THINGS I’VE LEARNED AS A VIKINGS DRAFT-EXPERT WANNABE
Let’s be honest. The term NFL draft “expert” is a bit of a misnomer.
As much as the draft is made out to be a scientific endeavor with all the timing, measuring and performance analytics, it’s still a crapshoot. As many players as Mel Kiper or Todd McShay hit on the nose, there are also glaring misses.
Draft experts – and NFL teams themselves – are just hedging their bets on whether a player succeeds or fails. A “can’t-miss” player like Tony Mandarich turns out to be one of the biggest busts in NFL history, while Wes Welker goes undrafted and develops into one of the best slot receivers of all time. The goal in the draft process is to get more right than wrong.
As a life-long Vikings fan and amateur NFL writer, I think I’ve gleaned a thing or two over the years based on stories of successes and failures of draft picks. By no means am I positioning myself as someone who knows more than NFL scouts or NFL insiders. With my limited resources and time, below are the 3 things I look for to help me evaluate players.
1. Film Don’t Lie
Obviously I don’t have access to full game tapes of a player or the ability to watch them perform live. All I can base my take on a player is by his highlight videos. Definitely not scientific or exhaustive, I know. But even with that, you can get a good sense of how a player performs.
In the case of Teddy Bridgewater, you can see why he was the best QB prospect under pressure. He avoids the rush effortlessly by staying poised and keeping his head downfield. Bridgewater also doesn’t just lock in on one receiver but goes through his progressions. Don’t believe me? Watch the film.
In contrast, I never saw the same poise watching Christian Ponder’s Florida State highlights. What I saw of Ponder is exactly what he could do with the Vikings. He can hit short to medium timing routes. His deep throws and pocket presence was a question mark because his highlights always featured him with a clean pocket with plenty of time to throw. Perhaps there was a reason why his college highlights never showed him under pressure. Playing for the Vikings, we saw exactly how Ponder handled blitzes – very badly. And his deep throws were at times utterly embarrassing.
2. How Winners Win
It’s not just about winning. Many players come from winning programs. But l think it helps to look at how the player wins. If the player leads multiple comeback victories like Tom Brady did at Michigan, then you shouldn’t discount those performances when grading the player.
The scouts and draft experts fairly graded Brady as a late-round pick based on his scrawny physique, lumbering 40 time, and adequate but not strong arm. But what should have been given more weight was Brady’s confidence and clutch performances. He wasn’t going to give up the starter’s role easily to Michigan’s prized QB recruit, Drew Henson, nor would he easily concede victory when trailing late in games.
Bridgewater showed the same kind of competitiveness as Brady. Bridgewater took an extremely hard hit that knocked his helmet off from Florida LB Jon Bostic in the 2013 Sugar Bowl. But he got right back up and proceeded to shred the talented Gator D. Bridgewater also lead a win over Rutgers while playing hurt with an ankle injury and broken wrist. Bridgewater showed he was physically and mentally tough in those two games.
So it’s important to look at what role a player has in wins. Is he a role player or the guy that makes the play when needed to get the victory?
3. Driving Forces
Grading players is extremely difficult. They’re humans. No one can measure how he deals with adversity. A player can make the leap from high school stud to college stardom but the NFL may be too big of a jump. It’s nearly impossible to know how a player will handle elite competition.
You really need to dig deep into a player’s personal history and psychological makeup. I’m sure NFL teams have methods to investigate a player’s past and psychologically test him. They probably do this at Combine one-on-one interviews and Top 30 meetings. But even then, unless you’re someone who is a good judge of character, it’s hard to know what makes a player tick.
Richard Sherman is arguably the best cornerback in the NFL. (He’ll be the first one to tell you.) But looking at the limited highlights of Sherman at Stanford, it’s hard to see the brash, talented player he is today. Sherman often looked like a non-factor and quite underwhelming in his “highlights”. (Again, I had a hard time finding college highlight videos of Sherman.)
The only thing that might hint at his success at the next level is that Sherman wasn’t always a cornerback. He converted from wide receiver after he suffered a knee injury at Stanford. Perhaps switching to cornerback was a sign that Sherman was determined to succeed no matter what – that nothing was going to stop him from getting paid to play football.
And you can’t ignore what happens to a player psychologically when he slides in the draft. Sherman thought he’d be taken in round 2, but he didn’t get selected until the fifth round at 154. Sherman used his drop to drive him to prove doubters wrong just like Brady did. Will Bridgewater do the same with his draft slide?
So to wrap up, the draft is a crapshoot and you’re just making smart bets.
I wrote about why I thought Bridgewater should be the Vikings pick and I still stand by it. But for all the talk about Bridgewater and his body of work at Louisville, it doesn’t matter now. The only thing that matters is how he performs on game day in the NFL.
The same can be said of all the Vikings picks. No one knows if the steal of the draft will be Bridgewater as some experts predict. Perhaps it’ll be a late-rounder like Virginia Tech safety Antone Exum. Or maybe it’ll be an undrafted free agent like Missouri Western QB Travis Partridge . Who knows, right?
That’s what I love about the draft even with all the hype – the uncertainty and the promise. After the draft, it’s a new day for your favorite team. It’s a time of endless optimism.
I think the Vikings did a great job in the draft. I’m looking forward to mini camps, OTAs and training camp. All of which can’t come soon enough. Then we’ll truly know if GM Rick Spielman and the Vikings have done a good job of hedging their bets in this year’s draft. I’m hoping we hit the jackpot.