The NFL draft is about to become more overrated than ever.
While the draft remains the foundation of building teams for long-term success, the NFL lockout and resulting lack of free agency figure to amp up the sometimes misguided perception among fans of what the event really means. To put it another way: For fans who think their team is about to draft four or five immediate starters, including two or three rookie Pro Bowlers, take a step back toward reality. Unless, of course, your team is awful.
"That really only happens when you're in full rebuilding mode," Atlanta Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff said, the shudder in his voice audible as he cringed at the thought.
On Thursday, the draft kicks off in primetime and will be held over a three-day period for the second year in a row. The timing and attention has served to significantly change the perception of the event, according to the top executives in the league.
"It's not really everything that the fans think it is compared to what it really is to the scouts, coaches and executives," said Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson, whose six-year run with the team has resulted in tremendous success. In February, the Packers won the Super Bowl with an offensive lineup entirely made up of players originally drafted by the Packers. Overall, 14 of the 22 starters for Green Bay in the title game were drafted since Thompson took over in 2005. That included quarterback Aaron Rodgers(notes), the team's first-rounder in Thompson's first year.
Yet Thompson, who is as protective of his draft picks as anyone in the league, understands there is sometimes an absurd view of the draft. So absurd that he has sometimes been booed on draft day by Packers fans.
"That's just part of how it works with the fans, we all know that," said Thompson, who has made non-flashy picks like Jordy Nelson(notes) ('08) and B.J. Raji(notes) ('09) with Green Bay's initial selection. "I think fans tend to look at the draft like fantasy football, where people who run teams look at it much more from a nuts and bolts perspective."
Whereas fans are only looking at the top end of the draft and wonder if their team will unearth the next Tom Brady(notes) in the sixth round, executives understand certain pragmatic issues. For instance, does the team have enough decent offensive linemen to get through training camp and into the season? Same goes for wide receivers and linebackers. For most teams, getting an average of two starters a year through the draft for five or six years can turn a team into a serious contender.
"And when you say 'starter', understand that we consider that third cornerback or wide receiver or second tight end, depending on your system, a starter," Dimitroff said. For guys like Thompson, Dimitroff and Baltimore Ravens GM Ozzie Newsome, finding a good flyer for punt coverage can be significant.
"There's so much attention on what teams do in the first round that people think that's all you're doing," said Newsome, who has been one of the most consistently good drafters in the first round over the past 15 years. "They don't understand that we need nine good offensive linemen. We need guys who can cover kicks. The fans aren't thinking about the fact that you might have four players coming up in free agency in a year and you probably aren't going to be able to re-sign all of them, so you need to start looking ahead. There's a lot that goes into it. A lot more than what they may read or hear on television."
The information gap
What Newsome is saying leads into a deeper subject about team building. What fans see – if they even watch a lot of college football – is the surface of how a player performs. What the NFL does is so much more detailed that it often boggles the mind.
"Sometimes I'm looking at pages and pages of reports on one player, where the fans only see a paragraph or two or hear something from an analyst, who also may only have a short report on this player," Newsome said. "When I say we know more than anyone could imagine, I mean way more. It's about how he competed during the season or how he competed at the college all-star games. How did he compete at Senior Bowl practices? How did he interview at the Senior Bowl? How did he do in his combine interview?
Jones is projected to be one of the first two WRs off the board.
"When we had [Alabama wide receiver] Julio Jones interview with eight people from our staff at the [NFL scouting] combine, how did he answer? What was his body language? All that stuff."
Those details hopefully tell a story about how a particular player may fit into a team. Or, just as importantly, that maybe he doesn't fit.
"You have to understand where your team is in the building process and understand how that particular player fits," Dimitroff said. "For the most part, players will do the right things, work hard and work well in the locker room. But you may have a player who maybe has some higher-maintenance issues. Do you have a locker room where you have enough veterans to keep that guy going on the right path? Or do you have a younger locker room where it may be too much to deal with on top of what you already have?
"You have to consider that dynamic all the time. You see teams pass on certain players and fans wonder, 'Why wouldn't they take him?' There's a reason. Trust me, there's a reason. You may not hear what that reason is and teams aren't necessarily going to make that public, but teams think about these things long and hard. We've been tracking these players for three and four years. We have a whole lot more information than what you see."
