The following is a sneak peek at an article that will appear in the May edition of SportsLife magazine. It was written by TheFootballEducator.com’s contributor Blaine Grisak.
The NFL draft is unpredictable. Experts and analysts can only guess at who will be the next franchise caliber player. While most of the attention will be strictly focused on the top prospects like Florida State’s Jameis Winston and Oregon’s Marcus Mariota, every year a diamond in the rough emerges from the later rounds or goes undrafted entirely.
When all is said and done, some of those top prospects will turn out being busts, while some of the dark horses go on to have Hall of Fame careers. The best general managers and coaches are able to turn late-round picks into serviceable contributors and potentially long-term cornerstones.
This draft season will be no different. The teams who are drafting in the top 10 will be looking to take the elite prospects, but that doesn’t mean a player just as good, if not better can’t be found later on in the draft.
“In the first round is where everyone’s focus will be obviously. That’s where the media attention goes, and that should be the best player that you get in the draft,” said NFL Network draft analyst, Charles Davis. “But the best teams that we know do an excellent job of finding (undrafted players), those later round guys that contribute to the team and play really well.”
In the 2014 NFC Championship game between the Seahawks and Packers, only four players who started between the two teams on offense were drafted in the first round. Those players were Russell Okung, Bryan Bulaga, James Carpenter, and of course, Aaron Rodgers.
“The good clubs are going to scout the seventh rounder as hard as they do the first rounder,” said former Denver Broncos general manager, Ted Sundquist. “There’s a lot of hype, theres a lot of pressure that goes with those early picks. A lot of times there’s an organization that feels forced into trying to plug a hole or a need. Whereas, selections on the back end of the draft, sometimes are just more based upon the quality of the player, the aspects, and the positives that he brings to the game.”
That makes building through the draft that much more difficult, but it is the best formula to get better and hopefully grow into a dynasty. It is how the elite teams get to the top and it is often down the draft and even out of it completely, where champion coaches look.
“I had one world championship team,” former NFL head coach Dick Vermeil said referring to the St. Louis Rams of 1999, “the quarterback (Kurt Warner) was a free agent undrafted college player, the center (Mike Gruttadauria) was an undrafted college player, the starting defensive tackle (D’Marco Farr) was an undrafted college player, the outside linebacker, who made the tackle, that won the game, Mike Jones, was an undrafted college free agent. So they [undrafted players] are critical to your success.”
Vermeil didn’t just build a championship in St. Louis with these undrafted players, he did much of the same in his previous coaching tenure with the Eagles in Philadelphia from 1976-1982.
Because of bad trades by the previous regime of Mike McCormack, Vermeil did not have a shot at the first round until 1979, yet he managed just fine. By the time 1980 rolled around, he had built a Super Bowl contender.
“My first three years in the league, we didn’t have a first, second, or third round pick. They had been traded away, but we had great success in the fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh rounds, and on up, because we didn’t waste any time evaluating the superstars because we couldn’t draft them anyway,” said Vermeil. “We invested more time in the so-called medium to late-round picks, and you know, we ended up hitting on more of them.”
Since the NFL expanded to 32 teams in 2002 until 2012, a staggering 43 percent of first round draft selections have turned out to be busts. In fact, in 2009 two of the top four players taken are no longer in the league and, in many cases, the top player drafted at each position did not become the top player in that draft.
For example, three running backs were taken in the first round in 2009; Knowshon Moreno, Donald Brown, and Beanie Wells. Moreno and Brown are no longer on their original team, and Wells is no longer in the league. The three players in their careers have combined for 8,539 yards, 68 touchdowns, three 1,000 yard seasons, and no Pro Bowls.
Meanwhile, going undrafted that same year was Arian Foster who was picked up by the Houston Texans after all 256 selections had taken place. Foster has gone on to rush for 6,309 yards with 53 touchdowns, has four 1,000 yard seasons, is a four time Pro Bowler, and has been a first-team all-pro twice.
Projecting players in the NFL is no easy task and every draft is different. How a player that is undrafted like Foster can go on and have more success than a player who has all the physical attributes to do great is one of the draft’s biggest mysteries.
When it comes to trying to decide who could be the next diamond in the rough, it isn’t an easy thing to do, as the odds are stacked against it, but often it is just as difficult to find a star, a franchise caliber player in the first round.
Former NFL scout, John Middlekauf said, “[You’re] dealing with human beings so you cant measure what’s inside, how hard they work, how much heart they have, how much desire they have.”
Every year so much focus is put on events such as pro days and the NFL combine in order to get all of a players measurables. So much stock is put into the 40-yard dash, vertical jump, and the bench press, however, it is the things that can’t be measured that can make or break a player.
“We put an awful lot into the combine, but it was only solving pieces of the puzzle. It was only a contributor, it was not a decision maker,” said Vermeil. “Now, if there was a player that you were borderline on, it could either make him or break him in regard to your evaluation process. You’ve got to be careful though putting too much stock and letting that make your decision for you.”
Every college player’s dream is to get lucky enough and have their name called on draft day by one of the 32 NFL teams. That dream becomes a reality for just 256 players each year, a small percentage of the those who believe they can perform at the game’s highest level.
As each round goes by, numerous names are called at the podium, making someone’s dream come true. Meanwhile, someone else is kept waiting anxiously for that phone call that will change their life forever.
For the hundreds that are left waiting by the phone when the draft is over, those are the players with something to prove, the one’s with the chip on their shoulder.
“It was rare we didn’t have a guy who didn’t have a draftable grade that we signed as a college free agent. We liked him enough, we just didn’t have enough picks, and we had some needs in another area,” said Sundquist. “You hope that you’re signing college free agents with the talent, because then he’s got the skill set and he’s got some of the attributes that you’re looking for in a draftable guy, but he kind of comes to camp with a chip on his shoulder with something to prove. Those two combinations are pretty powerful. It’s going to take a lot to stop that guy from making your football team.”
In every draft, there are diamonds that every team passes over. Players that for whatever reason are not given the respect they deserve. Players that, once drafted or given the chance in camp, show up in a big way.
In even the thinnest drafts, the diamonds are there, they just need to be discovered. Look at draft boards. Which player ranked 150-250 could be an All Pro Selection? Which player in that group will become a pro bowler?
While not every late round pick turns out to be a diamond in the rough, for a select few, making it to the NFL is what they have dedicated their lives to. It has been a dream that fuels and propels their journey no matter the distance or the odds stacked against them.
It’s what fuels them to become the diamond in the rough.