'Grass Time’ Remains the NFL’s Ultimate Judge
Generally, when something is put under a microscope, more and more information is gleaned and that knowledge makes it easier to understand.
In some ways, the NFL draft fits that description, at least on the surface, but life is like a game of Whac-A-Mole, the minute one problem disappears another pops up.
The only real arbiter in the NFL is “grass time,” a term Eagles head coach Doug Pederson coined to explain the difficulties of evaluating young players, even a first-round pick like Jalen Reagor, in the first virtual offseason.
“We just can’t wait to get them on the grass,” said Pederson of his young players when discussing things on a Zoom video call last week.
One of the best players I’ve covered over my two decades around the NFL is Hall of Fame defensive tackle John Randle, an undersized Tasmanian Devil of a player who went undrafted out of Texas A&I (now Texas A&M Kingsbury) in 1990.
Back then, it was no seven-round process, either. The draft was 12 rounds so team after team, time and time again, passed over a player who was a six-time All-Pro and part of the NFL’s 100th Anniversary Team.
Hindsight and a legacy that will forever live in Canton confirms the mistake made by everyone, including Minnesota, which reaped the vast majority of the benefits during Randle’s career. If the Texas native had been a top-five pick by the Vikings or anyone else, he would have been a home run. Astonishingly, he wasn’t a top 331 selection.
Scouts will tell you something like that could never haven happen today and maybe they’re right but that’s tough to prove. There are still plenty of UDFAs who can play and so many intangible qualities can translate to longterm success, things like study habits and work ethic.
Believe it or not, more information is not always better and by the same token, it’s never necessarily worse. The key in any walk of life is what former Eagles president Joe Banner describes as actionable information, and, at least on occasion, that can be mucked up by volume.
A legal tactic for years had been dumping as much discovery information as possible on the other side hoping it misses the important nugget that can turn the case.
So how does that factor into the NFL Draft?
Take measurables. There are many draft sites that use the physical traits of successful players to formulate the template for success at the various positions. It’s a perfectly logical and useful tool but to assume it can’t be manipulated is also incorrect.
In the early days of the combine, prospects showed up in a more natural way. They weren’t coached on what teams look for and they didn’t spend the ramp-up period specifically working on the drills that could bump up their draft spots.
Now that kind of prep is a cottage industry of its own and an example of how more information has cloaked the actionable, more useful info.
Another is the whiteboard.
Before the public was let in on every little secret, a favorite tool of coaches was diagramming a play on the board for the interview subject before erasing it and continuing to talk for 10 minutes or so. At that point, the instruction was ‘diagram my play’ in an effort to determine things like a recall and football IQ.
It was a nice little trick before everyone in the world was let behind the curtain. You can argue that failing in today’s circumstance would reveal even more, but the original intent of the exercise is now at least somewhat lost if the player does succeed.
“That's probably the hardest thing is just getting a gauge of where the guys are,” said Pederson. “Obviously, as coaches, we ask a ton of questions back to them - how much have they regurgitated, how much have they understood - and it's a time where we can kind of slow things down just a little bit so they do understand.”
If you think of all of this as a college course, the final - Pederson’s grass time - is 80 percent of the grade.
John McMullen contributes Eagles coverage for SI.com's EagleMaven and is the NFL Insider for JAKIB Media. You can listen to John every Monday and Friday on SIRIUSXM’s Tony Bruno Show with Harry Mayes, and every Tuesday and Thursday with Eytan Shander on SBNation Radio. You can reach him at email@example.com or on Twitter @JFMcMullen