NFL Draft Board Building 101: In the Secret Year-Long Grind

It’s universal. It’s one of a kind.

It is stacked, adjusted and adjusted. It is mocked, recast, and mocked again.

But unless you’re one of the chefs in the proverbial football kitchen, you haven’t seen it. It’s the stew everyone makes in the NFL, the recipe of which is hidden from anyone outside the family.

It’s the NFL Draft Board, a place where player leaderboards are given, with concerns, questions, and the sometimes faint hope of finding the next big star in the league.

And contrary to the idea of ​​a “design season”, the blueprint for each team’s design weekend is in preparation for a year.

But how the NFL drafting board is constructed, what it looks like, and what it says – names, symbols, grades – is not really a topic of conversation outside of conference rooms or laptops where the boards are hidden.

How mysterious is it? Just before the 2000 draft when the Tennessee Titans Floyd Reese, the general manager of the Titans, had the 30th choice in the first round and was asked who was the 30th player on his board. He replied, “Well that’s one of my favorites that looks really tough guy between ‘None Of’ and ‘Your Damn Business’.”

To build the board, no one is overwhelmed by asking for guidance from myriad sources, be it human, data-related, or spiritual.

“”[Hall of Fame team executive] Ron Wolf always let me put something on the drafting board that was blessed by the Pope, “said Bryan Broaddus, who worked in the Boy Scout Divisions of the Eagles, Packers, and Cowboys during his career. The item was something small enough to fit in a plastic bag, but that had a papal blessing. “After the first year we did it, it was just accepted after that. They’ll take all the help you can get and it went up on the board.

“Sometimes I just sat there in the room with all these names and just wished somehow the future Hall of Famers would just light up, so you’d know. You just want to get it right.”

ESPN has conducted dozens of interviews over the past few weeks asking about the basics of building a blueprint. Those calls, combined with 35 years of reporting on many of those reviewing the players and piling the boards, helped shape an insider’s view of the process.

Each board is unique to its team and decision-makers, but one thing stays the same: the path to draft is not a sprint after the calendar has been postponed to February. It is a long, exhausting, opinionated, argument spiced marathon through a whole year.

The First meeting

Often times, the first step to the next design is taken before the last piece of confetti from the previous design has even fallen to the ground.

Former Titans Scouting Director Blake Beddingfield, who served 19 seasons in the position, said the first meeting with team scouts was almost always “the week after the draft, just before rookie camp.” Mike Tannenbaum, former general manager of Jets and executive vice president of football operations at Dolphins, said, “Every time about Memorial Day.”

Some teams opt to go it alone, but most teams use either National Scouting – which runs the combine every year – or Blesto Scouting services to help create their first list of college football seniors as well as reports from their own scouts on the Players mentored by them may have seen in their campus visits to help.

This first list of players can be in the hundreds – some even said 900 names or more.

The Boy Scouts are often brought back to the team complex around the team’s mini camp in early June – in a year without a pandemic – to discuss the best prospects in each region for the college football season. From these meetings, the Fall Plan for Area Scouts – Scouts covering a specific geographic area of ​​the country or specific conferences – will take shape.

Often times, players are ranked for the first time at these meetings, and these rankings are adjusted throughout the college football season as reports come in from the Boy Scouts and the Boy Scout Director assesses the grade of each prospect after the visits.

The season

Denver Broncos General Manager George Paton said the process of building a draft board was “no shortcuts” and that those involved would have to “take on the everyday … take on the grind.”

Hundreds of plane tickets, thousands of highway miles, night after night in hotel rooms are on deck. It’s not uncommon for Boy Scouts to have millions of dollars in hotel points.

The schedule varies slightly from team to team and depends on the size of the individual scouting staff. But during college football season, the Scouts are in the foundation, who each have to go to about five schools a week. A visit requires a lot of game video reviews and talking to trainers as well as other support staff about prospects.

For some of the larger college programs, these visits are limited and must be scheduled at specific times during the season.

Knowledge is always power. Longtime scout C.O. Brocato, who died of cancer in 2015, filled the trunk of his car with t-shirts, hats, and other team gear from the Houston Oilers (and later the Titans) that he gave to employees, security guards, and receptionists on many of his campus stops. He knew their names and an open door often followed a smile.

Bracato, known for a career spanning four decades for starting his day at 2 a.m. to drive over the vast expanses of Texas and the south, always joked that the first scout on “Get the Clicker” was the ad of Game video controls and “I like the clicker.”

After each visit, a Boy Scout can write a report for eight to twelve players in the larger schools, two or three in the smaller schools. Each week, each scout sends these reports to the team’s scouting director.

