Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Ifs, Whens and Other Things We Love That Just Might Kill Us: Draft Ponderings

The House of Georges team, at our most recent staff meeting, got -- shocker -- way off topic and found ourselves discussing all things NFL Draft-related. It proved to be pretty interesting, what with Cecil being the world-renowned draft guru, Seven a walking encyclopedia, and I, well, I do make a mean cup of coffee. Here's a bit of what went down.

Bankmeister: Just like that, boys, April’s almost over. Round one of the NHL playoffs are complete, baseball season is underway, and, most importantly, we're now days away from the draft. I'm still trying to figure out what happened to March, but nevertheless, I was thinking: Can we actually pinpoint when our nation's sports fans went officially insane over draft preparations, prognostications, and overall hype? I'm fascinated by this vague transition from personnel/scouting departments being the experts to a near-global collection of networks, anchors, and fans, that obviously still includes said departments.

Old No. 7: When I ponder the industry of draft-freakery, I think the roots are exceedingly simple to trace. Fantasy sports have been around for a while, and if you're old enough (like I am), you remember a time when you had to run your league out of the newspaper. If you think the geek factor of fantasy football is high now, go back to the 90s and spend two hours on a Tuesday morning trying to figure out if you won that week.

Then, obviously, the MicroWebs changed everything. Suddenly, anyone could play fantasy football with ease. We all ran teams, we all scouted talent, we all made decisions on whom to draft, whom to cut and whom to trade. And we realized that a lot of the mysterious gurus that ran these teams didn't know much more than we did, and in some cases they knew much, much less.

I don't remember knowing anything about the draft or the free agency process 15 years ago. I mean, I knew a good number of the first rounders (but no linemen). And I knew when a guy like Reggie White changed teams that was a big deal (but I had no clue at the time how important it was when Gary Zimmerman, Brian Habib and Mark Schlereth did the same thing). But now Cecil can tell me how many bench-press reps Wyoming's punter put up, and I can tell you how the buyout clause on Larry Johnson's 2012 contract is structured. And while many would find this odd, I find that accumulating this data is as natural as getting out of bed in the morning. To me, it's just part of being an informed sports fan.

Cecil: Thing is, the draft has always been the best entertainment value the NFL offers -- it's totally free to watch and attend, and no one loses, unless you're the New York Jets or Al Davis -- but it had never gotten the press attention it should naturally have deserved until relatively recently. And why? I think it's pretty simple, really: as the NFL grew more popular, every ancillary aspect of it went right along.

Ironically, the drafts of the '70s and '80s (which I barely remember -- '80s, anyway) were a lot more exciting. There was plenty of fun stuff going on, like Bo refusing to play for Tampa and John Elway's dad negotiating his exit from Baltimore. But that's all the stuff of legend. No huge trades or team blow-offs happen these days -- with the exception of the Rivers/Manning deal a few years back -- because the money is prohibitive, and the cap era has made Tampa every bit as attractive as anywhere else. The draft is, by and large, a lot more boring than it used to be. Even Mel Kiper's hair doesn't hold quite the fascination it once did.

But interest has multiplied exponentially. Some would say that's reflective of the product on the field, in that it used to be better and is just more popular now, but those people take schlong pills and call pants 'trousers.'

Bankmeister: Seven -- I agree, and disagree. Sure. The actual accumulation of the data is as natural as getting out of bed, but where you find something like LJ's buyout clause is not so easy. It's there, I suppose, somewhere in the abyss of the GoreTubes, but more importantly, you've, via your two examples, tapped into just the rift that perplexes me.

The NFL has, for shits and giggles, say 1700 dudes on payrolls, practice squads excluded. Then there's, or was, NFL Europe, and whatever sub-par leagues are floating around with NFL affiliations. That's a lot of dudes to keep track of, especially when you throw in the free-agency pool of once-employed/unemployed players.

