Every year at the NFL Draft, highly qualified, experienced and intelligent front office personnel endeavor to fill their teams' rosters with talented, competitive players who can change the fortunes of their respective franchises for years to come. Every year, a solid chunk of them fail miserably at it.
There are many challenges to running a successful draft room, but a few are more consistently troublesome than others. As your favorite team starts its draft this evening, keep these factors in mind.
The decision-making process is imprecise
Problem: The way in which a lot of team power structures are constructed leaves too much room for discord among the principal decision makers.
It varies from team to team, naturally, but each group has a unique dynamic on draft day. Dan Hatman, a former scout for the Giants, Jets and Eagles, and now co-owner of The Scouting Academy, explained a typical draft room setup to me this week:
"... and there are essentially two conference tables in a room, and you see the four guys that are actually important at one table, and then you see the other 25 guys who really don't make a damn bit of difference on draft day at the other table.
"They're there just in case [the decision makers] have a question, and your books and your mind don't have the answer," Hatman said. "You have all your resources in the room. You know, I've got a question on a guy from Northwest Missouri State -- ‘Okay, where's the Midwest scout? What do you got?' -- but, it's the four guys in the room -- your team president, your general manager, your head coach, and maybe one or two other people that do operational stuff.
"Generally speaking, if you can get your decision making down to three people, you're in good shape. If you can get it down to one, you're in great shape. Usually though, with an owner, a GM, and a Head Coach, you get three people involved."
But here's when things get messy:
"Some teams end up going up to like, eight people, who are sitting there all trying to be a part," Hatman said. "Then you have a coordinator that's trying to be important. Then you have a contract or cap guy that's worked his way into a leverage situation because he's got say, because he's handling trade opportunities or whatever. Now you're trying to factor eight voices in the fourth round when you're looking at a cluster of five players when you're trying to pick one."
What could go wrong?
For most teams, per Hatman, "It's not like it's a vertical board of 1 to 100. You have a full array of positions going horizontally while the value's going vertically. You might get to a position where you have ten guys across a variety of positions all with the same grade in the fourth round. Typically you have a lot more fourth- and fifth-round grades on players than you do first-round grades. So, who's getting picked in the fourth round?"
Exacerbating this even more, said Hatman, is that "you can have situations where an influential decision maker who maybe hasn't been as actively engaged in the process -- maybe it's a certain coach, maybe it's the owner -- walks into the room three picks before you're ready to go, and you have your picks ready, so it will be one of your guys on the board at your pick. You know that mathematically, one of your guys should be there. And, all of a sudden, someone walks in and says, ‘Oh by the way, we're going to take this guy.'
"Now, I've never seen that happen, it's more of an anecdote that I've heard about from other places, but it goes like this: An offensive coordinator walks in and says 'I want this guy,' and then the head coach decides to side with his guy, kind of late in the process and goes, 'You know what, you're right, that would be good,' and so you as a GM are sitting there stuck. ‘Okay, do I go against my offensive coordinator and my head coach and pick who I want? Or do I roll with it even though this was not the plan we were prepared for?'"
This is where things can get heated, or teams can sabotage their own preparation.
"The decision makers, usually two or three men, have come together to streamline the process," Hatman said. "If you have wildcards in the process — I mean, every team's got a guy or two that's more vocal, or doesn't want to play by the rules — but you have to manage him.
"At this level, not everybody's a boy scout," Hatman laughs. "But, if you did not account for, plan or incorporate that person at all, and allow them to throw a wrench into it last minute, well, then you've done yourself a disservice.
"If you know the personalities on your staff, and you haven't planned accordingly, you've put yourself in a tough spot. So, absolutely that can happen. And you can probably guess, in your head right now, which teams are allowing those kinds of things to happen. That does not happen in Baltimore. That does not happen in New England. This is not happening in Green Bay, this is not happening in Pittsburgh, and this is not happening in Seattle. These places have stable processes, and everybody's bought in, or at least they can manage their wildcards.
"If you can't, you're going to be putting yourself between a rock and a hard place. You as a GM, literally, your room's now split. Your scouts, your staff, you've spent eight months prepping for this, you've got your three guys on the board, you're three picks away, now you see your coaching staff introduce a fourth player, you're going to allow them to pull you into a debate 30 minutes beforehand."
It's a scenario that has played out time and time again throughout the years. One recently-recounted anecdote that illustrated this very thing came up in an episode of A Football Life featuring Matt Millen. In it, Millen, a man roundly mocked for his lack of success as the GM of the Lions from 2001-2008, explains his biggest regrets.