The reports contain basic background information, physical characteristics (height, weight and other general information such as speed or agility) and position-specific elements, e.g. B. how the characteristics of each potential client fit their position and where they fit into the team’s profile for that position.

It is not enough to say that a player is good or bad. Details and special features are in great demand. Boy scouts who pay attention to detail and write meticulous reports quickly can be one of the most important aspects of a quality design class.

Do the math: About five or six area scouts send between 40 and 60 player reports each week – about 200 to 360 total. Again, guidelines vary, but in general Scouts have to visit schools two or three times per season with players who are in have design grades in their areas, one of which must be a game day.

Some schools, smaller programs that may have one or two draft grades players in a given year, can be attended once, but the Boy Scouts often return to these schools when they find they have an afternoon off.

Some positions, such as quarterback and security, may require more visits. Some teams add a national scout called an “over-the-top” scout or “cross-checker” to the mix, or the college scouting director, general manager, or assistant general manager for more looks or to get “exposures”. at a prospect, especially on a game day.

“The challenge,” said former Broncos general manager Ted Sundquist, “is staying organized, keeping the board up to date, making sure the reports are detailed, and finding the places to go The grade of the boy scout and that of the boy scout director can vary. But big or small school, you just don’t want to miss anyone. “

This year, when some players dropped out of the 2020 season due to COVID-19 concerns, there was a heartfelt review of the 2019 game video detailing the players’ backgrounds and training location, plus additional information from pro days or interviews with Team officials.

A rainbow of symbols

It’s not just football information in the scouting reports. Prior to the design, the team’s medical staff is involved, background checks are carried out, and elements of a prospect’s résumé outside of the field are added to the grade.

Teams use a variety of colors and symbols to identify different issues with specific prospects. Sometimes it’s as simple as a red cross for an injury question or a yellow dot (be careful, as a scout put it) for off-field problems, a green sign for performance questions, a skull and crossbones when a player has a difficult agent or a star for a low test result.

In the end, players who stand out for the wrong reasons are referred to by some as “rainbow players” because they have so many different colored symbols next to their names.

This will also vary from team to team. Some medical staff label a player’s injury as a matter of concern, while others do not. Some managers will be more familiar with a player’s explanation of previous problems than others. A fight with a teammate, a high school arrest, a failed drug test, a move to another school with a blurry backstory, an injury during a training session in January – it’s all in the symbols.

As an example, several teams entered the draft last April that were concerned about the long-term effects of quarterback Tua Tagovailoa‘s hip injury sustained in his final season in Alabama. Tagovailoa, however, was from the Miami Dolphins and is ready to be the dolphin starter this season.

In 2019 Mississippi State Jeffery Simmons was not invited to the Scouting Combine, although it was seen as a potential first-round choice as a 2016 video surfaced showing he hit a woman multiple times during an argument with his sister. Simmons also had an ACL torn up during a pre-draft training session.

Some teams had put Simmons out of consideration, but the Titans picked him with the 19th election. Amy Adams Strunk, who owns the Titans, said she was never as heavily involved in reviewing a player as she was with Simmons after the draft, including the video with Titans trainer Mike Vrabel and general manager Jon Robinson.

Simmons has started 22 games with the Titans in the last two seasons.

Beyond the symbols, the appearance of the boards varies. From the beginnings of the boards to electronic boards for some teams, it is constantly evolving and is often kept secret. Whether it’s a whiteboard or a magnetic board, the names are stacked in the order of their grades. That’s between 120 and 180 players for most teams.

It takes up the entire wall of a large conference room.

Then there are hundreds of names on another wall of players that the team rated but were not considered due to questions including injuries.

Teams complement this by using overhead projectors so they can display the same information from a laptop on a wall as well. It allows you to move meetings from room to room and use the information about a specific player or position in smaller meetings.

However, it is the rainbow of symbols that often leads to some of the biggest disagreements among teams with top prospects. These symbols explain why some teams take a player off the board while others select the same player in the first round. Many of those polled for this story indicated that there is always an awkward silence in design rooms when a player who has been removed from the board is selected early, especially during the first two rounds. It’s “a feeling that we’re better off right” after the guy was picked elsewhere, “especially in the division,” as one scout said.

Last call for information

After the bowl games, there are the All-Star Games and the Scouting Combine – this year’s one was canceled due to COVID-19 concerns – and then pro-days on campus and visits to the team complexes (in a non-COVID -19-year)). At this point, the teams that are comfortable with their scouting staff and the information gathered have largely set up boards.

