2021 NFL Draft: Why 'stacking' is key to the Patriots' operation

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Tom E. Curran
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Curran: Inside Belichick's methodical approach to NFL Draft originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

Wanna get a thousand times smarter about the NFL Draft and how the Patriots approach it? Sure you do. So let’s talk stacking.

Or better yet, let’s let Bill Belichick talk stacking. What’s “stacking?” It’s ranking players. Simple concept. How’s it work? That’s a little more complicated. And it’s something I was kind of blind to back in 2004 when I asked for an audience with Belichick about two weeks before the draft. I also hadn’t heard about the “horizontal” or “vertical” boards that are a staple of draft prep.

Former Patriots executive Mike Lombardi, who currently works for The Athletic and hosts the GM Shuffle podcast, said last week that there’s too little talk about how players are graded and valued and that the “boards” are barely discussed.

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“In every draft room there’s two boards,” Lombardi explained on his pod. “You never hear this conversation ever on any of the draft shows. … The horizontal board is the player as he relates to other players.

"(For example), ‘Is Justin Fields better than (Penei) Sewell, the tackle from Oregon?’ How does that horizontal board set up? Somebody’s gotta evaluate the horizontal board. 

"… How does (Alabama running back) Najee Harris compare to Rashawn Slater, the tackle from Northwestern? Who’s a better player? And if they’re graded the same, they’re not the same player. We know this.”

The vertical board is the precursor to the horizontal board.

As you know, every scouted player gets a grade from 1.0 (long shot to even make a team) to 9.0. First-rounders are usually 6.0 or above. When vertical stacking starts, every player at a particular position the Patriots believe could play NFL football for them gets ranked. Some positions could have a dozen players. Some could have four.

“Stacking by position is, in relative terms, the easiest thing to do," Belichick explained at the time. "You simply stack guards one to 10 or whatever. …It's just, 'The first is better than the second, the second's better than the third.' "

Next comes the horizontal stack. Which is where it gets harder.

"Once it's all up vertically at every position, then you look across horizontally. You have a 6.0 grade for linebacker X. Then you follow across on the board and find the guys with the other 6.0 grades,” said Belichick.

"This part is hard to do. Here you start talking about a corner on the rise versus a center who's a good player but not a good athlete."

With so many players on the board, it's inevitable that there will be bunches of players with the same overall grade.

"At some point you have to break up that clump and say, 'OK, this is one, this is two, this is three.' Even if you have 15 guys in the 6.0 range and another 15 in the 6.1, you have to determine, 'This guy over that guy, that guy over the next guy,' and now you're in another vertical stack within your horizontal stack."

You've got to get vertical, then horizontal

Something Phil Perry and I have been parrying about non-stop during draft season relates to the horizontal and vertical boards. I’m theorizing that a run on quarterbacks in the top 10 – some of whom may not be that highly-graded – means highly-graded players at other positions are going to be driven down the board. And the Patriots can profit. Honor the horizontal board.

Phil contends that it’s the quarterback. The inherent value of the position means, for example, a 6.1 grade there beats a 6.8 graded running back. Respect the vertical board at a critical position.

Lombardi listened to the debate Phil and I had on our podcast and had opinions. And a clarifier.

Patriots Talk Podcast: A deep dive into Bill Belichick's draft strategy | Listen & Subscribe | Watch on YouTube

“What Curran’s talking about is the horizontal board. And Perry’s talking about, ‘If you’re gonna get the quarterback, you may have to go over the horizontal board, forgive it, to get the player that you want,’ ” Lombardi explained. “(And that’s OK) as long as you have the verbiage (the number grade and the traits associated with that number) to back it up. If you have the verbiage to back up what you’re doing, go ahead and do it.”

That verbiage – the words used to describe, for example, a 6.3 player – is what dictates when he’s taken. Lombardi uses the example of Florida quarterback Kyle Trask, who’s not a first-round projection. If a team wants to draft Trask early and take the slings-and-arrows of being accused of overdrafting, they should do it. But not just because Trask is a quarterback. There has to be a corresponding grade that warrants selecting him ahead of guys near him on the horizontal board.

“You’ve got to honor the horizontal board really deeply,” said Lombardi. “And there’s only two or three people in any organization that know the horizontal board.”

Who sets the board, and how?

Belichick explained the information-gathering process as it stood in 2004. It’s changed little since. Consistent evaluations are imperative.

