When does NFL draft talk reach its limit of usefulness?
Some people love "draft season" just as much as they love the games on Sundays. Fans of teams that perennially disappoint are often left with the "Super Bowl in April" (now May), with more excitement surrounding an early draft pick than anything that will happen late in the season.
Draft season represents hope for teams around the league. So, many will never tire of draft talk, but when does it become too much?
The NFL lengthened draft season this year, pushing the draft back into May. Understand that some teams' fanbases have been discussing the draft process since the playoffs seemed out of reach early in the fall, so even as new info from combines, workouts and pro days comes out, those fans are still just rehashing many of the same arguments.
Now, what if I told you the same dynamic is going on in NFL front offices around the league?
Scouting departments don't wait until the season is over to start working. They're sent out early in the year to gather information. Some of it ebbs and flows with the success and failures of big-time college prospects, but it also tends to be pretty systematic—a 20-year scouting veteran couldn't care less which prospects they're hyping on ESPN or in the Heisman race.
Just like some fanbases—albeit, admittedly, on a wholly different level—some front offices will literally be having some of the same arguments they've been having between now and May that they've been having since January (or before).
Now, with an extra couple of weeks in the process, do NFL teams run the risk of overanalyzing prospects all the more?
Initial Impressions Are Always...OK, Usually the Best
"Go with your gut," is a common refrain—especially among the manly men in sports circles. The more one second-guesses himself, the more that personnel guy is liable to regret not going with what he intended to do in the first place.
Honestly, this isn't always true—for NFL teams or in your own personal decision-making. (Come for the sports analysis, stay for the sage life advice!) Instead, time spent carefully reflecting and looking at new information can better inform our choices and keep us from rash decisions.
Certainly, there were NFL personnel guys who, like some in the media, really liked the play of Clemson QB Tajh Boyd coming into the season and expected him to take a big step forward. It's even more likely that some in that camp hadn't even heard of Central Florida QB Blake Bortles—now in the running for the No. 1 overall pick.
Think the gut reaction is still the best reaction there?
Yet, for other prospects, initial impressions might be far better, as the additional information can cloud judgement just as much as it can clear things up.
Just about every team in the NFL would've taken South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney first overall before this season. Then, the additional information came in—he "took plays off" or "didn't want to be there." He apparently "doesn't have a high motor" and "doesn't care about football."
Tell all of that to 2012 Clowney...
Something happened last season at South Carolina—probably something similar that happened to Chicago Bears wide receiver Alshon Jeffery in his final season as a Gamecock. Whatever it was, if a team passes on Clowney because of that and second-guesses what they once knew to be true, it could make them look awfully silly.
But, wait! There's more!
Now put yourself in the shoes of a personnel guy assigned to Clowney during this past year in Columbia. Spend an entire season wanting to be wowed by a guy who plays great but never anywhere close to the hype. Every week, his report says pretty much the same thing: "Clowney played well, but didn't have the impact he could've had if he did X, Y and Z a little better."
Then the combine happens.
All of a sudden, those weekly scouting reports are a source of embarrassment, as Clowney reminded the world that he's one of the most freakish, singular athletes ever to play the position. Worse yet, the guys up the food chain were impressed with what Clowney said in the interview room and to the media.
Do you stick to your guns, or do you capitulate based on newer available evidence?
Those are two scenarios on one big-name prospect. Now, realize that NFL teams start with a working list of around 500-600 names, and realize that those same sort of second-guessing and mind-numbing decisions take place over and over again.
The Echo Chamber
If one hears the same thing over and over, it either sinks in or the person goes mad.
Realize that NFL teams don't sequester themselves like Benedictine monks during the draft process. No, they mix and mingle like frat boys on spring break.
Scouts from multiple teams can usually be seen out at the bars, restaurants or even in the stands at events like the Senior Bowl, NFL Scouting Combine or pro days. Brought together by mutual life on the road—seeing each other more than many of their family members—or simply connections from having worked together in the past, these men in the scouting community share information (and misinformation) at will.
No greater error can be made in the NFL decision-making process than when someone's opinion becomes someone else's opinion, and no one realizes it.