Now, add to that the hundreds of colleges and universities in this country, and their recruits. Factor out of that, the seniors and some juniors that will declare for the draft, and now you're talking about thousands and thousands of names, positions, 40-yard dash times, heights, weights, etc. Obviously, there's not one dude per pro team in charge; the personnel/scouting departments are extensive. Either way, it's still a lot of information. It's a big commitment to follow your team in the off-season, free-agency, the draft, camp, pre-and-regular seasons, hopefully post-season, still pay attention to the rest of the league, and then note which of the kids that aren't even in the league yet are impressive. Talk about a full plate.

Cecil -- best entertainment value? Really? Beyond watching regular games, or the Super Bowl from the same free location known as your couch? Certainly the popularity growth of the game makes all of the game's factors grow, but has viewing a guy like Adrian Peterson changed? Do fans view him as more of a future Viking (or whatever) and less of a Sooner? Is the growth of the NFL limitless?

Cecil: I mean "best entertainment value" with the emphasis on "value." You can watch the game at home, yes, but a ticket is going to cost you. And unlike every single other aspect of the NFL's business empire, the draft comes to you entirely free. You could take the weekend off and go to New York and not spend a dime on a ticket -- you'd spend it on a fucking stratospherically-priced hotel room and some $14 cheeseburgers, but the draft itself, gratis. You'd would, though, have to hang out with a grip of drunken Eagles and Jets fans, so maybe there are some hidden costs.

As far as the rest of it -- the stats, the constant evaulations, the keeping track of which third-string punter your team is going to keep in the offseason -- that's all just reflective, as I said, of the NFL's popularity. We love our teams and hate that we only get 16 games with 'em each year, so our fascination lengthens the season. It's an old story that's become a cliche (surprise!) among football writers: there used to be an offseason, but now? Now vacations for the Peter Kings of the world. (To which I say: Boo. Boo. Fucking. Hoo. Being a sportswriter is hardly an onerous job; half of those guys wouldn't be able to write anything else if they had full-time tutors.)

And really, the stat load pales in comparison to baseball's. Don't even get me started on the baseball draft, which is too much for even a dork like me.

Bankmeister: Point taken. I won't get you started on baseball. Or its stats. I will, however, attempt to get you started on your patterns, the ol' family recipe if you will, regarding researching the student-athletes that covet the pigskin. That is, talk about how you know what you know. How do you determine who'll have success in the pros? How does one determine whether or not a guy is going to be good at his same position after the transition? Or at a different one, especially if you switch sides of the field? And good fits for particular teams. How is that formula concocted?

Old No. 7: I don't know how Cecil does it, but for me it's an ever-evolving gut reaction. Every fan does it. You see a kid, be he a player still in college or some dude in training camp trying to make your team, and you make a split-second decision: I like him or I hate him. He's going to be great, or he's going to flame out. Now these reactions are often wrong, but I'm comforted by the notion that the "experts" miss on those calls just as often as I do.

But the longer you play this parlor game, and the more data you acquire, you develop the same norms that the draftniks do. When it comes to measurables, certain plateaus get beaten into you. Receivers and corners need a certain 40 time, QBs and lineman need a certain height, middle linebackers have to be a certain size and shape.

There are exceptions, of course. Jeff Garcia, Rod Smith and Zach Thomas never met the guidelines, and all had successful careers. You want to believe in guys like that, you want them to get a shot to prove all the haters wrong. The problem is it's damn hard to project which players will have the mental advantage that Garcia, Smith and Thomas had over bigger, faster, stronger players. We give 'em the Wonderlic, we check out their rap sheets, we talk to their old coaches, but at the end of the day it's a big guess. Darren McFadden running a 4.3 is not a guess, and Vernon Gholston benching Mark Mangino 68 times is not a guess. Barring any huge red flags, those guys are safer picks than what you project to be the Rod Smith of any draft.

