I’ve made notes throughout the first few parts of this mega-post regarding players who fell in the draft despite their obvious talent, notes that said I would address in part 3.
Well, I apologize. Part 3 ran over 4500 words, so I broke it into two parts as well. This will be a four-part post.
In both previous sections, I highlighted players and factors that I think speak to why the NFL struggles to master the draft. I wanted to delve into those factors in detail, and perhaps more importantly, attempt to answer the question of why this continues to happen. Here’s how I see it, in short: Teams worry about the wrong things and have too many incentives against changing.
The first factor is the simplest and most straightforward one, and the one where I think teams need to most focus on improving their process.
Many teams still focus on the wrong traits in prospects
There’s an old saying (I think it might be from longtime Giants GM Ernie Accorsi, but I’m not sure): “If you start making exceptions for size and speed, pretty soon you have a team of small and slow players.”
It makes sense: The NFL is comprised of superior athletes, and on a certain level, if you aren’t athletic enough, you just can’t get the job done, no matter how good your technique is or how well you impress against college-level competition.
That said, I have several problems with this saying.
My first problem is that it throws out film in favor of arbitrary measurements. The saying works in reverse: When you start making exceptions for bad film due to athleticism, you end up with a team full of athletes who can’t play football. If you’ve read Zone Reads regularly, you know we believe film is the biggest key to evaluating draft prospects, because it’s where you can most easily see how or if they display the traits that are necessary at the next level. It’s the simplest thing in the world, but makes so much sense: If you want to know how good to expect someone to be at playing football, the best way you can gather evidence to that end is to watch him play football.
My second lies in the phrase “on a certain level” (and relatedly, “at certain positions”). Athleticism matters more at certain positions than others, and there’s a difference between optimal athleticism and the minimum required to succeed. This saying relies on hard and fast rules for all positions, which I don’t think is right.
And the third problem is regarding those hard and fast rules. I think the problem with doing that is that teams haven’t actually undertaken any kind of study to determine how well the athletic thresholds they set correlate with being a good NFL player. They don’t actually know if a certain 40 time or hand size or arm length or height is important, but by God, that’s what they’ve been doing for years, and they’re not about to change now.
NFL teams often focus on simplistic measurements or measurements that don’t mean anything in terms of playing the game. 40 time is probably the most illustrative example. Two years ago, Greg Robinson was drafted #2 overall because, well, he was 330 pounds and ran the 40 in under five seconds. Bigger is better; if Robinson can gain that kind of size without losing speed, he must be a good player, right?
Now, the preceding paragraph might prompt you to ask yourself a question, regardless of whether you’re a casual football fan or a hardcore tape grinder. “What the shit does running a 40 time have to do with offensive tackle play?”
Well, you’d be right to ask that. You’d also be right to wonder if there was reason to be concerned that Auburn’s offense didn’t ask Robinson to pass-block in a traditional set. You’d be right to wonder if he could do the most important job of an offensive tackle– and you’d be right to wonder if you should use the #2 pick on a player you weren’t sure could do that. (My abiding memory of Robinson from the 2014 draft process is watching him trip over his own feet at the Combine. So I didn’t think he could do that.)
Robinson is one example. This kind of thing happens all the time. That same year, the best cover corner on film, Jason Verrett, fell to 26th in the draft, while the Cleveland Browns traded up to #8 overall to acquire Justin Gilbert, an athlete playing cornerback whose film was decidedly mixed. Why? Well, Gilbert is taller and has longer arms.
Flash-forward two years, and guess what? Verrett is already performing like one of the better coverage cornerbacks in the league, while Gilbert has been buried on the depth chart amidst rumors he doesn’t work on his game and doesn’t really give a damn about football.
It’s happened again this year with Mackensie Alexander. Largely regarded as one of the better cornerbacks in this class and a likely first-round pick, Alexander fell to late in the second round on draft day. (Minnesota drafted him; between him and Laquon Treadwell, to say nothing of Teddy Bridgewater in 2014, they’ve done a terrific job scooping up good players other teams let drop for specious reasons.)
Alexander was my second-rated “pure” cornerback (I’ve been listing Jalen Ramsey as a safety), yet he was sixth off the board. What’s the difference? Every one of the cornerbacks drafted ahead of him was taller, and all but one were listed at 6’0″ or taller. Apparently, a great number of teams are convinced that if you aren’t six feet tall, you can’t be a good cornerback. (As I mentioned in part 1, even players who weren’t especially good cornerbacks got drafted ahead of him based on height. By the way, Xavien Howard ran a 4.58 40. He’s not even fast; he’s just tall.)
Hell, safety / cornerback / no one really knows T.J. Green, Alexander’s teammate, went in the second round to Indianapolis (one of the worst drafting teams in recent years) because, as far as I can tell, he’s 6’2″ and ran a 4.37 40. And Alexander remained on the board. (EDIT: I was mistaken; Alexander went three picks ahead of Green. But it should have been closer to three rounds, so the point stands.)
Even the one “short corner” drafted ahead of Alexander dealt with something similar: Vernon Hargreaves has great tape, is a superlative athlete, and yet Eli Apple went off the board before him. Why? Take a guess.
If you guessed “Hargreaves is under six feet and Apple is over six feet,” you win.
It’s not just me, either. You can find many sources both independent and major-media that agree. Look at CBS Sports’ cornerback rankings and compare Hargreaves to Apple, and Alexander to Burns and Howard.
