Draft Players, Not Measurables

Would Not Mind A First Couple Picks Like This Again.

The NFL Draft is less than ten days away, and the only oasis we have in the morass of the current labor disaster. I love the Draft. I watch it every year. One thing I’m always puzzled by is how many teams fall in love with stats from college and measurables from the combine, while seeming to ignore the two most important aspects of a football player that can never be measured: heart and smarts.

Last week, ESPN aired a fantastic special called the Brady 6 (Fantastic because it was made by NFL Films.) The show took a look at the six quarterbacks taken before Tom Brady was drafted 199th in the 2000 draft. Four of the six guys flared out without making any impact in the league. The other two, Pennington and Bulger, have had moderate success in the league.

The thread that ran through the show was the six quarterbacks taken before Brady all had better stats in college, looked more like pro quarterbacks and performed well at the combine. Brady himself admitted that he looked like a scrawny kid coming out of college and choked at the combine. Because of his look and combine appearance, he slid down every draft board. No one took into account the number of comebacks he led at Michigan or the respect he garnered from the players on his team.

Brady is obviously an anomaly, and it’s highly unlikely that we’ll see someone like him slip so far in the draft again, but his case proves what an inexact science drafting is. The problem is that coaches and GM’s try to find an analytical way to measure these guys. So in order to rank and compare the prospects, they rely too heavily on college stats (where the talent they play against is much weaker) and cone drill times to build their draft boards.

The draft is like anything else in sports, you hardly remember the wins, but you always remember the bad beats. You don’t remember the good players your team has drafted, but you’ll always remember those first round busts, and the players we could have had instead. My buddies over at Bleeding Green Nation have put together an excellent Top Ten List of Eagles Draft Busts.

The two most important things the decision makes should look at for a prospective draft pick are their college game tapes and their interview.  Why does anyone care how fast an offensive lineman can run a 40? Or how many bench presses a defensive lineman can do? (Zip up your pants, Mamula!) They should be looking at the tapes, for how a player looks in competition. How their mechanics are in a real game situation, and how they handle themselves when winning and losing. In the interviews. they need to find out if the player eats, sleeps and breathes football. Football should be their life, because their organization will be paying them to do exactly that for the next few years.

The Colts would be a very different team now if they had drafted Leaf.

Think back to the 1998 Draft, when no one was sure if the Colts should select Peyton Manning or Ryan Leaf with the first overall pick. (Yes, it’s obvious now, but back then there was a ton of debate.) They both had the physical attributes you want in a quarterback, in fact Leaf was bigger and stronger. The Colts selected Manning because he understood the game better and had the strong work ethic. Now Manning’s name is mentioned with the elite quarterbacks of history, and Leaf’s name is mentioned only as a punchline or a cautionary tale.

The 2006 Draft was going to be the next 1983 QB Draft. (How many times have we heard that?) Vince Young, Matt Leinart and Jay Cutler all were picked in the top 11. Vince Young went number three overall to the Titans. I knew they were screwed. I only watched two of his games in college and that’s all I needed to see. I admit what Young did in the Rose Bowl that year was astounding. What he was able to accomplish purely on god given talent was spectacular.

But what I saw him do during the Oklahoma State game convinced me that he would never be able to consistently lead a NFL team. The Longhorns were trailing for the entire first half and Young sat alone on the bench with his helmet on his head. Sulking. Not talking to any of his coaches. Not trying to fire up his teammates. Sitting alone feeling sorry for himself. He did not have the heart of the leader. This was not someone who had the intestinal fortitude to inspire others. If he didn’t have that, there was a good chance he didn’t have it in him to inspire himself at the next level either.

Matt Leinart, the other Heisman winning quarterback taken in that draft at number ten, would have been the number one overall pick if he had come out the year before. Instead of coming out in ’05, he decided to stay in school and finish his degree. Got to admit, that is very admirable in this day and age. So how many classes did he have left to take? One. Um, okay. Probably one of those senior workshop classes that takes the whole semester to work on a thesis, right? Nope, he took Ballroom Dancing. So basically he stayed for his fifth year so he could be big man on campus, and stick to beating up on college kids in the Pac-10 instead of getting out there and competing at the highest level. That’s not the kind of competitor or leader I want taking the reigns of my team. I guess that’s how you end up holding a clip board for the Texans.

Living in Panthers country, I assume I have a few Panthers readers out there. They should all be scared to death of the Panthers selecting Cam Newton with the first overall selection of the upcoming draft. He’s got disaster written all over him. From the alleged stolen laptop at Florida, to his father taking money so he would go to Auburn (not that he knew anything about that,) to the fact that he only played one year as starting quarterback, that’s more red flags than you would see in a May Day parade. He’s also said, “I see myself not only as a football player, but an entertainer and icon.” Sounds like a guy who’s got his priorities in order. Finally, as for his football knowledge, he recently sat down with Jon Gruden on ESPN and they went over plays and verbiage. Newton admitted they didn’t call plays at Auburn, instead they would hold up boards with numbers on the sideline for the whole team to see the play. Luckily, in the NFL they have headsets so they can just tell him the number. I just hope he can count really high.

I have focused on quarterbacks today because they are the clearest example of looking at the potential draftees as players and people, not just stat lines; but there are plenty of other examples at other positions as well: Courtney Brown, Vernon Gholston, Peter Warrick and pretty much any Lion drafted under Millen. 

Talent and natural ability will only get you so far in the National Football League. (I’m practicing saying the whole name instead of “the NFL” in case I ever get called up to ESPN.) If you don’t have desire to work out constantly, perseverance to study game tape and the playbook every day and the aspiration each day to be the best, whether it’s a playoff game, or the first day of mini camp, you’re not going to be the best. The greatest players the Eagles have ever drafted have had the skill, smarts, desire and heart to be great players. That’s the difference between Freddie Mitchell, Jon Harris and Jerome McDougle versus Brian Westbrook, Trent Cole and Brian Dawkins.

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About Bill

A man in search of a mission at the age of 40.
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One Response to Draft Players, Not Measurables

  1. Couldn’t agree more! That’s why I always shake my head when you see players rise up draft boards after the combine. Seems like the Eagles don’t get sucked into the measurables…they’re high on character guys these days.

    I also agree with you about Newton…he’s gonna be a cross between Vince Young and Jamarcus Russell.

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