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  • A look back at the book every owner brought to the first NFL drafts (in which the owners were pretty good at pegging future stars). Plus, draft developments to watch in the next week, Bill Polian’s Lamar Jackson take, the mock draft roundup, and YouTube highlights of the week starring Notre Dame’s Quenton Nelson
By Conor Orr
February 20, 2018

“Now the pigskin zings through the air and our scouts have returned with their findings. They criss-crossed thousands of miles of college high-ways. They took in scores and scores of football camps, watched the faces of hundreds of coaches and the gyrations of fifty times that many grid-men. They’re not easily impressed, these old, wise football judges, but this is what they predict: ‘This year’s crop will top the field. This is one of the highest-powered bunch of leather handlers that ever came along!’”

This explosive prose opened Football Illustrated’s 1936 Annual, which painstakingly covered collegiate ball across the country throughout the season long before the game was televised nationally.

Written by legendary sportswriter Grantland Rice and bookended by ads for 10-cents-a-day typing courses and a beautiful back-page display for Chesterfield cigarettes, this trade publication was one of four football-related titles trotted out by the Fiction House company between 1921 and 1955.

But it’s the only magazine to get a shout out from the Pro Football Researcher’s Association during their deep dive into the first NFL draft, which took place 82 years ago at the Ritz Carlton in Philadelphia. Back then, it was this 86-page booklet that served as a scouting bible of sorts for the 10 owners building for the futures of their franchises.

“Owners used to do did three things,” Upton Bell, the son of former NFL commissioner and draft pioneer Bert Bell, and the one-time youngest general manager in NFL history told me, “One, they read all the local and regional newspapers they could find. Two, they all got on the phone with their friends. For instance, an owner might call Bear Bryant and say ‘O.K., I read the clippings on this player, can you confirm or deny it?’ Three, they would read that magazine.”

As we head into draft season and the latest rendition of The NFL Draft Column, I think it’s important to start at the beginning. Today, the information overload is significant. There is an entire cottage industry of draftniks who need to do little other than master the language to sound important. The Art of Fluff. As Bell told me in a recent conversation, “Now the draft has more trolls than Russia.” There are scouting reports atop scouting reports. Endless mock drafts. Landfills full of misfired draft rumors. And still, the best coaches and general managers are the ones who simply trust their most basic instincts and ignore the noise.

Consider a few of the snippets available for owners at the time (we purchased the magazine a few weeks back from a collector in Texas):

Sidney Luckman of Columbia: “Once in a blue moon, a sophomore springs full-panoplied from the shield of Jove—if you’ll excuse our waxing classical—clad in the shining armor of a game without a weakness. Such a youngster is Sid Luckman of Columbia who bobbed up at Morningside Heights just in time to double for Al Barabas of Rose Bowl fame. Luckman is as powerful and as fleet as Barabas and infinitely more versatile.”

‘Irish’ Carroll of Catholic U: “Speaking of Irishmen reminds me—Catholic University at Washington D.C. has a dyed in the wool Gael, who can lug that apple for all the traffic will bear. His name is Maurice Carroll. But nobody on the C.U. campus calls the Baldwinsville Bullet that. He’s plain ‘Irish’ to the gang and pure poison to the enemy.”

Wojciechowicz of Fordham: “’If you cant pronounce ‘em, they’re good.’ That old wise-crack of Knute Rockne’s comes to mind when you try to twist your tongue around Alexander Wojciechowicz’s consonant-dotted name. This rugged Polish giant from South River, N.J., is plenty good, so good in fact that he has made Fordham fans forget such crack centers as Del Isola and Tony Siano.”

Chavoor of UCLA: “Have you ever seen a buffalo charging? Well, that’s Sherman Chavoor as he pounds down field in the shadow of a punt. Southern California seems to grow big crack centers the way it grows ripe juicy oranges. Chavoor is a prize specimen. A brick wall on defense, a bearcat at mussing up plays that come his way.”

As Bell notes, even back then without today’s encyclopedic draft content, there were teams drafting with startlingly good results. Seven of the 81 players taken that year made a Pro Bowl; four—Joe Stydahar, Tuffy Leemans, Wayne Millner and Dan Fortmann—were elected into the Hall of Fame. And that’s without Jay Berwanger, the first Heisman Trophy winner and arguably the most talented player in the class, who never played a single down of professional football (he balked at the salary, tried out for the Olympics and worked at a rubber factory in Chicago). Two players drafted in the first 13 the following year—Sammy Baugh and Ace Parker—both were enshrined in Canton.

“Go look at the drafts from the first in ’36 to today,” Bell said. “Back then, they spent no money. Today, they spend millions. How much different in success rate is it? I’m betting it ain’t far off.”

To Bell’s point, of the five draft classes that produced the most Hall of Famers, only one—1983—came after 1970.

And my point in telling you this? Let’s not take ourselves too seriously just because that’s en vogue. Back in the day, people seemed to have a hell of a good time writing about the players and people (did you catch that Shield of Jove reference in that Sid Luckman scouting report?). It all turned out fine. That’s what we’ll do each week atop The MMQB draft column.


