The NFL Draft, Decoded
Posted By Matt Taibbi On April 19, 2010 @ 9:00 am In Cover Stories,Sports
I probably know more about the nfl draft than I do about any other single thing in life. I have first cousins whose names I can’t remember, and I forget the contents of pretty much every book I read the moment I’m finished. But for some mysterious and no doubt deeply psychotic reason, I have a virtually limitless ability to remember details about football’s annual meat market. I can recall what kind of car Seattle Seahawks pick Jerramy Stevens crashed into an old-folks home in his Washington Huskies days (a red Toyota pickup) or what a lumbering Auburn tackle named King Dunlap “ran” in his pre-draft 40 two years ago (a 5.28, I’m pretty sure). People in my parents’ generation remember where they were when Kennedy got shot; I’ll remember where I was when Andre Smith first bared his bouncing man-titties during a pro-day workout.
It’s hard to say exactly what makes the NFL draft so compelling. For starters, with its creepy slave-auction vibe and armies of drooling, flesh-peddling scouts, it has an excessive, perverted side that the drafts of other sports lack. NFL scouts who crisscross the country in search of raw football talent aren’t looking for future stars with marketable faces and personalities the way NBA scouts do, and they’re not interested in wide-eyed high school kids with fairy-tale dreams of making the Show the way baseball scouts are. NFL scouts are looking for raw gladiatorial muscle whose sweat-drenched faces will be hidden under helmets as coaches drive them to be rapidly ground into hamburger over the course of what, for most of them, will be ridiculously short (three and a half seasons, on average), injury-plagued, nonguaranteed-contract careers.
This is about as dark and freaky as our sanitized modern American mainstream culture ever openly admits to being. These are bloodless corporate enterprises using advanced scientific and economic metrics to measure the material worth of human flesh down to the half-pound, the 16th of an inch. Which would be horrifying and morally repulsive under normal circumstances, but when added to a strong rooting interest in your home team, can become for certain people one of those guilty pleasures you just can’t give up because you enjoy it so much, like jerking off while hanging yourself in the shower.
Which, uh, brings me to the point I was eventually going to make about my own relationship with the draft. I went from being merely fascinated by it to embarking on a years-long quest to crack its code and discover the Unified Field Theory of NFL drafting. After years of watching well-staffed teams blow their picks over and over again, I’m now convinced that by following a few basic principles, any team, even one owned by Daniel Snyder or Al Davis, can score big in the draft.
They just need to follow these basic rules.
RULE 1: DOPE SMOKERS ARE A BARGAIN
Before the draft, teams spend far too much time worrying about the “character” issue, when the real question to ask is much narrower: “Can this player make it through his four- or five-year rookie contract without missing actual games due to incarceration?” Guys with drinking problems or who throw cell phones at their girlfriends’ heads or get pulled over driving 110 with loaded unregistered pistols in their glove boxes are bad bets. Guys who just stay home and smoke weed while giggling at Manswers are not. Thus: Always draft the guy who falls in draft position due to a positive weed test. In fact, if a guy is regularly smoking buttloads of weed and he’s still kicking ass in Division I football, grab that motherfucker quick. Teams who pass on such players almost always regret it; Randy Moss and Warren Sapp are two classic examples, and last year there was Percy Harvin, Minnesota’s fast-as-hell wideout, a steal at pick 22. But what about the NFL’s drug policy, which makes league suspension or banishment a consideration? The reality is that in the age of the Whizzinator and delightfully rare random testing, not many guys are going to make it all the way to their third (i.e., banishable) positive drug test before their rookie contract ends. Hell, even Ricky Williams didn’t get suspended until after his fifth season, and nobody, not even Tommy Chong, likes smoking weed more than Ricky Williams.
RULE 2: STEER CLEAR OF THE RECENTLY ARRESTED
There’s a corollary to the rule of drafting guys with chronic weed issues: Do not pick any player who manages to get himself arrested shortly before the draft. The February-March-April period of a draft-eligible player’s life is all about one thing: getting drafted. He barely goes to classes anymore, if at all. He is surrounded by family, coaches, and personal trainers. His agent, if he is not actually living in the player’s house and sleeping in his bed, is certainly in constant contact with him. All of these people are continually feeding him important information and advice, like, “Hey, just FYI, don’t pound 18 beers and get into a fight with an off-duty cop at a bar tonight, okay?” The guys who manage to elude all of these subtle hints about avoiding trouble at the very moment when they are being watched most closely by NFL scouts — guys like former Clemson and New York Jets corner Justin Miller, who shoved a female cop and screamed, “This is my house and my party!” at a campus bash a week before the draft — almost never pan out. Alex Boone of the 49ers, a giant left tackle who had to be Tasered twice shortly before last year’s draft after drunkenly jumping up and down on car hoods in California, is another example. Did your target player punch out some poor unsuspecting bespectacled sociology major in a bar his freshman year? Fine — that’s just the delightful puppy phase! But if the full-grown dog is still biting a week before the Westminster Kennel Club show, put him down.
