After analyzing and scouting all college football players through the college football season, bowl games and all-star games, teams turn to the NFL Combine to begin to finalize the information gathering process. Part I and Part II of this series detail this process, but I want to emphasize the importance of the aspect of the NFL Combine process that most media and fans do not pay attention to.
No Knee-Jerk Reactions
All of the information gathered from drills and interviews is important, but the most critical information from the NFL Combine is arguably the medical report. Every NFL team sends its doctors and trainers to the Combine. And each of the 340 invitees gets fully examined independently by each team’s doctors. This is not a quick cough with a “How do you feel?” Teams need to know the complete medical history of these players to know whether or not they are selecting ‘damaged goods’ on Draft Day.
Remember, these players are investments; not only financially, but for the future success of a franchise! Doctors need to accurately diagnose the extent that players are susceptible to injury. Making the process more difficult is the fact that players often do not disclose injuries in fear that their draft status will fall: The later a player is taken in the NFL Draft, the less money their first contract will total. So countless x-rays, exams, EKG’s, cat scans, etc help to disclose a more complete body of information. These numerous doctors then take the reports to their respective teams, and together with the team’s Head Athletic Trainer, a medical grade is established for each player.
Medical grading is presented in a simple number scale indicating the degree of medical risk for a team relative to player’s injury tendency and durability. Team executives need to determine whether or not a player is worth selecting, and there is usually a threshold within the grading scale. This grading scale helps teams to decide at what point a player is worth the medical risk once he has slipped so far in the Draft. When is the risk worth the reward? At what point in the Draft might another team decide the risk is worth it? All of this plays into the strategy of the NFL Draft! Of course, this assumes that the doctors were able to catch all of the hidden injuries and properly diagnose and grade the player.
Setting the Boards
In order for a team to know which players they have interest in, they need to first compile all of the information they have on the player, to include the following:
- Weight history
- Speed history
- Drill times
- Wonderlic score
- Personal interview answers
- Interview questionnaires
- Character notes
- Criminal background
- Medical exams
- Injury history
- Collegiate statistics
- Games/Years started in college
- Captain status
- Bowl game performance
- Senior Bowl performance
- NFL Combine Notes
- Pro Day results
- Official Visit Notes
- And most importantly, the SCOUTING REPORTS
A series of meetings begins every March or April for every NFL team in which every member of a team’s Front Office provides all of the information they have gathered. Teams often break down meetings by position group. All of the information above is compiled and shared by different sources within the room, so this information is not only stored electronically in the player profile, but it is also read aloud to help establish an initial overall grade. The final stage of sharing a player’s information ends with every full scouting report from each person that scouted that player. For players of perceived lesser talent, this may be only one report from the Area Scout. For the most elite players, this could be a report from the Area Scout, another Area scout who cross-checked him, the College Scouting Director, the General Manager, another Player Personnel executive, the Offensive Coordinator, and the position coach!
Whether 1 or 7, these reports are then considered as a whole, and a preliminary final grade is given to the player. The grade is then written down and added to a list of all players that have been and will be graded. Most teams use magnets with a player’s name and grade, allowing for an adjustable visual reference for everyone to see. Some team’s final grades may have each and every one of the components above weighed into it, while other teams assign grades strictly based upon the player’s football skill with separate sub-grades given for a player’s character and medical evaluations.
Each and every draft-eligible college prospect is graded during this process, so this makes for some long days. Teams progress through these meetings position by position, and they know the value of not rushing or overlooking any player or any piece of information. The college Pro Days, 30 in-house visits and additional visits by Front Office staff to the campuses typically occur during this grading process as well. Regardless of when the teams choose to start this process, they all try to wrap up this initial grading period about a week or two before the actual NFL Draft.
If the Walls Could Talk
Every team has a Draft Room (formerly called a War Room) at the facility in their home city in which they will make the decisions regarding the NFL Draft. To visualize this room, picture your dining room but with four times the area enclosed by walls. Then take all of the furniture out of the room and replace it with only one large table, a few desks and a couple dozen chairs. Take everything off the wall and replace the windows with wall space. Fill every wall with 2” x 4” inch magnetic cards sorted from wall to wall, floor to ceiling! Just about every inch will be filled in what appears to be organized chaos. Now you have the makings of a Draft Room!
Each wall and every card represents a different piece of information necessary to the NFL Draft decision-making process. For example, one whole wall is full of cards of the current players in the NFL organized by team, position and player grade. A second wall shows the current depth chart of the players strictly on the home team with a drop-down projector screen adjacent to it. A third wall contains every Draft prospect sorted by position and ranked by grade. Right next to this breakdown sits 256 open slots organized into 7 rounds with empty spaces next to team cards. As the NFL Draft progresses, cards are moved from the position sort into the empty slots, indicating which players have been drafted. The top 300 or so Draft prospects by grade are on the final wall accompanied by a 2’ x 2’ space for every team. As players are drafted from the team’s top 300 ranking, the player cards are moved to the appropriate team that drafted him. This system allows the team to not only track which players have been drafted, but where those players fell within the team’s ranking, what players/positions other teams have selected, and how many players are remaining by grade and position. Trust me, the information on these walls becomes critical to have readily available as your team’s pick approaches.
Player cards are very informative, not just to track each player, but to provide information about the player. Teams cram as much information as possible about a player onto a card, and some teams even use the back! With a quick glance, one could quickly locate who scouted a player, a medical grade, a 40-yard dash time, a weight, a jersey number, a final grade, etc…
Once every player is graded, teams only have about a week and a half until the big weekend. At this point the General Manager will review the main board (the wall with the college players ranked by grade within positional columns) with the top executives and the Head Coach to make adjustments on players that might have been graded too high or too low. After he sees all of the grades on the wall, he might realize that Player A isn’t nearly as good as Player B, yet the grades indicate otherwise. He might see a wide receiver with a grade the same as a linebacker, but the linebacker is a better player. Consequently, minor adjustments need to be made. Even more game tape is viewed to feel confident about these minor changes in player order. And now there is less than a week until the first day of the NFL Draft.
The nerves and excitement begin to ramp up as teams start to get a feel for which players they covet and a general idea of which round those players will be selected in. Teams will run a series of mock drafts outlining a number of different scenarios. Other team’s rosters and depth charts are analyzed by the Pro Personnel Director, other team’s visits that were recorded are acknowledged, and opinions are aired about which players other teams are secretly targeting. What if a team takes one player over another? What if one team trades up to acquire a certain player they are rumored to like? What if we get a trade offer to move down? What if our offer to move up is accepted? Teams review any number of likely scenarios based upon the large amount of data and reports they have compiled. Only the first round or two of the NFL Draft can be predicted with any degree of accuracy, so teams usually do not carry mock drafts past two rounds. Not only do opinions and grades begin to vary significantly beyond round two, but that Draft strategy and outlook will have changed considerably by that point.
Next Friday I will explain what truly does happen in a Front Office in those final days and hours leading up to the NFL Commissioner stepping up to announce the first pick. In the meantime, feel free to contact me directly with feedback.