This echo chamber happens in the media all the time, and astute consumers can sniff it out easily. While I wholeheartedly respect my big-name colleagues that cover the draft, it's impossible for a "one-man show" like ESPN's Mel Kiper to watch every single prospect as the season goes on. So, when Kiper "catches up" on a prospect (let's say Pittsburgh defensive tackle Aaron Donald, who he is rocketing up his draft board) it's silly how some others will "all of a sudden" share that opinion.
Again, don't be so surprised that this happens in NFL circles as well.
A good example of the echo chamber this draft season surrounds Missouri pass-rusher Michael Sam. Sam—attempting to become the first openly gay player in the NFL—has plenty of legitimate question marks to his game that have nothing to do with who he is or who he loves.
Yet, that very real truth didn't stop a host of anonymous NFL front office personnel from laying out some pretty negative claims to Sports Illustrated in the wake of Sam's announcement. No general manager would attach his name publicly to those statements; it's doubtful any of them walked into the office the next morning and shouted the same from the roof tops.
So, it just becomes water cooler talk. Then, as teams get together at pre-draft events: "Oh, you heard it was so-and-so, I thought it was that other guy," and "Oh, I hear your boss doesn't want Sam in his locker room."
Pretty soon, people who didn't even have an opinion on Sam are concerned about whether or not they should say anything positive about him, or they start to believe the opinion that some of those general managers shared: that Sam could be potentially toxic for a weaker locker room.
That, in short, is ridiculous.
Compare that to NBA player Jason Collins, who also happens to be gay. He went through the same (notably anonymous) scrutiny before he was signed to play basketball after coming out. You know what happened once he got back into an NBA locker room? Nothing...nothing at all.
Collins wasn't a huge distraction, Sam almost certainly wouldn't be either.
But because it was said in the media (again, anonymously...those courageous souls!), people are going to believe it—even people who are decision-makers or influencers for teams, and even people who may not have shared that opinion previously.
That's the echo chamber.
Call a guy, "soft," a "character-risk," "bad apple," or "uncoachable" and those opinions weave their dirty little way through the echo chamber as well. The teams that can avoid the groupthink usually do the best in the draft, but more time in the echo chamber just makes it all the more powerful.
All of this really boils down to one thing—information overload.
The cottage industry around the NFL draft isn't just witnessed in the many independent draft sites and "draftniks" out there. No, the draft has also become big business in the NFL as well, with teams hiring extra scouting services, outside analysts, private detectives to look into so-called "red flags" and diving into analytics like never before.
What the NFL—at the league level—really wanted out of the extra month of draft prep was breathing room and the ability to pivot from draft prep to free agency and back again. That, of course, is a strategy that works great for the news cycle, but not as well for college scouts who are left out of the free-agency discussions and whose jobs literally may hinge on their opinions on these prospects.
Another couple of weeks means potentially falling head over heels for a player that may not have even made the scouting cut before. Could that end up a fantastic and fortuitous circumstance? Maybe, but it may also distract from doing due diligence on other players, or simply be a mirage after wandering for so long in the draft wilderness.
The draft complex was growing before the extra time was added, which goes to prove that this over-analyzation of prospects is not a unique occurrence to this year. No, over-analyzation has been going on as long as there have been prospects to analyze.
Information is good, we know that.
For the most astute player evaluators, there may be no such thing as too much information—this is also true. Yet, for the vast majority of those inside the NFL and on the outside looking in, extraneous information can certainly be a problem.
Think back to early math classes when word problems first became a "thing" in your education. One of the first exercises was always figuring out what information was needed to solve the problem. Those tricky math textbooks always stuck extra information in there to try to confuse an unsuspecting student.
Now, that childish exercise leaps into our adult life. (Well, sports, so...close enough.)
A prospect has a kid. Does that mean he's mature or immature? He grew up with strong parental presence. Does that mean he's stable and well-adjusted or that he's ready to sow some wild oats? He had an undocumented knee issue in eighth grade but has been healthy since then. Is he a ticking time bomb or nothing to worry about?
It gets to be too much. What starts as a good-faith effort to find out every angle one might need on a prospect quickly turns into information overload if one can't tell the difference between valuable information and extra fluff.
Sometimes the evaluation of a prospect simply needs to begin and end at: Can this player help my team win football games? If the answer at the end of the process is a definitive "yes" or "no," the process can be over. The second an evaluator starts to overanalyze, though, disasters can happen.
This year, more than most, that is a real danger for NFL teams.