Ian Rapoport found himself in an uncomfortable position. The NFL draft was due to start in a matter of hours, and one team’s general manager was asking him to play the role of carrier pigeon.
“I need you to tell [a second GM] that I’m not going to draft [a specific first-round prospect],” the GM told him.
Rapoport, an insider for NFL Network, didn’t know what to make of this request, and he didn’t want to do it. Just tell him you spoke to me, the GM insisted, and this is what I wanted him to know. Rapoport agreed, as long as he could be transparent. So, he contacted the second general manager, explained what the first general manager had told him, and….
“Why don’t you tell [the first GM] that he’s full of sh--,” the second GM replied, “and I don’t believe him.”
Underlying the intrigue and drama of the NFL draft is a black market for information. Teams need to know about more than just the players—they also need to know who else likes the players they like and where in the draft order they have to be to get those players.
They cast a wide net to get that information, one that includes media insiders like Rapoport and ESPN’s Adam Schefter, and even each other. One agent recalls being surprised to see a text exchange between two high-ranking executives from different teams about a player he represented. One of the execs told the other that his team was not going to draft that position high that year, but he really thought the other team should take a look at this particular player. He concluded by saying, “You owe me.”
Several GMs referred to the intelligence trade as “critical” to maneuvering the draft, so much so, that they refused to even talk about their tactics. “I wish I could tell you,” Seahawks GM John Schneider says, “but I don’t want to give that up, you know?” And, like any underground economy, you can never be sure if the goods you’re getting are legitimate, but that certainly doesn’t stop anyone from trying.
“That’s what it’s like this time of year,” Rapoport says. “Everyone wants you to know they are not interested in what they actually are, and everyone is wondering, ‘If we want to make this move, how actually feasible is it?’ ”
That scenario he found himself in before a previous year’s NFL draft is the perfect example. We’ll never know for sure if the first GM was indeed full of sh--, because he never had the chance to draft the player of interest—the second GM traded up in front of his team and nabbed him.
The draft is a culmination of a year’s worth of scouting. Teams watch, measure, grill and rank hundreds of NFL hopefuls to fill out their rosters with new, and relatively inexpensive, young talent. But none of that work matters if you can’t get the players you want the most. “The whole key to the draft,” Schefter says, “is knowing where you have to get guys and knowing where you can wait on guys.”
Before other teams and the media come in to exchange info, teams’ intelligence-gathering starts within their own staffs. Each club has a pro personnel department that spends the year scouting and studying the rosters of the other 31 NFL teams. While the college scouting staff is front and center leading up to the draft in evaluating the class of NFL prospects, the pro personnel staff contributes in a different way. They put together detailed lists of each club’s roster strengths and weaknesses, and biggest needs, giving their own team’s decision-makers an informed picture of who might be going after what, first in free agency and then in the draft.
Most teams still use oversized three-ring binders stuffed full of information in their war rooms, and these often include a single-page cheat sheet for each team in the league. On the front will be the team’s depth chart, additions and losses in free agency, and its top needs. On the back is a list of that team’s top 30 visits and who on its staff attended which college’s pro days. When Daniel Jeremiah, now a draft analyst for the NFL Network, was a scout for the Ravens, Eagles and Browns, he was responsible for sending this info as part of his write-up from each pro day to be included on these cheat sheets.
The week of the draft, college scouts phone players to confirm their contact information on draft weekend. If they can keep the player on the line, they ask a short questionnaire, including his list of visits and private workouts. If a player mentions “a team that didn’t want me to say,” Jeremiah says the long-running joke among scouts is to reply, “Oh, and how are the Patriots doing?”
In Atlanta, GM Thomas Dimitroff says the pro personnel staff is also responsible for tracking what each club’s decision-makers are saying publicly, including during the ritual of the pre-draft press conferences. Ravens GM Eric DeCosta termed his the “Liars’ Luncheon,” but other teams are always watching and scouring for clues. “Sometimes you just listen,” 49ers general manager John Lynch adds, “because some people are better than others at hiding,” aka lying.