Cecil: Of course -- and this is just to carry on with 7's point -- the Gholstons and Mario Williamses of the world flame out as often as anyone. Which does make the whole thing a massive guessing game -- Robert Gallery was considered the safest pick in the draft when he came out. Offensive linemen are generally considered the easiest to evaluate; as in, when you see a blue-chipper, chances are he'll play in the league for 10 years and make a few Pro Bowls. Everyone thought that was Gallery, and he can barely hang on at guard for a dogshit team. Chiefs fans remember Ryan Sims, who was also considered one of the least risky picks when he came out. How's that guy doing?

Yet then you have, year after year, waves of starters that come from rounds 2-4. Guys who didn't have the big names, maybe from teams that struggled, who scouts have a tough time evaluating. Like Maurice Jones-Drew. I'll happily admit that I thought he'd be a player. He played big in a big conference, he had the build you like in a small runner and he was recruited by Pete Carroll as a high schooler, but turned down USC to make his own name across town at UCLA. So he had some gumption. But all scouts saw was his height. As useful as the general parameters are (and they exist for a reason: Colt Brennan ain't gonna play QB in the NFL at 185 pounds), they tend to offer shelter for lightweight analysis.

Bankmeister: Okay. So how does the gamble factor affect said gut reactions? How do you, for example, say to yourself, Maurice Clarett is a huge risk, but swelling with potential, then decide that his talent might be worth the chance? More case-by-case bases, or do the norms you develop begin to reign over the hunches?

Cecil: Well, I blew my own trumpet -- figuratively speaking -- about MauJoDrew, so I better 'fess up on Clarett: I thought it was a stroke of pure genius. And it was because of those norms you mention. Here was a kid with obvious talent, who blew up against great competition, had the biggest heart on the field against Miami in that national championship game...and then all the other shit kinda clouded the memory of what he had actually done.

I thought that hey, why not? Bring him in, get Bobby Turner on his ass, teach him the ol' one-cut-and-go and in two years he'd go for 1,400 yards. Obviously wrong about that. No one bothered to check his water bottle for Grey Goose before the draft. Maybe we should have paid more attention to those 40 times, after all...

Getting back to your (much) earlier point: generally speaking, my opinions on the draft are formed by two factors. Does the kid seem like he wants it, and will he be a good fit? I'm a big believer in drafting football players that really like playing football. Sounds silly, yes, but put on a Bronco fans sweaty sneakers for a minute and whisper to yourself, "Ashley Lelie...Dorsett Davis...George Foster..." Once you're through shaking you'll understand -- for whatever reason, the front office's focus on that nebulous concept of "upside" leads them to draft at least one kid a year who just doesn't seem to give a shit about the game. But hey, he's fast!
Fuck that. Gimme the Patriot draft strategy any day: collect good football players who fit your scheme.

Thus, as much as I love big measty linemen in the middle of a defense, the Broncos would be better served to get one-gap penetrators, guys who would fit in a speed-based 4-3. Rather than load up on Parcellsian big linebackers, we need fast and athletic dudes with wings on their shoes and hate in their souls. Last year was the perfect example of what happens when there's disconnect about scheme. Sam Adams (a free agent, yes, but the point applies to the draft as well) had exactly one thing going for him at that point in his career -- he was big. We would have been better off sticking with Gerard Warren, especially since Jim Bates junked his scheme halfway through the season.

Old No. 7: I think these are clearly the best points made in this whole exercise, and this is why we keep a draft nerd on staff, locked in a kennel under the porch. Draft guys that love playin' ball, and guys that work within your scheme. Brilliant.

And of course, The Patriot Way is a great model for the selection process. How is it that they keep finding these low-round gems that can not only play but never get hurt, arrested or suspended? Where is this well of seemingly humble, decent men from which Scott Pioli and Belichick dip?

And as to the "character" question, it's a violent sport. Those that play it are, by nature, violent men. Do I automatically discount a prospect because he beats up an occasional geek?No. Because he smokes a little dope? Please. Now if that same young man likes to punch girls, or he's serially committed to telling his coaches to fuck off, that's a different story. Football is a celebration of violence, but before we get to the head-knockin', we need to learn the playbook, coexist with our teammates and listen to the staff. Even if the staff is dumb.

