Friday, February 07, 2020

Friday Riffing: A Draft Digest project FAQ plus your Twitter questions

Yesterday, I released the second installment of my annual 12-volume “Draft Digest” series. It is something I started doing many years ago, and although it is a ton of work and makes me feel like my NFL offseason doesn’t actually start until May, I am not sure I will ever be able to stop doing this now.

Here is yesterday’s version, which as I indicated, is the second group of five players on my road to 60 players total.

Invariably, when I release a new version for these annual draft prospects – the Sturm 60, if you will – I get a ton of feedback in the form of curiosity and cross-referencing to see if my method has merit or thought behind it. The brilliant Dane Brugler, who has dedicated his life’s work to the evaluation of every single draft prospect, is doing a much more thorough and massive job. But since this is my method, I am more than happy to explain the program and answer any questions or concerns.

And that is why I have come to revisit what is basically the “Frequently Asked Questions” about this general draft project.

The initial and most important one is:

What is my version of the draft project?

I am attempting to prepare the audience – you – and myself for the next wave of high-grade talent that enters the NFL. I do that by sweeping through as many top prospects as possible. But I do it from a Cowboys-specific perspective. So, in general, I am looking for Cowboys positions of interest and then the players who could be Day 1 or Day 2 selections at those spots. If I have done my job, we will know the players the Cowboys are choosing in Round 1, Round 2 and maybe even Round 3 before they pick them. We will also be quite familiar with the players they do not pick all around them, the types of names they are willing to move up and down to go get, etc. That way, maybe we have already studied Leighton Vander Esch, Connor Williams and Michael Gallup before they are selected here, but we also know 57 other players who now populate the competing rosters all over the league. This becomes very helpful. When the Cowboys brought in Xavier Su’a-Fil’o years after he was drafted by Houston, for instance, I had my own file from his days at UCLA to remember why I liked him and why I didn’t.

If you watch 60 players a year for five to 10 years, you have a working knowledge and files on 300 to 600 different players from their draft years, and I can think of nothing more useful in my profession that actually knowing each player’s scouting report from the personal experience of writing it (at least my version of it).

What is my method?

Allow me to “borrow” from past versions of this write-up to answer this question.

In short, here is my process:

  • Collate a list from my five to 10 draft-expert friends (media, scouts, personnel people), who directed me the previous summer to guys they think are the best prospects for the coming year’s draft.
  • Build a watchlist of around 100 names throughout the college football season.
  • By bowl season, narrow each position down to five to 10 names
  • When the Cowboys lose, wrap up the season and pick the first group.
  • Each player gets one day and roughly three hours. 200 snaps, three to four games and the most difficult opponents I can find to most closely replicate NFL quality. Unless there is a very good reason, I pick those games from this past season. I want up-to-date information.

I try to use All-22 tape, which is very difficult to find but gets easier every year for those of us in the “draft black market tape-share program.” Shhhhh. Wink. But, if you don’t find that, TV copies work in many cases. Not as well, but much better than nothing. And much, much better than highlight tapes.

You learn what to look for after doing this for years and years. You look at strengths, weaknesses, scheme fits and overall characteristics. Factor in combine measurables, but don’t over-weight them. This is important, and I know many who really mix them in heavily.  I try to rely 90-percent on tape and 10-percent on measurables. If a prospect can play against major college programs, he can play.

What can go wrong?

Lots. You can get some evaluations really wrong. You can think a guy is a potential superstar and see him barely make the league. Or the opposite. It is all there for history to see.

Now, the only trick – once you have really locked on to a guy with your notebook scribbling and really watched him play – is to learn from your mistakes. You see them every Sunday: guys you thought would be great who were not. Those you thought were not great but were. Others whose evaluations you nailed perfectly.

Then you circle back to the general narcissism required for this whole process. Why evaluate players? What qualifies you or me? Nothing, save for the time and interest to learn to do it myself. But in the end, the guys who do this full-time, 12 months, 365 days a year in the NFL for decades still make mistakes in their evaluations despite being wildly qualified. It is difficult and very humbling. But accountability in anything generally is.

The best quote I have heard on this sort of thing recently was from one of my hockey leaders, Jeff Marek, who was quoting Dr. Andreo Spina. Forgive me, but it fits:  “I never trust people who are sure of things. I trust those people who are temporarily confident in their current interpretations.”  I think that is perfect. You can’t be sure that this guy can’t play or this guy can. But you can be confident that you did your homework and learned all that can be learned before making a claim that you still aren’t sure of.

Why do I do it? 

Because it is fun to learn about new football players whom we will be watching for years to come in some uniform or another. I absolutely love doing this, so as long as you folks seem to enjoy my method and how I present my findings to you, then I can think of no better way to pass the time from the Super Bowl to the draft.

A few years ago, my friend Bryan Curtis of The Ringer did a big feature on this new wave of media-guy draft nerds, and he included me in his project. Here was a brief passage from that which I think sums a lot up:

“Then you get to the question of what qualifies me to evaluate a football player,” said Sturm, who was breaking down Louisville cornerback Jaire Alexander the day I called. “That’s an extremely fair question. The answer is general narcissism, probably. But if you do it enough years, you begin to think you know what you’re looking for.”

Player evaluation is not a “crapshoot,” but the difference between doing it superbly and poorly is probably like the difference between batting .280 and .240 in baseball. “I think it’s really cool everyone does their homework now,” said Sturm. “In the end, I hope everyone realizes we’re still just as wrong on most of these guys as we ever have been, regardless of all the extra work we’re doing.”

Sunday, February 02, 2020

The Original Franchise Rankings - Spring 2002

Right after Super Bowl 36, I decided to start this project. 19 seasons later, it is sort of fun to look back at the first version. I have cleaned up the math a few times, but this was the original project below: