he NFL Draft is one big crap shoot? Not if you listen to me.
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By Todd McShay
An NFL scout recently told me, "Even after all these years, we don't have a Moneyball formula for success. But we are getting closer." Until then, the NFL draft will remain about as unscientific as any sports endeavor. As long as scouts and GMs have to scramble to evaluate roughly 1,000 college football players at four different levels, every now and then a Pierre Garçon (Mount Union, sixth-round pick) is going to have more catches in one season than a Mike Williams (USC, first round) will have in a career.
So what's that scout talking about? Well, just because there's no secret to guaranteeing a sweet draft doesn't mean there aren't some must-follow tendencies that can help avoid disasters. As we head to the scouting combine, which starts on Feb. 24, then on to draft day, here are some mistakes the know-it-all suits shouldn't make. (But most assuredly will.)
1. They will ignore the big four. At the top of the draft, four crucial positions -- QB, offensive tackle, cornerback and pass- rusher -- should trump all others. It's a supply- and-demand thing. As the league's emphasis on passing puts those positions at an ever greater premium, the elite talent pool at those spots remains basically the same. Notice wide receivers aren't included on this A-list. You can get them anytime. Two of this season's top five wideouts -- Miles Austin and Wes Welker -- weren't even drafted. On the other hand, all five of 2009's leaders in QB ratings were among the first 33 picks. Catchers depend on passers, not the other way around.
Look at this season's Super Bowl teams. At the big-four positions, the Saints and Colts combined to produce five Pro Bowlers. The average draft position of those guys was 44; two were first-rounders, two others early second-rounders. The teams generated nine more Pro Bowlers from the other positions. Those guys were drafted, on average, with the 80th pick, not including Colts center Jeff Saturday, who was undrafted. The Chargers (five of their past six first-rounders played one of the big-four positions) get it. The Lions (four wideouts and a linebacker in the top 10 between 2003 and 2007) don't.
So while All-America safety Eric Berry is tempting, the St. Louis Rams shouldn't think twice about snatching a defensive tackle, Ndamukong Suh or Gerald McCoy, at No. 1. A combo of Suh and, say, LSU safety Chad Jones (a likely second-round pick) will win more games than Berry and, say, second-round DT Dan Williams will.
2. They will be seduced by looks. Scouts, GMs, even esteemed members of the media get too wrapped up in 40 times and 225-pound bench press reps. In many cases -- see: Smith, Akili; Jones, Matt; Gholston, Vernon -- superhuman physical gifts make usually rational minds race with possibilities. It's why you'll hear about Tim Tebow playing H-back soon. Too often, scouts think a freakish body automatically translates into freakish success. It doesn't.
I've heard the buzz as it happens. Did you see that?! The furor overwhelms reasonable analysis. Mistakes and shortcomings that pop up on film or the police blotter fade into the background. Coaches are especially optimistic about being able to turn raw athletic ability into refined production. They think they can take special athletes and coach 'em to become special football players. Good luck with that. Meanwhile, guys like Clay Matthews and Austin Collie slide down the draft board, then make an immediate impact. The same arc will be followed this year by Texas WR Jordan Shipley and Penn State DT Jared Odrick. Neither will be a combine terror. They'll be happy to make their noise in the NFL.
3. They will pay no mind to minds. As one scout told me recently, "You can't win with dumb players in the NFL anymore." This Jeff George-inspired rule isn't so much about human intelligence as football intelligence, not book-smart guys but playbook-smart guys.
And yet book-smart evaluators still pay too much attention to academic All-America teams and the Wonderlic test. A 4.0 GPA or 40 on the Wonderlic doesn't necessarily mean a player will be able to read a screen or outfox a defender. Savvy GMs know the least-seen part of a player's combine performance, the personal interview, is the most important gauge. To be fair, more front office people are watching film with players and giving them pop quizzes to see what they've got between their earholes.
The importance of mental agility is starting to sink in. Rey Maualuga had first-round athleticism but slid to the second because teams saw the blunders he made in diagnosing plays and how he relied too much on raw ability to compensate. Maualuga had a solid rookie season for the Bengals (63 tackles), but it is now clear why he was the third USC LB drafted in 2009.
Here's a good test for this season's GMs. Watch where South Florida DE Jason Pierre-Paul goes in comparison to Georgia Tech DE Derrick Morgan. Pierre-Paul is a physical freak, and a team may get flak for passing him by to get to Morgan. But what that team will know is that Morgan is far more versatile and game aware than his counterpart, who hasn't shown much more than pure pass-rushing ability.
"You can't win with dumb players in the NFL anymore."
4. They will choose need over value. Everyone who has a say in a team's draft starts with the idea that the biggest holes need to be filled first. It's a fair philosophy in a football utopia. But in the real world, hole-filling can't be the only -- or primary -- factor in determining which guy to take.
Look at what the Vikings did in the 2007 draft. After scoring only 17.6 ppg, they needed help on the offensive line, a replacement for QB Brad Johnson and a serious upgrade over No. 1 receiver Travis Taylor. The only solid spot in the offense, in fact, was running back, where 27-year-old Chester Taylor had gained 1,504 yards from scrimmage. But necessity didn't force Minnesota to reach for Brady Quinn or Ted Ginn Jr. at No. 7. Instead, they went with the best value on the board, some kid named Peterson. Think they wish they'd gone a different way?
The Colts are the NFL's best at balancing value and need. In the past four drafts (despite picking after the big-four positions have been poached), they've gone 4-for-4 with top choices: RB Joseph Addai, WR Anthony Gonzalez, OG Mike Pollak and RB Donald Brown. None was a sexy choice. All offered bang for the buck at the spot they were chosen. If team president Bill Polian also filled team needs, well, that was a nifty bonus. More to his point, a perennial contender restocked its shelf with starting-caliber players.
The Bills sit on the opposite side of this balancing act. They've consistently targeted need over value and failed miserably. From 2006 to 2008, the Bills reached for DT John McCargo, RB Marshawn Lynch and CB Leodis McKelvin. Not one of them was a starter by the end of this past season. That's a drafting disaster. Buffalo fans had best hope their team has learned its lesson as it debates whether to reach for QB Jimmy Clausen at No. 9. It's a position of need, for sure, but, personally, I see him as the No. 28 prospect in the draft. Buffalo would be better off taking a top offensive tackle, Oklahoma's Trent Williams or Rutgers' Anthony Davis. A QB like Colt McCoy or Tony Pike will be waiting for them later.
And if all else fails, they can try to trade with the Raiders.
Show me a good loser, and I'll show you a loser.