Numbers aren't everything.
Let's take a moment to imagine the ideal defensive tackle. What matters most? The casual fan would imagine that a guy who put up lots of numbers in college is a lock for NFL stardom. Sometimes. But what happens when a player finds his way into an NFL defense? Will he still hold up against NFL-caliber competition? Or was his statistical success due more to the system that he played in in college than to his own athletic ability? I'm not trying to trash the player in this situation; my point is great college numbers do not necessarily predict a great NFL player.
Let's look at the opposite end of the spectrum. Do you think that a college defensive tackle with rather uninspiring stats could excel in the NFL? The average football fan might say absolutely not, but they'd be wrong. Consider a defensive tackle that forces a double team on every snap, and screws up the line of scrimmage for the offense. If a defensive tackle can occupy multiple blockers, he opens up the field for the linebackers behind him and the linemen around him. This benefits his defense as a whole, even if it doesn't show up on the stat sheet. When scouting defensive linemen, especially later round guys, don't let numbers dissuade you. Watch the film, and see what he does as a part of a unit. A defense is made up of 11 players. Eleven great statistic-generating players will not necessarily give you a great defense. If you want to build a great defense, draft the guys that fit your scheme, not just the guys who put up the best stats.
Workouts don't matter.....much.
Every year, a prospect shoots up draft boards after a great workout or combine performance. JaMarcus Russell became the 1st overall pick of the 2007 NFL Draft. Russell finished his NFL career with a 7-18 record as a starter over three seasons. He threw for 18 total touchdowns. The next two picks were Calvin Johnson and Joe Thomas. Adrian Peterson was drafted 7th overall. Marshawn Lynch was picked a few picks later. Meanwhile, quarterback Matt Moore went undrafted that season, and is currently a backup quarterback in Miami with 33 touchdowns and 28 interceptions in his career. What went wrong with JaMarcus Russell?
Early scouting reports on Russell show a concern with his weight. Scouts also raised questions about his poise in the pocket; he'd often hold onto the ball too long in college, causing turnovers. However, Russell's arm strength was touted as his biggest asset, and Russell's extremely productive career at LSU combined with a Pro Day workout entirely developed to show off Russell's arm strength propelled him to the first overall pick. JaMarcus Russell struggled to adapt to the NFL once drafted, and never kept his weight under control. Those issues led to the demise of his NFL career.
Tom Brady, on the other hand, was poorly served by his Combine performance and his measurables. Many scouts laughed at his 40 time, and Brady was viewed as too light to survive at quarterback in the NFL. That being said, when Brady was drafted by the New England Patriots in the 2000 draft, he found himself in an offense that suited his strengths as a player extremely well. Tom Brady was drafted into a system that fit his talents, and is now recognized as one of the greatest quarterbacks in the history of the NFL. Not bad for a 6th round pick.
"The most important six inches on the battlefield is between your ears." --General James Mattis.
Professional football is a 22-piece chess match. Coaches on each side of the field manipulate the positions and behavior of 11 players at a time in an attempt to gain short term advantages against the opponent that can be turned into long-term gains during the game. The best professional football players are those who work hard both in practice and the film room and who have developed an encyclopedic knowledge of the game. These players are able to understand their coaches plans, see holes in opponent's plans, and adjust to gain an advantage. Tom Brady is so great not only because of his system, but also because he is an obsessive student of the game. Brian Urlacher was a great linebacker because he understood the entire football field. Ray Lewis was also an obsessive student of film. Great players have a great understanding of the game.
When interviewing a college player or prospective signing, it is extremely important for a scout to gauge the player's understanding of the game. Athletic talent can only get a player so far. The ideal player has both athletic talent and a deep understanding of the game. Let's step back to defensive tackles again for a moment. The defensive tackle I want to draft is a guy that understands what the offense is doing, and that can also disrupt those offensive plans by taking up multiple blockers. This allows the guys around him to make plays. By doing so, the player makes the defensive unit as a whole successful.
