TAMPA — Those smoke screens wafting over the NFL draft are particularly thick this time of year.
False leads, planted stories and outright lies are the norm as 32 teams enter the May 8-10 selection process seeking a competitive edge.
“It’s finally one time where we can use you guys to our advantage,” admits Bills GM Doug Whaley, referring to a voracious media feasting on draft tidbits. “There are things that you put out there to see if someone bites, and there are some things you put out there that are true. You have people read between the lines and you don’t want to show your hand. I’m sure everyone is doing the same thing.”
Earlier this week, a “report” suggested the Bucs are infatuated with Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel. Next week, another story citing unnamed sources will undoubtedly try to link Johnny Football to another franchise.
It’s all part of the games people play leading into the draft.
During the selection process, the name of the game is uncovering value. Consistently finding contributors in the draft remains the blueprint for long-term success in a topsy-turvy league marked by the emergence of at least five new division champions every year.
“For me, it’s all about, what does the tape show,” said Falcons coach Mike Smith, whose plunge from 13-3 to 4-12 left Atlanta with the sixth pick. “That’s the most important thing in evaluating any prospect. There’s so many guys who have not run well on the clock, but you watch their game speed and they run differently.”
Smith’s comments mirror the mantra of virtually every NFL personnel executive: tape doesn’t lie.
While film might be king when sizing up a prospect, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin likes to dwell on the intangibles.
“I think we are all interested in things that you really can’t measure, the heart and the spirit of the man,” Tomlin said. “And I think that is the difference. That’s something that’s never going to change.”
Combine workouts, Pro Days and private interviews can also factor into the equation before those magic cards are turned in at Radio City Music Hall and players are able to rejoice with family and friends.
For the GMs and coaches who ultimately pull the trigger on draft day, returning to film school represents higher education.
Terry McDonough, who replaced new Bucs GM Jason Licht as Arizona’s VP of player personnel, learned from the master when he was with the Ravens, working under GM Ozzie Newsome.
“Ozzie’s one of the best I’ve ever been around, and he takes the emotion out of it,” McDonough said. “I think that’s what you have to do. It’s very hard to do because we’re human beings and you get emotional, especially when you love the film and you meet the kid and he’s a great kid.
“Sometimes you can make emotional decisions that can lead to mistakes because you really like the person and all of a sudden, you start overvaluing the player. It’s happened so much, and then when they get here, they’re not what you thought they were because you were emotional.”
In Atlanta, Smith takes pride in being old school.
“We can get paralysis from analysis and get too many variables involved,” Smith said. “It’s got to be a lot more than a 15-minute interview at the combine. While it’s very important to make sure these prospects are a cultural fit, as well as a scheme fit, I find myself going back to the tape time and again.”