The final weeks of draft speculation bring a wearying feeling of deja vu.
There are always two quarterbacks, and they are usually trapped in a two-month horse race played out on talk shows and in mock drafts. There's always the guy who flunked the drug test, the receiver with the slow 40, the receiver no one has heard of with the blazing 40, some guys with ACL tears, others with major character issues. The college left tackle who might not be good enough to play left tackle in the NFL? Yes, Brandon Scherff, you have a role to play in this drama, too!
In my line of work, we get asked the same questions year after year, whether on talk radio, Twitter or over drinks at the bar. The answers never really change; everyone just forgets them at the end of each draft, then starts asking the same questions again the following January.
This article is an attempt to answer every annual draft question, once and for all. Longtime readers may recall that I have written articles like this before. This article covers different ground and uses a whole new set of names, but in many ways, it's deja vu all over again.
Should NFL teams draft the best player available or draft for need?
Teams always draft one of the best players available, within parameters set by their needs.
Keep in mind that "best players" and "needs" don't line up neatly on lists for teams the way they do on draft websites or in magazines. Teams organize prospects into tiers, so Danny Shelton, Landon Collins, Shaq Thompson, Alvin Dupree, Todd Gurley, Marcus Peters, La'el Collins and Maxx Williams could all be lumped together as "Tier 2" for some team selecting in the middle of the first round. If that team needs an immediate starting tackle, has a starting running back in the last year of his contract and has always stressed defensive-line depth as crucial for success, the general manager will use most of the draft clock deciding who the "best player available" is within those parameters.
Keep in mind that teams fill many needs in free agency, and they always keep the draft class and draft order in mind when re-signing their own players or courting free agents. This year's tight end class is one reason the Dolphins and Bills rumbled in the parking lot over Charles Clay. Also, media types like me are far worse at assessing team needs than we are at ranking prospects (which is scary). Some 2014 fifth-round pick could have torn up the practice fields all last year and now be in line for a starting job, but we wouldn't know it unless someone asked a coach a direct question about him and received a gushing response. Teams also base their in-house assessments of needs on contract situations beyond this season and place premiums on players many of us think of as backups, like nickel defenders and rotation defensive tackles.
I have heard general managers asked whether they draft for talent or need at dozens of press conferences. Most get that faraway "serenity now" look in their eyes. Just once, I want to hear a general manager say: We draft for need. We desperately take anyone who can help us immediately: fullback, punter, anybody. I manage from crisis to crisis and spend every season just hoping we can scrape by! That will happen right after a new head coach says that his defense will be passive and soft and that he will make no attempt at all on offense to establish the run.
Should teams draft for potential or select players who can start right away?
Teams draft for potential within reasonable limitations: Sprinters or weightlifters who have never seen a football don't get drafted very often. If teams did not draft for potential, first-round quarterbacks would be as rare as first-round fullbacks. If a team wants low-upside players who can immediately fill a hole for a season or two, that's what bargain-bin free agency is for.
Like the talent-need question, potential versus readiness is a continuum, not a toggle switch. Most bad draft arguments begin by taking a complex, dynamic situation and dumbing it down to a yes-no, right-wrong scenario. In that way, bad draft arguments are like bad political arguments and bad arguments in general.
Should a rookie quarterback start right away or learn from a mentor?
It depends on the rookie quarterback. It has always depended on the rookie quarterback.
None of this year's rookies appear ready to start right away. The same can be said of the 2013 and 2012 crops. Those who ended up starting immediately (like Derek Carr) only won the job because expected mentors got hurt or proved too rickety to earn starting jobs. At the same time, Andrew Luck had little to learn from the bench in 2012, and it would have taken a heck of a journeyman to hold off Russell Wilson once he began battling for the starting job. Robert Griffin III probably needed a journeyman reliever at the end of his rookie season more than at the beginning.
Anyone who tries to statistically study the question of whether rookie quarterbacks should be mentored always runs into the same problem. Let's call it the Goofus and Gallant scenario:
Goofus and Gallant are both first-round rookie quarterbacks.
Gallant does everything he can to prove that he is mature and grounded. Goofus buys a fleet of speedboats with his signing bonus.
Gallant methodically learns the playbook and wins over his teammates in the locker room. Goofus gets sacked in 7-on-7 drills and calls the veteran starting middle linebacker "Sparky."
Coaches trust Gallant with the starting job. He starts slowly and makes plenty of mistakes but finishes the season with 3,100 passing yards, 26 touchdowns and the esteem of his teammates.
Goofus backs into the starting job when his mentor gets hurt or falters and throws 21 interceptions.
Conclusion based solely on statistics: Making a rookie quarterback the opening day starter is the best strategy, because it worked for Gallant.
That's what we call a selection bias in the statistical business.
Even if a rookie quarterback has the maturity of Bruce Arians, every team with a young quarterback should have a veteran mentor. Young quarterbacks need every available practice rep. Veteran-for-hire backups can generally stay sharp enough to play with minimal reps.
This quarterback was 43-3 as a college starter. He's a winner. How can he possibly fail in the NFL?
Evaluating a rookie quarterback by counting his college wins is like evaluating a rookie quarterback by counting his freckles. Most rookie quarterbacks enter the NFL with gaudy college records. They are all "winners." The ones who succeed are the winners who can also make decisions, throw hard, throw accurately, manage the huddle, manage the pocket and so on—at a professional level, not a collegiate level.
Can these spread-option "gimmick" quarterbacks succeed in the NFL?
Please watch the last two Super Bowls or any NFC playoff game from the last three seasons, then rephrase your question.
Are today's athletic quarterbacks changing the way teams run their offenses?
"Today's athletic quarterbacks"? As opposed to yesterday's athletic quarterbacks: Steve Young, Fran Tarkenton, Roger Staubach, Bobby Layne, John Elway, Michael Vick, Donovan McNabb, Randall Cunningham, Jim Harbaugh, Rich Gannon, Brett Favre, Kordell Stewart, Steve McNair, Archie Manning, Don Meredith and on and on and on? Running quarterbacks have been part of the NFL far longer than "classic" dropback quarterbacks.
NFL offenses have spent the last five or six years meeting college quarterbacks halfway: more shotgun sets, more designed runs, more tunnel screens and so on. The change has more to do with overall strategic trends than the need to baby-proof NFL offenses. The dominance of the West Coast offense reached the point of diminishing returns by about the early 2000s. Every team either had Brett Favre or Kurt Warner or wished it had Brett Favre or Kurt Warner. NFL coordinators began to realize that many college innovations resulted in more efficient offensive production.
Offensive strategies are always going to evolve. There is still an adjustment for a spread-option, no-huddle quarterback entering the NFL, but the leap is not nearly as great as it was about 15 years ago, when he would be told to take three-step drops from center and throw short slants all day.
There are dozens of great running backs entering the NFL every year. Why can't these guys get drafted in the first round?
Because there are dozens of them entering the NFL every year. If you hear the local Mega-Lo-Mart has 4,000 GameStation Xtreme consoles in stock for Christmas, you don't make any special shopping plans. If you hear it only received a shipment of 40, you line up on Thanksgiving night with a crowbar. Supply and demand is a harsh shrew goddess.
Is there any place for the workhorse running back in this era of committee backfields?
Yes, there is a place for the workhorse back as part of a committee.
These days, a "workhorse" running back is a guy who gets about 20 touches per game, often in the form of 15 carries and five receptions. That was actually the case for most of NFL history, by the way. We think of Franco Harris as someone who hammered the middle of the line 75 times per game, but Harris averaged a little over 20 touches per season for most of his peak seasons. Jim Brown averaged 22 touches per game for his career.
In the old days, all backfields were "committees." Harris shared the load with Rocky Bleier, Brown with Bobby Mitchell and so on. The I-formation became popular in the mid-1970s, and suddenly Earl Campbell and Eric Dickerson were getting close to 100 percent of their teams' carries. Like many strategic trends, the 360-plus-carry workhorse fad began yielding sub-optimal results pretty quickly. Eddie George was a heck of a running back, but all the Titans did by giving him 488 touches in the 2000 season was wear him out.
If a college superstar running back wants to earn that 20-touch NFL role, he must be able to run, catch and block. This is also nothing new: Harris and Brown caught many passes, and they were expected to block for their quarterbacks and (more importantly in the old days) their backfield mates.
Does anyone care about wide receivers' 40 times?
Yes. The guys who ran faster than 4.45 seconds all got second looks during the assembly of draft boards and will either get drafted or prioritized as free agents. Guys who ran 4.6 or slower who do not have the tape of an Amari Cooper or the broad-based skills of a Vince Mayle (a special teams demon) are going to slip. For most of the guys in between, the difference between 4.5 and 4.52 does not matter.
Most teams use 40-times as benchmarks: Never take a receiver slower than 4.65 unless he is over 6'3", for example. Workout results are used to validate, inform or question scouting tape in most circumstances. But some evaluators do put more stock in workout results than others, and a 220-pound dude who runs a 4.3 40 is going to get attention from talent evaluators for any sport this side of golf.
Does anyone care about quarterback Wonderlic scores?
Yes, the websites that publish Wonderlic scores and then say things like: "Wonderlic scores are supposed to be confidential and have no correlation with anything, but Jameis Winston blah blah blah."