Last year, for instance, offensive tackle Trent Williams(notes) of Oklahoma went No. 4 to the Washington Redskins. However, he caused concern with at least one team with his pre-draft approach, according to a source close to the situation. During a pro-day workout for Oklahoma quarterback Sam Bradford(notes), who went No. 1 overall to the St. Louis Rams, Williams never showed up. The team attended Bradford's session and knew Williams was in town at the same time, expecting to see Williams at the workout as well. Meanwhile, teammate and tight end Jermaine Gresham(notes) was present, helping to catch passes from Bradford and encouraging the QB during the process.
"It was a really subtle thing, but it made you wonder what kind of teammate Williams was going to be," one scout said.
The problem is that what fans see these days is relatively constant. Whether it's Mel Kiper or Mike Mayock or Todd McShay giving their 86th version of a mock draft or Jon Gruden playing to the cameras in an interview with a quarterback prospect, the NFL draft has gone from cottage industry to a Donald Trump skyscraper.
"I'm sitting here every day, going over all the information with our coaches and scouts and personnel people and then, when I leave the building, it's all over the place," Seattle Seahawks GM John Schneider said. "It's literally 24/7 about the draft and who's going to take which player and why. I understand that it's part of the business and it's one of the reasons everybody loves football, but it's way out of whack with how we really go about building a team. The draft is the biggest thing we do, but it's still only about 60 percent."
The entire process
For Schneider, another 20 percent of player acquisition is focused on high-end free agency. The final 20 percent is on undrafted players or players who exist on the fringes, such as practice squads, the Arena League, the United Football League or the Canadian Football League.
“ For the most part, players will do the right things, work hard and work well in the locker room. But you may have a player who maybe has some higher-maintenance issues. Do you have a locker room where you have enough veterans to keep that guy going on the right path? Or do you have a younger locker room where it may be too much to deal with on top of what you already have?”
– Falcons GM Thomas Dimitroff
When Schneider was in Green Bay working for Thompson, the Packers brought in cornerback Tramon Williams(notes), who was originally an undrafted free agent with Houston, but had been cut by the Texans at the end of the exhibition season in 2006. Williams then spent nearly three months out of the league before the Packers signed him to their practice squad that year.
By 2007, Williams earned a regular spot on the roster and then worked his way into the starting lineup in 2008 after injuries to other players. By 2010, Williams was so good that the Packers made him the full-time starter and eventually gave him a new contract. He finished the season with six interceptions, had three more in the playoffs and was eventually added to the NFC Pro Bowl team when Asante Samuel(notes) of the Philadelphia Eagles dropped out of the game.
"You see what the Packers did with Tramon or with [2010 undrafted free agent cornerback] Sam Shields(notes) and you realize that finding players is not just about the draft and putting together your board," Schneider said. "You're constantly looking for players, trying to see who is available, whether they fit your system. Then, once you get them here, do you have a plan for how to develop them?"
In the case of Williams, the Packers had a specific plan to get him ready. The pace of the plan sped up when veteran cornerback Al Harris(notes) got hurt, but the idea of how to train Williams for a job was in place all along.
What that ultimately means is that the draft is only a part of a much larger process, one often affected by the whims of injury and ownership.
"You may have what you think is a great draft and then two guys get hurt after a year or two and all of a sudden it changes," Tampa Bay Buccaneers GM Mark Dominik said. "Or if you have a coaching change and the type of player you need changes, it can make an entire draft class look different."
What all of the executives agreed on is that this year's draft may serve to highlight the discrepancy between public perception and reality. Because the league hasn't had free agency while it deals with the lockout, the focus for fans has shifted to the draft more than ever before. Furthermore, the perception of what is a successful draft may be measured over an even shorter period of time.
"Normally, you would have taken care of some of your needs already," Newsome said. "Last year, when we were able to make the trade for [veteran wide receiver] Anquan Boldin(notes), that affected how we viewed what we might have to do in the draft."
Now, instead of teams focusing on the best player and then factoring in need, need could factor ahead of who is purely the best player. And if players are selected on a need basis, the expectation will be that they need to play right away.
"I think that's a very fair way to look at it," Dimitroff said.