"If I had to go back and say, 'What would you change,' I would probably go back and follow John Madden's and Bill Parcells' advice to me, and that was, make your own mistakes," Millen said. "Don't make somebody else's. John would say to me all the time, 'Your name is at the top of the list. You're making a decision, make sure it's your decision.' I acquiesced too often."
Millen's son Matthew recently related how his father eventually landed on drafting USC's Mike Williams at No. 10 overall in 2005 over DeMarcus Ware out of Troy.
"From 2002 to 2008, I was in all the draft rooms," the younger Millen explained. "The Mike Williams draft, I got really mad at him because we had talked all up to the point that DeMarcus Ware is a stud: 'He's going be a great pass rusher. He would fit for our scheme. He'd be the guy that I would take.' It gets to pick 10, and there's DeMarcus Ware.
"So I'm thinking, all right, we got our guy. And all of sudden, there's chatter from some other people in the room that, 'You know what, if we got this wide receiver and paired him with Roy Williams and some of the other weapons we have, we'd be a really potent offense.' And I can see his mind starting to change.
"Being in all those war rooms, if there's anything that I could say about dad that he could've been better, it was 'stick to your guns.'"
The solution: Set a standard, create a hierarchy, and stick to it.
Discipline is the absolute key. As former Packers personnel exec Andrew Brandt explains:
"We had a setup in Green Bay that I believe is common, one that I saw followed in Philadelphia when I consulted there. The general manager, Ted Thompson, sat closest to the draft board, flanked by head coach Mike McCarthy and other trusted personnel advisers.
"Nearby are doctors and trainers," Brandt wrote. "Also close by was the cap/contract person -- me. My role was to advise on cap implications of trades and glean information from agents."
The number of people in the draft room varies from team to team, of course, and the input they're asked to provide can differ greatly. Former Seahawks and Panthers scout Bucky Brooks noted that for some clubs, the decisions come down to an elite cadre of execs. "While most outsiders assume that the war room is buzzing with scouts exchanging various opinions on draft day," he explained, "it would surprise many that some teams don't include their scouts in conversations once the draft has begun."
"Some organizations only allow their decision makers (owner, head coach, general manager and college scouting director) into the war room during the draft, and request that their scouts sit in another room during the event. Organization leaders are fearful of scouts sharing too much information with their cohorts, and believe restricting their access to the draft board and to private conversations will prevent an inadvertent slip of the tongue. Though scouts occasionally are asked to enter the room to read a report or answer a question on a prospect from their assigned region, they are quickly dismissed after relaying the necessary information."
At the same time, GMs and other decision makers don't have the same amount of time to spend on every single player on their board that their team of scouts do -- they're dealing with the press, with contracts, with players, with everything -- so it does make some sense to hear their scouts' opinions and take them to heart.
"Each team values their scouts a little differently," former Chiefs and Patriots scout, and now ESPN analyst Field Yates told me. "Obviously, John Schneider, if he's not the best, he's one of the top three, but I know that one of the reasons that guys like to work for him, it's not only because you learn a lot from him, it's because he has faith in his scouts.
"He says, ‘I put you guys on the road for 200 days a year for a reason.' There are times where, and each round is a little different, but I know there are times when a GM will say, ‘I'm trusting this guy.'
"It's case by case," Yates said. "Sometimes they'll bring their scout in for another evaluation -- ‘Can you remind us once again what we liked?' -- and see if it tilts the scales one way or another. Or, maybe the GM brings the guy in hoping he says one thing, and if he does, it confirms what he wanted, but if he doesn't, he still probably has to stick to his own guns because that's his job as a GM.
"Scouts are not there simply to prep," Yates explained. "Although the GMs are important decision makers and may have the highest acumen of anyone on their staff, the scouts have definitely studied this guy. They have followed this guy for not just one year, or two years, but three years in some cases. There are prospects that -- like, say you go to Florida State -- these scouts could probably give you a rundown of all the true freshmen this year. You know these players really well as scouts, that's why the GM will lean on him."
Teams panic or lose patience
The problem: The open structure of the NFL Draft gets teams into trouble.
Each team has spent the last several months refining their draft boards and fine-tuning their priority list, but with the organic, anarchic nature of the Draft, becoming overly committed to securing one particular player can make teams take irrational risks. Even in the first round, where things are slightly easier to predict.
"The two things to consider are where you are and how the class stacks up," Yates said. "If you're at the top of the draft -- I mean, if you think about it, if you're picking in the top 10, certainly trade-ups and things like that are unpredictable, but you really only have to have ten contingency plans. And, maybe even closer to like five or six. You have an idea of who's going to be there.
"Where it gets tricky, if you're in the top of the draft, you have an idea of the players that will definitely be gone, but if you're targeting a guy in that next tier, you're fearful of, ‘Hey, if someone wants to jump ahead of us, and if they do, are they going to steal our guy?'"
