- The strategy NFL front offices use when meeting face-to-face with quarterbacks before the draft. Plus, who will be the first non-QB off the board this year, Saquon Barkley or Bradley Chubb?
In the past, when Rams general manager Les Snead finished an interview with a top quarterback prospect, he was sometimes met with a twinge of regret. His wife, Kara Henderson, a long-time sports reporter who last appeared with the NFL Network, would often have a better suggestion as to what Snead should have brought up.
“She’s like, ‘Did you ask him this?’” Snead told The MMQB at the combine. “I’m like, ‘we should have brought you to the room.’”
The moment underscores an interesting aspect of the quarterback hunt: Despite the grave importance of the decision and the incredible resources poured into psychological profiles, private investigatory work and hours of film study, the ultimate decision can often boil down to conviction, something that arises from face-to-face sit-downs and private workouts.
In those moments, it’s just as much on the general manager to pull out certain qualities he or she is looking for from an awkward, 21-year-old on their first real job interview. That is why we surveyed several general managers at the combine about their own interviewing skills ahead of the most significant quarterbacking draft class in over a decade. How do they approach an interview as important to them, if not more, than the kid sitting across from them?
“There are big picture questions, in terms of, ‘Hey, does this person have what it takes to do this demanding job, and not just on Sunday?’” Snead said. “You try and figure that out without [asking it directly]. In the interview, if the guy wants the job, of course he’s going to say, ‘Oh yeah, I have what it takes.’ You want to find the answers you’re looking for in past behavior, because I think that helps predict future behavior.”
Said one general manager whose team may be in the quarterback hunt this year, the first questions with any prospect, regardless of position, should be asked internally. No team going through a rapid-fire 15-minute session, subsequent pro day dinner, on-campus workout or top-30 visit will succeed if all parties aren’t driving at the same few points. If all questions are aimed at attacking a narrowed set of desired personal and athletic traits, the chances of a direct hit are far worse.
Chargers general manager Tom Telesco prefers a two-tiered strategy. First, loosen them up a little bit. Ask the prospects about things that aren’t football related, put them at ease. Then, transition to the white board and start having them go through offenses they ran in college, which gives the coaches a sense of what a player is like when he’s in a familiar environment.
Telesco said the onus doesn’t fall on him to go overboard, though. He’s not preparing jokes or bits to force the easement process.
“I’m just myself,” he said. “We’re just trying to get a feel for what they did and their process. Whatever team they go to, they’re learning a new thing, a new offense. Can they pick it up? How fast can they process information and retain it?”
Almost universally, coaches and general managers bemoan the rise of interview experts who prepare players for these moments. I’ve written in the past on how personality coaches have been able to elevate the likes of Tim Tebow and Johnny Manziel, which forced a massive counter-shift in the NFL community. Now, Telesco said, it boils down to what the players absolutely don’t know. Driving at uncertainty, he feels, is the one way to truth.
“What they’re not ready for is the way we run our offense, what we call this,” he said. “Now, we’re going to erase it. Now, you teach it back to us.”
SAQUON OR CHUBB?
This portion of the draft calendar is peak mania when, most of the time, it all comes back to what we believed in December and January, just after scouts filed their second, more conclusive grades on the best collegiate players in 2017.
Let’s exist in that moment for a second as we ponder what, I feel, will be the most fascinating question heading into draft day: Who is the first non-QB off the board in this draft, and where does that person go?
There are three realistic options in terms of team: The Giants at No. 2 (if they do not trade the pick), the Browns at No. 1 or at No. 4 (if they don’t trade the pick), and the Broncos at No. 5 (if they don’t trade the pick).
There are two realistic options in terms of the player: Penn State running back Saquon Barkley and N.C. State edge rusher Bradley Chubb.
Why it Will Be Chubb
The Giants Scenario: If the Giants head into the night of April 26 with the No. 2 pick still intact, I would expect them to wait out the first few minutes to solicit any last-second, desperation trade offers (the Bills still make the most sense). If that doesn’t happen, they’ll go with the player Gettleman likes the best.
Why do I think that’s Chubb? Gettleman’s history doesn’t do us any favors. Oddly enough, during Gettleman’s time as a personnel executive with the Giants and as general manager of the Panthers, his teams selected more running backs (Ron Dayne, David Wilson and Christian McCaffrey) in the first round than pure, outside pass-rushing defensive ends (Mathias Kiwanuka, Jason Pierre-Paul). That being said, here’s my two-tiered reasoning:
1) The parameters change inside the top five. Gettleman is from the Ernie Accorsi school. If the grading system still maintains its relevance, pass rusher gets a higher priority than running back (it’s behind only quarterback, according to Accorsi). Is Gettleman’s grade that much higher on Barkley than Chubb to rationalize the No. 2 pick in the draft, especially when the team has a Day 1 vacancy opposite Olivier Vernon?
