Drafting Football Players is Not an Exact Science
I truly sympathize with NFL general managers when they evaluate draft prospects. Imagine that your job depends on your correct evaluation of the potential of 21 and 22 year olds entering a profession at the highest level. Most of us enter a profession or line of work at the bottom. NFL draftees are entering the professional ranks at the top. Figuring which guys have the best physical skills is tough enough, but the general manager has to project ahead to determine how those same young guys will handle the constant scrutiny and additional pressures of NFL football.
The ideal draft prospect has overwhelming physical abilities and no history of injury. These physical skills need to have been displayed on a consistent basis in college. The ideal candidate displays high intelligence and diligent work ethic. Additionally, this same ideal prospect has the ability to tune out distractions and follow intense coaching. This person will stay out of trouble and handle media demands with ease. Deficiencies in any of these areas can spell disaster.
In years past, general managers could interview draft prospects with less coaching from agents and other handlers. The young men in line for the draft are told what the teams want to hear in interviews and can give the company line in any answers they provide. Even though fans are not privy to the actual interviews with the teams, we do here what the potential draftees say to the media. Each one says they only care about winning and always want to do what is best for the team. Who really means those things and who does not? That’s the multi-million dollar question.
With a somewhat strict salary cap, making good calls in the draft is more important than ever in order to fill out a talented roster. To make matters more difficult, teams which are consistently good at picking and developing talent tend to lose good players over time as other teams pay to acquire talented veterans in free agency. The better teams tend to have franchise quarterbacks very well paid, which takes up a significant portion of the salary cap. The best way to find quality players who are affordable is building through the college draft. Picking well in the college draft is more important than ever. Teams can’t spend their way to success, at least for more than one season.
How can things go wrong? Here are some answers and examples.
Lack of the Right Physical Ability
Sometimes players don't have the necessary physical ability. The player’s talent doesn’t translate to the next level. The problem can be masked by great workout skills that don’t show up on the field. Sometimes a successful college receiver is not quite fast enough for the pros or the quarterback who lit it up in college lacks the right combination of abilities to achieve in the NFL.
Who fits here: Tim Tebow. Don't get me wrong, I love the guy. He is a great football player, but maybe not the best quarterback at the NFL level. The top guys like Peyton Manning can throw short timing passes in their sleep. Tim Tebow can't, or at least hasn't done this consistently enough, for a team to hand him the reigns.
Archie Griffin is another great guy who didn't have the physical tools to make his double Heisman trophies translate to the NFL level. He wasn't quite fast enough for his smaller size. Another name on this list is Tim Couch. A great guy who wasn't good enough to be a top flight NFL quarterback.
Some guys can’t manage to stay on the field. They can be diligent workers and great teammates, but keep suffering significant injuries that cause lost seasons, not merely missed games. These guys could otherwise be absolutely perfect in all other respects, yet seem to be snake bit when it comes to injury. Football is the most violent of sports and some guys with the best skill sets don’t have the physical make up to avoid injury.
Examples: Ki-Jana Carter. He blew out his ACL in his first season and was never the same player. Another Penn State running back, Curtis Enis, was a top five pick who wrecked his ACL and then retired with a degenerative condition in his knee. Brian Bosworth was a top flight linebacker who retired after only a couple seasons due to shoulder injuries. Steve Emtman, the Colts number one draft pick in place of John Elway, couldn't stay on the field due to injuries.
Can They Handle Extreme Pressure?
The pressure on NFL players to perform is unrelenting. Fans expect guys to play their best every game. If they don’t, they immediately have to answer questions about what went wrong. You would think that the pressures of big time college football would be the same thing, yet some guys can handle college games at the highest stage and come apart at the seams trying to do the same at the NFL level.
Pressure problems: Vince Young. He was a rookie of the year who started to lose it when expectations wore him down.Credit: wikipedia commons public domain - US Army/Pvt Andrew Slovensky
Will They Respond to Coaching?
College coaches have limits on their ability to interact with players. The collective bargaining agreement for the NFL also places limits on their coaches, but contact is still more frequent. Will the player listen? A guy can have the best talent in the world but it doesn’t matter much if he’s not doing what the coach wants. NFL offenses and defenses are more detailed than ever. The coach needs to know a guy will do what is expected of him on each and every play. If the player makes mistakes and fails to follow instructions, he may make the same mistake over and over.
Who Didn’t Listen to Their Coaches: Aundray Bruce of the Falcons. Playbook study was not his forte. Lawrence Phillips was another guy who had several run ins with coaches in addition to his other off the field problems.
Related to response to coaching, a player needs to have a diligent work ethic. Nearly everyone will play hard on game day. Everyone wants to win, at least to some degree. The players who have the most successful NFL careers want to win so much they work hard and prepare. They hit the weight room to maximize strength, run for speed and conditioning and also work the mental aspects just as hard. They embrace the grind. In fact, they keep up with the grind no matter what is happening around them.
Work Ethic Issues: JaMarcus Russell of the Raiders. He had all the talent in the world and wouldn't work hard enough to develop his talent.
Nightlife and Free Time Problems
You generally hear about the same guys over and over when it comes to off the field problems with drinking, fighting and drugs. They don’t seem to handle money and freedom well. You can probably expect to read about their bankruptcy filings after their playing days are over. Even if they spend a good amount of time in the practice facility, the call of the bars and clubs is too much. They don’t embrace the grind, they embrace the clubs. Maybe their friends have too much influence or perhaps they have alcoholism or other addictions in their background. For whatever reason, the ability to be the big man at the clubs or the gaming tables is too much to resist.
Nightclub and Off the Field Problem Guys: Adam “Pacman” Jones is known for strip club brawls. Another casualty here was Art Schlichter, former Ohio State QB, who had gambling addiction problems. Todd Marinovich of the Raiders had well publicized drug problems.
Handling Media Attention
I have no idea how I would respond to constant media attention. Maybe very well, at least for a brief period of time. Unfortunately, media attention for NFL players is constant, particularly for higher profile players. Every word is scrutinized and any misstep is magnified. These missteps can the cause problems with the coaches and other players. These guys have to walk a tight rope of providing access to media members without saying something inflammatory, even if that’s what they are thinking or feeling.
Media Problems: Among other character problems, Ryan Leaf famously screamed at a San Diego reporter for asking questions. He wasn't wired to face scrutiny on a daily basis.
This past season brought publicity of the Dolphins’ bullying allegations. Regardless of anyone’s fault here, if Jonathon Martin had better coping and interpersonal skills, the whole mess would never have occurred. In this instance, the player involved is highly intelligent with great size and skill. He lacked, at least at some level, the ability to deal with others on his team.
Lacking interpersonal skills: Jonathon Martin of the Miami Dolphins. Although you can't say that being bullied is a problem with the player himself, the ability to deal with difficult people is a job requirement. Jonathon Martin perhaps could have avoided some of the difficulties if he was more adept at dealing with others.
Ferreting out who can thrive and who will wither in the NFL pressure cooker is a daunting task. Unfortunately, merely watching college game tape and attending player workouts is not enough. NFL general managers have to predict the career future of young guys in an environment with 20/20 hindsight. Every fan thinks all draft duds were obvious from the start. That assessment is generally incorrect, but that doesn’t help the GM being shown the door because he couldn’t predict the trajectory of 21 year olds as well as the next guy.
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