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The NFL Draft Decoded, Part II

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shahid khan
"Shahid Khan, give me a job!"
Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

In Men’s Journal last year, I coughed up one of my darkest personal secrets – a psychotic obsession with the NFL draft. Suffice to say that the disease has progressed: my wife thinks I’m completely retarded, and I have to hide my trade value chart and my Ourlads draft guide (which cost me $32) in various nooks and crannies of our home, like spank mags or an alcoholic’s "just in case" bottles of scotch.

I’ve spent years now working on a kind of Unified Field Theory of NFL drafting that I think outperforms the strategies of real NFL teams. My secret hope is that I will one day be rescued from my political journalism career and whisked away to run some floundering NFL team’s college scouting department. I would do that job for six dollars a year, plus board in a broom closet furnished with a mat and a bucket. I would even agree to live in Jacksonville, if it came to that.

Anyway, last year I published my basic principles of NFL drafting. Since the draft begins tonight, I thought I’d recap some of them here, plus add a few more that I’ve been tinkering with. To wit:

1. DRAFT THE WEED GUY

Every year, there are players who fall dramatically in the pre-draft process because they’ve been caught smoking weed. A short list of those guys includes Warren Sapp, Randy Moss, Percy Harvin and Aaron Hernandez. Guys who punch women or drive pickup trucks into old folks’ homes: bad investments. Guys who smoke dope in college? Well, that’s basically every single person in America.

I’m not going to say smoking weed is good for your health, but when it comes to football, I’d much rather have my rocked-up 270-pound monster stoned, giggling and watching cartoons than drunk, belligerent, and stumbling toward his car in the parking lot of an Atlanta strip club.

This year, it seems crazy that Notre Dame wideout Michael Floyd, who has three alcohol-related arrests in his past, is being talked about as a top-10 pick, while ass-kicking North Alabama (and former Florida) corner Janoris Jenkins, who has three weed incidents, is being talked about as someone who might be undraftable.

Jenkins is the big weed bargain in this draft, but Virginia Tech’s super-fast corner Jayron Hosley is another. Both of those guys can really play and I’ll bet they both become excellent pros – for a while, anyway. A third case, Arizona linebacker and Ray Lewis wannabe Vontaze Burfict, I wouldn’t touch. Not because of a failed drug test, though, but just because he sucks. Oh, and because he tried to rehab his image by giving an interview to Sports Illustrated – while chilling in Las Vegas.

2. STEER CLEAR OF THE RECENTLY ARRESTED

I wrote this last year:

The February-March-April period of a draft-eligible player’s life is all about one thing: getting drafted. He barely goes to classes anymore, if at all. He is surrounded by family, coaches, and personal trainers. His agent, if he is not actually living in the player’s house and sleeping with him in his bed, is certainly in constant contact with him. All of these people are continually feeding him important information and advice, like, "Hey, just FYI, don’t pound 18 beers and get into a fight with an off-duty cop at a bar tonight, okay?" The guys who manage to elude all of these subtle hints about avoiding trouble at the very moment when they are being watched most closely by NFL scouts…almost never pan out.

Nebraska cornerback Alfonso Dennard got arrested last week for…you guessed it…punching a cop in the face. Any team that drafts that guy is – well, that team is probably the Cincinnati Bengals.

3. TAKE A CHANCE ON SMALL

NFL scouts live by clichés. One of their favorites is, "He can’t take the pounding between the tackles." If a running back is under 5'10" and under 200 pounds, they say it automatically. So almost every year, a hyper-productive but small college running back drops to the second, third, fourth round, and almost every year that guy comes into the NFL and just massacres the league. The list includes guys like Maurice Jones-Drew, Darren Sproles, Ray Rice, and Chris Johnson, who just happen to be four of the best players in the NFL. The caveat here is that your overlooked little guy has to have legit monster speed, preferably sub-4.4 speed. Last year nobody really qualified, but this year there’s an obvious entrant: Oregon’s LaMichael James, who scored about nine thousand touchdowns in college, ran a 4.36, and yet for some reason is being talked about as a late second or third round pick.

