There's nothing that drives more conversation this time of year than mock drafts. And while I enjoy the banter and even the criticism that comes from Twitter and other forms of social media when I release one, I believe fans can become better acquainted with the pre-draft process if they understood the method behind the madness.
Here are some thoughts I wanted to share on mock drafts and the impact in NFL team war rooms around the league.
1. What's the strategy behind writing a mock draft?
A mock draft is simply an exercise that connects the dots between top prospects and teams based on team needs/player grades. Now, I know that sounds like a page from the Mock Draft 101 manual, but the exercise is truly a matchmaking contest with factors like scheme fit and positional depth playing a major role into the decision-making process.
As an NFL scout, I was taught to grade a player based on a set of criteria established by the team I was working for at the time. From physical dimensions and athleticism to playing ability and long-term potential, I was instructed to pay attention to the core qualities that will make him a productive player in our scheme. This is how most teams approach player evaluation, but the criteria changes based on the preferences of the head coach and general manager. Thus, scouts from various teams will rank top prospects differently on their respective boards based on the anticipated fit within a scheme.
When I sit down to conduct a mock draft, I attempt to take those factors into consideration. I try to get a feel for each team's preferences by analyzing their previous drafts and speaking to colleagues around the league. Additionally, I will assess and prioritize their team needs to determine their likely direction on draft day. I will also look at that depth and talent of the player pool at each position to determine the talent disparity at various levels of the draft.
For instance, the 2014 wide receiver class features as many as seven or eight guys worthy of receiving first-round grades. Thus, teams can wait on taking a receiver early because a comparable receiver could be available in the second round.
After conducting those scenarios at every position, I will work down the list of teams and players to determine which players are ideal fits. I will also look at the impact of free agent signings on the roster composition and see if the moves are significant enough to fill a team need. Finally, I will consider a potential surprise selection at the top of the draft to work through the possibilities down the line. While some of the moves might appear outlandish, we've seen odd things occur on draft day in recent history. Thus, it never hurts to play those moves out in advance.
2. What's the difference between a mock draft and a big board?
If you really want to know how I view a player, you should spend more time looking at my big board instead of the latest version of my mock draft. While I certainly love the exercise of playing matchmaker, I put most of my time and effort into getting players right on my board. This list mirrors the vertical board that is listed in every teams draft room because it ranks top prospects according to their talent and long-term potential. I watch at least three game tapes on each player before assigning a grade, which is the same rule I adhered to during my time as a scout.
From a team perspective, the big board is akin to the vertical board that I've discussed at length with Daniel Jeremiah and Matt "Money" Smith on a recent College Football 24/7 podcast.
Most teams will rank the top prospects in order from 1-150 on a sideboard based on overall talent and potential. It is important to note that this list doesn't separate players by position. It is a compilation of the best available players in the draft. If a general manager or head coach adheres to the "best available player" premise at their respective pick, the top player remaining on the list should be the team's choice when it's their turn on draft day.
Of course, it sounds easy to simply pick players off the board like we're playing a pickup game in the park, but the teams that traditionally draft well are confident in their rankings and stick with their board regardless of what the outside world thinks.
For instance, I've heard the New England Patriots will whittle their vertical board down to 75 prospects by draft day. Now, I know that appears to be a really narrow list based on the number of prospects in each draft, but having a clear idea of the players you want to add to the team reduces the chances of misfiring on a pick.
For my big board, I typically stick with 25 players because I learned from Ted Thompson, John Schneider and Scot McCloughan that most drafts feature only 22-26 prospects with first-round ability. Although there are 32 spots in the first round, the back end is reserved for the 15-20 prospects that are considered borderline ones and twos.
3. Do NFL teams pay attention to mock drafts?
Yes. I must preface that answer by saying all mock drafts aren't created equal, but teams certainly pay attention to mock drafts conducted by prominent beat writers and NFL insiders. Some executives believe a handful of writers are privy to accurate information that plays out on draft day. While they are fully aware of the smokescreen element, the fact that certain teams are tied to specific players could indicate a serious interest in a player.
In fact, when I worked with the Carolina Panthers we would keep track of eight writers' mock drafts to see if there was a trend that popped up during the pre-draft process. Although we didn't place a lot of stock in that information early in the process, we would scan and discuss a few mock drafts during the week leading up to the draft to see if it matched up with the buzz that we heard from colleagues on the road. It didn't change our draft-day strategy or affect our ranking system, but it was one of the ways we prepared for every potential scenario leading up to the draft.http://www.nfl.com/news/story/0ap2000000329921/article/scouts-take-blog-draft-observations-by-an-exnfl-player-scout