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How NFL Teams Really Make Their Draft Picks

Dan PompeiNFL ColumnistApril 28, 2016

The stage is seen as NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell announces that Johnny Manziel is selected by the Cleveland Browns at the 2014 NFL Draft at Radio City on Thursday, May 8th, 2014 in New York, NY.  (AP Photo/Gregory Payan)
Gregory Payan/Associated Press

Jerry Jones was infatuated with Johnny Manziel, the rock-and-rolling, Heisman-winning quarterback out of Texas A&M. Thought he'd be the perfect fit for the Cowboys. And as anyone who follows the NFL knows, Jones is the type of team owner who makes his own calls in the draft.

Commissioner Roger Goodell approached the stage to announce the Cowboys' pick. The TV commentators were talking about Manziel. The network had a camera trained on him to show his reaction just after the pick was made. Everyone was just waiting to hear his name called.

And then the moment came. "With the 16th pick in the 2014 NFL draft, the Dallas Cowboys select Zack Martin, guard, Notre Dame."

How did it happen? How did Dallas avoid busting on the player the ultimate decision-maker loved? What made them pass on a player we now know as an NFL washout in favor of a player we now know as a two-time All-Pro?

Here's how: Jones listened to reason—and to fists pounding on the table.

It can be unhealthy for an owner to have all of the drafting juice if his subordinates are afraid to challenge him. But it doesn't have to be. 

Stephen Jones, Jerry's son and the Cowboys' player personnel director, was among those in the team's draft room that day, warning about Manziel's off-field behavior, lack of size and inexperience running a conventional offense.

"If you had an owner who didn't listen, that would be a negative," Stephen Jones said. "But Jerry is a great listener. He loves to have long discussions about guys, hear the whys and why nots and play devil's advocate."

This conversation, this give-and-take between advice and power, is the key to the NFL draft. It's what every team has to balance this time of year.

Is the draft room a democracy, dictatorship or monarchy? Is power distributed evenly between the three branches—executive, scouting and coaching? Is there value in referendums?

The decisions a team makes in how it answers these questions, how it governs its draft room, are more critical to its success than any 4th-and-1, game-on-the-line decision in any big game.

The role of the owner

Some team owners believe they are the most qualified to run the draft. Jones has the final word for the Cowboys, as does Mike Brown for the Bengals, just as Al Davis and George Halas once did. Jimmy Haslam may be on his way to becoming the loudest voice for the Browns, as he has been researching how other teams work when the owner sits on the personnel throne.

There are advantages to this structure. The most significant is this: The owner will not be influenced by fear of drafting a bust.

"It's easier for an owner to take a Dez Bryant [who has a troubled past and volatile personality] after a lot of people pass on him," Stephen Jones said. "Jerry is an entrepreneur. He's been a risk-taker all his life."

Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

Security can be a double-edged sword for the drafter, though.

The Cowboys made the right call on Manziel, but last May they went out on a limb for defensive end Randy Gregory, who had been passed over 59 times after failing a drug test at the combine. Gregory now will be suspended for the first four games of the 2016 season for violating the league's substance-abuse policy, and Jones has been hearing from the critics.

A team owner likely can't know as much about a draft as someone whose sole job it is to study the prospects. Owners are pulled in many directions and often have other business interests.

Realizing this, Dan Snyder of the Redskins has altered his approach, relying on general manager Scot McCloughan to call the shots. In fact, McCloughan said Snyder declined an invitation to join a draft-room meeting two weeks before the draft last year.

"He said, 'I'm not going in there. You'll embarrass me,'" McCloughan said. "He equated it to me talking about the stock market."

Some general managers seek out input from owners.

"Our owner played in the league at a high level," Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman said of Jerry Richardson, a former NFL wide receiver. "I truly value what he has to say."

Most owners have a limited role in the draft. Some choose to be responsible only for giving a thumbs up or thumbs down on character risks.

Giants owner John Mara empowers general manager Jerry Reese to have final say in most matters. But Mara sits in on draft meetings and studies the book of scouts' reports. And if there is a disagreement between Reese and the head coach, Mara casts the tiebreaker.

Mel Evans/Associated Press

In 1995, the Giants' decision-makers found themselves in a dispute while on the clock over which running back they should take with the 17th pick. General manager George Young and the scouts wanted Tyrone Wheatley. Head coach Dan Reeves and the assistant coaches wanted Rashaan Salaam. Just before time expired, Young got his way and the Giants picked Wheatley.

Mara remembers the uneasy feeling as the seconds wound down on their pick that day. In order to avoid similar panicked decisions, he said he now presides over a meeting a day or two before the draft. Mara, Reese, head coach Ben McAdoo, senior vice president of player evaluation Chris Mara and vice president of player evaluation Marc Ross will spend a couple of hours trying to envision every possible scenario and conclude how they would handle it.