Some teams, among them the Bills and the Chargers, conduct their own internal mock drafts the Monday and Tuesday before the draft. Tom Telesco, the Chargers GM, will assign scouts and assistant coaches to each be the general manager of one team. He tries to match employees with teams they have some insight into, perhaps because they previously worked there or know one of their decision-makers. The staff mocks the first two rounds—no trades—and then does it a second time, trying out a different scenario.
Often, it ends up being an exercise in how much you don’t know. Case in point: In neither of the Chargers’ own mocks last year was safety Derwin James, their eventual first-round pick, still on the board for them at No. 17.
At Julian Edelman’s press conference for being named the Super Bowl LIII MVP, Bill Belichick revealed how he’d first learned about the former Kent State QB-turned-No. 1-receiver: Rick Gosselin, the recently retired Dallas Morning News sports columnist.
Gosselin started doing mock drafts in 1992, and he published his first top 100 big board in ’98. Both were informed not by his own opinions, but rather by conversations with more than 100 different people around the NFL. It was in one of those conversations, with the NFL’s most successful head coach, that Gosselin mentioned that there was a quarterback who ran quite fast at the Kent State Pro Day. Maybe he’s worth a look?
“I told a dozen teams about Edelman,” Gosselin says, “and Belichick is the one who drafted him.”
People around the NFL viewed Gosselin as the league’s 33rd team, because his draft board was seen as representing the league consensus. He only had two rules: 1. He’d share his information, reading off his full page of comments from around the league on each of hundreds of prospects, as long as you’d share with him in return; and 2. he’d never disclose, even to others in the league, to whom he had been talking. Belichick, however, outed himself, revealing just how important a piece of the pre-draft information trade the media can be.
For well-connected reporters, in the weeks leading up to the draft, they give information as much as they get it. Gosselin had a ritual of attending a Broadway show the night before the draft, when it was still held in New York. The columnist would come out of the theater to dozens of messages from team employees, and he would return calls until well past 1 a.m. Wonder how some of the information about teams taking players off their board for a medical issue gets out? Often it comes from team employees running a medical red flag past a reporter and asking if other teams have uncovered the same thing.
“In my world, and for people who do my job, we are trying to track down GMs all the time, and a lot of times, especially when they are doing a deal, they avoid us,” Rapoport says. “In draft week, it’s the opposite.”
Schefter cites two drafts in which a team was texting him during the first round, in something of a panic, because there was a run on the position they were looking to draft: offensive tackles in 2008 and pass rushers in ’12. They wanted to know if he thought the player they liked would still be there when they picked. “If people ask, you give your informed opinion, but ultimately, you never fully know,” he says. Both teams, by the way, got their guy. “And I felt great relief,” Schefter adds.
Teams also comb published reports for clues. Bill Walsh would send a member of his staff to an out-of-town newsstand the day of the draft to buy the Boston Globe, so he could see whom NFL columnist Will McDonough said everyone was drafting. Before the 1992 NFL draft, veteran agent Brad Blank remembers telling a newspaper in New Jersey that the Giants had flown in his client, Virginia QB Matt Blundin, for a last-minute physical. The Giants were about 30 seconds away from going on the clock in the second round, when suddenly, the Chiefs traded into the spot ahead of them and picked Blundin. They must have seen the newspaper, Blank concluded.
Today, the volume of information is far greater, and it seems that there are more publishedmockdrafts than credentialed media. But teams are paying attention. One club’s GM said they begin tracking the media’s mock drafts in the fall. They chart them through the winter, after the combine, all the way through the day of the draft to see who consistently shows up as going where.
Jeremiah recalls this tracking exercise creating trouble on one team he worked for. Everyone was in town for pre-draft meetings, and the scouts had already returned to the hotel for the night when they got a text message ordering them back to team headquarters.
The emergency: A player the team wanted had been paired with them in a mock draft. This player hadn’t been linked to them up until this point, and now team brass was starting to get worried.
“There was a little paranoia in the building, like, how the heck did this get out?” says Jeremiah, who declined to name which team. “We all had to come back to the building and we were kind of read the Riot Act. You guys better not be talking to anybody.”
It's the great paradox of the draft: Teams fiercely guard information, while at the same time desperately seeking it.
