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by MCS :: Thu, 04/23/2009 - 8:24am

Is your statement about the 4-3 in Green Bay part of the dementia or is it an actual error?

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by jebmak :: Thu, 04/23/2009 - 11:30am

I think that I said this to another article of yours recently, but, damn Mike, you sure know how to weave a story. I felt bad for poor Lions drafted Sack-Man.

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by Chargers (not verified) :: Thu, 04/23/2009 - 1:09pm

Pack are now a 3-4 team.

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by Ty Hollywood (not verified) :: Thu, 04/23/2009 - 4:29pm

By far the best article I've read on the NFL Draft. Period. Great analysis and outlook

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by TomKelso :: Fri, 04/24/2009 - 10:00am

I'd buy Lego Pulp Fiction for my kid, but I know he would just lose the watch, or hide it somewhere....

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by Theo :: Fri, 04/24/2009 - 11:18am

Mike already said it in the article, so I don't why people bring this up, but there are in every draft a few in-another-league players that can produce on any team. Those are the Deions, Andre Johnsons and Peyton Mannings.
The succes of the rest is very much related to the coaches. But the coaches don't make them better... it's the players that make themselves better. The coaches need to create the athmosphere, where players can make themselves better.

I coach and some guys only need to learn what football is; you let them run and they are a football player.
Then there are the guys that know where their hands are and we just tell them how to use them. When they show up at practice, then they will become players too.
It's up to the players. Will they show up or not? Will they push themselves or not?
All the coaches can do is create the athmosphere, keep them motivated and help them where they can't help themselves.

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by Chris (not verified) :: Fri, 04/24/2009 - 2:59pm

Rich Conely - So do you think that the Drills that the Patriots, Steelers, Giants, Eagles, and Ravens run are very different than the drills the Browns, Bengals, Redskins and Lions run?

NFL coaches are commodities and tend to move. If Romeo Crenell leaves the Patriots and signs with the Cleveland Steamers, he CAN start running the same exact drills the Patriots ran in practice, it's a copy cat league, you can even run the same exact plays. He can even bring over a few of the vet Patriots players like Willie Mcginnest to instill that "culture".

Bill Parcells can have success having his talented QB's run pass first offenses, or he can have succes having his weaker QB's run a more run oriented offense. A lot of it is the schemes the coaches run and their abilities to know what their players are capeable of, and allowing them to execute.

Sure, you could put Peyton Manning in a run first/game manager type offense ( I don't know why you'd do it), or you could have a moron head coach that put Michael Vick into a shotgun/spread/passing offense but those are NOT the best way to use your resources.

The Redskins run have been running a conservative offense the last few years, is that because Joe Gibbs, Al Saunders, Jim Zorn suddenly changed their minds and prefer running conservative offenses, or is that because Patrick Ramsey, Mark Brunell, and Jason Campbell aren't exactly the top passers in the league capeable of running big passing attacks right now?

The style those guys ran says a lot about their perceptions on their players.

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by Chris (not verified) :: Fri, 04/24/2009 - 3:07pm

So what makes Dick Lebau, Jim Johnson, and Spags good defensive coordinators. Is it because they run better drills or because they

- helped taylor pick players that have attributes that would fit their scheme
- Understand their players strengths/weaknesses
- Taught them their roles/responsibilities
- understand their schemes in's and out's
- Understand their opponents offenses'ins and outs
- are given ample freedom by their head coaches to take certain risks
- understand their opponents play calling tendencies

- Call right RIGHT plays, in the RIGHT situation, that will more often than not net positive results. THAT's good coaching, that nets YOU, and YOUR PLAYERS positive results, stats, and wins.

It's not that I make my guns run through the tires for foot work, and do Oklahoma drills for tackling, and practice wraping up, better weight room.

It's having a plan, understanding your assets, your opponents assets, what you are trying to do, what they are trying to do, and calling the right plays and putting people in position to execute.

Individual drills and plays can be copied, but smart coaches are much harder to create and duplicate.

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by Allycks (not verified) :: Fri, 04/24/2009 - 4:17pm

Great article, really, just awesome reading. Thank you. I agree with what's written here but there are outliers of course. Take WR Roddy White. Drafted late in the 1st in 2004 by the Falcons, the player has been through four coaching changes in four years. Imagine the confusion. At a certain point his position coach had him catching tennis balls in practice. After two years he was labelled a bust. Yet White has gone on to become an All Pro. His turnaround began under the reign of Petrino, the worst coach the NFL has seen in a decade. But White is a huge talent, smart, and committed. In this case the player made himself.

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by Chris (not verified) :: Fri, 04/24/2009 - 6:46pm

Having a guy catch tennis balls isn't some weird thing, WR coaches often have WR's do that and other things like running a route and catching 2 footballs, or throwing a football with letters on it and having you identify the letters, or having you stand in place, chop your feet and have you catch football after football after football...

The biggest problem for Roddy White earily in his career is he had a dog killer criminal who is NOT an NFL quarterback throw him passes. Even once he got Joey Scare-ington he started to come around, but not the animal animal killer.

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by the K (not verified) :: Fri, 04/24/2009 - 10:19pm

We need an FO "Sack Man" jersey now.

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by Josh Perry (not verified) :: Sat, 04/25/2009 - 6:22am

Allycks, clearly Rod Marinelli is the worse coach of this decade. He's so bad Lions fans celebrated making the schedule.