The NFL Draft is like Christmas for me. I am a draftnik; guilty as charged. Every year I sign up for ESPN Insider before the draft to get more in-depth coverage. I buy every draft guide I can get my hands on. I find my favorite up-and-coming players and watch every shred of game film and highlights I can find on YouTube. Since 2001, from January to April I have been the very definition of an "Armchair GM". During this time, I have learned a few things. These things may not be the truth, but they are my truth.
The first thing I have learned is that teams as a general rule should never reach in the first or second round. The cream rises to the top in an obvious way, and aside from consistently overvaluing quarterbacks, the "draft experts" usually mock the best talent accordingly. Not a lot of scouting was required to know that Adrian Peterson, A.J. Green, or Luke Kuechly was going to be worth every penny. Marty Hurney was always pretty good at this, and his record of consistently hitting in the first round is probably what kept his job secure for so long. It sometimes seemed that he would just look at Mel Kiper's Big Board, pick a position, make sure the kid fit J.R.'s "no bad apples" criteria, and pull the trigger. Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short also fit this paradigm, and though it is obviously too early to say I doubt Gettleman got it wrong with these picks.
The second lesson I have learned is the main focus of this article. Drafting the first two rounds is a science; drafting past the second round is an art. The best talent evaluators in the game are able to consistently find talent in the later rounds of the draft, once all the players with elite measurables and strong production on the field are gone. My belief is that once you reach this point in the draft, player interviews become the key element to striking gold, because it takes a certain mentality to rise from low draft pick to elite playmaker in the NFL. Below, I will categorize the personality traits that are desirable for all players, and specific traits I would look for at each position.
- Desire to be the best player they can be
- High football IQ
- Strong listening skills
- Ability to overcome adversity
Getting players with football intelligence and the ability to overcome adversity is desirable for obvious reasons. Having strong listening skills ties in to coachability. However, as a talent evaluator the first question I would ask a prospective draftee would be "What is the ultimate goal for your career in the NFL?" Conventional wisdom would say that "Winning the Super Bowl" would be a good answer, but not for me. I would want to hear "I want to be the best player that I can possibly be" and nothing else. If every player strives to do their job to the best of their ability, winning will be a natural by product. If we start the season 1-5, odds are we are not winning the Super Bowl that year. I don't want half the team shutting down because they aren't going to reach their goal.
- Cool, calm, and collected
For a quarterback prospect, I would intentionally create an interview environment with as many distractions as possible. I would arrange so that the interviewee's chair was uncomfortable and the room was too hot. I would ask him difficult, personal questions. I would make his life a living hell for the length of the interview and see if he keeps his cool, because in my estimation that trait is absolutely the most important when evaluating quarterbacks. If he can't make all the throws, we'll come up with a scheme where he can. If he has problems with footwork, that's what we have coaches for. But if he can't exhibit calm under fire, that is something that can't be taught.
- Love of the game
Running backs with strong measurables can be found late in the draft these days, so it is possible to get great value deep in the draft and even in the UDFA ranks. Running back is probably the most physically demanding position on the field, and running backs face injury at a much higher rate than other positions. Therefore, I want a running back who loves the game of football. Love of the game will drive that player to work harder at physical conditioning and during rehab after injuries. It will drive him to want to be on the field and will build a wall between him and the things in his life that could take the game away from him. Speed, quickness, vision, patience, all of these things can be seen on game tape. Love of the game can only be seen in an interview.
Though he probably won't end up in the HoF, Steve Smith is one of the best wide receivers of all time. For us Carolina Panthers fan there is an obvious reason why; he has a chip on his shoulder a mile wide. Smitty is a walking, talking Napoleon complex and that persona has driven him to success that is unheard of for a player his size at his position. Remember, most guys Smitty's height play primarily in the slot. For Steve to have the success he has had against the opposing team's best cornerback throughout his entire career is remarkable. Fire can only be determined in interview, because its only giveaway is a look in the eyes. I said earlier that the desire to be the best player one can be is a desirable trait. For wide receivers, that isn't always enough, because wide receivers face more individual match-ups than anyone else on the field. It doesn't make a difference if you are the best player you can be if the cornerback across from you is better. Fire is that trait that drives a player to push himself beyond his own limitations, because it is a desire to be the best player on the field, not just the best player he can be.
