NFL Draft: ‘Safe Picks’, Fact or Fiction?

NFL Draft: 'Safe Picks', Fact or Fiction?Total Pro Sports – Each draft season, I try to develop my own opinions about the talent preparing to enter the league, and am fairly confident in my ability to “pick winners”, so to speak.  Of course, no one is perfect, especially at talent evaluation. Draft history is full of sad truths which remind us just how imperfect the process really is.

That being said, I understand that busts happen. What I dispute are the reasons why they happen. I don’t believe it is simply a roll of the dice, fate, chance, luck, or any of their relatives, and I certainly don’t think busts are inevitable in most cases. If they were inevitable, and happened solely by chance and without warning, the same teams wouldn’t constantly be spared every single year. I think Bill Polian, Scott Pioli, or Bill Parcels would agree with me. Hey, look at that…Maybe your last name has to start with “P” to avoid being a bust magnet. No, there is definitely an art AND a science to player selection. Successful artists have natural talent in their craft, while scientists are skilled, trained, meticulous, and unbiased observers.  TALENT and SKILL, not fate and inevitability.

I’ve read comments on other draft sites like, “there is no such thing as a safe pick”. My contention is simple: there ARE safer players than others primarily because there are safer positions than others, especially at the top end of the draft.  I recently read, on yet another draft site, that just as many offensive linemen “bust” as quarterbacks.  From an expectations standpoint, that may be true, but from a productivity and investment standpoint, that is simply false.  Let’s look at the facts…If the wrong FORTY million dollar quarterback comes into the wrong situation at the wrong time, he may fail to become a star within the allotted time frame (say three to four years), and probably gets benched or cut.  Best case, he gets traded for peanuts.  Worst case, he is out of the league, and ends up coaching junior college football somewhere in Texas.  Either way, the organization is out an obscene amount of money with little or nothing to show for it.  What’s worse, the team has to start that entire three to four year grooming process all over again.  That is not only wasted money, but a ridiculous amount of wasted time–the better part of a decade to be more precise.  Those Pro Bowl veterans who were in their primes when QB Joe Slick was drafted are now ready to retire.  You now have to rebuild the corps of the entire franchise, not just pick the RIGHT quarterback, if you want to contend for a title.  What a mess! With that much at stake, you’d better be right when picking a quarterback high.

If a THIRTY million dollar left tackle (less money–quarterback premium) comes along and fails to meet expectations to play that position, it is usually evident by the end of his first season, roughly (much less wasted time).  What happens next?  Do we send him packing to Tyler, Texas?  No, he just moves inside to guard (Robert Gallery, Pro Bowler Leonard Davis, and many others), or moves to the right tackle spot (countless examples).  The fall from grace is a much shorter distance for a lineman than for a quarterback.  It’s not like the Chargers could have salvaged its investment by asking Ryan Leaf to play linebacker.  The Raiders did salvage its investment in Gallery by moving him inside to guard where he has been largely effective.  Sure the player becomes overpaid until his contract is renegotiated, expires, he is traded, or is cut, but he still can help a team win games—unlike a benched multi-million dollar quarterback.  An offensive lineman is simply a position with a safety net, and I don’t think that can be disputed.

Finally, I have a theory about QB busts…I’ve watched for years as guys that get selected at the very top of the draft almost always have that “laser-rocket” arm. OVERRATED! “He can make all the throws” has been the mantra for draft gurus for years. Of course he can, Kyle Orton (a fourth rounder) can make all the throws. Obviously, I see the risk of taking a player high in the draft (or at any point really) who can’t get enough velocity on the ball to hit a twelve yard out on time. On the other hand, I’m quite certain that I have a better arm than Chad Pennington, yet he (not I) somehow won the AFC East this year with little help at wideout. In terms of being a successful NFL quarterback, I would not rate the guy who can throw the ball over 70 yards, and hits velocities in the 70 mph range, higher than the guy that can throw 60 yards, and hits 60 on the radar gun—unless he had better accuracy, football instincts, pocket presence, poise, and was a better decision maker. For this reason, I believe that Matt Stafford will not be successful in the NFL, and Sam Bradford will be (when he does come out). Stafford’s arm will not save him in the NFL. In fact, having a super-strong arm should be viewed more as a weakness by scouts, since it often becomes a crutch that young quarterbacks depend on more so than studying and reading defenses en route to making the right decisions.

In college, that strong arm often threw them out of trouble, and into big plays. In the NFL, against better defensive players, with less time to throw and interpret information, smaller passing lanes and much smaller windows to throw into, that amazing arm and all those bad habits only lead to disaster.  That is an all too common scenario, and is the test that many of these Herculean QB’s will have to face.  That test, and the eventual result, represents the sink or swim phase in the development of those strong-armed talents—how quickly he learns, how thick his skin is, and how he overcomes adversity.  If he walks through the fire with his confidence intact, you have yourself a championship quarterback.  If not, Tyler, Texas.

With a guy like Stafford, who will definitely face that challenge, I am not comfortable with the risk at the very top of the draft. We are watching that test in progress right now, with Jamarcus Russell, for example. Next year will be his make or break season. Without a huge step forward, his future in the NFL is bleak. Eli Manning is an example of a player who took that test and passed, en route to a Super Bowl victory, but his pedigree and character provided evidence that he would likely succeed. Russell was a much bigger risk at the time of his selection. It’s no surprise to me that he remains unproven.

I think talent evaluators should focus first on a quarterback’s behaviors, such as: eye discipline, read progression and decision making, poise, pocket presence, accuracy, football instincts and awareness, as well as his study habits.  If a prospect measures up there, now spend the time to evaluate and compare all those impressive tangibles.  I believe that there would be far fewer “busts” to debate.

I don’t claim to be a Lions fan, but for the sake of all those who are, I sincerely hope that Detroit passes on Stafford, and makes the SAFER decision by selecting a left tackle. Of course, that’s just one man’s opinion. What do you think?

Tags: Chad Pennington, college football, Eli Manning, football, Jamarcus Russell, Kyle Orton, Matt Stafford, NCAA, NFL, nfl draft, Ryan Leaf, Sam Bradford,