John Dorsey, the Browns general manager, grabs a piece of paper and draws the letter “D” with a circle around it. This represents the decision, he says, and the 10 arrows pointing into the circle represent the myriad inputs of information. This is how he came up with the list of teams he needed to leapfrog to draft Patrick Mahomes back in 2017, when he was GM of the Chiefs.
“I knew exactly how high I had to go up,” he says now. “I’m not going to name teams, but there were five of them, based on their need and information you heard. The only other one I was scared of was the Chargers, because Philip [Rivers] was 35, and I couldn’t get up that high without giving up all the draft capital.”
The Chargers, picking seventh, did not take a quarterback—instead the team drafted Clemson receiver Mike Williams. Dorsey made a deal with Buffalo to get to pick No. 10, one slot in front of New Orleans and three spots ahead of Arizona, and drafted the future 2018 MVP. “I felt uncomfortable for the first seven picks,” Dorsey says, “but after that, I was good.”
As the draft unfolds, teams are still collecting information and deciding if or how to act on it. If they’re considering whether or not to trade up for a player, several GMs say they’ll cross-check the information in the binders to see if the teams ahead of them showed any interest in the player they want through top 30 visits, Pro Day attendance, etc. Vikings GM Rick Spielman says he’s picked up cues on what another team is going to do while negotiating trades over the phone during the draft. Dorsey traded back nine spots with the Chiefs in 2016, because he knew he still had a good chance of getting Chris Jones due to the depth of the defensive line position that year.
And how about this example: A team was eyeing a player in a late round, and started watching a live-stream from the player’s draft party, posted on social media by one of his family members. They were able to watch live the player on the phone with another team, who was telling him they would draft him with their next pick. The first team then made the move to trade up, ahead of the second team, to pick the player.
With the potential volume of information today, it’s easy to, as Telesco puts it, “start seeing ghosts.” In 2010, the Patriots traded up two spots, in front of Baltimore, to ensure they didn’t miss out on Rob Gronkowski. The MMQB’s Albert Breer reported the Ravens wouldn’t have taken him there based on their team doctors’ assessment of Gronkowski’s back injury. But does it really matter? New England paid a small price, a sixth-round pick, to ensure they got a generational talent.
“We track it the best we can,” Belichick said earlier this month at his pre-draft press conference, when asked about sussing out the intentions of teams close to them in the draft order. “I think there’s a lot of misinformation that’s out there now. There’s sometimes other accurate information that you can obtain, through one source or another. I think sometimes it’s relevant.”
Two days before last year’s draft, Schefter went on ESPN’s NFL Live over the phone from Dallas to discuss a piece of information he’d learned: Former Oklahoma QB Baker Mayfield, he reported, was “square in the conversation” to be drafted by the Browns No. 1 overall.
Host Wendi Nix opened the conversation in-studio in Bristol by noting it’s the season for smoke screens. “And baloney, and malarkey,” Bill Polian, the Hall of Fame GM, replied on set. “Late intelligence is suspect intelligence, that’s the way I would look at it. … I wouldn’t give it a lot of credence.”
It was a stunning rebuke of the network’s own reporting on live TV—though perhaps it’s also an illustration of the distrust that swirls in the days and hours leading up to the NFL draft. It’s not uncommon for a small group of three to four decision-makers to be the only people who view a team’s final draft board. One former personnel employee recalls working for a team that placed a literal lock on the curtains around the board for rounds 1 through 3 (it’s easier to restrict access now with digital draft boards). The reason, he was told, was that in a previous draft the team had been publicly linked to a player—and then another team traded in front of them to draft the guy they wanted. This year, the Raiders made the unorthodox decision to send their entire scouting staff homebefore the draft, closing ranks to presumably stop anything from getting out.
Polian, a Hall of Fame GM, wasn’t the only one who questioned Schefter’s report on Mayfield last year. That same day, Schefter received a text: “Hard to separate fake news from truth when it comes to the draft. I’m certainly no expert, but it would really surprise me if they take Mayfield at one.” The sender: a 73-year-old retiree in Florida named Jeffrey Schefter, Adam’s dad.
Forty-eight hours later, Mayfield was indeed the first player selected. You might not be able to trust everything you hear this time of year, but you can’t afford to count anything out.
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