It’s been my theory that scouting has changed in the last 10 years, with more of a focus on what happens off the field and less on pure production. In other words, despite what scouts and executives love to say, the NFL Combine and pro days are more important than ever, and 40 times, media buzz and ‘it factor’ are a bigger part of draft day than ever.
This really came home to me a few weeks ago when I was having lunch with a scouting friend of mine. When I started discounting many of this year’s top picks as one-year wonders, he countered that the player I suggested as alternates were also one-year wonders. That got me thinking: do teams really value the kind of production and staying power they used to value? It’s something I wanted to take a look at, but how do you measure such a thing?
I wanted to try, so I gave my intern, Griffin Rice, this project: take the top 50 picks from 2017 and put them alongside the top 50 from 10 years ago (2008), and give me a line about the season before their last season in college (for the ’17 draft, 2015; for the ’08 draft, 2006). In other words, I wanted to see what kind of resume they’d accumulated before catching fire, becoming a ‘star’ in the eyes of the media, and possibly riding the hype train to first-round status. I had him put it all in a spreadsheet, and this is what came out of it (sorry, it’s a pay link). My goal — determine how many ‘one-year wonders’ made it to the first round this year, and compare it to the totals from 10 years ago.
My conclusion: to get drafted in the first round 10 years ago, it was pretty simple. You had played at least two straight seasons in good health, at the same position where you were drafted. You had started every game for two years, no questions asked. Also, you might have come from a small conference or a lesser school, but you were highly decorated there. Finally, in most cases, you had four seasons of college football under your belt.
These days, all bets are off. Here are a few thoughts:
- More and more top picks might have arrived at school with a nice pedigree, but they just don’t have a lot of experience (and certainly far fewer games started) before having a big season that vaults them into the draft discussion (and often, into the draft).
- Program means way more, too; Ohio State players just seem to be tinged with gold as teams seem to value Urban Meyer’s eye for talent more. The same could be said for Michigan and Jim Harbaugh.
- Of course, there are more juniors to choose from, which tilts selection in the direction of less experience and fewer honors (and more projection on the part of scouts). Ten years ago, 29 seniors went in the first 50 picks versus only 18 last year.
- The biggest revelation, however, is the number of players with less than 10 games started the year before their last college season. That’s evident in the grid we assembled. Again, you can find that at ITL.
Based on these criteria, I would argue that, due to health or inexperience, 14 players who went Top-50 this spring would never have been picked so high 10 years ago: Bears QB Mitch Trubisky (1/2); Bengals WO John Ross (1/9); Saints DC Marshon Lattimore (1/11); Indianapolis SS Malik Hooker (1/15); Broncos OT Garrett Bolles (1/20); Falcons DE Takkarist McKinley (1/26); Cowboys DE Taco Charlton (1/28); Browns TE David Njoku (1/29); Steelers OB T.J. Watt (1/30); Saints OT Ryan Ramczyk (1/32); Panthers WO Curtis Samuel (1/40); Colts DC Quincy Wilson (1/46); Ravens OB Tyus Bowser (1/47); and Bucs SS Justin Evans (1/50).
Granted, the nature of football has changed, and colleges have followed the NFL in using a much more aggressive rotation system (especially at running back and on the defensive line), and that affects things. What’s more, the players that would have stuck around four years in the past leave early these days. Still, the change of philosophy in favor of risk has been, to me, unmistakeable.