What fans think happens in NFL draft rooms on draft day and what really happens are two different things.
First of all, you may have noticed I didn't use the phrase "war room." I refuse to use that phrase as it relates to the draft—no one in the NFL is at war. There is also a story behind my thought process in not using that term.
That's one of five major NFL draft misconceptions.
The Term "War Room" Is Not Universal
Ten years ago this week, former Arizona Cardinal safety Pat Tillman lost his life during a fire fight in Afghanistan. Tillman played his college football at Arizona State and one of his teammates was Ted Monago. After college, while Pat was playing in the NFL, Ted was working his way up the coaching ladder. They remained close friends and regularly stayed in touch.
In 2001, Ted, who was an assistant coach at William and Mary at the time, decided he wanted to get out of coaching and become a scout. I hired him in June of that year, and he has gone on to become one of the most respected and well-liked scouts in the league and is now a national scout for the St. Louis Rams.
During our predraft meetings in April 2004, Robyn Wilkey, who was general manager Jerry Angelo's assistant, came into our meeting room and told Ted he had an important phone call. Ted went out to take the call and came back in the room a short time later. He was in tears. He was pale and he could hardly talk. I asked what was wrong.
He could barely reply and just said "Pat's dead."
Not knowing who he was talking about, I asked him who Pat was, and he said the call was from his mother and that news had just broke about Pat Tillman being killed in action.
Needless to say, we adjourned our meetings for the day.
Within a half hour of Ted getting that call, I sent out an email to all the coaches, scouts and training staff telling them that the draft room was no longer to be referred to as the war room. From that day on, the Chicago Bears always referred to that room as the "draft room."
While watching draft coverage on ESPN and the NFL Network, I cringe every time I hear the term "war room." I know, it's me, but I feel using that term is disrespectful to our military forces. They are the ones who fight wars, not a bunch of scouts, coaches and general managers trying to make a few draft decisions for a game.
Trade Charts Alone Do Not Determine Draft-Day Deals
Talking to fans, I always get the impression they feel decisions are made last-minute. While that can be true when deciding on who to select between two players, most teams have a plan that is set in place during meetings leading up to draft day.
The idea to possibly trade up or trade down is always discussed in advance. If a team feels that there is a certain player it has to get, and it has to move up to be able to get him, then the cost of moving up is discussed.
When I started my scouting career in the early 1980s, there was no such thing as a trade chart. You would make or receive a call on a trade and terms were discussed. If you liked the terms, a trade was made.
When Jimmy Johnson became head coach of the Dallas Cowboys, he didn't like not having a formula for making draft day trades. So, he devised a chart that gave every pick in the draft a point value. If a team wanted to trade up, it had to have the picks that equaled the point value of the higher pick.
As noted by Tom Gower of FootballOutsiders.com, though, Johnson's trade chart is a bit outdated for the modern NFL:
@DanClaycomb Old Johnson trade chart goes back to pre-FA NFL, which is a whole different ball of wax from a player development perspective.— Tom Gower (@ThomasGower) April 19, 2014
Just about every team in the NFL still uses a trade chart for draft day. Charts today, however, are different than the ones originally used by Johnson. With the new CBA, values have changed. While clubs don't strictly adhere to the chart, it is used as a guide. The actual values, especially at the top of the draft, can change from year to year depending on who the consensus top picks are. When there is an obvious No. 1 and No. 2 pick, the value of those picks can go up.
What a club wants to do and what it is able to do are always determined days before the draft begins.
A team needs ammunition to move up and grab a player. If a team is happy drafting any one of three to four players that are on the board at its pick, it can always make the case to move down. By moving down, that team obviously acquires more picks. Clubs that are short on picks in a given year will usually be open to such moves.
Making the actual trade is always a highly-vetted process: What are the advantages of moving up? What are the advantages of moving down? Is the team sure it can still get a player that it likes by moving down? If the answer to that question is no, don't make the trade.
Draft Picks Are Not Up to One Person
Many believe the decision on who a team drafts belongs to just one person. That wasn't the case in my years with the Giants and Bears. It was always a collective decision in which the scouts, coaches and the general manager all had input. No matter if it was the first round or seventh round, every single choice was discussed.
Going into a draft, teams always have certain players that they will target in certain rounds. If everything goes as planned, it's easy to make the decision.
If teams go into a draft fixated on taking one particular player, they will be heartbroken.
While that player may be there sometimes, he isn't going to be there all the time. That's why teams have to have a list of several players ready for each round. Prioritize each player on the list, and if the top player is gone then go to No. 2.