Cecil: And I think everyone here has looked at the bowels of their team's machinery recently -- not literally -- and seen that indeed, the staff can be pretty fucking dumb. I dunno what the Broncos are doing, besides collecting mediocre wideouts (although I do think Darrell Jackson is a solid signing), when they have two tackles on the entire roster and are tentatively planning to start a kid who played guard last year on the left side. Protecting Cutler has to be Job One, like quality is in some hardware stores.

And the Chefs? I think they've at least been upfront about rebuilding via the draft. Our hometown squad could use some more commitment to the concept instead of constantly dickering around with free agency. That said, I'd have no faith as a Chefs fan that their power structure will do the right thing. At all.

Bankmeister: Seven -- best points, indeed: love to play/fit in your scheme. And, here's to keepin' Cecil in a kennel under the porch. Cec' -- I'll offer these two tidbits of non-genius:

1) All things Medlock aside, I think Herm's clan has done one thing right thus far in his tenure, and that's have pretty darn good drafts. Of course, he's always defense-heavy, but nabbing guys like Dwayne Bowe somewhat balances that out. I'm eager to see if either of his tackle selections (Ed. Note: Can quality offensive linemen really be named Herb?) pan out.

2) I used to envy the way Denver's front office -- loose translation for Shanahananigans -- handled the off-season and free agency. I'm not so sure anymore. Without really looking into it, I'm not certain that I'd give last year's Broncos draft a better grade than a C+. Also, the last couple of off-season signings have been average at best. That is, inking Walker, and now Jackson, are quality decisions, even if only temporary, but what about the dump truck full of other rejects Denver has signed and then cut for various reasons. Very odd.

Cecil: Well, putting on my Broncos apologist clothing, aka this cowboy shirt I'm wearing, I'd say that the majority of the recent quick fixes (Adams, Simeon Rice, etc.) were made because Shanahan thought this team was still close to competing for a championship.

Well, they were. But then the veteran talent that got us to the AFC Championship got old, fast, and we didn't have any youngsters waiting in the wings, thanks to five years of worthless drafts. The last two years have proved that the talent level ain't there, and I think even the guys in the corner offices realized that -- thus, no more chasing big-name old dudes like Adams. As far as last year's draft, it's tough to evaluate -- and not because I want to give them the benefit of the doubt, but because they were all linemen. They say it takes three years to properly evaluate a defensive lineman in the NFL, which sounds about right to me.

Which, of course, means we're in for another year of learning. Great.

As far as Herm's tenure: who besides Dwayne Bowe and Tamba Hali have you guys drafted in the last two years that have showed anything? Kolby Smith? I'd say it would be a stretch to give y'all credit for, say, Tank and Turk and give Tim Crowder and Marcus Thomas a friggin' C+. Not because those two played great, but come on now.

Bankmeister: For starters, Jarrad Page and Bernard Pollard have both shown tremendous ability at safety. And though I know you both'll disagree, I have to say that Jeff Webb, and yes, Brodie Croyle are, to date, better-than-average picks. Of course they've not passed the ultimate litmus, but they are playing and contributing at a competitive level. And they fit the scheme.

Cecil: OK, I thought you quit smoking. Dude, we all love our teams, but call a spade a motherfuckin' spade. You guys might very well draft a QB in the first round this year. What, exactly, has Croyle shown anyone? Other than a stronger arm than Damon Huard?

Page and Pollard were better than average picks, yes -- but "tremendous"? Tremendous is Troy Polamalu coming out of USC and shot-smacking bitches with his flowing locks. Tremendous was Ed Reed. Bernard "don't get me in deep coverage" Pollard: not tremendous. And Jeff Webb? Someone get me Jeff Webb's stats....OK, I'll do it myself.

Last year Webb caught 28 balls for 336 yards in 16 games. Averaged a next-to-pathetic 11.2 yards per reception. Big improvement over '06, when he caught 3 for 23 in 10 and had 7.7.

