Matt Taibbi Decodes the NFL Draft - Part III - Rolling Stone
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The NFL Draft Decoded, Part III

Essential advice for NFL owners

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Football draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. talks about the draft at the ESPN Zone in Baltimore.

AP Photo/Gail Burton

I woke up this Monday morning feeling almost like a little kid at Christmas – this is NFL Draft week, which means I get to do my annual NFL Draft Decoded column, probably my favorite thing to write. Every year I own up to a worsening obsession with the draft and plead to the decision-makers of any of the NFL’s wayward franchises (I’m still talking to you, Jacksonville Jaguars owner Shahid Khan!) to take me on and hire me as an unpaid personnel advisor. Every year, I promise my future employer to sleep in the broom closet, live off tap water and Dinty Moore products, and emerge just once a year to guide the draft process.

The thing is, over many years of obsessing about the draft in my spare time, I’ve developed a (usually) rock-solid system that steers your theoretical team away from bust picks and toward higher-value selections.

In the past my system has predicted big things from mid-to-late-round players like Darren Sproles, Aaron Hernandez, Domata Peko, Austin Collie, Eric Decker and Jason Peters. But I have to admit, I had a down year last year. Not only did I pound the table for dubious picks like Steelers nose tackle Alameda Ta’amu and Buffalo corner Ron Brooks, I warned readers off two of last year’s best value picks, Bengal linebacker Vontaze Burfict and Patriots corner Alfonzo Dennard (who violated Rule Number Two, Avoid Players Who Punch Cops in Bars Just Before the Draft).

But I still believe in the system. As bad as last year was, I still liked solid-performing picks like LaMichael James (Rule Number Three: take a chance on short), Janoris Jenkins (Rule Number One: draft the “weed guy”), and Nick Foles (Rule Number Five, take some kind of quarterback late every year), plus I recommended some other good players, like West Virginia pass-rusher Bruce Irvin (a “Jacoby Ford rule” pick who had eight sacks in his rookie year) and Oklahoma wideout Ryan Broyles (an “Injury Arbitrage” selection who was doing well with Detroit before, well, he got injured). So the system still produced, sort of, but like I said, it was a down year – so I went back to the drawing board and tweaked a few things, keeping the same basic rules but adding a few extras.

I love everything about the NFL draft. I love the 350-pound guys sweating bullets in the green room while they stretch the seams of the first suit they’ve ever bought, which is usually some amazing color like teal or cornflower (although Dre Kirpatrick’s blazing red vest was the highlight of the first round last year). I love central-casting uptight corporate white guy Roger Goodell trying vainly to disengage from the too-long, lung-crushing onstage bear-hugs of still-weeping hulking black dudes like Marcel Dareus.  And this year I really loved Rich Eisen whipping out a can of spray musk with a set of real antlers plastered to it before he ran his annual tie-flapping 6.03 at the combine.

And more than anything, I love watching Mel Kiper, Jr. seethe with each passing pick that doesn’t match his latest 46-round mock, and I love imagining the Shakespearean murder plots that are  clearly spinning behind his eyes by the end of day three, as he tries to think of how he can get rid of his younger-and-smarter future replacement, Todd McShay, without the authorities catching on. I keep waiting for him to just blurt it out some year during the late fifth or sixth round, when all the broadcasters start losing it from the fatigue.

Maybe it’ll be this year: “Boom, I love the pick of Connecticut linebacker Sio Moore here . . . . Ran a 4.65 40 at the combine, had 196 tackles over two years, limited sack production but a serious upside play. And Boom, I think the key is to get Todd out on a boat in deep water, point overboard and say something like, ‘Look, a human arm!’, then just push him off when he leans over to look, and motor away. There’s no DNA there, Boom, and worst-case scenario, I pass it off as a fishing accident.”

“Mel, what the hell are you talking about?”

“Guys, I’m talking about Sio Moore, outside linebacker from the University of Connecticut. Played with his hand in the dirt in college, but his natural position in the pros is going to be 3-4 outside linebacker. A great fit for the Chargers here, they need someone to replace Shaun Phillips.”

