How NFL Teams Plan for the NFL Draft and Why It Works

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How NFL Teams Plan for the NFL Draft and Why It Works
Chris Chambers/Getty Images

With the NFL draft now three weeks away, most clubs are in final meetings, getting ready for the three-day event that begins May 8. The meetings are mainly about setting a final big board. Teams are prioritizing players at each position and ranking the overall group from top to bottom.

When I first started scouting in the early 1980s, many clubs set their board by round. In those days, the draft was 12 rounds and there were 28 teams, so we had 12 columns of 28 players. I don't think there are too many clubs that set their board that way anymore.

Many teams' final board will only list the players they are interested in drafting at different areas of the draft. Players who are not "fits" to play in the offensive or defensive scheme will not be on the main board. Also, players who have been flagged for medical or character reasons will be removed. All told, the typical main board in many draft rooms will have about 100 names on it.

When I was with the Chicago Bears, a prospect's grade had a letter and a number. For instance, players we would consider drafting in the first two rounds would have the letter "A" before the number. Players we would consider for the third and fourth round would have the letter "B," and for Rounds 5 through 7 the letter "C" was attached.

The number grade after the letter had a definition attached to it that basically described where we saw the player's ceiling. For instance, a player with the grade "A 6.6" meant that we felt he was worthy of being drafted in the first two rounds, and the 6.6 meant that he would become a starter, and we would win because of him.

A "B 6.5" was a third- to fourth-round player who would eventually start and we could "win with." There were always players with the same grade, but they were stacked on the board according to which player we would prefer if they both were there when it was our turn to pick.

Many clubs have more than one board in their draft rooms. The "main" board often has the names of players who a team is interested in drafting, and the secondary board often contains all the players ranked best to worst including non-fits, and medical and character rejects. The secondary board may have 400 or more players' names on it. 

While early draft meetings consist of just team scouts talking about players, these final meetings also include the coaches' evaluations. Much of the conversation in the meetings is centered around how that player "fits" into the offensive or defensive schemes, and a plan is created for that player should he be drafted.

Chris Chambers/Getty Images

 

Creating a Draft-Day Plan

Once the final board is set, a plan is made for how to acquire certain players. Every team's staff has certain players that it covets and would love on the team. Acquiring these players is another thing. Obviously, the first-round pick is important, but if a club does proper planning, it is also looking at what players it can draft in the other rounds.

We used to put together hypothetical packages of players we wanted to draft. If we were able to draft player A in the first round, we would come back and select player B in the second round. When doing this, you have to look at the strengths and weaknesses of each draft.

Let's say you go into a draft with primary needs at defensive end, offensive tackle and cornerback. To draft players at those positions, you have to know who will be available in each round.

Part of the thought process here is history. You can go back 10 drafts and see how many players at each position were drafted in each round. Then, you have to look at the value grade you placed on the players at those positions. Are there quality players at that position in each of the first three rounds? If there isn't, you have to adjust your thinking.

Generally speaking, 12 to 15 corners get drafted in the first three rounds every year. When you look at the cornerback board, you have to figure where the drop-off in talent is. If your board has only 10 corners that you feel are worthy of being drafted in the first three rounds, you have to figure that in order to draft one, it has to be done in the first or second round.

Knowing we have to use a first- or a second-round pick to get a quality corner, we now have to figure where we are going to get the defensive end and offensive tackle. Again, you have to look at the depth of the position in that year's class. If there is sufficient depth at each position, you may have to assume you can draft the defensive end in the first round and the tackle in the third—or take the corner first, the defensive end second and the tackle third.

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
In 2003, the Chicago Bears took Charles Tillman in the second round after taking DE Michael Haynes in the first.

When a team either covets a certain player or the depth of the draft won't allow that team to draft players at certain positions, trading comes into play. That could mean trading up or down throughout the draft.

Trading up can be risky because of what teams have to give up to move up in a round. If a club has extra picks in the second or third round, it makes trading up a lot easier; it has the ammunition to move up and still have enough picks to select enough quality players.

I have always felt that trading down in a deep draft is a good strategy. When a draft is deep, especially at positions of need, teams end up still getting good players at the need positions with bonus picks as added value.

The reality is this: There isn't much difference in the quality of player available at the No. 25 and No. 38 slots. So, trading down when your first pick falls in that area can be beneficial. Again, when you decide to do that, the depth of the draft at positions of need comes into play.

Teams always have to figure what they are potentially gaining and losing when they decide to trade up or down. 

 

Trades

The decision to make a trade is seldom made on draft day. It is usually made days or weeks in advance.

If in our strategy meetings we made the decision to possibly move up or down on draft day, I would start making calls to other clubs about a week before the draft.