Joe Robbins/Getty Images

WHAT’S COMING: The NFL scouting combine runs from February 27 to March 5 in Indianapolis. Football’s annual convention will once again provide us with a week’s worth of televised workouts narrated in hushed, Jim Nantz-during-the-Masters voices. We will have a full preview coming next week. ALSO … Albert Breer runs his latest mock draft on Wednesday.

PARSING THE DRAFT HOT TAKE DU JOUR: Former Colts general manager Bill Polian went on ESPN radio Monday and gave the world his opinion on former Louisville quarterback (and 2016 Heisman trophy winner) Lamar Jackson. Here’s the meat of it, as transcribed by CBS:

“I think wide receiver. Exceptional athlete. Exceptional ability to make you miss. Exceptional acceleration. Exceptional instinct with the ball in his hand -- and that's rare for wide receivers," Polian said. "[Antonio Brown] and who else? Name me another one who's like that. Julio [Jones]'s not like that. This guy is incredible in the open field. Great ability to separate. Short and a little bit slight and clearly, clearly not the thrower the other guys are.

"The accuracy isn't there. Don't wait to make that change. Don't be like the kid from Ohio State [Terrelle Pryor] and be 29 when you make that change."

ESPN’s pyramid of programming has always allowed them an incredible platform to create a story out of thin air and have it envelop the news cycle. This is no different. Jackson will embody an age-old argument steeped in misinformation and inaccurate, damaging stereotypes. The truth is that quarterbacks of immensely different skill sets and talents have won in the NFL. If a team wanted to build around Jackson, they could. Just as the Seahawks made a team that could accentuate the strengths of Russell Wilson, just as the Broncos made a team that could hide the glaring deficiencies of a near-retired Peyton Manning, just as the Eagles altered a game plan to comfort and accommodate Nick Foles, it comes down to coaches intimately learning what their players are best at and using it to create a plan that exposes the defense.

It won’t be that simple this week. Jackson will be prodded over the coming months, with the wide receiver transition comment being a convenient entry point for any reporter or analyst to dive in and yank out a sound bite. He will be one of the prospects at the scouting combine I truly feel for, the ones that have to remain stoic in the face of the same, mind-numbing question asked over and over.

MOCK DRAFT ROUNDUP: Like ragweed in the spring, mock drafts are unavoidable and often the harbinger for general, unwelcome sickness. Still, we must be aware. Here are the latest top fives from various analysts around the landscape:

Charles Davis, NFL Network (Feb. 20)
1. BROWNS: Sam Darnold, Quarterback, USC
2. GIANTS: Saquon Barkley, Running Back, Penn State
3. COLTS: Bradley Chubb, Defensive End, North Carolina State
4. BROWNS: Minkah Fitzpatrick, Defensive Back, Alabama
5. BRONCOS: Josh Rosen, Quarterback, UCLA

Will Brinson, CBS Sports (Feb. 20)
1. BROWNS: Sam Darnold, Quarterback, USC
2. GIANTS: Josh Allen, Quarterback, Wyoming
3. COLTS: Bradley Chubb, Defensive End, North Carolina State
4. BROWNS: Minkah Fitzpatrick, Defensive Back, Alabama
5. BRONCOS: (TRADE!) BILLS: Josh Rosen, Quarterback, UCLA

Mike Tanier, Bleacher Report (Feb. 19)
1. BROWNS: Saquon Barkley, Running Back, Penn State
2. GIANTS: Sam Darnold, Quarterback, USC
3. COLTS: Bradley Chubb, Defensive End, North Carolina State
4. BROWNS: Minkah Fitzpatrick, Defensive Back, Alabama
5. BRONCOS: Quenton Nelson, Guard, Notre Dame

John Harris, The Washington Post (Feb. 14)
1. BROWNS: Sam Darnold, Quarterback, USC
2. GIANTS: Quenton Nelson, Guard, Notre Dame
3. COLTS: Bradley Chubb, Defensive End, North Carolina State
4. BROWNS: Saquon Barkley, Running Back, Penn State
5. BRONCOS: Baker Mayfield, Quarterback, Oklahoma

YOUTUBE HIGHLIGHTS THAT ONLY INTEREST ME: Despite writing several lengthy pieces on the art and history of scouting (you can find them here and here) I am nowhere near qualified to break down prospects. That being said, it’s not hard to ascertain what a scout is trying to discover about a player this late in the process.

Here’s 13 minutes and 26 seconds of Notre Dame guard Quenton Nelson in a disastrous Irish loss to Miami—a game that evaporated any hope of Nelson’s team heading to the college football playoff. Against an energetic, athletic, pressure-heavy Hurricanes team, did he relent down the stretch? Did he tip plays with his pre-snap posture or first steps off the ball? Did he finish his blocks? Did he maintain a level head in a match-meets-gasoline atmosphere?

Nelson is a favorite of offensive line Twitter this offseason and rightfully so. His highlight reel of WWE-style blocks will dominate the conversation heading into evaluation season, but teams will certainly be jotting down their thoughts about this particular Saturday:

• Question or comment? Email us at talkback@themmqb.com.

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