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Grading the Draft from NFL.com


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http://www.nfl.com/draft/story;jsessionid=...eo&confirm=true

As soon as the NFL draft is held, in less than a month, all the so-called experts will begin evaluating how the 32 teams did with their picks, giving them the same kind of report card we usually associate with schools -- grades ranging from A to F.

Big difference, though.

In school, you take the test before you get a grade. In the NFL, it seems we're all too eager to learn the grade before the exam even begins.

The true test of draft success does not occur in April, and folks who have lived through it know that better than anyone. The draft-day grades are based largely on how the prospects prepared for the draft and what we know about them then. The grades that matter are based on how they perform after draft day.

"I know about the grading, and I find it humorous," said A.J. Smith, the San Diego Chargers' general manager. "Everybody has this consensus, meaning that if somebody takes a 'seventh-rounder' in the fourth-round, they're a fool. They may be correct in that assessment -- but it takes three years.

"Everybody has an opinion, but hold onto your hat and give it a little time. In three years, that player that everybody said was a mistake may be very, very talented." So, what makes for a successful draft?

Kevin Colbert, the Pittsburgh Steelers' well-regarded director of football operations, sees the answer to that question as the essence of simplicity.

"We never get into grades, or 'this pick,' or 'that pick,' " he said. "Really, we just look at the bottom line. Did you win? Anything else beyond that is too open-ended. The bottom line is, did these guys that you drafted help you win the championship? If they did, then it's successful. And if they didn't, then who's to say if it was successful?"

Because only one team can win the championship each year, most of those involved in drafting have other ways to measure the success or failure of the players they chose. Smith figures it's good when he wants to sign a player to his second contract to stay with the team.

"Drafting well means that the players you have drafted are with your team and growing for the most part, followed by another (draft) class and another (draft) class," Smith said. "In a lot of cases, you are re-signing guys who could be starters down the road."

John McVay, a former San Francisco general manager working for the late Bill Walsh, said he used to judge a draft after two years, using criteria similar to Smith's.

"In those days, we felt if 50 percent of the players who were drafted made the club and were productive, we had a successful draft," said McVay, who is now retired. "Today, you better have better than that 50 percent because you only get to draft seven."

Ron Wolf, the retired Green Bay Packers' general manager, puts it a different way: Get three above-average starters out of a seven-round draft and you did a good job.

"I'm not talking about guys who just line up," Wolf said. "I mean three top-drawer starters. Any bonus over that, it was a great draft.

"It doesn't matter where they were (in the draft). As long as you got them, you had a **** of a draft. A lot of times, the first and second (picks) wouldn't work out, but ... you can hit Pro Bowlers down below."

Draft three top players a year for five years and you have two-thirds of a 22-man starting lineup. Fill in around them, and you have a team. Randy Moss' free-agent impact was undeniable, but 28 of the other 43 position starters in the last Super Bowl were Giants' and Patriots' draft choices, including New England's entire starting offensive line.

The lineup Smith's San Diego team started in the AFC Championship Game had 15 Chargers draft choices among the 24 players, including the kickers. The 15 don't include quarterback Philip Rivers, who was drafted by the Giants and traded to the Chargers the same day, or tight end Antonio Gates, an undrafted free agent.

In rebuilding the Chargers from the ruin of eight straight years without a winning record, Smith has assembled, mostly through the draft, what many believe to be the deepest roster in the NFL. His trademark is his decisiveness (some might call it stubbornness), which showed when he drafted (and then traded) Eli Manning against Manning's wishes, and last offseason, won a power struggle with former coach Marty Schottenheimer.

Whatever you call him -- decisive or stubborn -- Smith is willing to make decisions and stick his neck out.

"Right or wrong," he said, "it's a decision-making business. If you're afraid to make a decision, you're going to be in trouble."

Sometimes, it's possible to draft the right player and still wind up in trouble.

As general manager of the Atlanta Falcons, Ken Herock drafted Deion Sanders and Brett Favre two years apart. But when he got Favre, the Falcons also had Chris Miller, who as luck would have it, was about to emerge as a Pro Bowl player in his first year as a starter. Jerry Glanville, the Falcons' former coach, didn't want Favre, so Herock traded him to his pal, Wolf, who had just taken the Green Bay job.

Favre was a good pick. But not for Herock.

"It wasn't successful because I didn't utilize (Favre)," Herock said. "Successful to me is being able to (trade), say, Jeff George. I traded Jeff George away and got Andre Rison, Chris Hinton and some draft picks, and that propelled us to the playoffs.

"Brett Favre wasn't going to propel the team (to the playoffs) at that time. I look at a draft being successful by wins, and propelling you to the playoffs."

Mayock's rankings

Find out who Mike Mayock's top five prospects are at every position. His choices might surprise some of you draft followers out there. Click here for the complete rankings.

» List of juniors declaring early

One thing they all agree on is that the more draft choices you can collect, the better your chances. So, getting extra draft choices, whether through trades or from compensatory picks for losing free agents, is vital to building a team. Among other things, Wolf says, having extra picks frees a team to draft the best players, regardless of what position they play, as opposed to trying to use their picks to fill specific needs.

It's just simple math.

"It depends on how many things you throw against the wall, and how many stick," McVay said.

Well, actually, it's a little more scientific than that because, sometimes, teams can squander extra picks, as the Rams did after trading Eric Dickerson in 1987. But that's the exception. More typical is the way Jimmy Johnson built the Cowboys after getting a bounty from Minnesota for Herschel Walker. Chief among the players he drafted with a pick from the Vikings: Emmitt Smith.

Compensatory picks, given to teams that lose more free agents than they sign, normally are announced at the league's annual meeting, which is next week. A study by Dan Pompei of the Chicago Tribune showed that the teams which have received the most compensatory draft choices as compensation for losing free agents also have been among the strongest teams in the league in recent years.

The cycle goes like this: Team drafts a player. He turns out good, but maybe not great. Team lets him go in free agency. Team gets supplemental pick, allowing it to draft another player who costs less.

"When we started losing good players in Green Bay and got all those extra picks, you're going to get lucky," said Wolf. "We got Donald Driver. New England got a Tom Brady out of it. There's something to be said for those extra picks."

And something to be said for knowing what to do with them, too.

Veteran NFL writer Ira Miller is a regular contributor to NFL.com.

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