That's when teams can start to second guess their plan, succumb to their anxiety and make mistakes.
"Let's take a team that's picking 15th overall," Hatman said. "You have a pretty clear understanding of what type of player should be there for you. Obviously, things can change, but you have a pretty healthy ballpark. What you do is, you try to grab, ideally, just three players, but it depends on the cluster of positions and value -- so maybe you have five guys pegged for that spot.
"You know which one of them you'd like. You have them stacked in order. But obviously, the four teams with picks before you are not yours, so things can go awry. What can happen in this is, you get to your spot and none of the guys that you wanted were there. They were all taken. So, you're left scrambling looking at your board, where maybe there's a gap below those guys, or let's say there wasn't a clear sixth guy right below them that you can immediately plug in, there was a drop or something like that.
"So, maybe now you're fielding calls, hoping that maybe someone that you didn't like fell to you, so maybe someone wants to trade up with you for them. That initial planning, especially in the first round, can go off-track."
And that happens in every round. Lovely.
"One situation where something like that happened for a team I was working for was in the fourth round," Hatman said. "We had targeted a certain cornerback, and thought it was going to happen, thought it was going to happen, thought it was going to happen -- then two picks before, another team comes in and takes your guy. Well, instead of just going by the board, which would have been a tight end who's had a healthy, productive career, we stuck with corner.
"The mindset of the room was: 'We had a corner, we wanted a corner, we had a corner.' The corner's gone, and the board said go to the tight end, but we'd been telling ourselves corner for a half-hour. So, we went to the next corner on the board, which was a pretty healthy step down from the tight end [grade wise]. And, the guy bombed out of the league. Totally whiffed on a tight end that could've been a good player for a bad corner in the fourth."
The solution: Trust your board.
Per former Packers exec Andrew Brandt: "The best decision-makers, in my view, 'trust the board.' Players have been poked, prodded, analyzed and discussed for seven months. It's time to let the board do the work.The biggest downfall of decision-makers is becoming impulsive and emotional, straying from the board. Nothing deflates the morale of scouting staffs faster."
So, keep calm and rely on your preparation.
"You’re just playing the game," Yates said. "Every draft room that I’ve been in and every staff that I’ve been around has been a very calm atmosphere. It’s not as if you’re sitting inside the draft room and everyone has sweaty palms. I think people imagine it differently. I mean, listen, you can’t control everything. You’ve got to wait your turn. My roots are with Bill Belichick and Scott Pioli, people who, whether or not the players turn out perfectly, their draft strategy is pretty consistent: Maximize value.
"I was never with a team where it was like, 'We have to get this guy!' -- you know, Robert Griffin III, or anybody else --'We have to get this guy, so we’re going to move up!' I think the quality organizations that have a draft-and-develop system have a very -- it’s almost a placid atmosphere: 'Let’s be patient. Let’s have our contingency plan.'"
But despite the fact that teams have set draft boards, grades and prioritized needs, there are instances when they have to decide among two or three players who are available when their turn arrives. How do teams determine, at a gut level, which player they like more?
"I'll say this," Yates said. "One thing that I think people would probably overlook is this: Even though you have a grade on a guy entering the Draft, everywhere I've been, we graded them not by round, but by: 'Is he a first year starter? Is he a second year starter? Is he a career backup? Is he a starting nickel corner?'
"So, your board is set on draft day, but if you're coming down to it [and you're choosing between two players] -- you're in the third round, and you've got two guys in the same areas, whether it's the same position or two different positions -- you'll bring your scouts back in and ask, ‘Hey, just jog my memory on this.'
"Let's say you've got a wide receiver and cornerback. You might bring your Southeast area scout back in and ask him, ‘If you have to have one of these two guys, which is it? Throw our pressing needs out the door, throw our need level out the window. In a vacuum, if you had to have one of these two players, who represents better value?'"
The draft faller
The problem: A team suddenly has a chance to take a player it didn't expect to be available.
"Imagine that you have a player that you had no expectation of falling to you, falling to you," Hatman said. "So, say, Jameis Winston at 15. You've put zero minutes of your life into thinking, 'What would I do if Jameis Winston was on the clock at 15?'
"So, once again, this could force you to maybe look for another team with which to put together a trade package, or maybe you pull the trigger on the guy, or you know, if it's a guy that has character issues, and you didn't talk to 75 people about what to do, now you're sitting there and your owner's going, 'Well, do we like the kid? Should we take him? Is he an upgrade?'
"And you're sitting there and saying to yourself, 'We have this report but we didn't go digging into what he's eaten for breakfast two years ago.' That can put a GM in a bad spot.