The draft-room blowup might make for a dramatic movie scene, but it's more likely to play out in Hollywood than East Rutherford, or anywhere there is a draft room.

"If there is a disagreement during the draft, we might walk out of the room and talk it out out of earshot of our scouts and assistant coaches," Mara said.

The role of the GM

Most owners hire general managers to conduct the draft-room orchestras. In theory, at least, the general manager should have the best grasp of what the organization is trying to achieve.

"The general manager tends to take a longer-term view on what are the best interests of the organization," Mara said. "Because job security is so shaky for coaches, they tend to have a shorter-term view. My preference is we look at each draft as to what's in the long-term best interests of the team. Take the guy with the highest grade and the biggest upside."

Gettleman's ideal power outlay has the GM providing personnel and the head coach deciding what to do with it.

"It works better this way," Gettleman said. "It's like our government; you need to have checks and balances in order to flourish."

His opinion is not universally accepted, of course.

In Pete Carroll's first season as head coach of the Patriots in 1997, the team chose cornerback Chris Canty in the first round.

"I hadn't been very involved in the draft, and I wasn't part of the discussion," said Carroll, who was forced to cede to vice president of player personnel Bobby Grier on draft decisions. "That was my fault for not getting involved more. We took a corner who wasn't very fast with short arms that was about 5'9". That ain't the kind of guy I like. It couldn't be more obvious that [the selection] was not representative of the way I coach. I wanted big guys back then. He didn't play very well, but it wasn't his fault."

A year after the Patriots fired Carroll, USC hired him as its head coach. But college head coaches aren't just head coaches. They are de facto general managers. Now, Carroll had the power to choose who would be on his roster.

"I just found that was the best way to be the most accurate in acquiring talent and utilizing it," he said. "I think it's the best way to do it. Ultimately, it comes down to the game and coaching guys and getting them to fit together. The coach has to be a big part of that."

When Carroll returned to the NFL in 2010 as head coach of the Seahawks, he made sure he had control of personnel. But he found a dance partner who was simpatico in general manager John Schneider.

Ted S. Warren/Associated Press

"John and I are really connected in every aspect of what we are doing," Carroll said. "I think he's the best general manager in football, the best guy to work with. He does everything he can, effort-wise and intensity-wise to add to our roster. But he also recognizes we're drafting for us, for what we want."

The role of the coach

Thomas Dimitroff is one of several general managers who has control of the 90-man roster but not the 53-man roster. That means he and head coach Dan Quinn need agreement on almost every personnel decision the Falcons make.

The Falcons have an impressive group in the front office that includes three former general managers in Scott Pioli, Phil Emery and Ruston Webster. Their opinions, as well as the opinions of the other scouts and assistant coaches, are heard during predraft meetings. Then Dimitroff and Quinn meet to make decisions on how to stack their board.

Contractually, Dimitroff has the power to draft a player whom Quinn is opposed to taking. But he never would.

"We are highly collaborative and proud of it," Dimitroff said. "There is not one move we make that the two of us are not in sync about."

The Panthers might not have drafted linebacker Shaq Thompson in 2015 if not for a similar connection between general manager and head coach.

After the Panthers' spring draft meetings, scouts were sent home for four days. But Gettleman and head coach Ron Rivera did not yet have a strong consensus opinion about Thompson, who was difficult to evaluate because he played multiple positions at Washington. They used the four days to continue to evaluate him individually and together. Eventually, they agreed he should be their pick in the first round.

If a coach—even an assistant coach—does not buy in on a draft pick, the coach's biases may deter the player's development. After McCloughan drafted Penn State quarterback Michael Robinson to play wide receiver for the 49ers in 2006, he overheard assistant coaches saying they thought Robinson couldn't make the position switch.

McCloughan was upset he didn't hear the criticism before the draft. "If I had known he felt that way going in, I would have said, 'Maybe we shouldn't do it,'" he said.

Robinson never made it as a receiver, but he ended up developing into a darn good fullback.

In predraft meetings last spring, McCloughan found himself in a disagreement with Redskins coaches about another wide receiver. The coaches were not very enthusiastic about Duke's Jamison Crowder because he was 5'8" and not particularly fast.

"This guy can help us win games," McCloughan told his coaches. "He's a football player and that's what we're looking for."

After McCloughan and the coaches spent about 12 hours over four days discussing Crowder and watching his tape, the general manager influenced the coaches to come around. The Redskins chose him in the fourth round, he was coached well and he subsequently broke Art Monk's team record for rookie receptions.

