You may be experiencing the funny feeling that you have read all of this before. It is called Draft Coverage déjà vu.
All-time busts. All-time steals. Quarterback controversies. We do the same things every year. Some if the coverage in necessary, some of it is fun. The same holiday specials are telecast every year, and it's a fine line between redundancy and tradition.
Draft coverage often runs a 40-yard dash right past that line. Take draft busts. Search the web for "all-time draft busts" and marvel at the 460,000 results. USA TODAY Sports published a slide show last week. The Arizona Republic and Tucson Citizen published bust lists later in the week; it's a kind of therapy for Cardinals fans. The Detroit Free Press posted one on Friday; now that the pain of the Matt Millen era is over, it's safe. Bleacher Report publishes eight bust slideshows per hour. It's a fascinating subject, and if Ryan Leaf or JaMarcus Russell got a quarter every time his image appeared on one of these lists … well, heaven knows what he would do with the money. After 460,000 efforts, we should retire the bust list once and for all, but each year brings more busts and slight variations on the bust list, plus the funny feeling that we have read all of this before.
This edition of Mandatory Monday was written to provide once-and-for-all answers for all of the questions that are posed each and every draft season. This is the 11th NFL draft I have covered, and as I enter my second decades on this beat, I hope to close the book on a few obvious talking points. There will always be new players to scout, mockable mock drafts and (yes) draft grades, but there are a few questions which we should officially declare "answered" so we can move on to less Ryan Leafy topics.
Who was the greatest draft bust of all time?
Jay Berwanger, the very first player ever drafted.
The NFL draft exists because Eagles owner Bert Bell approached Bears owner George Halas with his hat in his hand, begging to create a sequential draft order that gave weaker clubs a chance to sign quality players. This was the mid-1930s, and the Bears were like Manchester United -- the only professional football team the typical American could name. Halas had a network of scouts and college coaches, plus money and notoriety. He and a few other successful owners could sign whomever they wanted. Bell essentially had to grab kids from Temple University.
Halas realized that a draft, while taking away his competitive advantage, would allow him to earn more than two half-eaten soft pretzels from his road share of the gate when the Bears traveled to Philly, because the Eagles might actually be good enough to draw fans of their own. So the draft was instituted, and the Eagles selected Heisman Trophy winning back Jay Berwanger from University of Chicago. Bell was short on cash, however, so he traded the rights to Berwanger to Halas. Halas offered Berwanger a lot of money, but the college superstar opted to go work at a rubber factory instead, later meeting an awful fate (he became a sportswriter).
Now THAT'S a bust: Bell called in a huge favor to launch the very idea of a draft, then realized he had to trade the player away anyway, then the player never even put on an NFL uniform. At least Ryan Leaf never forced Bobby Beathard to call Jerry Jones and beg. So the very first draft in history began with an epic bust, which is telling.
What about the busts from this century?
Leaf, Russell, Tony Mandarich -- the usual suspects. In addition to Russell, Vernon Gholston and Aaron Curry recently joined most of the dozens of lists published in the last few months. Reggie Bush has pulled himself off the standard list, which goes to show that there is no one definition of "bust." Looking at the USA TODAY Sports list linked earlier, you will see Ki-Jana Carter, who blew out his knee a million times over; David Carr, who was pummeled into submission behind a bad offensive line; Russell Erxleben, a punter-kicker drafted in the first round by the hopelessly disorganized 1979 Saints, and many other dismal-but-not-historic disappointments. (It's a long slide show.)
To me, a "bust" is someone who brings some of his failure upon himself or reflects horribly on the franchise that signed him. It gets a little mean-spirited to bring up guys who got hurt or were just disappointing in list after list. Some of the most famous epic busts, including the three guys singled out two paragraphs ago, had addiction problems either during or soon after their playing careers; maybe we have more to learn from their lives than "be careful who you draft."
Why does my favorite team draft so badly?