These calls were never specific in nature—usually more general conversation. For instance, if we had made the decision to move down, we would always look at how far we could move down and still be able to draft a quality player. If we figured it was no more than 10 slots, I would call all the teams in the next 10 draft positions and just say, "We don't anticipate the player we want will be available when we pick. If that turns out to be the case, we may be willing to move down. I just wanted to alert you to that fact if something comes up on draft day." The general response would be, "Thanks. We'll get back to you if we are interested."

All a club is doing by making these calls is alerting other clubs to the fact that they may be interested in trading. On draft day, teams always get calls from a few of the teams that were previously contacted. Whether or not a trade is made depends on what actually happens on draft day. I say this because there are always surprises, and circumstances can change by the minute.

When teams make a decision to trade, they have to be prepared for every situation. That's why all scenarios have to be discussed days in advance. On draft day, if teams get caught off guard, they'll be dealing from weakness instead of strength.

 

A Plan That Worked

While there are always surprises, it can be very rewarding when you put together a plan and it comes through the way you had hoped. Such was the case in the 2006 draft when I was with Chicago.

After all our team meetings that year, we decided we had to find a way to draft Devin Hester.

Grant Halverson/Getty Images

When Hester was at Miami, he was a player without a position. He had spent time as a corner, wide receiver and running back but was never locked into any one position. The only constant was his rare athleticism and his return skills.

We felt his return skills were such that he could change the flow of a game. He had the talent to take it the distance anytime he touched the ball.

Following the March owners meetings, head coach Lovie Smith went to Miami to work out both Hester and cornerback Kelly Jennings.

Lovie came back raving about both players. He felt that Jennings would be an eventual starter at corner for us, and Devin, besides his return work, could eventually become a third or fourth cornerback. A few weeks earlier, I had been at Miami's pro day and Hester ran the 40-yard dash in 4.34 seconds on grass.

We were all sold.

Going into that draft, we had picks in the first and second round but did not have a third-round selection. Our first-round pick was No. 26 and our second-round selection was No. 57. There were two defensive backs we liked—one was Jennings and the other was Danieal Manning, a safety from Abilene Christian. Manning had originally signed with Nebraska out of high school but got homesick and came back to Abilene. While there, he was the proverbial big fish in a small pond and dominated a lower level of competition.

Manning played in the East-West Shrine Game and, while he appeared very raw, his natural skills stood out. He also had a strong combine performance.

During our meetings, we had Manning stacked above Jennings on our board. While Jennings was the better player coming out of college, Manning had far more upside.

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

As we got closer to the draft, we decided that, as much as we liked Hester, we weren't going to use a first-round pick on him. We also felt we didn't need a first-round selection to draft Manning. We realized that if we traded out of the first round, however, Jennings may not be available. With all the information in, the decision was made to trade down.

Prior to the draft, myself and pro scouting director Bobby DePaul called all the clubs within about 10 slots of our first pick. A few days later, Buffalo, which was drafting at No. 42, called us to let us know it was interested in moving up.

On draft day, we had about five clubs interested in our No. 26 draft slot. Some of these clubs were only back a few slots and were offering a fourth-round pick to move up. We felt the best offer was from Buffalo, which was going to give us its second- and third-round picks to move up.

With those picks from the Bills, we felt we could get Manning at No. 42 and select Hester at No. 57, which was our own second-round pick. Since we previously didn't have a third-round pick, the Buffalo offer that included a third-rounder was the best deal. The trade was made.

When it was time to pick at No. 42, Manning was still there. We talked some about selecting Hester at that spot, hoping that Manning would still be there at No. 57. We thought the best chance to get both was to select Manning first, though, which we did.

Now we had to wait and hope that Hester would be available at No. 57.

When it was our turn to pick at No. 57, Hester was still on the board. Just before we were on the clock, I put in a call to Devin. I told him who I was and that we were going to draft him with this pick.

His response was surprising. The first thing he said to me was "for real?" I said, "Yes, why would you say that?" He then told me that the Tennessee Titans called him earlier (drafting at No. 45) and told him they were drafting him. While he was celebrating, Tennessee called him back and said it had changed its mind and would be selecting a different player.

Michael Perez

Because of what had happened just a short time before, Hester was not sure that he could trust what I was saying. I kept him on the phone until we made the selection and then Lovie got on the phone to congratulate him. 

I felt a huge sense of relief because, while we felt Hester would be available at No. 57, we came so close to losing him to Tennessee. The planning would have backfired. Needless to say, it may have been the best pick I was ever involved with. Devin Hester is a future Hall of Famer and one of the best second-round picks of all time.

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