Anyway, the draft is the funniest thing on TV and this year promises to be a great one. I’ve conducted the usual lunatic study of this year’s entrants and here are the rules for 2013 success, with the new rules first:

EAT HAMS IN THE FIRST ROUND. Two things separate the good teams from the bad teams. Good teams consistently find contributing regulars in fourth round and beyond – that’s what most of my rules are about. But the other thing, equally important, is that good teams do not fuck up their first round picks. The St. Louis Rams rode Orlando Pace, Grant Wistrom and Torry Holt to a dynasty in the late nineties, and then in the 2000s quickly threw it all away with a decade  full of abject-horror picks like Trung Canidate, Tye Hill, Jimmy Kennedy, Alex Barron and Jason Smith.

The Raiders are even worse. I would put decent money down that right now, as I type this, an Oakland Raiders first-round pick from the last decade is getting arrested for something.

A few years ago, the Raiders started trading away their top picks (presumably to prevent JaMarcus Russell from eating them first) for established veterans in a not-so-subtle acknowledgement of their drafting failures, and they still ended up with guys who couldn’t stick on the roster. Carson Palmer will be throwing back-breaking picks for Arizona next year, while Richard Seymour is sitting at home waiting for the ghost of Al Davis to reappear on earth and offer him $30 million for two years again. You just can’t survive that kind of record and still hope to compete. They key is, you need to get guys in the first round who are at least passable starters. You don’t have to hit a home run every time, but you need guys who at least play.

The mistake GMs make over and over again in the first round is that they fall in love with players, dreaming on their future stardom (a scout watching rifle-armed Russell in a scripted workout couldn’t help but get aroused imagining him gunning 30-yard outs on Sundays), and end up humping the prospect’s leg so feverishly that they ignore major red flags on draft day, like an arrest for driving stoned into the side of a retirement home, a history of weight problems, maybe a broken spine, who knows. But here’s the thing: a first-rounder should HAVE NO RED FLAGS. He should be clean all the way around and able to pass what I call the HAMS test:

– Is the prospect HEALTHY? When you draft a running back in the first round who has chronic brain injuries before he even gets to the NFL, you’re . . . well, you’re the Detroit Lions.

– Is the prospect an ASSHOLE? Sometimes guys with scary college arrests and character red flags work out – just look at Terrell Suggs and Randy Moss and, lately, Dez Bryant. But particularly in the top 10, why bother reaching for someone who’s had any trouble at all? It’s not like there aren’t other guys available. Just shelve that Lawrence Phillips crush and move on to Eddie George. You’ll miss a star from time to time, but you won’t end up eating millions in dead cap money while your top draft choice does community service for beating a stripper or pulling a B&E to steal pain pills. Especially if you’re picking a quarterback, if you go to campus and hear that the guy is an entitled dickhead who spends more time worrying about his hair and the 15 cars he’s going to buy after his first contract (Ryan Leaf admitted that his first move after getting drafted would be to go to Vegas and party) than he does about football, you’ve got to move on to someone else.

– Does the prospect have superior MEASURABLES?  This is draft-geek stuff, but if you pick in the first round, your guy should be able to run much faster and jump much higher than the average player at that position. Every year the pundits remind us that Anquan Boldin ran a 4.7 and Jerry Rice and Emmitt Smith both ran 4.6s and Lamarr Woodley was just as short in college at Michigan as he would be as a perennial Pro Bowl monster in the NFL. And then every year teams listen to those reminders and pick guys in the first round like Brandon Graham or Larry English and Mark Ingram who don’t quite measure up athletically and have it show in the pros. I have no problem with players who are short (see below) or aren’t combine all-stars, but not in the first round.