Your team may not draft badly. Just about every fan base has a core group of people who believe that their team drafts badly. There are Patriots fans who think the Patriots draft terribly (they cannot select a wide receiver to save their lives, but they have found a way to cope). There are probably Seahawks fans who think the current Seahawks front office cannot draft. Eagles fans will swear that Andy Reid and his executives were utterly incompetent drafters, starting with that awful, horrendous Donovan McNabb selection and continuing through 13 seasons in which the team was usually in the playoffs.
I listed the 10 greatest drafts of the decade in an article last week, and as you read through them, you may be shocked at how unimpressive many of them are. If a team gets a Pro Bowler, two other starters and a guy or two who fills a role on a playoff team, that's an exceptional draft. Great teams mix one or two of these drafts with some smart free agent selections and some Tom Brady-Victor Cruz magic, and they win Super Bowls. Then, their drafts stop looking good, because they are picking last and their lineup is set.
Bad teams often draft badly, of course, and good teams (like the Reid Eagles) can reach diminishing returns with strategies and procedures that get them to the top. But bad teams do everything badly: develop players, make long-range plans, manage the cap, maintain coaching/scouting cohesion and so on. All those other things can make an OK draft look terrible.
Who was the best late-round steal in NFL history?
Another slideshow staple! Tom Brady wins. Elliot Harrison did a fine job with this at NFL.com last year, so here's a good example of the late-round steal slide show genre.
One of the first draft articles I ever wrote was about late-round steals back in 2002. There were no slide shows back then, and resources like Pro Football Reference and NFL Draft History did not exist yet, so I pulled the old drafts from encyclopedias. Brady was not No. 1 yet, of course; Dwight Clark may have been my No. 1. I forgot Richard Dent, and I got a stern lecture as a result. Richard Dent rules!
Why did every team but the Patriots pass up Tom Brady?
The Patriots passed up Brady too. If they thought he was anything but a developmental backup, they would not have selected Dave Stachelski, Jeff Marriott, and Antwan Harris ahead of him in the fifth and sixth rounds. Bill Belichick, Robert Kraft and others have spoken about this numerous times: They got a little lucky on a player who was not finished growing and looked good-not-great while constantly battling a more athletic quarterback (Drew Henson) for his college starting job.
I remember when Giants general manager Jerry Reese fielded similar questions about Victor Cruz during the 2012 combine. How did so many teams miss on Cruz? Reese admitted that the Giants invited Cruz, a local player, to camp as a warm body to fill the depth chart. They had no idea what they had.
It's a credit to the Patriots and Giants coaching staffs that they gave players like Brady and Cruz legitimate opportunities to compete for jobs, gave them meaningful reps and instruction and allowed them to develop. Fortune favors the prepared mind, Louis Pasteur once said after taking an extra moment to examine some bread mold. Bad organizations often lack the structure and long-range planning ability to discover Brady or Cruz types, which creates a vicious cycle, which creates the Buffalo Bills.
Should teams draft the best available player or draft for need?
That's a false dichotomy. Teams strive to do both simultaneously about 95 percent of the time.
Teams do not rank prospects from 1 to 250, the way draft sites do it. They organize players into tiers. The top tier might contain only three or four players, the next one seven or eight. By the time you get past the top 25 prospects or so -- and remember, that does not take us out of the first round -- a tier might consist of 20 players who earned more-or-less equal grades from scouts and coaches.
So when a team is on the clock, there may be four, 14 or (by the later rounds) 40 players left in its current tier. Given four players to choose from, one will fill a need, unless the team on the clock is the 1992 Cowboys. Given 14 players, a team might trade down. With a glaring need and one player worthy to fill it in an evaporating tier, a team might trade up.
There are times when the last players in one tier fill no real need, the next tier contains a good option at a needy position and trading around to micro-manage the situation makes no sense, but it is not that common. At no time does a team think, gee, there's a Hall of Fame-caliber (in our opinion) linebacker on the board, but we have pretty good linebackers and our tight end just turned 30, so let's take an ordinary tight end instead.