"We want the same eyes to see the same players," Belichick said. "First we scout regionally, then we have our scouts who scout nationally come in and look at those players. [The national scouts] will see all the players on offense, defense, east of the Mississippi, west of the Mississippi. Then by the end of November we break it up and do it positionally.

"By the time the Combine comes [in March], a regional scout, the national scout, a position scout, a position coach and, ultimately, (then VP of Player Personnel) Scott (Pioli) and I will look at them. We get six or seven looks at a guy. When we put the whole board together, that's where Scott and I and the national scouts come in and start stacking horizontally."

"There's no shortcut," Belichick said. "You have to see the players. The hard part is when you have bad information. Like when you're scouting a player, looking at him and the guy's playing on an ankle sprain and toughing it out for two weeks and you don't have that info. If you get a player on the wrong games, things like that that can skew information."

Pioli’s long gone. As are Thomas Dimitroff, Monti Ossenfort and Nick Caserio, other lieutenants who had a voice in evaluation. Now, Dave Ziegler, Elliot Wolf, Matt Patricia and Matt Groh are in the room with Belichick. That group is now likely breaking up clumps and tweaking the boards.

Curran: A rejuvenated Belichick seems set to make amends in 2021

"When you set the board you run into clumps where you have a group of guys in together, and then you break those clumps up and try to break that clump up relative to each other, not to position,” said Belichick. “You have the sixth guard and eighth receiver and the fourth safety, all are sitting right there together, and you don't have a definitive feeling on which one should be rated higher, so you have to figure out what the best fit is for you.”

The stacking process also affords a chance for editing the scouting work.

"The other part [currently being done] is figuring out what we do when a grade on a player doesn't jibe,” said Belichick. “When we stack the board we do it independently. So we sometimes have a guy with a 75 [rating] that is better than a guy with an 81, and you have to figure it out and talk about that."

Belichick said the horizontal stack is usually the most difficult to complete. But when it's done, it becomes easier to take the final step in setting up the board. That's the final vertical stack in which the players are listed from the best player in the draft through the final draftable player.

"In the final stack, all those guys with 6.0, they should have a number next to their name that rates them higher or lower than the other guys at 6.0," Belichick said. "You rate the players 1-50, 51-100 and on down. So it's vertical, horizontal which is hard and then another vertical stack. It inevitably is (difficult), because you get situations where you see a guy at 65 and you know you'd take him before the guy you have at 51. So who's in the wrong place? The guy at 51 or the guy at 65?"

The ultimate decisions

When it comes time to select, it’s not just a matter of automatically taking the most highly-graded player. Wiggle room is essential.

"Once you get the draft board set, as the head coach and director of personnel, Scott and I still have the authority to make determinations based on the football team,” Belichick explained. “You have this guy rated at 55, but we really need the guy at 63.

"Sometimes you do that within the draft. But I know if I take this 63, the 55 might still be there. You may have graded the player at 55 higher because of your system and you know you're higher on him than other teams. So we're going to take the player at 63 and hope for the 55 on the next pick.

“Or sometimes you look and say, 'This is the last tackle on the board for a long time. We have linebackers rated higher, but there are more of them.' So you need to take the tackle. That's just draft strategy."

Rare opportunity

The last time the Patriots had a higher first-round pick

2008

Variation

Single

As are trades, which Belichick also delved into. All decision-makers are up-to-date on the rest of the league’s weak spots and needs. There’s a value page for trades and a history of trades made at certain spots.

"After every pick we make, we talk about what the needs of teams five, six, seven spots ahead of us are so we have idea of what they're looking at," Belichick said. "If you know a team needs a receiver, for instance, and they didn't get a receiver in the first round, they pretty much have to take a receiver in the second round. That second pick is more predictable."

On his podcast, Lombardi addressed the Patriots' ability to move.

“If they think they can move up to get a player that they have graded on their board high enough with all the draft picks they have I’m sure they’ll take a look at that,” he said. “If they can’t, they have to prepare to pick at 15. Who will we pick if we get stuck here? And then who will we pick if we move down?’

“You’ve got to prepare for all different scenarios,” Lombardi added. “ ‘If players X, Y or Z are there at 10 do we go get ‘em?’ If there are no players at 10 then we won’t go.’ That’s why it’s a reactionary measure. And you’ve got to play those scenarios out.

"And there’s really only one person in every organization that can do it. Everybody wants to manage the draft on draft day but few know the horizontal board. And if you don’t know the horizontal board, you can’t do that.”

There’s no way of knowing the Patriots' horizontal board right now. But what it is and how it’s created? It’s the key to every draft, whether in 2004 or 2021.