– Did your guy put up STATS in college? There are players with so-so stats in college who become stars in the pros (Mike Wallace had 56 career catches at Mississippi; Jason Pierre-Paul had 6.5 total sacks), but again, in the first round, you don’t bet on potential, you bet on the surest thing you see. It’s not like the choice is going to be between a lousy athlete with stats and a great athlete with no stats; in the first round, particularly the top of the first round, they’re all great athletes, or should be. Again, the object here is not to pick a star, it’s to avoid picking Darrius Heyward-Bey (two career touchdowns at Maryland) or even Jake Locker (completed 53 percent of his passes in his college career; he’s at 55 percent in the pros).

If GMs spent more time just trying to get on base in the first round instead of hitting home runs, they’d be way better off. At the bottom of the draft, of course, the opposite dynamic comes into play – more on that in a bit. As far as this year goes, the system says that in the first round anyway, avoid guys like Cal receiver Keenan Allen (who’s hurt and ran a 4.7), BYU pass-rusher Ziggy Ansah (played for like a year and had 4.5 sacks in his career) and linebacker Alec Ogletree (multiple discipline issues at Georgia and got a DWI a week before the combine, a huge red flag). They may all be great players ultimately, but why take the chance? Your first rounder should be so clean, you should be able to eat sushi off his glistening trapezius muscles.

IGNORE THE MEDIA. Most teams already do this, but occasionally you will see clubs passing on some stigmatized prospect who has been bashed by rival scouts or executives who use the media to throw other teams off the scent of the player they really want. Nobody, not even a political operative during a campaign season, lies as much as a “high-level team source” commenting on a prospect in the weeks before the draft. So if you see a major college star who may even have ripped up the combine getting savagely dumped upon by anonymous sources, you can be almost positive that’s because someone’s trying to kill his stock because they want to take him themselves.

Cam Newton was the ultimate example of this a few years ago, but there’s more of it this year than I’ve ever seen before. It’s particularly true with West Virginia star quarterback Geno Smith, who’s being hammered for his “poor decision-making” – Merrill Hoge made Smith sound like a black Mark Sanchez – after a year in which he threw 42 touchdowns against 6 interceptions. I’m not a huge fan of drafting quarterbacks in the first round, but the anti-Smith campaign smells a lot like several QB-hungry top 10 teams all trying to smear him simultaneously.

Meanwhile some other prospects are quietly being knocked in the clumsiest conceivable fashion; the worst-kept secret in this draft is Tennessee wideout/A.J. Green lookalike Justin Hunter going high in the first round, despite an onslaught of whispered comments from would-be team sources complaining about his slight frame and his injury history and pegging him as maybe a low second-rounder. I smell a little of this with appealingly freakish Estonian D-end Margus Hunt, too, an Olympic-caliber athlete who may have had the best combine performance in history (6’8″, 277 pounds, ran a 4-effing-6 in the forty) but for some reason is being mocked in the low second round most everywhere. Hunt falls a little short on the Health-Asshole-Measurables-Stats test (he didn’t put up huge numbers in college) but he’s exactly the sort of player you pick in the low first or second round – it’s just hard to imagine him flat-out sucking, or getting fat and wrapping a Jag around a telephone pole or whatever.

Anyway, the point is, don’t read any mock drafts if you can avoid it, just check the player out, make your own evaluation, and don’t get spooked by late-breaking hype-fests. Guaranteed, some team Thursday will flip out and pick Syracuse QB Ryan Nassib a full round higher than they had him graded at least in part because they’re reading press “whispers” about him suddenly being the top guy in this year’s QB class, despite the fact that a lot of that Nassib hype is surely part of a campaign to depress Smith’s stock. But enough of the geeky new stuff, here’s a quick review of the old rules:

DRAFT THE WEED GUY. There’s never been a more obvious year to capitalize on failed-drug-test draft fallers. To quickly recap: guys who batter cheerleaders with bricks or commit armed robbery or drive drunk with loaded pistols in their glove compartments are genuine character concerns, but a kid who just likes to smoke weed… that’s every college student in America. You want your star athlete, if he’s going to have a vice, to be a pothead. In fact, hopefully, he’s going straight from practice to his TV, blazing up and watching cartoons all afternoon. That means he’s not getting in real trouble. Yet every year, great talents like Percy Harvin and Moss and Sapp plummet in the draft because of failed weed tests, and smart teams scoop them up, put them on the Whizzinator therapy plan, and cash in big-time.

