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Rumblings Draft Scouting: Scouting/Draft Philosophies

It's Thursday, which means it's time once again to bust out our 2010 NFL Draft notebooks.  We've been talking a lot about prospects recently, and while that type of discussion is perpetually fascinating (to me, at least), I've received dozens of e-mails asking me to take a different approach to this series, at least for one week.

The gist of those e-mails - talk more philosophy than another stock watch.  It wasn't worded in exactly that fashion in every e-mail, obviously, but when someone asks me why I might rate Eric Norwood higher than Carlos Dunlap coming out, the philosophy behind the ranking is essentially what's being asked about.

The article you find after the jump is entirely my opinion, and only very tangentially Bills related (we'll have Bills stuff for you today, I promise).  I'm certainly no professional, clearly, nor do I consider my personal scouting and draft philosophies the best - or the only - way to go about things.  I've got five rules to scouting and to drafting.  They're after the jump - and, of course, you're free to completely trash those rules in the comments section.

Need versus Value
Ah, yes - the ultimate NFL Draft argument.  Do you take the best player who plays a position you're thin at, or do you just take the best player? Both sides of the argument have been attempted, both have had raging successes, and both have failed miserably.

I'm of the school of value.  Need lists are obviously important to discuss from a team standpoint heading into the Draft each year, but ultimately, if you're building for the long-term, you need to find the best football players, period.  Clearly, if a team has players graded out similarly, but one's a linebacker (who's graded only slightly lower) and the other's a cornerback, and your team just happens to be thinner at linebacker than corner, you take the linebacker.  But, as an example, it can get pretty brutal when you force-select a JaMarcus Russell when Calvin Johnson and Joe Thomas are clearly the best players available.

The Calvin Johnson is an interesting case study too, by the way.  Matt Millen is one of the most infamous front office executives of the modern era of football, but that's a selection he did well with - and he did it in the face of intense scrutiny, considering his penchant for drafting receivers early.  Johnson is one of the best offensive forces in the game right now, and while he doesn't play a premium position - teams can and do win without elite receivers - he's a difference-maker on the field.

My last need versus value rule, however, is a contradiction.  Quarterback is the one position at which you can sacrifice some value to fill a need, because it's the one position that you absolutely have to be good at to field a consistent, contending team.  That's a gamble, obviously - that type of move bit the Bills in the butt when they moved up in '04 to get J.P. Losman - but it also is worth the gamble when it turns out that you pick up a Joe Flacco at No. 18.

Production versus Potential
You see it happen every year - a guy heads to February's NFL Combine, drops a ridiculous 40 time, and suddenly he's the greatest thing since sliced bread at his position.  The ultimate faux pas to the NFL Draft is to rely too heavily on workout numbers and all-star games, and the poster child for that faux pas is former Philadelphia DE Mike Mamula.

The best draft picks are guys that play well in college.  Tom Brady was one of those guys, even if he had to share time with Drew Henson at Michigan - which clearly hurt his draft stock.  For a more recent and satisfying example, take a look at Jairus Byrd - dude pumped out a very pedestrian 4.67 40-yard dash in pre-draft workouts, but the Bills took him anyways, because he never had fewer than five picks in a season at Oregon.  You don't draft numbers.  You draft football players, and Byrd has been clutch for Buffalo this season despite his "pedestrian" athleticism.

That doesn't mean the Combine, all-star games, pre-draft workouts and the like are meaningless.  You might be in love with a receiver's college production, but not with his speed on tape.  You're looking at him as a guy you might be able to sneak away with in the third round.  If he pumps out a 4.4 40, you might move him a notch or two up your board, because you can bet that other teams who may not have noticed this guy on tape will notice that 40 time and re-watch the tape.  But ultimately, what a guy does on the college gridiron is infinitely more important than what he does in shorts.

Athleticism versus Approach
Football is a survival of the fittest game.  The best players - players that you build your franchise around - are some of the best athletes on the planet.  Invariably, every season, scouts encounter players that have tremendous untapped potential based purely on their overall athleticism, and invariably, those players are graded just a bit too high.  Unless, of course, their approach to the game is carefully considered.