2) The common sense argument. A blend of some thoughts from one person close to the situation: What’s a better haul in this year’s draft? The No. 1 running back and, who knows, the No. 6 or 7 defensive end in the second round (since they could fly off the board), or the No. 1 defensive end and possibly the No. 3 or No. 4 running back in the second? Obviously Barkley is potentially a generational talent and the gap between him and the rest of this running back class is wide, but which one of these projects out as a better investment? Could the combination of Jonathan Stewart and Derrius Guice/Nick Chubb/Sony Michel impact defenses similarly? Does the massive success of two 2017 mid-round backs (Alvin Kamara, Kareem Hunt) push the Giants in another direction?
Why it Will Be Barkley
There was a sentiment at the combine that Saquon Barkley was worthy of the No. 1 overall pick (more on that here from Jenny Vrentas). Indianapolis was the perfect storm of Barkley’s tape and in-person workout, creating peak hysteria.
What if, for some teams, that never went away? One avenue Barkley has at being the top non-QB chosen is to get selected No. 1 overall. Could the Browns like Tyrod Taylor and believe whoever they take at No. 4 is going to sit a year anyway, so why not grab a generational talent that can help validate the new regime and win some games while delaying the typical, agonizing rookie quarterback tailspin for a little while? The John Dorsey regime is promising different results, and this would be a different approach.
Another Barkley Scenario to consider: If the Browns get an enticing offer at No. 4 and the Giants deal No. 2, the quarterback run happens all at once, leaving the Broncos and newly-minted starter Case Keenum at No. 5. Barkley immediately upgrades Denver’s offense. In that event—and this is just a guess—his value to Denver immediately is more significant than Chubb’s, given that Denver already has a generational pass rusher and one of the NFL’s most talented defenses.
A big year for PFF
I love reading Pro Football Focus mock drafts, if only because they differ so significantly from the masses this time of year. Most of them populating the web at this point seem to just be jigsaw puzzles put together in a different order. I think this team needs a pass rusher, so Marcus Davenport. I think this team needs a defensive back, so Minkah Fitzpatrick.
In his most recent draft, Pro Football Focus analyst Steve Palazzolo has Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield at No. 1 (many well-regarded draft experts don’t have him as the second- or third-best quarterback in this class), Michigan defensive tackle Maurice Hurst at No. 4 (many well-regarded draft experts don’t have him in the first round) and Florida State safety Derwin James at No. 5 (some well-regarded draft experts don’t have him in the top 15).
Palazzolo’s thoughts are based largely on PFF’s grading system, which is in its fourth year of projecting collegiate prospects. They feel the data they’re accumulating is creating some momentum on the projection front, which would be significant. While opinions on PFF vary significantly, it’s true that almost every NFL team is on board in one way or another. The Eagles told Peter King back in February how PFF’s film-charting helped them win the Super Bowl. I called Palazzolo to get his thoughts.
The MMQB: What if Hurst and Mayfield really turn out better than, say, Darnold and Chubb in a scheme agnostic assessment? What will that mean for PFF in a year when they seem to be going out on a limb far more than their counterparts?
Palazzolo: “We’re trying to show that this stuff works, not only to the public but also to our NFL paying customers. So yeah, to me, it’s another year of data where even if you miss on a few guys here or there, the point is to find the right data that translates.
“We’re feeling strongly about Baker Mayfield, very strong about Maurice Hurst and Derwin James at safety. But I mean, it’s like any other year too. We can look back at the Joey Bosa’s of the world and the Myles Garrett’s of the world. Scouts were all over those guys too. But we had the data right there essentially confirming those guys as elite players. Then there are the other top-10 edge rushers who were a tick below them (according to our data) and are a tick below them in the NFL as well.
“It’s an important one for us, I think, based on the guys we’re going out on a limb for.”
The MMQB: You have Maurice Hurst at 4, and said he had the highest graded season in the PFF grading era for an interior defender. Can you put that into context for me?
Palazzolo: “We’re grading every player on every play from a pure production standpoint, and for an interior defensive lineman, that’s generally based around defeating blocks—doing it in the running game, doing it in the passing game, blowing up run plays, creating pressure, doing that on a snap for snap basis. You do kind of get this much bigger sample size of information, so when we come up with final grades, we’re doing it on every snap, it’s quantified. I think that’s why we’ve had some success seeing guys who have graded well on the defensive line translating to the next level.”
Note: In four years of grading college football players, Hurst’s ’17 grade is ahead of DeForest Buckner (the seventh pick of the ’16 draft), Purdue defensive lineman Jake Replogle (he opted out of the draft and did not wish to pursue an NFL career), 2018 Washington prospect Vita Vea and former Stanford defensive lineman Henry Anderson (a third-round pick in 2015 with three career sacks thus far).
The MMQB: Do you kind of live for stuff like this? If Hurst is a hit, it validates the process in the eyes of skeptical consumers.
Palazzolo: “Oh yeah. We’ve done it at the NFL level being early on guys like Cameron Wake, Richard Sherman and Chris Harris. Michael Bennett was our No. 1 free agent edge rusher when he hit the market in 2013 and that certainly paid off for the Seahawks. We’ve always prided ourselves on finding really productive players that have been overlooked, either in the free agency process or the draft process, whatever it might be.”
FEELING LOST IN THE DRAFT HAZE?
As a few wise people once said, just enjoy the insanity along the way. We’ll be back next week with a top-10 mock draft, and some other predictions for the big day.
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