Three big-time players fall into this category this year: ex-LSU corner Tyrann “Honey Badger” Mathieu, ex-Tennessee/Tennessee Tech receiver Da’Rick Rogers, and that California wideout Keenan Allen. Minus the drug issue, Rogers might have been the top wide receiver on the board this year – he was one of the best wideouts in college in 2011 and should have been first-team all-SEC that year over both LSU’s Reuben Randle (who had a good rookie year in the NFL last fall) and Arkansas wideout Jarius Wright (who didn’t). The guy is built like a young T.O., has great hands, and runs like the proverbial bowling ball covered with razor blades. But he’s going in the second or third round, if not later, because he failed drug tests, got booted from Tennessee and had to spend this year getting triple-covered at Tennessee Tech (where he still managed to run laughing through the whole Oregon defense on a middle screen last November).

Mathieu and Allen have other problems – Allen may be hurt and Mathieu only benched 4 reps at the combine, which is pathetic. You can pick any of the Kardashian girls at random, and she could probably do at least 5 reps. I’d still pick Mathieu if he was around after the third round because at the very least, he’s going to be a top special-teamer and punt returner. Anyway, in general, it’s a solid class of potsmokers. Mr. Khan, if you’re listening, pick any of them if they’re around late, a la Hernandez.

TAKE A CHANCE ON SMALL. The NFL for years has had a weird bias against explosive-but-small skill players on offense, despite an extraordinary track record of height-deficient stars who break out of the mid-to-lower rounds. From Wes Welker (who had the triple whammy of being height and speed deficient in addition to being white) to Maurice Jones-Drew to Leon Washington to Danny Woodhead to Sproles to quarterbacks like Drew Brees and last year’s big miss, Russell Wilson, scouts routinely whiff on little guys who put up huge numbers in college, tested well athletically, but had barista size (Danny Woodhead’s famous failed attempt to sell Danny Woodhead jerseys while undercover at Modell’s – “too little for me,” grumbled one customer – pretty much summed up what short athletes have to deal with).

The trend even extends a little bit to the defensive side, where players like Elvis Dumervil, James Harrison, Zach Thomas and Geno Atkins were seriously underdrafted because they failed the weigh-in centerfold test. This is a bit of a strange year because scouts everywhere are insisting that they’re past that, that they realize the new NFL is all about quickly getting the ball in the hands of fast dudes in space, and we’ll see the proof of the new attitude when mini-me West Virginia receiver Tavon Austin (all 5’8″, 179 pounds of him) gets picked high in the first round.

Which is great and all, but while Austin will spend Thursday night getting ballwashed by Kiper and co. during the endless draft commentary shows, Michigan quarterback-turned-receiver Denard Robinson, who was only one of the five or six best offensive players in college the last few years, will be sitting at home staring glumly at his telephone. The obvious difference between Robinson and Austin is that Austin knows how to play wide receiver and Robinson doesn’t yet, but athletically it’s a wash — Robinson’s just as fast and if anything is a better pure runner. If you’re in the late rounds and he’s there, pick that guy and put him on the Julian Edelman plan, i.e. just grab the athlete and figure out what to do with him later. He might end up being Darren Sproles, he might end up being Devin Hester, he might be Antoine Randle-El, but he’ll be something.

Another guy who’ll be seriously underdrafted is South Carolina wide receiver Ace Sanders, who ruined his draft hopes by running slow in Indianapolis but was a major playmaker in college with good hands, awesome dreds and great return skills, though he’s smaller even than Wes Welker. Speaking of Welker:

WHITE WIDE RECEIVERS ARE STILL A MARKET INEFFICIENCY. Despite year after year of underdrafted Welkers, Amendolas, Eric Deckers and Austin Collies, white skill-position guys are still a draft inefficiency and this year is no different. The scouting reports on Texas A&M wideout Ryan Swope before the combine are absolutely shameful to read now. “Not a true burner; relies on fakes and quickness to separate vertically,” wrote the Lindy’s guide, adding: “There are more athletic, explosive receivers in this draft . . .[he relies on] route-running efficiency, smarts and craftiness.” Pro Football Weekly wrote this: “Tough, smart, crafty . . . Needs double moves to separate vertically.”