I put Bengals DE Michael Johnson at the top of this post for a reason - he's a recent example of this type of argument.  Johnson came out of Georgia Tech last April as one of the most physically talented defensive linemen available, but his pre-draft hype was completely overblown.  Johnson had an excellent senior season at Tech - but he'd been essentially invisible, and more than very inconsistent, up until that point.  Couch scouts everywhere saw his body type, his length, and his speed, and heralded him as a first-round caliber talent.  He is - but real scouts, wary of past paper tigers, questioned his motivation and work ethic thanks to his lack of production through his first three years.  His talent got him drafted No. 70 overall, after many thought he could challenge to be the top pick in the draft.  Johnson might end up being a very good pro player, but he was drafted where he should have been drafted.

There are great reasons why players like Charles Rogers are differentiated from players like Andre Johnson.  Rogers, one of the ultimate busts of this decade, was drafted a pick ahead of Johnson because it could be rationally argued that he was more talented.  He was certainly productive at Michigan State.  But Johnson's approach to the game, as compared to Rogers', has made a comparison between the two as professionals an utter joke.  Johnson is a man among men.  Rogers didn't take football seriously.  Approach to the game, as opposed to being content to skate by on pure talent, is a huge factor.

Character versus Perceived character
Character is such a crucial element to finding good draft players - and the Rogers vs. Johnson debate outlined above is a good example of why.  The best example of the character debate is, of course, Peyton Manning vs. Ryan Leaf.  But you don't need me to tell you that.

But there are ways to differentiate between guys who are good guys but have had issues, and guys who haven't had issues but could cause problems down the road.  It's tough to do, but not impossible.  Teams conduct personal interviews with every Combine prospect to help them gauge what they hear prior to that even about a player's attitude and work ethic.  But what they hear is far more important than what the player says.  If you hear a scout say "Player X needs a good interview at the Combine to raise his draft stock," that fact alone carries more weight than what he says to teams at the Combine.  Flipped around, if you hear "Player Y had bad Combine interviews" but that player hadn't been mentioned as a character risk beforehand, that interview necessarily carries more weight - but not as much as testimonials from teammates, coaches, and even hearsay.

This is the trickiest part to drafting players from teams, because it's much more beneficial to draft team players than me-first players.  It's even harder for us lowly fans, because we don't have access to anything more than rumors, in most cases.

Intelligence versus Football IQ
Michael Oher is the most recent example here, but if you don't know the basic thrust of his incredible story, you might miss the application.  He grew up abandoned and mostly on his own, and when the kind family that took him in integrated him into what we might call a "normal kid's setting" - i.e. school, sports, etc. - Oher was completely out of his element.  He struggled in school, he struggled socially, and he even struggled on the football field.

But Michael Oher is coachable.  He got better as a ball player in high school.  He came out of his shell and started acting more like a normal kid.  He started passing his classes.  He obviously wasn't at the top of his classes, but considering where he came from, the achievement was tremendous.  At Mississippi, it was more of the same - steady improvement.

Leading into the pre-draft process this season, many scouts drooled over his physical tools, but questioned his overall intelligence and motivation - and, more importantly, whether or not he'd coast after achieving the ultimate in his sport and turning professional.  He's such a unique case study that it was hard to project how he might apply himself at the NFL level.

Many, many teams were turned off by Oher in the pre-draft process based on his personality.  He's soft-spoken, honest, and not at all the type of personality that makes great offensive linemen (at least according to reports - I obviously don't know Michael Oher).  But again - Michael Oher is coachable.  He'd already proven that.

Now, he's filling in at left tackle for the Baltimore Ravens as a rookie.  He's playing well - he even dominated Minnesota's Jared Allen at times, and Allen is arguably the best pass rusher in the game right now.  Oher is nowhere near the smartest player around.  But he's coachable, and he's got great instincts.  Those are the building blocks to the ambiguous term "Football IQ".  Oher's capable of picking up a playbook because he's got a high Football IQ, and some adaptability.  That's the difference that scouts struggle with sometimes - book smarts versus football smarts.  Find smart football players, and you're in much better hands.