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  1. NFL draft information trade: How teams gather draft day intel | SI.com 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 published mock drafts 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 home before 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.
  2. THE FALCONS’ OFFENSE FINDS ITS WINGS Know who’s one of the best assistant coaches in the NFL right now? That’s right—Atlanta OC Steve Sarkisian, as you all expected during that Thursday night opener. The Falcons are fifth in the NFL in total offense and just 3.6 yards per game off the torrid pace that the Kyle Shanahan-fueled Atlanta attack of 2016 set. And they’ve gotten there with a similar approach to the one that Sarkisian’s predecessor deployed, which is to attack from every angle and at all times. Take the end of Sunday’s blowout win over the Redskins and their well-regarded defense. It’s third-and-2, with 3:55 left, and Atlanta leads 31-14. Sarkisian’s foot wasn’t coming off the pedal. “We’ve been preaching attack, attack, attack, and that’s [Dan Quinn’s] messaging too,” Sarkisian said last night. “And we’ve had a couple opportunities, granted, in some other, tighter games, and even last week though against the Giants, where we could have closed the game out on offense, essentially in four-minute offense, and we didn’t get it done. You can go to the Saints game, at the end we have a critical third down that we don’t pick and we go to overtime and lose. “So we’ve been really stressing over the last couple weeks and practicing what we would call ‘winning-time moments.’ We wanted to make sure we stayed aggressive, because we’ve been preaching it. And as a coach if you don’t practice what you preach then the players view as, is that just talk or is that who we really are?” So rather than running the ball in that situation, with the game comfortably in hand, Sarkisian called for a screen to Julio Jones. One kickout block from Jake Matthews later and the Falcons’ all-world receiver was on his way to the end zone from 35 yards out. So capped Atlanta’s sixth 400-yard effort in its last seven games, which is even more impressive considering the pressure of having to make up for the injury problems on defense (Keanu Neal, Deion Jones, Ricardo Allen), and some of the offense’s own injury issues (both starting guards, Devonta Freeman on IR). • TRADE EFFECTS: How Demaryius Thomas and other deadline-trade players performed for their new teams Sarkisian will tell you now it’s a result of the mutual comfort level between the offensive coaches and players, and his own ability to run the offense that Shanahan left behind. And yes, he’s heard the criticism, which is getting harder to levy against him by the day. “I’ve being doing this a long time, and you learn that it comes with the territory,” he said. “You can’t ride the emotional roller-coaster of one good game and you think you’re the greatest and then one bad game and you’re the worst. You need to find that even keel, and the steadiness, the consistency in your preparation and your work. “For me in Year 2 it’s just an overall comfort level, with our players, our style of play, to put our players in the best position to be successful.” We’ll see how far it takes the banged up Falcons from here. Thus far, they’ve managed to ride the offense from 1-4 to 4-4, and back into the NFL playoff hunt.
  3. The Steelers play the Falcons on Sunday, which isn’t great for those of us who predicted those teams would also play in the Super Bowl on Feb. 3. The face-off means one of those teams will enter Week 6 with just one win. In the NFL’s modern era, only 12 teams have made the playoffs after winning just one of their first five games, and only two of those teams—the ’76 Steelers and ’02 Titans—made it past the divisional round. Bad defense is behind these clubs’ disappointing starts. Let’s examine the problems and, more importantly, the solutions. STEELERS The problem: Everyone cites the absence of linebacker Ryan Shazier, and certainly, this defense is worse without him. But many of the post-Shazier issues that felled this club late last season have been ameliorated by the surprisingly stellar play of free agent pickup Jon Bostic. The well-traveled former second-round pick has been decisive in run defense and, just like he was as a Colt last year, alert in zone coverage. You could even say that the problem is not Bostic, but everyone around him. It starts with a pass defense that ranks 29th, having given up 18 completions of 20 yards or more—sixth most in the league—and twelve of those have come against single-high safety coverage. That’s where the Steelers employ many of their trademark matchup-zone coverages. But with shoddy right corner play (2016 first-rounder Artie Burns is rotating with journeyman backup Coty Sensabaugh, which says everything), and questions in the slot (Mike Hilton has missed time lately with an elbow injury), Pittsburgh is getting killed on vertical routes. Offenses spread out, widening the zone defenders so much that they have to almost play it like man-to-man. Speed receivers are running by those impromptu man defenders. Opponents would have to cut down on vertical throws if Pittsburgh’s pass rush were