The Scouting Director spent months reviewing the weekly reports and game video, and had hours of discussion with the Scouts when the reports came in. This means at least the term “riser” and “faller” on the drafting board for those who build the boards is far less pronounced than it is often portrayed.

Beddingfield said, “usually 80 to 85% or more of a man’s grade came in the season,” and Tannenbaum added, “Late information is not always good information. One has to be aware of it.”

The teams often adjust a prospect’s position within their position group or within the round of the draft in which the assessment is made. But most say that it’s rare for players to jump or fall, even a full round, let alone multiple rounds, due to senior bowl drills, a pro day, or the combine.

This year there will be some minor differences due to opt-outs or canceled games due to COVID-19. A player like offensive lineman Quinn Meinerz from Wisconsin-Whitewater had canceled his team’s season because of the coronavirus, but he was “a different guy” than 2019, according to a scout at the Senior Bowl exercises. Players like Meinerz move maybe more on draftboards than in years past, but those big swings will still be the exception rather than the rule.

Sometimes it could be a prospect’s performance during a workout, or the drills at an all-star game can easily weigh the scales of what position that prospect may be in. For example, before the 2020 Scouting Combine, some executives wondered if Notre Dame has a broad receiver Chase Claypool would really be a close end due to its size (it was measured at 6-4¼ and weighed 238 pounds on this combine).

Then Claypool blew the 40-yard shot in 4.42 seconds – one of the fastest in any position of invited players – with a 40 1/2 inch vertical jump and many in the league left Indianapolis, thinking of Claypool as the far receiver. The Pittsburgh Steelers chose him in the second round – 49th overall round. Claypool ended his rookie year with 62 receptions, 879 yards and nine touchdowns.

The movement on the board after college football season is far more subtle, subdued, and nuanced within the tiered groupings than is often assumed. The advent of pro days and combo workouts on television – and so much more draft coverage overall than a decade ago – has made the concept of movement seem bigger on draft boards than in team complexes.

One constraint is an arrest or significant off-field problem that occurs between the end of college football season and the draft. Because of this, the scouting department monitors social media throughout the design process to avoid the surprise of a video that goes viral the morning of a draft.

“You acknowledge something you want to look back at, get a response on a specific thing you need, be it medical, athletic, or out of the field that you want an answer to,” said a longtime human resources director. “They’ll move a man within his group, but jump from one group to the next, or jump down multiple groups or multiple rounds. The teams that do this probably haven’t received enough information from the area scout over the year? Yes but seldom is it a big, big step. “

Lock it up

When the weekend draft arrives, the number of players on the board will vary from team to team.

The list of players a team would design – the board they work on over the design weekend – has often been referred to as the “value board,” essentially the players each team really likes and would choose because they are among the Position profiles and the team’s fit plan.

As the scouting staff has grown and the process has been refined, the 300-player draft boards have largely disappeared. Most teams have between 125 and 150 names on the score board. And when these players are selected by a team, their names are noted.

If they did the job right, and all the draft picks were done – say 240 or 250 picks, including equalizing picks – a team may only have a handful of names on a well-built value board. These are the first options to be signed as uncovered newbies.

While this is not considered common, there are teams and executives who work what some executives have referred to as a “short board,” which may have 75 to 95 names.

A shorter board can force teams to drop out of a round if they don’t have players rated for that round. If the team doesn’t swap, they could take a player they haven’t rated near this round.

For an example of overreach, see the Broncos and the 2010 draft. Many members of the team at the time said the Broncos took a short-board approach this year – Josh McDaniels’ second season as a coach – with less than 100 players. Among the players they picked was Richard Quinn of North Carolina in the second round (64th total) – their third choice in the second round. No other team contacted in the weeks following the draft had a grade above the seventh round for Quinn, who had 12 receptions during his career in North Carolina. Quinn later said his agent had told him not to expect to be drafted.

He played 30 NFL games with two teams and ended his career with a catch.

“Anyone who’s worked the job would say in hindsight that every time we made late changes, we would have wished we hadn’t,” said Tannenbaum. “But that’s why it’s important to have good evaluators among your scouts who can give you the information you need to make the best board you can make.”

The Value Board is made up of the “best available players” who also meet the needs, including those who would be the best specific schema that fits the current coaching staff.

The rest of the players with draft marks – who may have symbols next to their names or may not fit into a team’s system – are listed on another board or list, sometimes called the “back board” or “outside board”. to monitor where they are selected.

