Some years ago, I had a conversation with former 49ers scout Oscar Lofton that we filmed for ITL. It was pretty wide-ranging, and I had the time of my life as we discussed a number of topics related to scouting. Here’s an interesting story about Deion Sanders that Oscar shared that day.
One thing we talked about was a team’s philosophy toward the last rounds of the draft. My contention was that teams see them as throwaway picks, and I know the 49ers did specifically because, in 1996, they drafted identical twins Sean and Sam Manuel out of tiny New Mexico State as a sort of lighthearted public relations move.
Here are some excerpts from our conversation with my analysis and conclusions after each passage.
Lofton: “From late-fifth round all the way through the seventh, sometimes you have — because of a trade . . . or because of some kind of deal that’s happened, or some compensatory trades that have been made, or people that left your club — you get some of those picks, and you try to kind of stack up with some sixth-, seventh-round people.”
Analysis: I think this is interesting because even though Oscar left the Niners in the early ’00s, he’s admitting that even then, the team looked at any picks after the late fifth round as strictly a gamble, and therefore they rolled the dice on players that were boom-or-bust types. My observation is that teams are doubling down on this now, taking guys that fit all the metrics but that might not have the Football IQ they need. I think a great example of this is the Saints, a team that hit big on some boom-or-bust types (TE Jimmy Graham) as well as late-rounders (WO Marques Colston) and undrafted free agents (DE Junior Galette), then got lulled into a pattern of gambling earlier in the draft, which came home to roost in 2014 with several picks (second-rounder Stanley Jean-Baptiste and fourth-rounder Khairi Fortt) that, one year later, are no longer on the team.
Lofton: “Generally like from the fifth round on, sometimes . . . you take some phenom, you know, some guy that can jump out of the gym and everything, but he’s a football player, not just somebody that can run fast, but can catch, or can cover, or whatever you need him to do, but some kind of athlete sticks out at that level. What does he bring that makes us a better team? Well, he brings speed as a receiver, or he brings deep coverage ability as a defensive back, or he brings the ability to pass rush off of stunts, you know, as a secondary member or something, or a great special teams presence, or . . . the ability to return a punt, or to run after catch.”
Analysis: Maybe this is the key. Though scouts I talk to agree that good teams take the best athlete available early in the draft, maybe the best strategy late in the draft is to draft for need. Take an athletic ex-basketball player if you have a need at tight end or defensive end, or an ex-wrestler if you need a good interior lineman, or a track guy if your secondary is too slow.
Lofton: “You say, ‘those aren’t that important to the team,’ but you look at how many of the seventh-round people and the free agent people that have made (the Niners), and made us better, and they become crucial to you. Usually the ones that flop big are the first rounds, the . . . early picks, you know? Because you put so much into them, and then because you’ve got so much into them, you have to hang with them for so long. So while you’re hanging with them you’ve got to have somebody playing. So some of those seventh-round picks and free agents are doing the playing, and they’re getting all the money until you can figure out a way to unload (the struggling first-rounders), or until they develop.”
Analysis: Oscar’s take here is what makes me scratch my head. It seems counter-intuitive to gamble with the last three picks of the draft when there are so many players out there that excel despite being late picks or not drafted at all. More and more, teams are taking players who come from the lower levels of college football, or who played other sports primarily or otherwise excelled in workouts despite meager on-field credentials. There’s a fine line between taking a player with upside and taking a player who’s got as much chance of winning the lottery as he does of making the team.