RULE 3: TAKE A CHANCE ON SMALL
I remember years ago watching a Big 12 championship game and seeing a little Kansas State running back disembowel the Oklahoma defense in a four-touchdown blowout. Linebackers were crashing into each other lunging for the guy, and by the time they got themselves untangled, he’d be in the end zone pulling up his socks. It was like watching a bunch of Jenny Craig trainees in snowshoes trying to take a tennis ball away from a Dalmatian. That guy, Darren Sproles, finished his NCAA career with the sixth-most all-purpose yards in history but didn’t get drafted until the end of the fourth round by San Diego, mainly because he’s roughly the size of Janeane Garofalo. Virtually every year there’s an undersize college running back who gets passed over because scouts agree that he “can’t take the pounding,” and almost every year that guy turns out to be not just one of the best running backs in the draft but one of the best players in the league. The list includes Clinton Portis (who fell to the 51st pick), Maurice Jones-Drew (drafted behind taller duds like Laurence Maroney), Leon Washington (116 guys were picked ahead of him!), and Chris Johnson, an MVP-level player who lasted until the 24th pick despite running an obscene 4.2 in the 40. To avoid Sproles impostors, like ineffectual Cardinals dwarf LaRod Stephens-Howling, the rule seems to demand that in the upper rounds, you draft only the little guys who possess legitimate monster speed, like sub-4.4 times. But in the middle to late rounds, snatch up any superproductive back whom scouts hate for size reasons: Gems like Mewelde Moore, Justin Fargas, Ahmad Bradshaw, and Domanick Williams always seem to be there.
RULE 4: DON’T SLEEP ON THE SAMOANS
For some reason Samoans, particularly Samoan defensive players, are consistently underdrafted. Even human jackhammer Troy Polamalu, taken by Pittsburgh with the 16th pick back in ’03, should have gone higher. The guy was decapitating people at USC but got passed over in favor of, among others, three useless elephantine nose tackles: Dewayne Robertson, Jimmy Kennedy, and Johnathan Sullivan. First-round-talent linebackers Lofa Tatupu and Rey Maualuga each dropped into the second round in their drafts, and fearsome Cincinnati defensive tackle Domata Peko, whose amazing ass-length strawberry mane was worth a sixth-round pick all by itself, fell all the way to the fourth. When you’re done picking up overlooked angry Samoans in the early rounds, then start scouting around for the goofy-looking-but-useful white wide receivers in rounds three and beyond: Productive guys like Ricky Proehl, Kevin Curtis, Austin Collie, Drew Bennett, and Wes Welker are always available well after the second round.
RULE 5: BE KIND TO FAT TIGHT ENDS
There always seems to be some dude who played tight end well in Division I, but his huge, billowing fat stomach disqualifies him from playing that position in the NFL. Draft that guy in the late rounds, stick him at tackle, see what happens. NFL scouts have a bizarre attitude toward fat: They not only like it but love it on a nose tackle, don’t mind it on a guard or a 3–4 defensive end, frown on it on an offensive tackle, but absolutely flip the fuck out when they see it on a tight end. Jason Peters — who, appropriately enough, played for the Razorbacks in college — bummed out scouts because he looked like a Biggest Loser contestant, when what they should have been noticing is that this was an obese 328-pound kid running right past rocked-up Southeastern Conference linebackers to catch passes in the flat. For curiosity’s sake alone, that should have been worth a seventh-round pick, but he went undrafted and only later made the Pro Bowl as a tackle. There is a short but elegant list of other oversize college tight ends who made great careers as NFL tackles (ex-Bronco Matt Lepsis is another), so if one of those dudes is sitting there in round six or seven, shit, why not? It’s not like you’re going to find a Tom Brady there. Oh, wait.
RULE 6: TAKE A FLYER ON A LATE-ROUND QB EVERY YEAR
Here’s the thing about quarterbacks: You just don’t know. Any coach who tries to tell you that he knew this or that late-round college quarterback was going to be an NFL star is a fucking liar. If you saw Tom Brady at the 2000 combine workout, you’d have thought he was auditioning for a role in a musical about gay milkmen. Same with Delaware Blue Hen Rich Gannon (who looked so unpromising as a QB, his first team wanted to try him at safety); prematurely balding BC Eagle Matt Hasselbeck; way-too-Christian Northern Iowa grocery bagger Kurt Warner; the seriously-resembling-a-dentist Indianan Trent Green; anonymous USC benchwarmer Matt Cassel; and so on. The least efficient way to acquire a Super Bowl quarterback is to draft a grinning, square-jawed, neck-deep-in-pussy first-round bonus baby, give him $50 million, and stake your franchise on him. That strategy sometimes works (see Manning, Peyton) but can also cripple a team for years (see Russell, JaMarcus). Instead, the surest way to get a quarterback is by accident. First you draft a bunch of late-round unknown geeks like Brady and Hasselbeck, then bring in a low-cost free-agent placeholder like a Trent Dilfer or Chad Pennington to actually run your team. Then you wait for your aging veteran to rupture his Achilles, as he inevitably will, and while he’s on the IR, you see if any of your late-round flyers can actually play. Quarterbacks are like cats or teenage girls: It’s impossible to tell what the hell is going on in their flighty heads or know how they’re going to act even five minutes from now. Do like Bill Parcells does and use your high-round picks for real men: left tackles and pass rushers.
This article originally appeared in the May 2010 issue of Men’s Journal.
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