Nick Wass/Associated Press

Assistant coaches sometimes can show up late to the evaluation party and make it their own. In particular, offensive line coaches and quarterbacks coaches are known for consulting with peers and developing a groupthink about prospects that can become a powerful force in draft rooms across the league.

Some teams try to prevent assistant coaches from becoming assistant general managers. In many draft rooms, including the Giants', assistant coaches spend most of draft day in their offices, coming into the draft room only when a pick is approaching or if their expertise is needed.

"We are trying to build a consensus always," Stephen Jones said. "But you can't rely on coaches because they don't do as much work as the scouts. The scouts do all the heavy lifting, and I think it's their job to convince the coaches on how we put up the board and where these guys should fall. At the same time, you don't want to be drafting players who don't fit the coaches' system."

The Packers are an example of how trust and commitment from both ends of the hall enables consistent talent replenishment. General manager Ted Thompson and head coach Mike McCarthy don't approach the draft the way most do. The draft is almost entirely the domain of the general manager—and McCarthy says he likes it that way.

There is a school of thought that says handling both personnel and head coaching can be as challenging as being a single parent. You might be able to do it all, but can you do it as well as two people?

"I don't know how a coach can do both unless he takes a different direction with the [players already on the] team," McCarthy said. "I would never want to get that far away from the team. As long as I'm in this business, I'm going to coach the team and someone else will have to lead the personnel. We'll work together in between. When the head coach wants control of personnel, I think it's a huge mistake."

The way McCarthy sees it, there is only so much time in an offseason. Most of his time—and his assistant coaches' time—needs to be spent refining the playbook and developing talent.

"You have to play to your strengths," he said. "I don't sit down and write 25 to 60 reports. It's more who they want me to look at. The only time I close the door and go through all the tape is when they want me to zero in on a guy."

Thompson and his scouting staff give Packers coaches a limited number of players to review. Between the end of the season and the combine, coaches focus strictly on scheme evaluation. For about a month-and-a-half after the combine, they spend their mornings on scheme and their afternoons studying college players and writing reports. By the time Packers players reported April 19, coaches were finished with draft evaluations.

The Green Bay scouting staff, meanwhile, has been consumed with the draft since last summer and will be until the last undrafted free agent is signed.

The role of the scouts

How scouts factor into the process varies from team to team. Some front offices, such as the Titans and Browns, have an experienced group of graybeards with strong opinions. Others like the Bucs have more youthful scouts with the type of energy that soft-drink manufacturers try to carbonate and can.

Some scouts jokingly disparage themselves as "rock gatherers." Others flatter themselves as "evaluators." For most, the truth is somewhere in the middle.

Hall of Fame head coach Bill Parcells, never associated with compromise, was less willing to consider some scouts' opinions than others.

"It depended on if they knew what they were doing," he said. "Were they experienced enough to have a good opinion? You listen to people whose opinions you respect."

WINSLOW TOWNSON/Associated Press

When Chris Mara told Parcells that Dave Meggett could help the Giants in 1989, Parcells was skeptical. Meggett was 5'7", and the Giants already had a 5'7" running back in Joe Morris. Parcells was adamant—he did not want another back who couldn't pass protect or function as a receiver. But Mara kept working him.

"Meggett could help on third downs," Mara told him. "He can return punts. He can return kicks. You could develop a role for him."

Parcells respected Mara. He listened. He relented.

Meggett was voted an All-Pro three times and ended his career with the most punt-return yards in history. After Parcells left the Giants to become coach of the Patriots, he signed Meggett in New England.

Scouts and assistant coaches aren't the only ones who can persuade decision-makers. An increasing number of teams like the Jaguars, Ravens, Falcons and 49ers are taking analytics very seriously.

The Browns recently hired Paul DePodesta, the Moneyball descendent from Major League Baseball, as their "chief strategy officer." How his title pertains to the draft isn't very clear, but the Front Office page on ClevelandBrowns.com makes it a little clearer. DePodesta's name is fourth from the top, below only one person whose last name is not Haslam.

DePodesta will have to find his place in the Browns' draft room. In draft meetings, he likely is encountering some raised eyebrows, if not closed eyelids.

"The more you see with people trying to quantify things with numbers, the more experts get involved," said Parcells, who enjoyed spending about six hours visiting with DePodesta recently in Florida. "But the experts aren't identifying the talent. They are identifying the measurable that the talent possesses. You know what CompuBox is? It measures number of punches in boxing. Anybody who knows anything about boxing knows that it's punches, it's effective punching, defense and ring generalship. There's more to it than numbers."

There are not many punches thrown in NFL draft rooms. But there are some pulled.

It's all part of the politics of drafting.

Dan Pompei covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter at @danpompei.

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