4. DON’T SLEEP ON SAMOANS

South Pacific Islanders are consistently under-drafted – particularly the defensive tackles. Every year, there’s some terrifying 600-pound Samoan or Tongan D-lineman with hair down to his ankles who falls to the middle rounds despite the fact that he spent four years in school ripping running backs in half and using their still-twitching spines as toothpicks. Think Paul Soliai, Sione Pouha, Jonathan Fanene, Domata Peko…for some reason, these guys are always available late. The obvious entry this year is Alameda Ta’amu of Washington, a 350-pound nose tackle who’s been an immovable college player for years. I showed a YouTube clip of Ta’amu to my dog and she ran away crying.

5. DRAFT A QUARTERBACK LATE EVERY YEAR

The best and cheapest way to develop a quarterback is by accident. They’re like lottery tickets, you should buy one every year as a hedging strategy (see last year’s column for full explanation). Unfortunately, outside the top guys this year, this QB class looks miserable. I’m not going to even bother predicting which of these guys will be good: the whole point of this rule is that scouting quarterbacks is an almost completely random process (from greats like Tom Brady and Kurt Warner to passable-starter types like Ryan Fitzpatrick and Matt Cassel, you just never know). So it doesn’t matter whom you choose, but you’ve got to pick one. Nick Foles? Kellen Moore? I have no idea, and neither do you, but pick one.

I’ve added some new rules:

6. FROM THE THIRD ROUND ON, SWING FOR THE FENCES

In basketball, if you want Hakeem Olajuwon or Dwight Howard, you’d better be picking #1 – there are no "unknown" seven-foot monsters in the second round. But in football, there are dozens of guys with top physical talent hanging around late in the draft for various reasons. Maybe nobody heard of them because they played for some nowhere school like Idaho State (Jared Allen), Alabama A&M (Robert Mathis) or Akron (Jason Taylor), or maybe they just didn’t play much (Jimmy Graham) or any (Antonio Gates) football at all.

The idea that all of the best athletes are at the top of the draft is just another tired cliché cranked out by the sportswriter-hype machine – the guys at the top are mostly just the ones whose names everyone knows. Another fallacy is that you need to draft for "depth," i.e. you should be psyched to draft a backup swing tackle or a fifth wide receiver in the sixth round. That's always nice, but in reality, you can buy guys who are "just guys" for nothing off the free agent scrap heap every year. What you can’t buy are stars. So if you’re sitting there in the fourth round, and you have a choice between a middling guard from Penn State and a physical freak like Jacoby Ford (I actually call this the Jacoby Ford Rule) or Mike Wallace, take the freak, at least once or twice a draft.

West Virginia’s Bruce Irvin (he falls into the "troubled young man" category) is the big Jacoby Ford rule candidate this year, but there’s also an ex-hoopster-turned-wide receiver from South Dakota State named Dale Moss, a tight end from someplace called Beloit College named Derek Carrier, and two defensive backs named Brooks (Ron of LSU and Derrius of Western Kentucky), all of whom are physically at least as gifted as all of the first-round choices at their positions.

Lastly:

7. THE INJURY ARBITRAGE

Most NFL GMs are so worried about keeping their jobs that they won’t draft anyone who they think can’t help them right away – forgetting the fact that a) most late-round draft picks don’t help right away anyway, and b) when a football executive gets fired, the owner probably noticed how much his judgment sucked long before the fifth or sixth-round of the draft. As a result, GMs avoid picking guys who were big prospects a year ago, but are down now because they ruptured an Achilles or an ACL or have cancer or something, and won’t be ready for a year. But if you’ve got a bunch of late-round picks and one of these guys is sitting there, you should always pick one and just stash him on IR for a year if you have to. The obvious “injury arbitrage” candidate this year is Oklahoma wideout Ryan Broyles, a Reggie Wayne-ish route runner who was steaming toward the first round when he blew his knee out last fall. Another is Arizona State corner Omar Bolden…

Anyway, that’s enough of that. I’ll go back to being a grownup tomorrow. And hey, if you work for the Jaguars or something, please print this out and give it to Shahid Khan. And tell him the six-dollar salary is negotiable.

UPDATE: For the record, I nearly died laughing when my own beloved New England Patriots picked the cop-punching Nebraska corner Alphonso Dennard. Serves me right! Of course I now think the guy is just misunderstood.

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ABOUT THIS BLOG

Matt Taibbi

Matt Taibbi is a contributing editor for Rolling Stone. He’s the author of five books and a winner of the National Magazine Award for commentary. Please direct all media requests to taibbimedia@yahoo.com.

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