He also fumbled twice last year -- once more than he scored. HUGE upgrade over Samie Parker. Huge. But even if he turns the corner next year -- and you never know, receivers are like linemen, sometimes it takes a while -- he still has to play with Croyle. And speaking of, what scheme does he fit? The ol' "fool 'em by getting sacked every other play"? Diabolical!

Old No. 7: I know you're a Croyle defender, Bank, and he may one day elevate to glorious mediocrity, but it seems as though that pick missed the mark. Where exactly is he going to go from here? What new skills and smarts is he developing at present, in this offseason, that will turn him in to a QB capable of winning football games?

Shanahan, for all his faults, does know a thing or two about the quarterback position. He won, obviously, with Elway, who was the No. 1 pick in the best QB draft to date--a no-brainer, can't miss prospect. He tried to win with Griese, a third-rounder like Croyle, and that didn't work. When you take a QB that late, you're dealing with someone who has physical deficiencies relative to the accepted standard of the position (Griese) or has an incomplete body of work at the college level (Croyle). Now these guys can win--we all know about Brady (6th rounder) and Montana (3rd), as well as undrafted schleps like Romo and Warner. That's hitting the lottery -- if anyone knew how good those guys would be they'd have gone in the first round.

After the Griese experiment, Shanahan then went the free-agent route with Jake Plummer. Jake made quite a bit of jack in Denver, won a lot of games, but at the end of the day was not the right guy to take the Broncos all the way. I really think that moving up to get Cutler is Shanahan's closing move as Broncos coach -- if Jay can develop into an elite QB, Shanahan will give it a few more years -- if he flops Shanny is done.

When you draft Brodie Croyle in the third, you're essentially saying we're going to try to win games with elements other than big-time QB play. For Herman that's probably defense and special teams, and that's fine -- plenty of teams have taken that path to success. But I think to say that Croyle has shown anything that would lead you to think he'll be a Pro Bowl-level QB is nuts. I say cut your losses with that dude and go the free agent/trade route.

Bankmeister: Though it serves the purpose of "the rough focus of this blog," scrutinizing Chiefs and Broncos picks to the utmost wasn't necessarily what I had in mind. Since it's gone that direction for a sec', I'll say this: I don't call myself a defender of Croyle. I did however, find it frustrating that most sports-media types gave up on him long before Trent Green's days were numbered in KC, and long before The Huard Experiment was in its final chapter. Now, even though he hasn't been given a full season as a starter, or a chance to make this team "his," you say that that pick was "off the mark." It may very well have been. I disagree, solely on the basis that this team -- in all of its awfulness -- just went 4-12 for many more reasons than the play of a young quarterback. I doubt that he's developing a ton of skills and smarts, per se, this off-season, but perhaps the club might make an effort to give him something to work with besides a sorry excuse for a makeshift line, an injured tailback, and one noteworthy receiver.

As you said, "For Herman that's probably defense and special teams." And you're right. There's also the (one of many) monkey on Carl's back regarding never having drafted and developed a quarterback. I don't imagine that he'll be at Pro Bowl-level anytime soon, if ever. But, as we all know, teams have won with less, i.e. the 2001 Ravens and Trent Dilfer, or the '03 Bucs and Brad Johnson. Again, might not happen with Croyle. Might not ever. My only point was that, regarding any sliver of faith as a Chiefs fan, I've felt that the last couple of drafts have been pretty okay. Then again, there's probably a huge factor to that opinion that centers around this exchange: I, based on personal interest and hype/coverage, am paying more attention to the draft and the players in it than in years past.

Cecil: Nice way to bring it back around to the topic at hand, Bank -- that's it exactly. You care more because you're been paying attention more. The days where we waited to read who the team drafted last weekend, hoping to see a name or two we recognized from a bowl game, are long past.

