"Hidden gems" don't just find themselves. Not in the NFL draft, and not in any walk of life. They must be found. It's the method (and the frequency) by which these value-laden jewels are unearthed that separate NFL personnel staffs.
NFL teams are businesses, and organizations operate in different ways to "prospect" the ever-changing landscape of NFL draft evaluation.
The late Al Davis had many of his own philosophies. Most of the time, they did not mesh with those of fellow owners within the league he was opposed to starting, and ironically, instrumental in creating. The long-time Raiders owner and GM was a maverick and a wildcatter.
Davis was an NFL pioneer who was always a black sheep—and that was obviously the way he liked it. He would sue the NFL and the cities where his team played games in federal court. He would abstain from voting at owners meetings on issues as important as the election of a new commissioner for unknown reasons. He was a meddling owner who valued trust and loyalty as much as acumen for doing an actual job within his company effectively.
And Al Davis loved speed.
The most important part of the NFL scouting combine and pro days is a prospect's ability to showcase elite athletic upside. For three and four seasons, most draft-eligible players have put their respective resumes on film Saturday after Saturday.
These players are usually nothing new to the NFL draft community and scouting departments. Finding a "gem" means identifying a player who, for whatever reason, was not utilized to his full potential ability prior to NFL employment.
While a pedestrian showing at the combine or at pro day is is likely to do little damage to the well-known commodity, lesser-known prospects take this opportunity to prove they could be "diamonds in the rough."
The draft media at large constantly discounts the value of pre-draft testing and timing drills, but it's obvious that NFL teams find value in the process. The airline tickets and salaries that are allotted for scouts and team representatives to be present at these events should be proof enough for anyone. It's not about "scouting players." It's about raising questions, answering questions and unearthing the previously unknown treasures that are our subject here.
Certain teams covet different attributes, and place greater emphasis on certain drills. While Davis had an addiction to pure, straight-line speed, the Patriots are known for putting a large amount of stock in the three-cone drill as an indicator of receiver and cornerback change-of-direction ability. Ravens GM Ozzie Newsome is known for talking about "explosion" and the organization is said to put extra stock in drills like the vertical and broad jump.
When the legendary Bill Walsh was prospecting for hidden treasure in the draft, he would look into downtrodden college programs, or situations in which a coaching staff had been recently canned, according to Michael Lombardi:
"In Walsh's mind, players from a program that has just fired its coach pay a price in draft evaluation. Coaches rarely admit the real reason for their termination -- bad coaching -- instead placing the blame on bad players. These side effects of a losing culture can taint a scout's visit to a particular school. Walsh insisted that all the college prospects in this situation had to be examined closely."
Like oil-industry land men, NFL staffs look for their own unique indicators—any possible indication that unseen riches may be bubbling underneath the surface if it's just scratched a bit.
By the time the "draft season" rolls around, a scouting department's work is largely done. It's important to remember that.
NFL scouts spend nearly half the year on the road, evaluating prospects and gathering information. They are diligent. Scouts speak with everyone at universities, from the coaching staff to the equipment scrubs, about prospects of interest.
But the coaches are busy coaching NFL teams as this goes on. A commonplace that NFL coaches take advantage of measuring up prospects is the Senior Bowl. Vikings HC Leslie Frazier told me at the combine that if it wasn't for the Senior Bowl, that they would never have traded up in 2012 for safety Harrison Smith, who has been a terrific addition. Raiders HC Dennis Allen told me that coaching the North roster at the 2013 Senior Bowl will be "invaluable" in Oakland's draft preparation process.
2012's best hidden gem was a Senior Bowler himself. Alfred Morris, a late addition who was hardly recognized by most in attendance, certainly raised the eyebrows of Redskins HC Mike Shanahan, who was coaching the opposing 2012 South roster.
Identifying this gem was more about scheme fit, which is an important part of the process. It's why draft boards are certainly not shaped with much backbone until coaching input is taken in, and the staff is completely immersed in the process as an entire unit.
Morris had the perfect body for the system the Redskins would be installing, which just so happens to be the type of body that a zone-blocking-scheme-back should always have, anyway. One that Shanahan knows when he sees. Big, thick, powerful legs and base that give the running back the ability to shed tackles at the line of scrimmage.
Add the one-cut ability Shanahan loves, and that's enough for a 173rd overall pick every time. All it took was rubbing a little dust off the diamond while no one else was looking.