Guest column: The lesson NFL owners should learn from no Pro Days and visits
(EDITOR'S NOTE: Each weekend this offseason a guest columnist weighs in with thoughts on the NFL -- past, present or future. Today we feature Hall-of-Fame selector Vito Stellino, who covered the Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers and Washington Redskins as well as the Jacksonville Jaguars).
The NFL owners are likely to learn a valuable lesson in this year’s collegiate draft. Their personnel departments can easily conduct a draft without pro days and personal visits from the players.
Their scouts were forced to give up both because of the spread of the coronavirus. Now they will have to pick the players based on how they played last season and how they looked at the scouting combine.
And what’s wrong with that?
Nothing really. There is no evidence that Pro Days and personal visits improve the quality of the drafting. The owners should save money by cancelling both in the future. They should tell scouts they don’t need Pro Days and personal visits to judge them as football players.’
The NFL likes to think scouting has never been better. But their drafting doesn’t prove that. There is a lot of evidence that trying to figure out which college players will be the stars of tomorrow in the NFL remains one of the most difficult tasks in sports. Flying all those players around the country for visits in the spring not only tends to be a waste of money but leads to many not in top shape when they report to camp because they don’t have time to work out.
And then there are some drafts that simply don’t include a lot of star players, regardless of how much the scouts study them. Take a look at the 2015 draft, for example: When the Rams cut Todd Gurley this week, only two of the top 15 players from that draft have roles with their original teams – Washington guard Brandon Scherff and Miami receiver DeVante Parker.
Top pick Jameis Winston is still with the Bucs but has no future with the team now that Tamp Bay signed Tom Brady. The third player picked, Dante Fowler, is on his third team. Amari Cooper, the fourth player picked, struggled in his third season with the Raiders and was traded to Dallas where he jump started his career was voted to his third Pro Bowl.
But no amount of Pro Days or visits could change the fact it wasn’t a stellar class.
Now let’s turn the pages to how well some teams drafted in the past to show that teams could draft well back in the day. You may have never heard of Jack Vainisi, the former Packers’ scout who died of a heart attack at age 33 in 1960. He drafted eight Hall of Famers and signed a ninth, Willie Wood, as a free agent.
They helped Vince Lombardi win five titles. Without Vainisi, Lombardi wouldn’t have become a legend with his name on the Super Bowl trophy.
Or look at the drafting of Art Rooney, Jr. of the Pittsburgh Steelers. He drafted nine Hall of Famers from 1969 to 1974 – four in 1974 and signed a fifth, Donnie Shell, as a free agent -- 1969 to 1974. They helped Chuck Noll win four Super Bowls.
In 1972 Rooney talked Noll into taking Franco Harris in the first round over running back Robert Newhouse and Lynn Swann over John Stallworth in 1974. His point was that because he was a star at USC, Swann had to be taken in the first round if the Steelers wanted to get him. Meanwhile, the odds were that they could get Stallworth later because he played in obscurity at a small black school.
They grabbed him in the fourth round. The Steelers had a good pipeline into the black schools because they hired Bill Nunn, who had connections with the black schools from his days as a sportswriter for one of the leading black newspapers in the country in Pittsburgh.
Good drafting goes all the way to the late Wellington Mara, who put together such good draft lists in the league’s early days that his father, who founded the New York Giants, asked him to share his lists with other teams. In 1964, the Chicago Bears drafted two Hall of Famers, Dick Butkus and Gale Sayers, with the third and fourth picks.
And check out the 1957 draft class. Four of the first eight players, Paul Hornung, Len Dawson, Jim Brown and Jim Parker, were Hall of Famers. Seven of the first 12 were Pro Bowlers. Or check out the 1989 draft. Five of the first six players – Troy Aikman, Barry Sanders, Derrick Thomas and Deion Sanders – were Hall of Famers.
If you think players are better now, check out those draft classes.
The draft is a much bigger spectacle than it was in those days. But don’t let anybody tell you that the drafting or the players are better now. Or that the scouts need personal visits and Pro Days to find the best players.
Judge them on how they play football.
Follow on Twitter @Vitostellino