Tight ends have to do a little bit of everything, and that means they have to be willing to adapt and evolve. If they are a good receiver coming out of college, I want to make sure they have a desire to become an equally good blocker. If they are a superb blocker, I want them to put in as many reps as necessary to make them a serviceable receiver. I want them to polish routes, work on timing, communicate with the O-line, and above all else befriend the quarterback. My interview with a tight-end prospect would be designed around determining if these are things he is interested in doing.
The ideal offensive line is like a single living organism. Each part works independently but in perfect cohesion with the other parts. With five separate people this can only be accomplished through excellent communication skills. My interview with an offensive lineman would be designed to have him explain abstract concepts to me in an understandable way. I want him to be outgoing without domineering and introspective without becoming introverted. If I can give an offensive line coach five guys with these qualities and he can't build a serviceable line out of them, then he is the problem, not the players.
This is the only position on the field where I want a crazy person. Defensive ends (and OLBs in a 3-4 defense) are the nemeses of quarterbacks. They are the guys whose job it is to disrupt the offense's rhythm, and the most effective way to do this is by getting into the quarterback's head. How do you get into a quarterback's head? By making him believe you want to murder him and feast on his entrails. Give me a wild man who paints himself up in warpaint, howls at the moon, hits people so hard they spit up blood, takes Tank Commander certification courses, or even one who barks at people. Jared Allen was selected in the fourth round, Kevin Greene was selected in the fifth, Greg Hardy was selected in the sixth, and John Randle went undrafted. You tell me why.
- Non-stop motor
This is more tangible in the sense that it can be seen on game tape, but it is a trait based on attitude, not physical ability. I want a defensive tackle that will chase a play after it is forty yards behind him and one who seemingly gets stronger when faced with multiple blockers. I want a guy who loves the challenge and won't back down from it. Give a good coach a guy with this mentality and he will turn the kid into a quality player, regardless of pedigree.
Outside linebackers need a high degree of physical ability, so this is a position I prefer to draft early. However, quality can be found later in the draft, especially for the weakside backer spot. In this instance I would say fearlessness is the most important intangible trait. Weakside backers need to be strong run supporters and are more often leaned on for blitzing purposes. This means they are charging through the line of scrimmage blind more often than anyone else, which leaves them vulnerable to chop blocks and getting blindsided by the fullback or pulling guard. You can't have a timid player in this role as he will dance around and allow the play to get past him. You need someone like Thomas Davis who will put his body on the line to make the play, and this requires fearlessness.
The middle linebacker is the key to the defense. He may not be the most physically gifted guy on the field, but he needs to be smart, have great instincts, be vocal, and have confidence. Middle linebacker is a position I would always advocate getting in the first two rounds, because they are just as important to the defense as the quarterback is to the offense, but when searching for depth at the position you want to make sure you get a guy who will be able to get the rest of the defense in the best position to make plays, even if the player himself is not as good as the starter he is backing up. I believe the Panthers nailed this with the selection of A.J. Klein this year.
The cornerback is the inverse of the wide receiver. He needs to be competitive almost to a fault, because being so means he will raise his game to the level of his competition in order not to be beat. However, the cornerback does not need to have the same fire as a wide receiver. It is no secret that this is a league designed to favor offenses, and a fiery cornerback tends to get too aggressive and become violent, a la DeAngelo Hall. You want a guy who is just as competitive but more subtle; one who isn't afraid to play a little dirty but is controlled enough to keep it out of sight of the referees.
Safeties are the last line of defense. I would base an interview with a safety around giving him hard decisions to make and having him make them in a short amount of time, and expecting him to be firm with his choices. I do not want a safety who straddles two zones while waiting for the play to develop. I want him to make his read and be confident, and stick to his guns. Sure, he may get beat from time to time, but more often than not the safety who tries to be in two places at once gets beat all the time.
- Cool under pressure
No explanation necessary.
Outside of the Kugbila pick - which is the only one I am still not completely sold on - I believe Dave Gettleman is on the right track with the decisions he has made in the draft. You can apply these criteria to free-agents as well, and I see the same theme in his selection of people like Chase Blackburn, Ted Ginn and D.J. Moore.
What do you guys think? Should we focus our attention on late-round picks and free agents toward their mental and personality-based strengths, or should we chase raw athletes and try to coach them up? Sound off in the comments section and let us know!