As the first round of the NFL draft approaches, fans have read every single mock draft variation from mainstream analysts like Todd McShay and Mel Kiper. Both McShay and Kiper routinely produce highly coveted predictions in the media. When in actuality, it is unbranded analysts such as Bob McGinn and Jason Boris who habitually construct more accurate mock drafts every year. Begging the question, how do these high-profile draft analysts recurrently underperform in comparison to some beat writers?
Naïve folk would say it is because these local writers have more time to watch film and evaluate a prospect. When in fact, the lesser known commodities compiled a superior combination of drafting approaches thus resulting in a more proportionate draft board to that of NFL teams. Mock drafts that flood the market months and weeks before the draft are strictly entertainment and do not accurately reflect the artistic struggle involved with constructing an NFL team’s draft board.
In the past, drafts were more straightforward and executed using a strict BPA (best player available) method. Teams could stash a player, who underperformed, to develop. This methodology is no longer practical due to the salary cap and free agency. The NFL draft is a game of chess between 32 war rooms, which contain the most brilliant talent evaluators in football and starts months before the show.
As Charley Casserly has stated, “NFL General Managers and their scouts will collaborate as early as February ranking players by position and by round.” Doing so forces them to construct without an interview, a physical, or even working out the player. It is a “rough draft” in which players’ values may change a round or two come April during the combine.
Ensuing the all-encompassing first board comes the “value board”. This is comprised of players who fit the team’s system and fill their needs. The process is an art, and Dimitroff keeps in mind not only his top-10 but that of other teams as well – à la chess. No two value boards are the same.
The Falcons run a 4-3 defensive front relying on twists and stunts by their front four to get home, instead of a usual heavy-volume blitzing 3-4 scheme. Thus aligning two defensive tackles whereas a 3-4 defensive front supports one nose tackle.
For example, at 6-4, 342 pounds, Dexter Lawrence is a mountain of a man and generally at that size would be a prototypical nose tackle. But with his elite athleticism (i.e., twists and stunts), it warrants interest as he is a fit in the Falcons’ defensive scheme. Whereas, P.J. Johnson is an NT out of Arizona and comparable in size to Lawrence, even lighter at 335, but lacks the athleticism needed to play defensive tackle in Quinn’s scheme. He would not make the Falcons’ value board.
Though the main differences of personnel in the 4-3 vs 3-4 originates within the front seven, there are slight discrepancies of personnel between the two schemes in the secondary. Usually, a 3-4 scheme runs more zone which hinders a physical press corner. Whereas, Dan Quinn’s 4-3 covets a corner who excels in man coverage.
An island type cornerback like Greedy Williams can shut one side of the field off. A versatile cornerback like Byron Murphy who can play zone, off man, or press man including inside or outside would find himself highly desired in Quinn’s 4-3 system. While Iman Marshall out of USC is a cornerback better suited for zone defense and would see his name on the “out-board”.
Dan Quinn, Thomas Dimitroff and his scouts will go through this process until their entire board reflects the most desired players who fit their system. Before a final draft board can be consummated, comes the longest step: “Stacking”. This is simply stacking the players by position. During the aforementioned February meetings, prospect lists are gone about this way. Ranking these players by position after reading the reports from February becomes rather uncomplicated.
Positional coaches will then evaluate a number of prospects, usually 20-30. Then, NFL Combine, Pro-Day, and background results are factored in. Now with this information, Dan Quinn, Thomas Dimitroff, and Steve Sabo will stack 20 players per position who fit the player profile and can help the team. This is done in anticipation for the final draft board. Keep in mind that these are not the best 20 players at each position; instead, they are placed according to where they would be drafted. (This group of players would be taken in these two rounds, the next group of players would be selected in the next two rounds).
The final value board or the draft board that will be hung in the war room come the NFL draft is the concluding step. Players of different positions may have similar grades and must be prioritized who will be taken first, second, or third from the group. This is based on the need of the team. Even if a player of a non-positional need is graded marginally higher than that of a player from a positional need, the player would still rank below that of the player who fills the need. Prominent prospects could still be excluded from the draft board due to character or medical issues. This is done so to minimize confusion come day of the draft.
Draft day is here. Thomas Dimitroff and company have a well-thought-out plan and must be prepared. The idea is to completely trust your final draft board and the people in the war room that way you are organized and can live with the worst case scenario. Just like mock drafts for the public, NFL teams work through potential situations to create plan B’s far in advance of the draft. Ideally, Dimitroff and Quinn would have their choice of Ed Oliver, Greedy Williams, or Byron Murphy at pick 14. If this occurs, Dimitroff will select the player whom he believes can help the team the most. That is unlikely, so if these players are not on the board come 14, then Dimitroff will go to plan B.
Plan B may include trading down. Days before the draft, NFL GM’s will call one another letting each other know they might want to trade down. If this preparation is done properly, there will be only a few GM’s calling Dimitroff looking to trade up. For the Falcons to label this a successful draft, they must be well prepared for all possible developments, understanding the strengths and weaknesses of the class. It is seven rounds, and while most fans focus solely on the first round, it is about the entire draft. Atlanta fans might not recognize this year’s fifth-round pick, but in 2015 Dimitroff found great value in Grady Jarrett and in 2017 he landed Damontae Kazee. This weekend is a culmination of months of preparation and the GMs that nail drafts are artists in their own right.