“And you’re trying to get a feel for how the board is going to do in the league by working through all the scenarios with potential trades,” said John Elway, the Broncos’ president of football operations. “Just make sure you are ready to adjust, move around, and feel comfortable as an organization about your reviews. And in the back of your mind, you know that there is no prediction of what everyone will do – the Curveball is coming . “”

Make the selection

Start with the dirty little secret of the design over the first round. In the league as a whole, there are never 32 first-round marks on draft boards.

Want to know why teams get off the first round floor so often? That’s because all the players they had in the first round are gone. Or why a team quickly returns to 32nd place when the clock runs out? They want to snap the player who is still on their board with an unselected first round note.

During dozens of interviews over the past few weeks, the highest round one marks on a draft was 27 – and one general manager said, “They knew this was going to be a damn good draft.” The lowest? Seventeen.

Beddingfield said Boy Scouts are among the most nervous and engaged about the design weekend. And emotional investment is the biggest reason. “I’ve always fought to have them all in the room when we made the selection,” Beddingfield said. “Some GMs didn’t want that, but I made it a priority. They tell these guys that their work is important when they are there and it is immense pride when the team turns in a card for after all these weeks the choice with a guy you saw from day one. “

All of the people who were asked about all of this – every single one – said that the teams that “stay on the board” do the best in design year after year. The lure of the late nugget of information, a “gut feeling” in the last few hours, should be discussed and analyzed to ensure that the change is indeed a good one.

It is important for a general manager to create an environment in which the Boy Scouts and others can speak up. Often times, the picks that don’t stick to the board result because those who made the grades don’t feel they can withstand those who do the picks. “And you should listen better as a GM,” said Tannenbaum. “If you get off the board, you’d better have a good reason why you didn’t think that way before and you’d better ask the guys who’ve seen the player all season. And it should make you pause.”

The so-called “pounding the table” for prospects a Boy Scout or a trainer likes has to take place for the most part weeks before the design, not the design weekend. There are connections that need to be broken in the minutes leading up to the selection, when the arguments get the loudest, but as one general manager put it, “The connections should better be between players you liked to the end.”

And virtually all of the respondents said they thought most people who weren’t involved in the process would be surprised at how much the grades, boards, and appreciation of players can vary from team to team. One team’s potential theft is the name of another team that has been removed from the field of play and has no chance.

In 2009, the Raiders selected Ohio University’s Mike Mitchell to finish 47th overall, a big surprise to most. ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. said he had a grade for Mitchell in the seventh round, and some teams said privately they didn’t have him among their top 280 players.

Mitchell then fueled some of that skepticism when he started nine games in his first four seasons, even though he would play a total of ten seasons at the age of five as a regular starter.

“The board is made up of players you like, others might not, but you do,” said a longtime hiring manager. “Sometimes you are right only after a few years and sometimes you are not right until the guy goes somewhere else because they suit him better or he’s getting healthier or he’s just developing. Fit, the development curve, coaching, the man’s work Ethics, maturity, everything can add up differently and these are the questions you are trying to answer as you make the choice. “

After the selection has been made – or even while the seventh round begins – the scramble begins for the undeveloped players. With so many opinions about so many players in the league, it’s inevitable that players with round five, six or seventh grades will stay on a board. Some design boards simply have a large red line to mark where the design qualities stop. The group of players listed below are the team’s priority free agents.

Scouts, assistant coaches, assistant directors-general, general directors, and head coaches who act as closers strive to get the most out of the rest of what is committed as undeveloped players.

“A seven-round design, there are good soccer players who fit what you still do on the board after the selection is made, if you stacked it correctly, and they weren’t picked just for the way they like things fell. ” Said Elway. “We want to find people who can be the Denver Broncos wherever we need to find them.”

This is why scouting is so important, and Elway opened frequent media meetings each year after the draft, naming and thanking each scout on the team and other scouting personnel.

“These people are out and about and it gets lonely sometimes,” said Elway. “They do a hell of a job and we ask a lot of them.”

Rinse, repeat

Beddingfield said rookie camp, usually in May, was always the last pit of your stomach for a scout switching from one draft to the next.

“You just didn’t want to go to rookie camp and see a man you really fought for. You wanted him to have a good start,” said Beddingfield. “Crazy to think that way because he’s just getting started, but right now, in the back of your mind, it’s all these nights, this whole street, how much you like the kid. You just want them to look like they do go to be great. And when he becomes great, there is nothing better. But you finish camp and go back on your way. “

Tannenbaum said, “Sometimes people would say we did all these reports and only seven players. My answer was always, ‘We just did the first report for our pro HR on the others. You go straight to that database.” So you have it in September when they are cut in a September or two. ‘When it’s over there is relief, exhaustion, and the 10 minute comfort, that absence of agony that makes you feel so good. And then you start all over again. “

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