Now if our squads take a safety 14 spots higher in the third round than Mel Kiper, Jr. suggested, we rip the front office and curse the GM's name. I recall, back in 1987 (I think, could have been '86) that the Broncos drafted a defensive lineman from Syracuse named Ted Gregory in the first round. They didn't realize he was only like 5'9" until they got him here. Oopsie!

That stuff simply doesn't happen anymore. Teams know what's at stake and take it seriously, and so, by extension, do the media and fans. If the Broncos draft some midget lineman this year, a torch-wielding mob will descend on Shanahan's unfinished new mansion. And having said that, I'll say this: hearing that tool Colin Cowherd talking about our Denver Broncos like they were the Atlanta Falcons yesterday morning made me want to hike to Bristol and slap him unconscious with my limp penis. That is all.

Old No. 7: I'm sorry, but after reading this, I am utterly incapable of rendering draft analysis without resorting to speaking Emmittese. And that is a big misunderstatement. I am out.


Hercules Rockefeller said...

Are you guys still typing?

blairjjohnson said...

No. The door to our conference room got kicked in by the likes of Abe Jackson and Mac Zimmerman. We had to flee, mostly because "Colin Cowherd" is code for Zimmerman, while "Emmittese" refers to the way Abe speaks, and ultimately, we were afraid they'd contact the board of Blogtopia, and slash our House of Georges fundings.

Cecil said...

Whoever wrote that went too long.


Unknown said...

Good morning, gentlemen. I return once again to offer my insight and prophetic wisdom.

I understand that a trade took place yesterday between the Vikes and the Chiefs. I kind of expected a little coverage on the HOG. Oh well, guess I'll kick it off once again.

Great trade for both teams. The only real issue for the Chiefs is that they have had a tendency to not draft so well in the last 15 years. Recent years have shown some improvement, so I've reason to hope. I'm just bankin' that they'll pick up Talib with the number 17 pick. I'm pleased to see that the Dolphins have opted to waste their first pick. Long will be a solid RT in years to come ... no franchise type player though.

Any thought jackasses?

-- TLR

P.S. Well, now that immunity has been offered, evidence will continue to mount against the Patriots, and the overall ineptness of Gestapo Goodell will rise to the surface. More to come ...

P.P.S. Fuck the Habs.

blairjjohnson said...

Our dearest LR --
If you're expecting Cecil and Old No. 7 to cover a trade between the Chiefs and the Vikings, you might as well wish for hot voluptuous strippers with Scotch dispensers on their backs to shovel your driveway every morning, 'cause it ain't happening. Now, if the Broncos pulled this same exact trade, we'd be knee-deep in HoG semen due to a Shanny-praising circle jerk. Whatever.
If you look to the right of our site and scroll down, you'll see a section called "Tradition-Related." Under said heading you will see sites like Arrowhead Pride, and Arrowhead Addict. The dudes at these sites have the story-breaking "scoop" (as it were) edge to their blogs, and we do not. Had you scrolled a touch further in our list of postings, you might've come across one called "My Sports Life is a Rock Song: Same Old Song and Dance" from last Friday.
It was in this post, that I expressed my opinions regarding the then-seemingly inevitable trade. My opinions have since changed, but there they are.
Regarding your post-post script thought, I myself am torn. I have loyalties to both the Flyers and the 'Treal; I can only hope for a tasty series in that match.

Hercules Rockefeller said...

Oh snap. You named the name of the guy I was talking about a couple of weeks ago. It's on your head now, man.

Cecil said...

I thought about commenting on the Allen trade last night, but you know what? I was kinda loaded. So, well, there you go.

Talib at 17? A possibility, sure, makes some sense for you guys, what with Herm's Cover 2 tendencies. But you're all wet about Long. That kid can freaking play--and who cares if it's the right side? Draft a lefty QB, and there you go.

And LTR, man, I'm not entirely sure where this nut for Goodell came from...but don't you think, if Walsh actually had anything, that *something* would have leaked by now? This isn't the Cold War, and half of the media outlets on the east coast would kill for an anti-Kraftlichick scoop. I fear that this is a tempest in a teapot, as the old folks say...