If you follow this blog, you know our 11th annual seminar, the TEST Football Academy ITL Combine Seminar, was last week. This year, we took a slightly different tack and handed out several awards in an effort to recognize excellence in the football industry.

One of those awards went to The Athletic’s Ben Standig, who won The Huddle Report’s mock draft contest for 2019. Mock drafts have simultaneously fascinated and vexed me for a long time. On one hand, they’re easy bait for clicks and follows, thoroughly enticing to fans (and therefore not for serious members of the football business community), and for the most part, no one ever reviews the work of the top names in the business. On the other hand, they’re undeniably fun, and some people (like Ben) are quite good at it.

Curious as to his methodology, I asked if he’d discuss his philosophy and strategy, and he was kind enough to discuss his mock draft aptitude with me this afternoon. Here are my questions and his answers.

As you complete your mock drafts, what is your ratio of talking to teams and getting a feel for what they’re gonna do vs. your own assessment of players and team needs? 

“Well, the first time I won the contest, it was 100 percent (my own study and assessment of team needs). I was the typical writer trying to figure this out. It’s still probably 80 percent me, and the other part is, when I do talk to teams, throwing out ideas (to them) and asking, what do you think? I don’t break down a ton of tape, but what I try to do is, figure out what are the teams looking for, what are the strengths and weaknesses in the class, and where does it make sense for a team to address their top needs vs. where can they wait and find that in later rounds.”

How much of your work is reading teams, trying to decide their draft-day patterns, and  predicting their selections based on previous philosophy and strategy?

“Sometimes there is that for sure, but there’s so much turnover. I mean, the team I cover (the Redskins) just changed their whole situation, and two other teams in their division changed head coaches. But yeah, there is something to be said for that. For example, with regards to the Redskins, I think I did 20 mocks last year. In the first 19, I had defensive players picked every single time, and then at the end, when I decided (Ohio State QB) Dwayne Haskins would be there, I thought, the owner would say, ‘let’s go with Haskins,’ and that’s what happened.”

What is your mix of your own analysis of players vs. what you think a team is gonna do?

“I would probably say my good fortune in these mocks is such a bizarre thing, but I often check my personal ego at the door. I never say, this player is better than another player, so I’m gonna put him ahead. I try to read the room. Just because I think Player X is better than Player Y, I’m not gonna go the other way (if I feel teams disagree). It’s reading of the room.”

I think one of the criticisms of mock drafts and the people who create them is that there is so much mimicry and outright stealing from others. How much do you look at others as you compose your mock drafts? 

“I certainly look. The reality is, there are people on the NFL Network and ESPN who are talking to way more people than I do. I have sources, but so do other people. They’re probably not overlapping, so it’s interesting to see what other people are saying, and what’s being thrown out there that doesn’t make sense and what does. I then run it all through my own filter, and this is gonna sound insane, but I kinda equate it to that scene in A Beautiful Mind when the numbers all seem to float around and then out to (the protagonist). He sees the puzzle. When I’m putting the pieces of the puzzle together, some things just seem to make sense. I can’t explain why. I had (Notre Dame DT) Jerry Tillery to the Chargers all 20 times I did a mock last year, and I can’t explain why, and then it happened. A lot of it is instinct.”

When the draft is about to start, do you usually think, OK, I got this? Or is there almost a sense of dread because something could happen and make you feel like you have no idea of what’s next?

“I have no idea (on draft day). Just one thing could change it. This year, I think everyone feels good about Burrow and Young 1-2, but if there’s a trade at 3, does the next team take (Ohio State’s Jeff) Okudah or (Alabama’s) Tua Tagovailoa? If Detroit were to trade up to 3 and take (Clemson’s Isaiah) Simmons or Tua, it doesn’t affect one pick, it affects several. You’re always one pick away from disaster. After the top 10, there’s much more randomness. I never feel great about these things.”

If you look at most mock drafts, the top 10 or so picks are very similar. It’s when you get into the back half of the first round that it gets tough. How are you able to have success in picks 16-32?

“I typically do two-round mock drafts; I leave it to others to go seven rounds. But two rounds is helpful because it gives me a feel for what are the strengths and weaknesses of the class. For example, for this draft class, in a normal year, (Alabama’s) Jerry Jeudy or (Oklahoma’s) CeeDee Lamb are locked into the top 10. But this year, because there are so many receivers, it feels like they’re gonna fall a little bit, maybe outside the top 10, because teams know they can get receivers down the line. If you want a pass rusher, there really aren’t that many past Chase Young. (LSU’s) K’Lavon Chaisson may be the next one, so if you want one of them, you might have to jump up earlier than you want. You just have to stay on top of the teams as much as possible. Once free agency starts, that will help a lot, too.”

Teams always pride themselves on taking the “best player available.” From your observations, is that true? 

“I’m always of the belief that it’s the best player available at a team’s position of need. If the best player available is a QB and you have Aaron Rodgers, are you gonna take a QB? I think that’s too dogmatic. I don’t think that makes logical sense, though there are some circumstances where that might change. To use the Redskins, you’d probably say their biggest strength is their defensive line, but they’re probably gonna take a defensive lineman because Chase Young is that good. It makes sense, he will help the team, but there are way many other positions they need besides defensive line. But he’s so good that to take another player would be a reach.”

Read more about our big night in Indianapolis, Ben’s acceptance of our award, and plenty of other good stuff about the football business in today’s Friday Wrap, which comes out this evening. You can register for it here.