You could cut and paste the scouting report for any white receiver in the past decade and it would read just like that: “tough,” “smart,” “crafty,” a “good route runner” with “intangibles” who overcomes physical limitations with “effort” and “tape study.” Meanwhile Swope only went to Indianapolis and graded out as the top athlete in the receiver class, even better than Austin, whom he tied in the 40-yard dash (they both ran 4.34s). This guy was a hugely productive player in college and blew up the combine and if he goes lower than the second round it’ll be a joke – anyway, Mr. Khan, if he’s there for you in the late rounds, I strongly recommend you take him.

DONT SLEEP ON SAMOANS. Normally Samoans/Pacific Islanders are underdrafted for unknown reasons. This year, Manti Te’o will plunge in the draft because well, that was one seriously fucking weird story he was involved with last year. I’m not sure about him, but there are whispers that Haloti Ngata-esque tackle Star Lotulelei is falling, which would be a mistake. I would take that guy over almost anyone in the draft just purely on safeness/sure thing grounds, but don’t be shocked if he slips out of the top 10.

TAKE A QUARTERBACK LATE EVERY YEAR. Again, the thesis here is that the first round is for picking offensive and defensive linemen and because quarterbacks are so hard to evaluate, your best shot at finding a good one is to do so by accident. So grab one every year in the mid-late rounds and hope like hell he turns into Tom Brady, Kurt Warner or Russell Wilson. I was going to suggest FSU’s E.J. Manuel for this rule this year, but the media priests are on to him and he’s going to go in the top two rounds for sure now.

The rest of the class is pretty uninspiring, but the rule says you have to pick one anyway. Miami of Ohio’s Zac Dysert? He went to Ben Roethlisberger’s school and has Fabio hair, so he’s interesting. There’s some biggish guy from Rensselaer named Mike Hermann who exists in several places on YouTube – he just beats out Sasquatch in terms of publicly-available video – maybe him? Aaron Rodgers’s little brother Jordan is intriguing; he has the same crazy-quick release as his more famous relative and is only a little smaller, though the arm isn’t nearly the same. Anyway, pick one. Lastly:

TAKE FLYERS LATE ON FREAK ATHLETES. Also known as the “Jacoby Ford Rule.” Every year there are guys who test through the roof or at least exactly the same as the top guys at their positions, had good solid careers, and end up in the seventh round anyway for a variety of reasons.

Take these guys. If you look at every draft, there are first-round talents available in every round. A lot of them have serious red flags (Marcus Cannon had cancer a few years ago; Bryce Brown last year barely even played in college), but you’ve got to buy at least one lottery ticket or you’ll hate yourself come Sunday. Especially very late, don’t try to hit singles, go for homers.

This year has a bunch of these types. I get in trouble naming too many of them because they mostly don’t pan out, but wide receiver Charles Johnson of Grand Valley State is this year’s obvious low-round freak – standing 6’2″ and weighing 215, he put up a 4.35 40 at his pro day while scouts from the Saints and the Bills pitched massive tents in front of bemused photographers. Similarly Sierra’s Courtney Gardner is physically pretty much the same player as top-rated wideout Cordarrelle Patterson (they were both unknown-but-ass-kicking JUCO stars just a few years ago), the only major difference being that Patterson got into Tennessee and ripped up the SEC for a year, while Gardner somehow ballsed up a commitment to Oklahoma last fall and stayed at Sierra. Is he as good as Patterson? Lots of people thought so 12-15 months ago. Anyway, in the seventh round, it’s all good anyway. Happy hunting and see you next year . . .


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