Unabated to the Quarterback: The NFL Draft

A few years ago, I tried to force one of my friends to watch The Masters. I tried to explain how watching a major golf tournament was different from watching any other sporting event, with the way the leaderboard constantly evolved and, by Sunday night, you laughed at yourself for thinking a few hours before that Y was going to win when X had it in the bag all along (and this doesn’t even mention Z, who looked like a shoo-in a day earlier).

His ignorant response was that none of that was interesting at all, and that since the constitutive shots of golf themselves lacked suspense, drama, or an opposing force, you might as well just look in Monday’s paper to see who won.

This argument, of course, can hold for a lot of sporting events—provided we don’t find their constitutive elements all that exciting. Any real sports fan, then, should dismiss such a specious objection.

Except when it comes to the NFL Draft.

Now, readers of NPI, I shouldn’t need to tell you that I love the NFL. I wrote a weekly post on it during the season—two during the playoffs. It is easily my favorite professional league. I could not even conceive of writing a weekly post that captures the national landscape of the NBA or MLB.

And yet even I do not care for the NFL Draft.

I understand its trappings. The NFL Draft can be captivating if your team picks early in it; when the Giants had the fourth pick in 2004, I was glued to ESPN from that Thursday through 1 p.m. EST when the deal for Eli Manning was officially announced. However, I imagine that, were the Giants to pick in the top five on a consistent basis and thus not be going all-out for a franchise quarterback, the proceedings would not have held my attention so tightly. Isn’t this the case by now for fans of the Lions and Rams and Raiders and Chiefs? That they’ve had so many top-five picks that fans can’t really get THAT excited about any one of them reversing their team’s fortunes since there appears to be a track record proving otherwise?

Of course, the main temptation of the NFL Draft is hope. The Draft peddles hope to all 32 franchises, since every one of them, regardless of how poorly they use their picks, is better after the Draft than it was before the Draft. Contrary to the comical grades handed out immediately after each Draft by so-called experts,* there are no losers in the Draft—at least not yet. The Jaguars can honestly say that they are better with Tyson Alualu than they were without him (even if they would have been MUCH better with several other guys). The Broncos can extol the virtues of Tim Tebow now, when the chances of his being worth a first-round pick five years from now seem to be slim to none.

*Has the extreme right officially patented use of the phrase “so-called experts”? Am I allowed to use it without acknowledging its connotations?

There is no question that the Draft matters. In simple terms, it’s how teams get good. This is true in every sport, but most of all in football, where trades and marquee free-agent signings are rarer than in the NBA or MLB—and where individual players (outside of the quarterback position) don’t have as much of an impact.* There’s a very straightforward calculus in the NFL: Teams that draft well win, and teams that don’t lose.

*The list of great free-agent signings in NFL history is shorter even than that in the NBA. My top two in the NFL are Drew Brees to the Saints and Brett Favre to the Vikings.

But here’s the problem with watching the NFL Draft: It’s impossible to tell which moves are going to matter as you’re watching it. New England’s sixth-round selection of Tom Brady didn’t exactly cause waves; nobody handed the Patriots an “A” on that draft class because they landed a Hall of Fame QB in the sixth round.* Similarly, Giants’ fans weren’t hyping themselves for the 2007 season because we drafted Kevin Boss, Ahmad Bradshaw, and Michael Johnson on Day 2—three guys who would have huge impacts during New York’s run to the Super Bowl. If anything, I was upset that the Giants didn’t aggressively trade up in the second round to nab USC wideout Dwayne Jarrett; Big Blue got Steve Smith later that round instead.**

*I can’t find evidence for it, but the Pats probably got a bad grade for that draft. They didn’t have a first-round pick, and their second-rounder was Adrian Klemm, an offensive lineman out of Hawaii.

**I don’t think there’s a single position I’ve ever guessed wrong on more times than wide receiver. Whenever I think a wide receiver is going to be great, he’s not. And, within reason, vice versa.

It’s not just the fans who don’t know how to project out of the Draft; it’s the “so-called experts,” as well. The best mock drafts accurately predict where one-third of players will go in the first round. Mel Kiper, Jr. had Jimmy Clausen in his top 10, and the Notre Dame quarterback went 48th, which is like Joe Lunardi thinking Utah State is going to be a 2-seed when it actually gets a 12.

Contrary to what Todd McShay might say in a contrived ESPN debate, this isn’t a personal flaw of Kiper’s. He probably knows more about the NFL Draft than anyone on Earth does—or ever has before. And yet, he’s not even close on where the guys will be picked, who will pick them, and most importantly, if they will be worth that pick. There are no clear patterns that have emerged in NFL Draft Theory—no “Don’t draft a guy with a Wonderlic this low,” or “A 40-time under this guarantees success,” or “His experience in a pro-style offense in college should translate to the pros.” Being the foremost expert on the NFL Draft is like being the foremost expert on the topography of heaven: There is nothing tangible to be known.

Yet, year after year, the Draft becomes bigger and bigger, as more fans debate the merits of Trent Williams versus Russell Okung, as if they—or really, anybody—can find discernible differences between them. The NFL Draft might be the last sporting event that worked better in the old media days; it’s something to be experienced the next day in the newspaper, or via the Bottom Line.*

*Honestly, by the second and third round, ESPN doesn’t even show the commissioner announcing the picks. The name flashes on the screen, and the “analysts” get back to it some minutes later, when Chris Berman makes a bad joke, Tom Jackson, Jon Gruden, and Steve Young muster out clichés, and Kiper tells you very specifically why the player will succeed or fail with a confidence that belies how many times he has been wrong before. This is my favorite thing about Mel Kiper, Jr. If he were Sisyphus, he could make you believe he would get that rock to the top of the hill each and every time he started up.

But thankfully, we’re past the 2010 NFL Draft, and Mel and Co. can shift their mindsets to 2011. Locker versus Luck? Now that’s a debate I can get into!

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