And Dave with our friends at Inside the Pylon studied cornerbacks extensively this offseason and compiled his lists of the best at the important aspects of the game. Beyond Jalen Ramsey showing up everywhere, because the guy is arguably the next Charles Woodson, notice how often Hargreaves shows up, on various aspects of coverage and ball skills. Notice that Alexander is only behind Ramsey at man coverage and is top-5 in zone coverage and slot coverage as well. Notice, also, how Eli Apple and Artie Burns’ names are only called once, checking in at #4 on one skill apiece, and how Xavien Howard doesn’t show up in the top 5 for any of those categories.
(As a side note, I don’t exactly agree with it, but I do think William Jackson over Alexander is defensible, as he has size, speed, and very good ball skills.)
So both independent film study and a large media outlet tell us that the NFL as a whole drafted cornerbacks poorly in the first two rounds. If you told NFL scouts, coaches, or executives this, their response would be, of course, that outsiders don’t Understand The Game like they do– I’ll get to why that’s their response in part 4, but for now I’ll just say that the evidence is mounting that that simply isn’t true.
Perhaps the most laughable example of this in the entire draft was at quarterback, the game’s most important position. Ironically, for a position where game tape is probably the most important to glean an accurate grasp of a prospect’s worth, it’s often the least critical part of a team’s evaluation.
Game tape is important for quarterbacks because quarterback is a complex and nuanced position– they don’t call him the “field general” for nothing– and the one of the most important determining factors in a quarterback’s success is how they handle pressure.
Workouts and pro days take away the pressure. It’s easy to remember proper footwork and mechanics in a controlled environment. It’s a lot harder to do so in the face of a pass rush, and then you have to add in making multiple reads, looking off receivers to draw coverage away… The point is, quarterback is a complicated position requiring the ability to process information quickly on top of the talent to throw accurately, and you really can’t tell how good someone will be at it any other way except by watching them play.
And yet, year after year, teams praise and over-draft the workout warriors, neglecting the “merely” talented players who were successful college quarterbacks who elevated their teams, because they don’t fit the image in the minds of scouts and coaches of what a stud franchise quarterback should be.
And that leads us to Christian Hackenberg being drafted in the second round, while Vernon Adams not only went undrafted, but didn’t even get a contract as an undrafted free agent, instead having to attend a camp tryout with Seattle.
You can read more about Hackenberg’s flaws almost anywhere. I’d link to some film studies and reports on him, but I wouldn’t know where to stop.
He’s the ultimate and extreme representation of the fetishization of tall, strong-armed, white players at the quarterback position. It doesn’t matter that he was grossly inaccurate to all parts of the field; it doesn’t matter that he created so many sacks by holding onto the ball for far too long; it doesn’t matter that he’s become a mechanical mess. He Looks The Part. He’s Jake Locker or Blaine Gabbert, if they played even worse in college somehow.
Meanwhile, Adams didn’t even get a sniff because he measures in at 5’11”, even though he was dominant at Eastern Washington and elevated the Oregon offense this season. (It was utterly stagnant when Adams missed time; a simple comparison of his numbers to those of his backup suggests the difference.)
I saw one criticism of Adams that his “ball velocity” wasn’t good enough. Well, it is a concern if a QB can’t make all the throws– some guys just don’t have the arm strength for a fifteen-yard out or to hit a guy in stride downfield– but if on film, he can make all the throws, and accurately, then what’s the problem?
Teams are more impressed by a guy whose throws go hard and far than a guy whose throws go accurately and where they need to be. Thus, teams are often more focused on whether or not a quarterback can throw hard and far and to all parts of the field in a controlled no-pressure workout environment, then whether or not they can do anything else well, including make the same throws in the face of a pass rush.
Hell, Russell Wilson did everything well. And he fell to the middle of the third round because he’s not 6’2″ or taller. (And a 28-year-old who had an ultra-talented receiver to help pad his stats went two rounds ahead of him.) Seattle is one of the rare teams that has identified a quarterback who does many things well despite certain superficial (even irrelevant, arguably) limitations, and have built an offense geared toward what he does well and toward helping him succeed. But most teams automatically downgrade a player for not meeting the ideal measurements at the position– even if he performs like the ideal player on film.
Even being 6’2″ can’t help if you have a bad workout. Teddy Bridgewater’s incredible accuracy and preternatural ability to manipulate the pocket and to study the field didn’t matter to 31 teams nearly as much as his one bad workout– a workout where he was asked to throw without gloves and obliged, even though he plays with them. Talk about nitpicking a player. (Then again, teams already care so much about how a player performs without a helmet, shoulder pads, or an opposing team to face, so why not remove another piece of equipment from the equation?) Everything was overlooked because he didn’t throw hard enough and far enough in a workout. (To be sure, Bridgewater’s deep ball is the weakest part of his game– but he does so many other things well, and franchise quarterbacks are in such short supply, that any team in need of one should have been willing to design an offense to suit his strengths.)
The examples go on. And they happen every year. You get the idea. Teams overrate physical attributes at certain positions where a)technical proficiency and the proper mental makeup are more important or b)the attributes they prize are not key to understanding performance at the position.
Having established that, the next question is: Why do teams keep doing this? Why don’t teams start prioritizing strong play over looking like a prototype player, especially teams that are struggling and haven’t found much success doing things this way?
Part 4 will attempt to answer that question, as well as discuss one more factor in mis-evaluation.