Quarterbacks gum this system up a bit in early rounds, but teams tend to put all quarterbacks with starting potential in high tiers, anyway.
Should rookie quarterbacks start right away, or should they sit the bench for a year or two?
It depends on the prospect. Making Andrew Luck or Robert Griffin sit down any longer than the ride home from Radio City Music Hall would have been a waste of time. None of this year's prospects appear ready to start a season opener, which is why Alex Smith, Carson Palmer and Kevin Kolb found new gigs and Michael Vick got an extra year in Philly.
The smartest thing for teams to do is quickly assess what they have and form a cohesive development plan. For the Redskins, who knew weeks before last year's draft that they would get Griffin, that meant having coaches meet with him before he was selected and assemble a customized offense to suit his strengths. For the Colts, that meant retaining Reggie Wayne, drafting players like Coby Fleener and hiring Bruce Arians as sensei. For quarterback-hungry teams this year, it means signing Palmer types.
For an example of having absolutely no plan, see the 2011 Jaguars.
Do statistical studies suggest that it is better to start rookie quarterbacks right away?
Many do. Lots of football stat guys have tried to tackle this problem over the years. There are many examples of quarterbacks having successful careers after earning rookie starting jobs, either in camp or by midseason. The problem is that all of these examples, and the studies that use them, suffer from a heavy selection bias. Rookies win starting jobs because they earn starting jobs; few quarterbacks who prove to be unprepared in camp wind up in the lineup during the regular season. It's easy to draw the wrong conclusion by mixing effects with causes: Rookie quarterbacks should not start because they are automatically ready, but those who prove they are ready can quickly develop into quality starters.
The Super Bowl pitted a quarterback who started immediately as a rookie against one who spent a full year on the bench and part of his second season as a package player. Both strategies have their virtues.
Was it better in the old days, when quarterbacks spent three or four years on the bench before earning starting jobs?
Those days did not exist. Steve Young and Roger Staubach spent years on the bench, and in the USFL and in Vietnam. Ken Stabler and Joe Theismann spent their early seasons in quarterback logjams that were unusual cases, not the rule. Terry Bradshaw, Fran Tarkenton, Joe Namath, Bob Griese, Dan Fouts, Ken Anderson, Y.A. Tittle and dozens of others from every era earned starting jobs as rookies. Johnny Unitas and Bart Starr were full-time starters in their second seasons, as were Joe Montana, Bobby Layne and the vast majority of noteworthy quarterbacks throughout history.
If I could make one football talking point disappear forever, it would be quarterbacks who "just win." If I could make two disappear, the second would be the notion of some long-lost era of three-year quarterback apprenticeships. That ain't how it happened.
Why don't teams draft running backs in the first round anymore?
C'mon, you know this one. Running back talent is plentiful at the college ranks. "Committee" backfields are more efficient, both on the field and the budget ledger. Much of what we perceive as great running back play is great offensive line play or great strategy, and some of the rest is not speed, strength or elusiveness, but little things like patience and recognition, things coaches cannot truly evaluate until a running back follows NFL linemen into the heart of an NFL defense.
Fifteen running backs have been drafted in the first rounds of the last five drafts, so it is not like this is a hard-and-fast rule, anyway. They are quite the mixed bag: Darren McFadden, Jonathan Stewart, Felix Jones, Rashard Mendenhall, Knowshon Moreno, Donald Brown, Beanie Wells, C.J. Spiller, Ryan Mathews, Jahvid Best, Mark Ingram, Trent Richardson, Doug Martin and David Wilson. In a world where Jamaal Charles may be around in the third round, Alfred Morris in the sixth and Arian Foster the Monday after the draft, it is easy to see why teams are reluctant to invest heavily in running backs.
Several prospects worked out for my favorite team in the last three weeks. How much stock should I put in that?
