There is clean air for NFL scouts in the fall as they go about evaluating players for the next draft. But after the college football championship game in January, Phil Savage says a fog starts to roll in. He calls it "The Fog of Confusion."
There are mock drafts and opinions on prospects from every corner of the NFL and beyond. The noise is everywhere, Savage says. And this year, the fog is thicker than ever because the NFL moved the draft back to May 8-10, two weeks later than in 2013.
Savage, who is the executive director of the Senior Bowl, was a general manager for the Cleveland Browns. He was also the scouting director for the Baltimore Ravens when they were building a Super Bowl champion and a college consultant to the Philadelphia Eagles.
According to Savage, the last thing a team wants intruding on draft-day strategy is this Fog of Confusion, which leads to last-minute, emotional, knee-jerk decisions. Teams can fall prey to it if they are not prepared.
"What I thought was really important was tracking the organizational grade that you gave the player in December, then February and then early April, because oftentimes your scouts have a great pulse on the player in the fall," Savage said. "Then we get into mid-April and the Fog of Confusion, with mock drafts and media, and the wind is starting to blow the flags in a certain direction.
"It will make you hold your horses. You can't get caught up in that. Sometimes you get into a groupthink mentality. You have to trust your process all the way through."
The preparation general managers have done for the 2014 draft actually started last June when scouts began compiling a catalog of names with the help of two scouting services, BLESTO and National Football Scouting. NFL teams start with a pool of 400 to 500 players.
Over the next 10 months, those players are poured through a funnel of evaluation: college games, practices, film study, the East-West Shrine Game, the Senior Bowl, the NFL Scouting Combine, pro days. Additionally, each NFL team is allowed to have as many as 30 private visits with prospects.
From that original pool, an organization will have its horizontal draft board, with its top players listed under each position. Clubs will also have a vertical board of players, put together by the scouting director and general manager, which rates players from first through approximately 120th.
The unexpected will happen on draft day, so teams have to be prepared for it. But the real strategy has been developed in the weeks and days before the draft, according to Savage.
If the draft game plan comes together, draft day can be anticlimactic.
In the following Q&A, Savage offers an inside look at the preparation, draft-day decision-making and contingency plans that make this event such a challenge for general managers.
Bleacher Report: In one final meeting with scouts, the head coach, the assistant coaches and the general manager will typically ask the scouts to "speak now or forever hold their peace" regarding a player. This meeting usually comes a few days before the draft as teams are walking down the aisle, so to speak. How important is it for the GM not to allow last-minute excitement about a player or the Fog of Confusion to roll in on draft day with a last-minute blurt from a scout who says, "I hate this guy"?
Phil Savage: This is where you need people confident in their abilities. You need someone who is going to say, "Guys, I know he looked good at the combine, but this guy does not have good football instincts. He fooled people. He’s a coach killer."
It can get heated. Somebody is going to be right, and somebody is going to be wrong. That's why it is so important to track from August all the exposures you are getting on these players.
B/R: There are players who are going to gain a split vote. A scout will love him, and a coach will hate him. Then what?
PS: If we had a room that was split on a player, we tried to stay away from them because inevitably that player was going to show you the good and the bad. There was a reason for there to be such a split; it would show itself in the first practice or the first game, and you might regret [picking] him.
B/R: How important is it to not rate a player by what "round" you think he is worth?
PS: The important thing is not where a player is going to be drafted; it is, "How is he going to play?" That is a huge distinction. It is better to say, "Is he a backup, potential starter, eventual starter, Day 1 starter?"
B/R: GMs make sure all the blanks are filled on your inventory sheet on a player. How important is that? And when does a player need to be re-evaluated?
PS: You want to make sure you have a full profile on every player you are interested in. On the last 120, you are going to make sure you have every bit of information. You want all the measurables filled in. Part of that is to demonstrate to the room and ownership that you have crossed all the t's and dotted all the i's.
