A Casualty of the NFL Draft

Wednesday January 7th, 2015

brett-smith-800 Wyoming QB Brett Smith was among the 37 college underclassmen who declared for the 2014 NFL draft but weren’t selected last May. (Russell Lansford/Icon SMI)

SALEM, Ore. — Kevin Smith said he wasn’t going to drive over to watch, but the thick-cut former Oregon quarterback couldn’t stay away. His son was at West Salem High School, throwing passes to a friend, and the elder Smith found himself in the first row of bleachers, digging his hands into his jean pockets and shaking his head.

“It’s hard to go through this whole process and not feel bitter,” says Kevin, visibly pained to see his son slinging balls around a high school field again.

His son, Brett, was among the 37 college underclassmen who declared for the 2014 NFL draft but weren’t selected last May. There are plenty of people and parties to blame—including the 22-year-old Smith—but this particular October afternoon is about looking toward the future. Between slant routes, Brett notices his father and grins. “I knew he would come,” he says, “and all we’re doing is throwing around.”

In his third season as Wyoming’s starter, Smith had 3,375 yards passing, 29 touchdowns and 11 interceptions—plus 571 yards rushing—and Twitter’s scouting cognoscenti compared his game to Johnny Manziel’s. (Troy Babbitt/USA TODAY Sports)

The Smiths are a football family, and they spend Sundays watching games in their home at the end of a cul-de-sac in Salem’s western suburbs. As they take in the Colts-Bengals in Week 7, they recall the missteps that have kept Brett here instead of being on an NFL roster—or even back at the University of Wyoming for his senior season. It’s a catalog of realizations, all seemingly obvious in hindsight, that were ambiguous at the moment of execution.

Why is this cautionary tale relevant during the NFL playoffs? Because it was this time last year when Brett Smith chose a path from which there was no returning, and a new crop of promising college players with remaining NCAA eligibility are mulling the same choice: stay in school or declare for the draft? The deadline is Jan. 15, and their decisions are being based on the recommendations of coaches, agents, family, friends, and finally, the NFL, which is making a push to prevent more Brett Smiths from entering the league without a landing spot.

Despite missing out on the combine and working out for just two teams, Smith managed to get a taste of the NFL. Not 10 minutes after the draft, the Seahawks and Buccaneers called with undrafted free-agent offers. Russell Wilson had just led Seattle to victory in the Super Bowl and Tampa had less depth at the position,  so he figured the Bucs gave him the best shot of making a roster. But when Smith got to rookie minicamp, he had a sinking feeling.

“The impression I was under was that I was going to be developed a little bit,” Smith says. “But in reality, I was in for rookie minicamp and they were going to bring in a veteran for training camp. I was just an arm for minicamp.”

Whether the Buccaneers gave Smith a legitimate look or employed him as a means of getting rookie receivers extra work is hard to say, but Tampa had drafted two wide receivers and a tight end. After cutting Smith on May 21, the Bucs signed journeyman/YouTube-trick-shot-star Alex Tanney to compete for the third QB spot in training camp. (Released by Tampa in August, Tanney is now a member of the Titans.)

Unemployed for exactly two months, Smith signed with the CFL’s Toronto Argonauts in July. As the team’s fifth-string quarterback he spent most practices watching from the sideline. He was cut on Sept. 6 without taking a snap in a game. He then went back home and did his best to stay sharp by throwing passes on the same high school field where his younger brother, Cade, was finishing his senior season under center.

The same pool of scouts that labeled Smith Rds. 4-7—meaning they could see him being one of the draft’s 256 picks—told him just weeks later he wasn’t among the top 335 prospects invited to the 2014 combine.

Undrafted, unclaimed and unable to go back to school—Smith’s journey is a case study of a broken process the NFL is trying to fix.

The first omen came in December 2013. Smith had finished his third season as Wyoming’s starter, with 3,375 yards passing, 29 touchdowns and 11 interceptions—plus 571 yards rushing—and Twitter’s scouting cognoscenti compared his game to Johnny Manziel’s despite Wyoming’s four-win season.

Facing a mid-January deadline to declare for the NFL draft or pledge his return to Wyoming, he submitted his name to the College Advisory Committee, a collection of NFL scouts tasked with evaluating hundreds of prospects who submit their name each year. Smith waited for a letter that would grade him as one of the following classifications: Rd. 1, Rd. 2, Rd. 3, Rds. 4-7, or Undrafted. But as the deadline neared, he hadn’t received anything.

“Finally, Brett calls, and they say, ‘We’ll call you back in four hours,’ ” Kevin says. “Then they call him back and say, ‘Oh, by the way, here’s your grade.’ ”

The NFL’s expert opinion: Rds. 4-7. But the draft is an inexact science, and the scouts who hand out grades for the CAC are accurate on third-round marks only 52.9% of the time, meaning the 4-7 range is a veritable crapshoot. The inaccuracies can be explained for a variety of reasons. As a scout, you’re judging talent based solely on tape, without the benefit of interviews, in-person workouts or in-depth character evaluations. Plus, there’s no minimum requirement for how much tape a scout must watch.

