Welcome to our Football 101 series. In this ongoing offseason series, I will be breaking down football concepts to help you better understand what you are watching on Sundays.
With the 2021 NFL Draft on the horizon, I thought it would be an opportune time to talk about prospect evaluation. All 32 NFL teams develop draft boards every year ranking players positionally and overall as they make a plan for the draft. NFL analysts (and countless hacks like me) make draft boards and talk about prospects. But what exactly goes into player evaluation? Why does one team value a player enough to take him in the 2nd round when another team only values that player enough to take him in the 4th round?
There are 5 basic parts to player evaluation: football skills, philosophy, scheme fit, intangibles, and team needs. So let’s talk about each one.
Football Skill Evaluation
Every player evaluation starts with their football skills. Teams put on tape of a player and take notes on his on-field strengths and weaknesses. They go to the NFL combine (in a normal year) and they conduct medical checks and watch athletic testing. They send positional coaches to pro days to work players of high interest out individually. Then all of this data is put together into a player profile.
The important thing to realize about football skill evaluations is that while every team does them individually, they largely come back with the same results. If you give 10 analysts tape of a player they will largely come back with the same assessment of strengths and weaknesses. Are some scouts better at identifying talent and projecting it at the next level? Absolutely. But it is exceedingly rare that one scout will see something that another scout completely missed. So, if the football skill evaluations mostly agree, then why are players valued very differently by different teams? That brings us to the remaining four parts of the evaluation process.
Each team has a philosophy about how to build its roster. Some teams prioritize offensive weapons like the Kansas City Chiefs. Their #1 goal is putting as many offensive weapons on the roster as possible and outscoring opposing teams. Other teams prioritize building a top-notch defense like the Chicago Bears because you can’t lose if your opponent can’t score. Yet, other teams place the highest priority on building through the trenches like the Philadelphia Eagles who have spent 7 of their last 10 1st round picks on offensive or defensive linemen. How a team values each position will impact how they set their draft board and can cause them to place different values on the same player.
The next piece of the puzzle is evaluating scheme fit for each player. Does your team run a west coast offense? The west coast offense is predicated on the short passing game and quick breaking routes. If this is the offense you want to run, then you don’t need a QB with a big arm. It would be nice if he had it, but that is no longer an important attribute for your QB. Instead, you need a QB who is a quick mental processor that can make snap decisions and accurate throws.
On the flip side, if you run a vertical-style offense, then you want a QB who has a big arm but he can be a slower processor since he has more time to let routes develop and watch the defense. And that is just one example using only two attributes from one of many schemes for one position. So you can see how schematic evaluation can get complicated fast. But it is a major part of player evaluation for individual NFL teams.
This is the part of the evaluation where teammates coming to your birthday party becomes a big deal, at least according to Draft Day.
The reality is that teams don’t care about this, but they do all approach intangible evaluations differently. Some teams will be aggressive in interviews to see how prospects will respond. There are stories of teams sending a prospect the playbook prior to a meeting and putting $100 bills inside to see if they opened the book to study. The approaches are as varied in the football world as they are in the real world when it comes to interviews, and some teams will take a player completely off their board with character concerns if they don’t pass these tests.
The final piece of the puzzle is team need. Simply put, a team with a star QB isn’t going to draft a QB in the first round (unless they are the Green Bay Packers). It really wouldn’t matter if Trevor Lawrence somehow fell to pick 31, the Kansas City Chiefs aren’t going to draft him since they have Patrick Mahomes. Similarly, it doesn’t matter if there is a better player on the board than Justin Fields/Trey Lance/Mac Jones at #3, the 49ers need a QB and since it is the most important position on the field they will pass over players who are more physically skilled to take a guy who fits a team need.
The best teams don’t pigeonhole themselves into being forced to draft to fill one glaring need. This is how you end up massively reaching for a prospect. But there is always a balancing act that takes place between taking the best player available and drafting for need, and every team balances that a little differently.