The NFL Draft is a lot of things, but scientific isn’t one of them
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We’ve been told forever that the NFL Draft is an inexact science, but the truth is that it’s not any kind of science. If it were, teams wouldn’t fail so often at choosing players.
If it were a science, a general manager would have data proving that a college linebacker will turn into a star, in the way a geologist can prove definitely from test results that a particular rock contains quartz. The GM is more likely to draft a linebacker who moves like a rock.
The draft is a strange stew of astronomy, astrology, geology, physiology and a general manager closing his eyes, dropping his index finger on a list of top college players and saying: “Him? Really? I hope like hell this works out.’’
If it were a science, wide receiver Cam Meredith would have been drafted out of Illinois State instead of having to sign with the Bears as a free agent. If it were a science, some team would have realized that he would one day be capable of catching 66 passes for 888 yards, as he did for the Bears in 2016. And some expert would have predicted he’d blow out his knee the next season and be worthy in 2018 of another team (the Saints) signing him to a two-year, $9.6 million contract.
When the Bears shocked the NFL by taking North Carolina quarterback Mitch Trubisky second overall in last year’s draft, team officials gushed about the engrossing dinner they had had with him, his maturity and the beater of a car he drove.
After all the research they had done on him, they seemed more impressed with his personality than his arm. Maybe that’s the most important thing of all when choosing a quarterback, but it seemed almost humorous that, in the controlled, clean-room environment of a draft room, something as subjective as likability could weigh so heavily.
NFL teams often fall in love with players and coaching candidates on a first or second date. Strange, because this is a business that over-analyzes, over-prepares and over-coaches everything. It’s an industry that prides itself on its maniacal devotion to detail – on studying a college quarterback’s footwork down to the molecular level; on poring over medical records from his shoulder injury in seventh grade; and on interviewing everyone who has ever known him, including the Department of Motor Vehicles employee who failed him during his first driver’s test. Turned left when he should have turned right. Major red flag!!!
The biggest takeaway from the process the Bears went through in choosing Matt Nagy as their head coach is that, in the end, they simply liked him as a person. If you listened to Bears general manager Ryan Pace describe the way he bonded with Nagy during the interview process, you would have thought the two were already picking out Williams-Sonoma dishware sets by Hour 2 of their first meeting.
Analytics should play a bigger role in the NFL than they do, given teams’ obsession with measurables such as 40-yard-dash times, body-mass index and intelligence tests. I’m not an analytics guy by any stretch of the imagination, but I find it interesting that a sport that has become so complicated is still enamored with the “human’’ aspect of it all.
I also find it refreshing, though erratic.
Former UCLA coach Jim Mora recently had this to say about Bruins quarterback Josh Rosen, whom he coached for three years: “Josh has a lot of interests in life. If you can hold his concentration level and focus only on football for a few years, he will set the world on fire.’’
There was more context to Mora’s quote and considerably more praise, but those words reverberated among teams looking for a quarterback in the first round of the April 26 draft. Rosen has lots of interests? Mora might as well have said that Rosen had anti-American tendencies as far tunnel-visioned NFL decision-makers were concerned. They want players to have only one interest: football.
Mostly what they want is everything.
How many times have we been told that the best football players are the ones who are on the edge of what society would define as “sane.’’ Yet the big word now in sports is “culture.’’ Coaches and GMs say they’re looking for a locker-room culture built on trust and respect among players. The idea is that if you like a teammate, you’ll play harder for him. So teams go to great lengths to find players who they believe are a good fit.
Does it matter?
The Bears say it does, though it’s worth noting that they signed troubled defensive tackle Ray McDonald several years ago, with Pace convincing team chairman George McCaskey that McDonald was sincere about staying on the straight and narrow. Two months later, the Bears cut him after he was arrested on domestic-violence and child-endangerment charges.
GMs fall in love with the idea of a player more than they do the real version. When a team executive is waxing poetic at an introductory news conference about an offensive lineman’s caring nature and fabulous interpersonal communication skills, you can almost see the thought bubble above the player’s head: Is he talking about me? I wonder if this is going to come with lunch. Man, do I like video games!
There are so many variables for teams to consider when drafting. How will a player’s college performance translate to the NFL? What kind of competition was he facing in college? Does he fit into a pro team’s system? Do you know that for sure? What’s his vertical jump? Does he have loose hips? What are loose hips? Do they sink ships?
After so many questions and so much research, it’s no wonder that a warm smile and a firm handshake sometimes seal the deal.
Sun-Times sports columnists Rick Morrissey and Rick Telander are co-hosts of a new podcast called “The Two Ricks: Unfiltered.” Don’t miss their gritty, no-holds-barred takes on everything from professional teams tanking to overzealous sports parents and more. Download and subscribe for free on Apple Podcasts and Google Play, or via RSS feed.