Why is drafting such an imprecise science?
Remember the old math problem about the hunter in the back of the Jeep driving southwest at 30 miles per hour, trying to shoot the animal running east at 12 miles per hour? That's what the draft is like. The team is the Jeep, a moving target of ever-changing needs and resources. The prospects are the prey: young men just out of adolescence who are still developing physically, mentally, and emotionally.
Draft analysis has a scientific sheen, with 40-times in the hundredths of a second and scouting reports that break a player's footwork down to molecular levels. A lot of this is false precision and pseudoscience. Aside from a handful of truly unique individuals at the top of each draft board, each class is full of players who, in the professional sense, are essentially the same. We can rank one 5-foot-11, 190-pound cornerback good enough to start in the SEC 75th overall, and another 5-foot-11, 190-pound cornerback good enough to start in the ACC 142nd overall, but we are kidding ourselves if we think that the variables that separate Darius Slay from Brandon McGee right now have even a tiny impact compared to the variables which will affect them (and dozens of others) after the draft: depth chart log jams, organizational expectations, new workout regimens, great coaching, terrible coaching, money, creepy hangers-on with designs on that money and on and on.
The secret of the draft is that many fans (and some analysts) see it as an end in itself. For teams, it is just one step in a continual process. As for that math problem, there is no real right answer. Animals change directions and speeds, Jeeps hit bumps, and variables like elevation and wind resistance overwhelming the rounding errors and simplifications. That's the draft.
Why do so many people watch the draft?
There is nothing else on Thursday nights. If I see Tim Gunn one more time this year I will throw my wife's sewing machine at the television. Actually, Gunn would be an excellent addition to draft coverage. He could provide wardrobe critiques. ESPN and the NFL Network have every other type of analysis covered.
Seriously, now that the first round of the draft is a Thursday night event, it makes sense that fans would tune in; you can channel surf the draft and a baseball game, missing nothing. The old Saturday afternoon draft was an acquired taste. ESPN, at the height of its powers, made a compelling event out of a glorified telethon. They used satellite feeds when they were new technology, roundtable discussions when such content did not constitute 94 percent of the network's programming, lots of bouncing back and forth between sets to create the illusion of action when all that was happening was Jimmy Johnson talking on a telephone.
The draft taught ESPN, NFL Network and all of the other single-sport networks to do what they do so regularly now: Fill hours of television with spin and analysis when nothing else is going on, yet make it look fresh and fast-paced to the casual viewer. But don't blame the draft; it has evolved. The 15-minute selection time in the first round was the work of Beelzebub himself; the 11-hour Saturday marathons an exercise in excess and endurance for team employees, let alone those of us trying to cover it. The new system is streamlined: The first round is a pageant, the second and third rounds a Friday happy hour distraction and the final rounds something the league strives to cycle through quickly.
The only problem is that everything is inconveniently scheduled for the print media. But that's not my problem anymore!
Scouting Reports Must Be Spare And True
As of the end of last week, there were 24 scouting reports on my Tailgater blog, including breakdowns of quarterbacks Ryan Nassib and Geno Smith, as well as roundups of the draft's big running backs and little receivers.
Draftathon coverage continues this week with more likely first-rounders and interesting characters. These are the same scouting reports that used to be published at Deadspin and The New York Times during the draft. Through the miracle of better scheduling, you can now read them at your leisure. If you are generally turned off by scouting reports, sample these: They are locally grown, organic, artisanal, heirloom scouting reports! (Note again where they previously appeared.) Think of them as microbrews: hand-crafted from actual tape and in-person analysis, written in English with minimal scout-speak, and seasoned with my proprietary blend of goofy references.
The brewery stays open through draft weekend. Don't get caught not knowing Datone Jones from Dion Jordan next Thursday, and don't feel you have to hack your way through dense scout jargon or fourth-hand evaluations to find out. Draftathon will quench your thirst for draft goodness!