2011 NFL Draft: Take Forty Games of Data and Throw it Out.

I enjoy talking about and examining decision-making processes. That's half the reason I'll bore y'all half to death with diagrams in ....oh, four months or so. With that being said, the NFL Draft process is completely foreign to me. The 2011 NFL Draft isn't any different. Actually, I suppose it's not the process itself that's weird - picking a bunch of players in an orderly manner is probably better than an auction system, plus it avoids the inherent unpleasantness of an auction system when some of the players are in the room. That'd be uncomfortable, to put it mildly. Rather, it's the combine and measureables process that are completely foreign to me.

From here, it comes off as equal parts hivemind and data overload. In the face of data overload, the general viewpoint is to default to the most recent data. For most players, that's the combine and their Pro Day, if they had one. Alternatively, you can refer to this as Not Game Experience. The data obtained from these two events are measured - release time, 40 time, vertical leap, squat reps, and pretty much anything else you can concretely measure or want to. These things, obtained during two controlled sampling environments, mean as much as seasons' worth of data. I've tried to reconcile this for years, and I still can't do it.

Part of this is there's an inherent assumption of superiority of NFL coaches by the NFL - which is justifiable, sure, but I'm not sure if it's accurate. Give a coach a guy with this set of measureable data and he can mold them into a guy who can one day be called This Guy. We'll conveniently ignore his game experience if we need to (the Jason Pierre-Paul problem from last year's draft), because those things take care of themselves. This is the Way Of Things; we're smarter, we're better than college coaches. Why should we adapt to these guys? We can turn these guys into Players, the right way. (Incidentally, about 80% of the mocking of Charlie Weis comes from him actually saying this a few years back.)

And yet, I look at NFL offenses and NFL defenses and see ...well, things that look the same. It's insular. Replaceable, even, in a lot of cases. It's an outsider's perspective, and given 168 hours in a week to design and install plays with 376 wrinkles depending on coverages, leverages, angles, and the positioning of the moon, NFL coaches can come up with some impressive things. That doesn't necessarily mean they're the best; it just means they have the most time, and they're most familiar with the athletic capabilities of the guys they see.

NFL scouts are the best scouts money can buy, right? If they say something, it's canon. This results in brilliant things like Myron Rolle being too smart for the NFL, Tim Tebow the Tight End (although, to be fair, I rode that into the ground for years; maybe I should thank them), and the Dez Bryant moment of questioning brilliance that's better left remembered or Googled. Data overload.

This combination results in drastic overvaluations and undervaluations. (In some cases, all the valuations in the world won't make a bit of difference.) And yes, I don't get it. What about a blazing 40 time invalidates the fact that a given CB's idea of zone defense is a 2-3 matchup because he spent too much time watching Jim Boeheim? Part of me is happy, at least, that the guys at the top of the draft were brilliant in college, and at some point everyone figured out "wait, nobody could stop Cam Newton. Maybe he's good." The rest of me is going to wonder why a run-stopping ILB who had 25 tackles on the season but has a 35" vertical is going to go in the mid-2nd round.

For me, it's a question of game experience and reaction time first and foremost. Does he understand the system he's in? Can he perform to the best of his ability in the system he's in? Is it obvious the opponent is having to take special care to account for the different ways he can hurt you? Can he compensate for that? Can he respond to a diverse set of opponents? Did he excel against the best competition he faced? If the answers to those questions are an emphatic yes, then good. But those kind of questions are the starting point, and additional data doesn't override the answers to those questions. Football IQ comes first.

Decisions will be made; some will be brilliant, some will be brilliant in years, some will be questionable, some will make you wonder if Isiah Thomas is in the war room (dibs on the Redskins!), and some will just be obvious. At this point, I'm left to hope that the brilliant and obvious choices are the guys who excelled in college. That's not too much to ask, is it?

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