The average fan looks at the box score of a football game and thinks that they've learned everything necessary about the game. That's not the case. Did one team dominate field position only to lose as a result of one big play? If a team lost as a result of one or two plays, then the issues are not necessarily easy to fix. A missed read or missed tackle or untimely penalty might have been an honest mistake. However, if there is a general trend present, it showcases either an undisciplined player or an undisciplined coach (or both). Winning a football game is ultimately about controlling the space on the field and generating points. Fundamental breakdowns of technique or concentration can kill the outcome of a game. This is important to remember when selecting a pick.
If given the choice between a college defensive player who is a phenomenal tackler with average numbers or a bad tackler with above average numbers, I will always take the player who is the better tackler. Arm tackles and hard hits can be enough to dominate in college. In the NFL, where the level of talent is much higher, improper technique is much harder to hide. Far too often, teams miss on players because they miss a fundamental flaw in the player's game. On the flip side, if a player is a fundamentally great player with lackluster stats, that player might go undrafted.
Players like Zach Thomas and Russell Wilson were knocked because of their size, and their draft positions suffered. However, when their football IQ and fundamental technique is considered, both should have been drafted higher. Size doesn't matter. Just remember. Zach Thomas was too small to be an NFL linebacker, Russell Wilson was too short to be an NFL quarterback, and Tom Brady was too light to thrive in the NFL. When you see a scout or writer knocking a player for being "too small," that writer is likely making too big of a deal about the player's size. It is possible to be too heavy, if it slows down a player. In extreme cases it is possible to be too small to play a position (name a 5'2, 135 pound offensive tackle....you can't). That being said, size is largely overrated as far as a qualifier when drafting a player. Every situation is unique, but when drafting, I want the guy with the football knowledge and solid fundamentals over the guy with great numbers and shaky tackling skills.
Why do scouts fail?
Every fan knows that the NFL draft is not a perfect system; otherwise you would never see Pro Bowlers go undrafted or first-round busts. Why? NFL front offenses get obsessed with stats and work outs, often at the expense of a deeper analysis of the player's football knowledge, technique, and role in the team's system. The system is getting better, but there are still major misses in every draft. How can we fix this?
Stop obsessing so much about proven players who may be an inch or two too short, or 15 or 20 pounds too light, to thrive in the NFL. While their size might be cause for some reasonable concern, don't take a guy entirely off of your board if you see something promising in his game. Too many great players have fallen far in the draft for this reason.
Pay less attention to numbers and more attention to film. Numbers are important to an extent, but if the player that you are interested in is great at producing numbers but is sloppy as a player, he's not going to help you as much as you might expect. By obsessing over numbers, you will also miss out on extremely talented players who's role in an offense or defense is not conducive to the accumulation of large numbers of statistics. Film should always be the final analytical tool for addressing a player's talent.
Stop it with the Combine already. The Combine's most important feature is the fact that it gives NFL teams a chance to interact with prospects. The same is true for the college all star games like the Shrine Game, the NFLPA Bowl, and the Senior Bowl. These events offer teams an opportunity to interact with players as well as an opportunity to see how they practice. These are the most important features of the Combine and bowl games. However, workouts get almost all of the publicity at the Combine.
What good is a workout at the Combine? The proper use of Combine workouts is twofold. First, it gives scouts a chance to confirm what they think they see on film. If a guy's workouts suggest that scouts have misread that player's athletic ability in pads, it suggests that the scouts should go back and watch more film to see whether this is an anomaly or whether their analysis of the player is wrong. The second use of Combine workouts is differentiating between two players who may be extremely close on a draft board. Workout numbers give NFL personnel one additional piece of information when making a decision between two closely ranked players. That being said, if a Combine workout entirely changes your mind on a player, you're most likely putting too much stock in the workout.
How to succeed.
Pay more attention to fundamental technique and football IQ. Pay close attention to the system a player played in in college, and work hard to project how the player will fit in your system. Remember that great college statistics do not necessarily make a great NFL player. Remember also that a lack of notable statistics does not necessarily render a player unfit for play in the NFL. Pay closer attention to a player's off the field personality and work ethic. Remember that the football field is a large-scale chessboard, and select the pieces most suited for your style of play. In order to find value in the late rounds of the Draft, as well as among UDFAs, you ultimately want players that will succeed in your system. While statistics are interesting, there are far better ways to assess a player's talent as a whole. --Mike B.