“These are the youngest, most inexperienced scouts, and they have [another] job to do that’s more important than the advisory thing,” an AFC scout says. “Then you consider the workload. We actually had to reach out to a few college coaches to ask them to stop telling so many players to submit their names.”

Smith sought out advice from his family and friends, and he prayed on it. He’d always been an underdog, recruited only by a handful of schools at the bottom of the FBS despite being Oregon’s Gatorade player of the year as a senior in high school. He’s short by NFL standards (6’ 2”) and he ran a spread offense at Wyoming that’s incongruous with most NFL systems, but he had a good feeling about the combine. He knew he could make all the throws there and figured he’d be a mid-round pick.

The handful of agents recruiting him reaffirmed his hunch, never mentioning the possibility that he’d be sitting at home come autumn. Smith’s father spoke on the phone with four or five agents who wanted to sign Brett, and each had his own opinion about where he might go in the draft. “But it wasn’t like people blow a bunch of smoke up your tail and say, ‘Oh, you need to come out,’ ” Kevin says. Brett Smith eventually hired the Tollner cousins, Ryan and Bruce, out of Irvine, Calif., who didn’t communicate with the quarterback until after he declared for the draft. “They were very optimistic in regards to the draft,” Brett says. “I know that they were trying their best to help me get drafted.”

The Smiths didn’t seek the opinion of departing Wyoming head coach Dave Christensen, who would have cautioned Brett to stay in school. “I’m extremely honest when players ask me those sort of things, but I wasn’t involved in that conversation,” says Christensen, now the offensive line coach at Texas A&M. “Unless you’re the best at your position in your conference, I would suggest you come back. When you’re dealing with agents, you’re going to get overly positive advice from somebody who can benefit from it. It’s not in their best interest to tell him otherwise.

“Hindsight is 20/20. If you look at it now you might say, ‘Yeah, he could’ve used one more year of polish.’ But you can’t look back and judge it now. He did it for the right reasons.”

Smith is currently under contract with the San Jose SaberCats for the upcoming Arena Football League season, which kicks off March 17. (Otto Kitsinger/AP)

 

Concerned by the record number of underclassmen who declared but went undrafted in 2014, the NFL has revamped the process. According to league spokesman Michael Signora, only five CAC evaluations will be allowed per college team starting with the 2015 draft cycle, though additional players may be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. The grades are also changing based on the following scale:

    A) a player has the potential to be drafted as high as the first round;

    B) a player has the potential to be drafted as high as the second round;

    C) a player should remain a student-athlete, maturing as a potential pro prospect while continuing his education.

Smith says he has no regrets about passing on his senior season of college. He was confident in his ability to turn heads at the combine. “I thought that I’d get an opportunity to showcase,” Brett says. “I thought I’d have an opportunity to show these guys that I can compete with the other highly talented guys.”

Combine invites are decided by a committee of scouts from around the league, and players must receive a supermajority of votes in order to attend the talent showcase in Indianapolis. In essence, the same pool of scouts that labeled Smith Rds. 4-7—meaning they could see him being one of the draft’s 256 picks—told him just weeks later he wasn’t among the top 335 prospects invited to the combine.

“I just don’t want to do anything else but football,” says Smith, who will play in the Arena League starting in March. “I’m not ready to give it up yet.”

Underclassmen must decide in January whether to turn pro or to stay in school, and those who declare for the draft have only a 72-hour window to change their minds. They don’t find out until February if they’ll be invited to the combine, which takes place Feb. 17-23. Should underclassmen declare for the draft but not be invited to the combine, there is no recourse that allows them to return to school. This is partly out of convenience for NFL scouts, so they don’t have to spend time evaluating prospects who might be available.

Smith was considered one of the combine’s biggest snubs, as some draftniks had him going as high as the second round. “Scouts have told me they've given him second-day grades, which is the same grade I gave him,” Dane Brugler, a senior NFL draft analyst for NFLDraftScout.com and CBS Sports, told the Casper Star-Tribune in December 2013, “and I’d expect him to be drafted somewhere in the 2nd-4th round range.”

Veteran agents and personnel men believe the influx of so-called draft experts looking from the outside in was a driving force behind the record number of underclassmen declaring for the draft but not making it in 2014. Anyone is capable of putting together a mock draft, which means false hope is just one Google search away.

While other quarterbacks such as Manziel scheduled visits in the run-up up to the draft, only Cincinnati and Carolina worked Smith out. Seattle, which had offered to bring him into camp this summer, gave him another look just this month but didn’t sign him. He’s currently under contract with the San Jose SaberCats for the upcoming Arena Football League season, which kicks off March 17. Smith ponders how long he’ll hang on to football. He’s a semester away from a degree in communications, but he wishes he’d picked a major like agriculture instead of going with the crowd. What does the future hold?

“The question has crossed my mind, for sure,” he says. “I just don’t want to do anything else but football. I’m not ready to give it up yet.”

An hour into the workout at West Salem High, Brett Smith takes his NFL ball and chucks it at a soccer goal, just missing the post some 30 yards away. He then picks up a CFL ball, which is slightly smaller in circumference. He looks at his friend, the dutiful receiver, and asks him to run the route tree once more.

“I’ve got to throw with both the CFL and the NFL ball,” Brett says, grinning. “You know, keep the dream alive.”


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