A total of 335 players are invited to the combine, but by the time players arrive in Indianapolis, 100 have been eliminated from consideration by a team. That’s why when a kid shows up at the combine and does well, if he has been put to the side and does well, he might earn another evaluation. "Hey, that kid who ran a 4.41, let’s go back and make sure we are not missing the boat."
Draft Day Decision-Making
B/R: What is the basic scenario for making the first pick?
PS: Your organization has identified eight elite prospects. Let’s use Chicago picking 14th in the first round of this year’s draft as an example. If any of those eight, regardless of position, [is] available, the Bears will turn the card in on that player and pick him. It could be nine elite players or six players.
B/R: Should the team be willing to give up a later draft pick, say third or fourth round, to move up from 14th to 10th or 12th to make sure it got one of its targets?
PS: It’s likely those eight players will be off the board, so the next decision is would we be willing to give up a pick to move up from 14 to 12 or 10 if one of those eight players is still on the board? Usually there is a conversation in the room, and if a player fits such a need for us and he is the best at his position, I would say yes, let’s give up a third-round pick to go up to No. 10. A team could also say, "Because we’re short on draft picks, let’s not move up. Let’s sit at 14."
B/R: Say your top eight players are off the board when it comes time to pick No. 14. What if you have five players on your vertical board you rate close together and you feel confident you can still get one of those with the No. 19 pick? Do you try to move back in the draft from 14 to 19 and try to get an extra draft pick?
PS: It happens. If a team picking behind you at 15-20 is looking for a quarterback and wants to move up and you can still get one of your five guys with the No. 19 pick, you trade your draft spot and move down, confident you will get one of your choices.
B/R: What if, under the same scenario, your next group from No. 9 to No. 14 is college players at positions where you are essentially set? Do you trade out of the first round or move down for a future No. 1?
PS: Inevitably that call will come from another team if there are quarterbacks on the board and a team picking below you wants one of them.
B/R: How does need factor into putting together a draft board?
PS: Need is factored in more in advance of the draft, when you are putting your team’s rankings together. When it comes your turn to draft and you have two players rated at the same level, you have already decided who is the better fit for your team.
B/R: A team will have its top eight players in mind, but what if one of those players has some character issues, something that came up on a criminal check? What if this player is available at 14?
PS: That’s when ownership gets involved. There would be a conversation the day before the draft where we would say, "Mr. Ownership, this is a player we really like, but this is the background from a character and criminal situation. Would you be comfortable with us taking him at 14?"
Most of the time, they will say no. How about the second round? Ownership will say, "If we have taken a good, clean kid the first round, then I wouldn’t have a problem if you guys believe in him in the second round."
B/R: How do you prepare for draft-day trades from your existing roster?
PS: A general manager, head coach and owner will have identified three players on their roster who are tradeable. They will not share them with anyone. You would put a value on that player. Is he worth a third-rounder, a fourth-rounder? If someone calls you and asks about any of the three, you need to be prepared and know what you want in return and what the ramifications are on your salary cap.
B/R: If there is a player high on your draft board—the horizontal board—who is still there three rounds in, how should a team react?
PS: If there is a player sticking out "like a sore thumb" at the top of the board, scouts might circle back with their school sources to find out if there is a medical or character issue involved to explain why this player is still available. Did something happen recently that the team is not aware of?
B/R: What kind of other calamity can happen on draft day?
PS: As soon as you go on the clock with the NFL in New York to make your pick, tell your guy in New York to "Write this name down. Don't turn it in." That way, if something happens to the connection, he has the name and can turn it in.
B/R: What is one of the more significant challenges for a general manager regarding the draft?
PS: You have to make the best choice for the organization, and that is hard to do when you have different points of view. Sometimes you have an owner looking for a big splash or the coach coming off a down season who is looking for someone to come in and play right away, and the best player on the board might not fit either of those two criteria.
The GM? He's likely most interested in hitting a double, not a home run, and that's why it is so important to have an organizational grade that everyone can stay behind.