more destructive. Moving T.J. Watt to the left edge and Bud Dupree to the right was sensible for both players, but neither has been an everydown force. Pittsburgh’s uniquely athletic defensive linemen—Cameron Heyward, Stephon Tuitt and Javon Hargrave—have also been quiet. NFL Are We Witnessing a Regression in Pittsburgh? The solution: It’s already started to unfold. The Steelers clearly made a halftime adjustment against the Ravens on Sunday night, shifting to safe two-deep coverages. (Did that stem from the “animated conversation” that NBC’s Michelle Tafoya reported between Mike Tomlin and defensive coordinator Keith Butler on their way into the locker room?) The two-deep coverages put a lid on Baltimore’s explosive downfield passes, but it also allowed Joe Flacco to dink and dunk for drives of 12, 11 and 14 plays that resulted in field goals. Baltimore controlled the ball for 21 1/2 minutes in the second half. If the pass rush isn’t getting home, Butler must go back to blitzing. That would be a dilemma for most defenses, as blitzing would also mean returning to the single-high, one-on-one coverages that Steelers opponents have exploited. But Butler has options. In 2015, he shook opposing offenses with a bevy of two-deep blitzes, which are exceedingly rare. To do this, he’d bring an edge blitz on the side of the opponent’s top receiver and then roll a trap coverage behind the blitz. It left one-on-one coverage on the back side, but it punished the quarterback for doing what he’s programmed to do: throw quickly in the face of the blitz. Butler could also consider deploying more of his traditional blitzes and rolling the deep safety to the right, leaving left corner Joe Haden on an island. That’s a lot to ask of any corner, but Haden has been one of the league’s better downfield defenders. The other thing Butler could do is get even more creative with his defensive line, including on running downs. In the past, we’ve seen a lot of stunts and twists from the Steelers up front. Heyward and Tuitt are dynamic here, but what made the tactics special was Hargrave, who is exceptionally balletic for a 305-pounder. Not many teams can use their nose tackle like this, and so offenses are less prepared for it. The only downside is this approach is high-risk, high-reward—to minimize the risk, you need a fast linebacker who can fill the creases that open when the stunt or twist doesn’t work. This is where Shazier’s absence stands out. Still, with how efficiently Bostic is playing, more stunting and twisting is worth a shot.RE r RSS DOWNLOAD DESCRIPTION 00:00 / 44:08 FALCONS The problem: In a nutshell? The entire back middle of the defense is out injured. Safeties Keanu Neal and Ricardo Allen are done for the season, and middle linebacker Deion Jones is gone until at least November. Since the league won’t postpone any games, the Falcons must keep playing, bad luck and all, adnd the team elected to promote and relocate players from within rather than sign outside help. Nickel slot corner Brian Poole is now a nickel safety, Damontae Kazee is now an everydown free safety, and developmental second-round rookie corner Isaiah Oliver is now a No. 3 corner. (He’s already had his Welcome to the NFL Moment: on A.J. Green’s game-winning touchdown last Sunday, Oliver failed to sink back far enough in Cover 2, instead honoring the tailback’s route in the flat. In some scenarios that wouldn’t be WRONG, but in this one—with the Bengals down five, waning seconds, out of timeouts—it most certainly was.) At linebacker, the hope is that speedy Duke Riley can step up. The second-year pro struggled in zone awareness in Weeks 2 and 3 but was better in Week 4, perhaps in part because the Falcons played more man-to-man. The solution: Keep playing that man-to-man—along with Dan Quinn’s Seahawks style Cover 3, it comprises Atlanta’s defensive identity. It’s a simple identity, and one Atlanta must maintain. With speed at linebacker and safety, the Falcons try to run with receivers and/or keep the action in front of them and rally to the ball. The alternative is to blitz, which Quinn and defensive coordinator Marquand Manuel have toyed with, both out of man and zone coverage. But after the Bengals torched them on these in the first half last Sunday, the two coaches could soon decide it’s not worth expanding their scheme with so many young players. The beauty of a simple defensive scheme is you getter better as the season goes on. Not only do you become more comfortable with your assignments, but you see offenses every week try to attack it in the same way. You learn to anticipate those attacks. The real key is Atlanta’s pass rush—it must be more imposing. Second-year man Takk McKinley shows signs of greatness as a speed-to-power bull-rusher. Fellow former first-round end Vic Beasley is strictly a speed rusher, but that can be enough if the guys around him play well. One of those guys is Grady Jarrett, a premier defensive tackle thanks to his quickness and leverage. He has flashed every week on film but not quite as often as the Falcons need. Overall, there’s reason for optimism with this pass rush and, therefore, this defense. It still has the requisite speed and talent, and its youth suggests improvement could be on the horizon.