I always had a rule: you could only talk about a player if you wrote a report on him. When it came time to talk about Player A, everyone who saw him play would be involved in the discussion. We talked about his talent, character and how he would fit within the scheme.
If the consensus was that he was a player we wanted, then he was put on the list. If we couldn't reach a consensus opinion, he was eliminated.
That said, the room wasn't necessarily a democracy. The GM's and head coach's votes generally carried more weight than some of the other people. If a final decision had to be made, the person in control of the 53-man roster made the final decision.
Every team in the NFL has one person who is the ultimate boss. Regardless of what title a person has, the man who controls the final roster is the boss.
In most cases, it's either the head coach or the general manager. However, when that person decides to pull rank and doesn't listen to his subordinates, mistakes get made.
Just like football is a team game, so is the art of scouting and drafting.
Teams Do Not Typically Draft the Best Player Available
While drafting "best player available" sounds good in theory, it seldom actually happens. Teams usually draft the best player available at a position of need.
Teams rarely go into a draft with just one need, but almost always have some more important than others. During the ranking process, the players at positions of need always find their way to the top of the charts.
However, that's not to say teams will always turn down a top player who is not a need. Generally, when a team is facing a situation like that, the decision to trade down comes into play. And sometimes, a top player is there who the team wasn't expecting to be. That's when an entirely different discussion begins.
When something like that happens, it's usually in a premium round and the club has time to talk about it (teams have less time to make their selections as the draft progresses). When an unexpected player falls, it's likely going to happen three to five picks before your team is on the clock. That should give a team plenty of time to discuss that player and make a decision on what to do.
One year where a big-time player dropped and teams were caught off guard was 2005 when quarterback Aaron Rodgers fell. Going into that draft, many felt Rodgers would be a top-five pick. When that didn't happen, teams drafting in the teens were caught off guard. This was a player they never figured would be there and was not discussed as a possible selection.
On draft day, especially in the first round, teams don't like being thrown a curve ball.
They have a list of players that they think might be available and are prepared for those players if they are. Many clubs just weren't prepared for Rodgers to fall, and they passed simply because they were following their plan that was set in predraft meetings.
There is no way that Green Bay thought Rodgers would still be available at pick No. 24.
Ted Thompson, being the astute evaluator that he is, wasn't about to let that gift get away and promptly picked Rodgers. Green Bay had Brett Favre at the time and he was still in his prime, but Rodgers was too good to pass up. I would bet there are about 15 other teams that wish they had the guts Thompson had. It was one of the greatest picks of all time.
Analysts Draft Boards Are Not Comparable to Teams' Draft Boards
When watching the draft, analysts often say after some picks are made that they had a player at the same position rated higher. One thing you can be sure of is that no two teams' draft boards are alike.
Clubs rate players based on the player profile they have set up for each position. Literally every position on the team has a definition attached to it. If a team plays a four-man front, what it looks for at each of the two end positions and tackle positions is defined. When scouts are on the road in the fall, they look for players that fit the profile as it is written up.
Because of that, scouts from Team A will grade a certain player differently than scouts from Team B. Also, you have to take into consideration how scouts view similar players. I have always said if you put five scouts in the same room, give them the same tape of the same player, they will come back with five different opinions. It's not because one scout is right and the others are wrong. They simply look at the player in a different way.
Take this year's draft, for example. Some analysts have the quarterbacks rated high. Some—myself included—have them rated a little lower. Who knows who is right? We won't know for sure until about three years from now. The important thing to remember is that every team selects the players they have rated the highest.
I guarantee that the day after the draft you won't find any clubs unhappy with their picks. They feel each player they drafted was the best available to them at the time.
While the ratings of players in the first couple of rounds may be similar from team to team, the ratings of players drafted in the lower rounds are far different. Every year I was in the NFL, I saw clubs draft players in the mid-rounds who we had rated as free agents. I might have a player in the third round that another club has in its fifth. This is not unusual. In many cases, how the player fits a profile is indeed the difference.
We see this happen the most on defense, where there are basically two different types of schemes played in the league. There is the 3-4 and the 4-3 defense. Some players can play in one scheme but not the other. For example, in Chicago we played a one-gap attacking 4-3 scheme. A 6'3", 340-pound nose tackle was never going to play in that scheme. While the nose tackle may be a very good player, he isn't going to be rated as high by our scouts as a club that runs a 3-4. It's just a different philosophy.
When the draft takes place in two weeks, make a note of that. Teams will pass on players that the analysts have rated high.
One other thing to look for: players usually drop for two main reasons on draft day. One is for medical issues. The other is character. If you see a top player still available much later than he was projected to go, you can bet it's because of one of those issues.