The solution: Do your homework.
"My philosophy is that you've got to know the whole draft," Patriots czar Bill Belichick said in the book War Room. "It's just knowing the draft from A to Z. And not just the top of the draft of the end of the first round. Because if you want to move within the draft, you've got to understand where you're moving to or what you're moving from."
The hard part of that, of course, is figuring out where other teams have graded certain players and where you need to pick the prospects you've targeted.
"It's such a process, and part of it is knowing what the league thinks," Belichick said. "We have players on our board and we look up there and say, ‘We're probably higher on this player than any other team in the league.' You see mock drafts out there and the player is not mentioned in the first round. In any of them. Scouts talk, and you kind of get a feel that no one else sees the player quite like we do. On the flip side, there are guys that we might take, say in the third round, and we know someone's going to take him in the first. So, again, it comes back to homework."
Translation: NFL-style espionage.
"You've obviously got your own feelings about players, but you've really got to know what the league thinks, too," Belichick said. "Whether it's by numbers, like which positions have depth, or by players, like identifying who the risers are and what players are in free-fall. All of that information affects your decisions. Especially if you know a team or teams are after a certain player. It doesn't even matter which team it is. You just know there's a certain guy teams are trying to climb to get. If you're in a position for that player and you don't really want him, then, you know, you have a market."
Simply put, as the draft goes on, follow your detailed plan and roll with the punches.
"There are definitely innumerable hours of preparation leading up to the draft, but there's work involved in the draft too," Yates said. "You can only pick when you have a pick, but in the meantime you're constantly refreshing your board and keeping track of [other teams], especially in the later rounds when it's just so much less predictable."
"But at the end of the day, and maybe this is just based on my experience [with the Patriots and Chiefs], but the best teams are the ones that don't panic. They have a board, they have a plan and the longer they can stick with whatever their initial plan was, the better. When you have to start calling teams, and saying to yourself that, 'Oh, we have to move up for this guy' -- the quicker you say ‘Oh bleep!', the quicker your draft is going to go off the rails."
Trade calls: The wildcard
The problem: Draft trades are exciting.
They're fun. But, as you can imagine, they can throw wrenches into the best-laid plans. It behooves GMs and execs to hear offers so they can get the most value out of their capital, but if they're not minding their P's and Q's then things can backfire.
As a GM, you have to know where clumps of players are going to go. You have to know where the cliffs for certain positions will show up -- i.e., spots where you have huge talent drop-offs from, say, the eight-rated offensive lineman to the ninth.
The solution: Don't panic.
Have a plan. Don't accept trades unless you have an idea of what class of player you're going to get in return. Know your board, know where players are valued and work from there.
Former Bears GM Jerry Angelo explains: "If a trade is proposed, you have to know how far down you can move based on the way you set your board."
"Say you have three players you are willing to draft if they are still available when you're on the clock," Angelo wrote. "A team calls wanting to trade up to your spot and they are currently four picks behind you, but are willing to offer a third round selection to make it happen. The chances are highly probable that one of your three players will still be there, so you make the deal."
It also helps to know if you value a player more highly than the rest of the league.
"I think a lot of people had Devin McCourty in the second round [in 2010]," Belichick said in War Room. "Right or wrong, I think that was kind of the league's take on him. There weren't a lot of people willing to step up and take him in the first round. That was my sense of it. So if you don't feel there's that big of a market for the player, you can back off a bit if you have the chance and accumulate picks [by trading back]."
Belichick's has built a reputation for being a master at trading back in the draft. One reason he consistently hits in the early rounds, too, is that he knows how to move back up to grab the guy he's really been targeting.
"When you move back, it's always easy to move up again if you need to. You should have enough to do it after the trades you've made."
As for the actual trade talks?
"Trade discussions are interesting," Yates said, laughing. "I've actually picked up the phone in at least one instance, and it was just like, 'Hello?' And they said, 'Is Scott there?'
"It feels like people think [draft day trades] are some kind of standoff, but in my experience, it's just a conversation: 'Hey, we're trying to move up here.' Because, typically -- let's say you're in the third round, and you're pick 80, and you want to get to 70. You might start making calls to teams everywhere in the range of like, 68 to 72. So, you call, and they want the moon, and you say, 'Thanks, we're good.' Then you call the next team. Then you call the next team.
"So I think we have the idea that it's this high-strung, frantic atmosphere ... It's not. I just think that people think with the nature of the draft that it's chaos in there."
Ultimately, like the actual schemes and playing philosophies, the draft day experience is different in each war room. If a disciplined, savvy group can manage to avoid some of the above-described pitfalls, how, it will set itself up for success.