The Wonderlic is a pet peeve of mine because I worked in the standardized testing industry for many years. It's a hopelessly out-of-date old corporate IQ test with far too many validity issues to go into here. I'm glad Winston did well, because no one deserves to be deemed immoral, flabby and dumb before he even receives his first paycheck, but the Wonderlic is a spectacular test for measuring precisely how well someone can perform on the Wonderlic.
All of these tight ends are just pumped-up wide receivers. Where have all the blocking tight ends gone?
To offensive tackle. Many offensive tackles entered college as tight ends, then bulked up. They bulked up because teams have not valued block-first tight ends as anything but role players for about 25 years, if not longer. "Tight ends these days can't block" is as much a get-off-my-lawn sentiment as "Quarterbacks these days run around instead of staying in the pocket."
Before you harken back to the halcyon days of burly, blocking tight ends, remember how fans reacted to the high draft selections of Kyle Brady (Jets, 1995), David LaFleur (Cowboys, 1997) and Richard Quinn (Broncos, 2009). Brady and LaFleur had solid careers, but their first-round selections were not exactly crowing successes for their organizations. Quinn's selection was Exhibit Q in the case of Josh McDaniels v. Sanity.
Successful teams win in the trenches. Shouldn't teams focus on linemen in the draft?
Successful teams win in many, if not all, facets of football. There is nothing inherently smarter, tougher or more "old school" about drafting linemen early. The trenches are not much different from other positions: Prospects with rare ability must be prioritized and depth/development are critical. But reaching for a tackle when there is a great receiving prospect on the board won't make a team "tougher" or curry the favor of the football gods.
Some of this year's top tackle prospects might not be talented or athletic enough to play left tackle. Shouldn't they slide down the draft board?
The best player on any offensive line usually plays left tackle. The guard positions are probably the most replaceable starting positions on either side of the ball.
That said, the distinctions between left tackles, right tackles and guards (centers must make line calls, putting them in a separate category) got blown out of proportion at the start of NFL free agency 20 years ago. Agents used the left tackle/right tackle contrast to earn more money for client left tackles. Then, a handful of exceptional left tackles entered the NFL at nearly the same time (Jonathan Ogden, Walter Jones, Orlando Pace, Willie Roaf), creating a distorted sense of how good a left tackle can reasonably be expected to be. Finally, Michael Lewis wrote The Blind Side, Sandra Bullock taught Michael Oher the true meaning of pass protection and suddenly even my mother thought left tackles had to have magical qualities to succeed in the NFL.
There are many successful NFL tackles whose ability to play "the blind side" was questioned out of college: Joe Staley, Cordy Glenn and King Dunlap are the top-of-my-head examples. Meanwhile, the Chargers just gave Orlando Franklin a reported $35.5 million contract to play either right tackle or guard, depending on their plans for D.J. Fluker, a former first-round pick who never fit the left tackle prototype. Teams have begun drafting guards and centers in the first round again; the Cowboys had well-publicized success with the tactic.
The importance of a left tackle, while still real, is incredibly overstated. But a lot of people who write and talk about the draft are Pace-Ogden damaged and keep comparing all linemen to a Hall of Fame prototype.
Are teams looking at these college sack specialists as defensive ends or outside linebackers?
Yes. Teams are looking at college sack specialists as defensive ends or outside linebackers.
The 3-4 versus 4-3 distinction is not very distinct. Most nominal 3-4 defenses have one outside linebacker play on the line of scrimmage for most offensive snaps. Most nominal 4-3 defenses have one speed-rusher, generally called a Leo now that Pete Carroll is king of the defensive coaches, who rushes from the edge and is not expected to win many matchups with 320-pound tackles on running plays. Those edge-rushers we used to call "tweeners"—Randy Gregory, Shane Ray and the rest—now have a role in most defenses.
There are still plenty of differences among schemes, of course, and some defensive coordinators may want a stouter, quicker or more coverage-savvy player in the edge role. But no team looks at Vic Beasley and says, "Gee, we don't have a role for that kind of athlete."
Is [insert your favorite defensive tackle here] good enough to play the 3-technique, or is he more of a 5-tech, 7-tech, shade 2i-tech or pi-tech?
OK, stop. Stop saying "technique." Step away from the defensive-line jargon bin.
The "techniques" are exact defensive locations along the line of scrimmage, counting out from the center at "0-technique." A 3-tech tackle lines up between the guard and tackle. Think of him as the left tackle of the defensive line: Great players like Warren Sapp defined the position and blew its requirements all out of proportion. Listening to draftniks talk about line techniques is like listening to wine snobs scrutinize a fine Merlot. I just don't think he has the first-step explosion to be a one-gap 3-tech instead of a two-gap 4-tech. No, and I detect oak notes and hints of elderberry in the finish.
