Teamwork is the key to success in player evaluation game, too

Nfl Draft

April 17, 2005|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

NFL scouts follow the routine meticulously. They chase the same college players, examine the same game tapes, scrutinize the same drills and, for the most part, gather the same information through fall and winter in the mad dash to spring.

So what separates the league's best personnel men from the rest of the crowd in the April draft? Why do the best teams in the draft always appear to lap the perennial laggards?

The answer is in the eye of the beholder.

It's attention to detail and adhering to a carefully-honed system.

It's the collaborative effort of personnel department and coaching staff to better develop the new players.

It's the seasoned wisdom of scouts who retrace their steps year after year.

It's people, said Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome, pure and simple.

"People are the reason why we've had success," Newsome said. "The people that we've had here, we've all been on the same page. We have a system in place that we've worked on since we moved from Cleveland. We've tweaked it a little bit, [but] it's the system."

No one has drafted better than Newsome and the Ravens since they rolled into Baltimore 10 years ago. In his nine drafts, the system has selected 10 players who went to the Pro Bowl a combined 30 times.

By comparison, the reigning Super Bowl champion New England Patriots have drafted six players who went to 12 Pro Bowls over the same nine-year span. In coach Bill Belichick's five seasons, the numbers are three picks and six Pro Bowls.

Not coincidentally, Newsome's system evolved from the personnel tree started by Belichick during his five-year tenure as coach of the Browns. It is basically the same scouting philosophy that former Ravens director of player personnel Phil Savage takes back to Cleveland as the Browns' new general manager, and that one-time Browns defensive coordinator Nick Saban has introduced in Miami as coach of the Dolphins.

Boiled down, the system places more emphasis on a player's college production than on his 40-yard sprints and 225-pound bench presses in February. It follows a best-athlete-available creed. It solicits the studied opinion of each member of the scouting department. And it relies on critical information gleaned from various sources - coaches, friends and opponents.

Actually, that pretty much defines the philosophy of all 32 teams. Some just execute it better.

For instance, every team professes to place a premium on game tape over combine workouts. Yet on draft day, not every team follows that precept. That explains why workout warriors with undistinguished college careers suddenly fly into the first round - on the wings of a breathtaking 40 time.

The good drafting teams usually resist such temptations and go back to the tape.

"I think that history is the best indicator of what the future is going to bring," Saban said. "If a guy has been a very good, productive football player, whatever his deficiencies might be, he's found a way to overcome them ... especially if he is playing against good competition in college."

Savage traces the gap between the top personnel men and the rest to two things. One is the ability of the scouting department and coaching staff to work in unison, recognizing and developing players' talents.

"Whatever players we brought in there [in Baltimore] were utilized," he said.

The other is an understanding of the team's needs and identifying which players fit the system at hand.

"I think Ozzie has a handle on that, maybe to a greater extent than most, because he's been in uniform, he's been on the field, he's an NFL guy," Savage said. "I think it has served him well."

Newsome was a Hall of Fame tight end with the Browns.

Floyd Reese, another of the league's top personnel men, was an All-America defensive lineman at UCLA in the late 1960s. He played one year in the Canadian Football League and then served 13 years as an assistant coach in the NFL.

That background prepared Reese for his job as general manager of the Tennessee Titans. In 11 drafts, Reese has selected eight players who went to the Pro Bowl a total of 15 times. The benefits of having played and coached are clear.

"I don't think there's any doubt playing the game and being around the game, we have literally grown up in football," he said. "I haven't had any other job, and I don't think Ozzie has, either."

The spinoff is personal preferences that help set the standards by which your team evaluates players.

"You have to develop some kind of framework of what you're looking for as a group at each position," Reese said. "You take the head coach, the coaches, the personnel people and myself, and blend that all together so when we look at a cornerback, we know what it is we're looking for."

Coach Dennis Green took the same insight to the Arizona Cardinals a year ago. It had a big impact on a franchise that has struggled on draft day.

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