Drafting is truly one of the most maddening parts of sports. Yes, it’s a reason for fans to have enthusiasm for a team with a sub-.400 winning percentage four months before the season begins. When it feels like the rest of the league is on the road to success and your favorite team is in the depths of the sewer, reading that your team got a good grade on the draft, nearly half-a-year before any of the players will see game-action, is all the light that you need to keep those phone alerts on for the rest of the offseason.
For the people whose job it is to improve their teams through the draft, they are stuck with the task of evaluating potential players against inferior competition. About two percent of players who participated in NCAA football last season will play professional football. In the NFL, 100 percent of the players active for Week 1, will be playing professional football. So, while it’s eye-popping to see 21 year olds move like they were constructed in a lab compared to some of their peers who look like they have accounting class on Monday morning, sometimes it’s hard to see how that will translate.
That’s why there are draft combines, interviews, pro days, and people investigating your background as if you were looking to join the FBI. Team executives and scouts have to be sure, because if they miss too many times, their careers will never get anywhere near cruising altitude.
However, with so much on the line can people get a little more advanced in the ways that they evaluate players? If stopwatches and game tape aren’t enough, can we not break out the clichés that are always pinned on certain players. Of course it is draft season, so we do have to wonder how much of this info is coaches and organizations trying to angle their way into what they want. Last year, it was a real question if the San Francisco 49ers traded up to the third-overall pick to select Mac Jones, who would go 15th to the New England Patriots.
This year we’ve got a good old fashioned matchup. Something the legendary Nolan Nawrocki can sink his teeth into. Which pass rusher to draft first, the white player from the Big Ten, or the Black player from the West Coast? This is Larry Bird and Magic Johnson central casting, and a recent mock draft played into it like it was 1984.
The Athletic’s Bruce Feldman released a mock draft earlier this month and it has Aidan Hutchinson from Michigan being selected first overall by the Jacksonville Jaguars and Kayvon Thibodeaux of Oregon going eight to the Atlanta Falcons. What led him to make these decisions, let’s look at what the coaches said to him about both players.
Hutchinson: “He loves football and wants to be a great leader” — first sentence. “On film, I wasn’t impressed” — I always thought film didn’t lie. “But in person it’s the motor he plays with, in combination with his speed and strength.
Thibodeaux: “When he wants to go he can really go” — so sometimes he just says screw it even though he played through injury last season? “There’s talent there but what are you getting?” — talent, I assume. “He’s a generational talent, freaky on film. Best D-Lineman in the Pac-12 since Vita Vea” — that’s terrifying. “You just wonder how important football is to him.”
Ahh, so football may not be important to Thibodeaux as opposed to Hutchinson who eats face masks and craps chinstraps. To be fair to Feldman, it’s not just the people he has talked to who have that sentiment. Run a Google search on Thibodeaux since the start of the new year. It returns headlines like “He’s good, not great,” “Top prospect Kayvon Thibodeaux responds to criticism,” and “Kayvon Thibodeaux latest Duck to face confusing criticism.”
The other one was Los Angeles Chargers starting quarterback Justin Herbert, who before the draft was questioned about whether or not he is truly a “leader of men.” Because even if you’re white, there’s a part that you have to look in the NFL. You have to be well-liked but not inaccessible, confident but not arrogant, demanding but a good teammate, obsessed with football… no balance to that one, just snort pigskin from 11 years old until your body can’t get out there or you get cut one too many times.
One of the issues with Thibodeaux is that he thinks about life beyond football. That’s why he chose Oregon and Phil Knight over Alabama. He even has his own cryptocurrency. It leaves him open to questions about how badly he wants to play football, and is he going to bring it on every play.
I really thought that we’d be past this in 2022, but I guess we’re still here. I understand that there are JaMarcus Russell’s out there that need to be avoided, but the late Al Davis isn’t around to make that mistake anymore. On the other hand, Tim Tebow is the leader that everyone wanted except for the fact that in 2011 he completed 46.5 percent of his passes, averaged 6.4 yards per attempt, and the Denver Broncos scored 20-plus points three times in his 11 starts.
Drafting may be an inexact science, but how does measuring that which we literally refer to as intangibles make the process any more accurate. All it does is subject people to stereotypes that are easy to fall into by people who are so laser focused on football, they never took the time to realize the importance of actively avoiding those stereotypes in order to be a decent human being.
So for those that think Thibodeaux can play or he can’t do your due diligence, same with Hutchinson. But don’t give us that love of the game crap that has been shoveled to a willing trough of desperate sports fans for 100 years. Watch the tape, compare the measurements, and if it’s necessary to throw the other NFL teams a red herring, it can be done without character descriptions worthy of 1980s buddy cop flick.