Unless a lineman weighs 340 pounds, leaving him to line up almost exclusively over center, or is a 240-pound edge specialist, all defensive linemen play multiple techniques during the course of a game. Most played multiple techniques in college. Watch Leonard Williams' game tape, and you can see him move from over the tight end to head-up on the center, based on the game situation and defensive call. Most players are certainly better suited to one technique than others, but obsessing over just where anyone will line up is one of the silliest things you can do before the draft.
Can a 5'10" cornerback make it in today's NFL, with so many tall receivers?
Chris Harris Jr. and Brent Grimes both reached the Pro Bowl this year at 5'10". Glover Quin led the NFL in interceptions as a 5'10" safety. Joe Haden is 5'11", 190 pounds. There are only a handful of Richard Shermans and Antonio Cromarties in the world; keep reaching for tall cornerbacks, and you will get a lot of lanky defenders who cannot turn or cut with NFL wide receivers.
Don't worry about a cornerback's size unless you see a weight below 180 pounds. There's a place in the NFL for a mighty mite like 5'9" Senquez Golson of Ole Miss, but a player who is too small and light will hit a ceiling in terms of potential.
Why are the Patriots so bad at drafting?
The Patriots have had the toughest roster to crack in the NFL for 14 years. They have picked at the end of the draft or have been forced to sacrifice picks to move up every year for the last 14 years. The Patriots are one of the best franchises in the league at recycling cheap veterans in free agency, and they rank with the Packers and Giants at finding and grooming rookie "street" free agents. Therefore, their "high" draft picks are not very high, and they enter an environment where the starter might be All-Pro, the backup just got plucked off the waiver wire from Tampa for a custom-fitted role and the undrafted rookie at the same position is a top athlete who will be given a serious chance to compete. Under the circumstances, it is inevitable that some high-round picks wash out.
It's OK for Patriots fans to keep thinking that the Patriots stink in the draft, though, because it is the only time they ever admit that the Patriots might be imperfect mortals.
Why are teams like the Raiders, Jaguars and Browns so bad at drafting?
Bad franchises are usually bad at a variety of things. Drafting is often the least of their problems.
Promising prospects on bad teams enter situations where there is little competition. They start right away and are often expected to do too much. Their teammates are not very good, which limits their development and fosters bad habits. The team does poorly, the coaches and executives are fired and the next guys come in wanting to select players for their own schemes and philosophies. The vicious circle continues, and a prospect who might have thrived if he played for a stable organization like the Packers or Ravens arrives at his second contract as a low-rent free agent, if he arrives at all.
Sometimes, bad franchises really do have strings of awful drafts, like the Jaguars in 2011-2012 or the Raiders late in Al Davis' life. A poor decision-maker at the top is usually to blame, and a few truly bad drafts can set an organization back for several years.
Why is my favorite team so bad at drafting?
It probably isn't. Local fans often assume the local team cannot draft worth a lick; again, it's one of the few things Patriots fans don't sing hosannas about. You are probably just comparing your team's draft to an All-Star draft of every player the other 31 teams selected. Local fans also dwell on draft busts from 20 years ago and are impatient with last year's draft, forgetting that even the best organizations have plenty of busts and late bloomers on their records. Yes, I am talking to you, Eagles fan who still mutters about Mike Mamula and has a complex about Marcus Smith.
Do teams really care if a player fails a drug test for marijuana?
My wife doesn't care if I come home from happy hour a little tipsy on a Friday night. If that Friday night happens to be our anniversary and I was supposed to pick the kids up from karate, drop them at the babysitter's and take her to the symphony, she cares quite a bit. The combine is a little like the anniversary in that regard. It doesn't sneak up on anyone, and all it takes to avoid trouble is a little self-control and professionalism.
With the NFL facing so many scandals and so much scrutiny, shouldn't teams be extra wary about drafting players with character issues?
Teams hire private investigators, apply psychological evaluations and conduct long interviews with both the prospects and their coaches. The league provides educational programs and intervention programs for players seeking help. Attitudes about crimes like sexual violence are evolving and will continue to evolve.
That said, stuff will always be buried, overlooked or rationalized, because that's human nature, and there will always be people like Ray Rice who have exemplary records until the moment they do something horrendous. And teams that cross every college kid with a marijuana conviction or argument with a coach off their lists are going to go 5-11 for eternity. "Wariness" may mean hiring the extra private eye, providing a player with extra "scaffolding" (counseling, mentorship) or just defining expectations and consequences explicitly. It does not mean arbitrarily sliding a guy down 10 slots on a mock draft.
Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.