What Can He Do? Trait Based Evaluation

The draft is just around the corner and as our attention is focused on game film and trait based evaluation, some are starting to look for warts. Dave McCullough explains why each draft selection ultimately boils down to one question: What can he do?

Less than fifty days remain until Christmas-in-April, aka the 2016 NFL Draft. Scouts and evaluators have been making their lists (and checking them twice) for months. As the free agent frenzy abates, teams will have clear needs and can begin to set their big boards. The process will play out thirty-two different ways, with each General Manager, Pro Personnel Director or Head Coach applying different criteria to their shopping lists.

But one question will guide every process, in every war room: “What can he add to our roster?”

As one of the fundamental tenets of scouting, the question seems simple. NFL Hall of Famer Paul Warfield’s famous maxim applies here: “It was right there, on film.” The terrific resources developed by Bryan Perez and team at DraftBreakdown.com are an essential bookmark for anyone scouting or evaluating players all the film you need. The NFL Combine is now must-see TV, broadcast live. But it isn’t all “right there, on film” and what is there might be misleading.

Seeing Is Believing?

The history of teams falling in love with 40 times or combine performances is long and distinguished, but fewer “workout wonders” seem to happen in the post-Al Davis Era. Part of that can be attributed to the growth of the amateur scouting and evaluation community, which are providing useful cross-checks to any team smart enough to check the internet.

However, the professional scouts retain one huge edge over the hardest working amateur evaluators the interviews. While some teams use their interview time asking utterly irrelevant questions, most use the time to probe how quickly a player processes information. This is a terrific look behind that curtain by Jenny Vrentas.

The teams also try to get a sense of who the player is, and whether he would fit into their current team. “Chemistry” is an inscrutable process for fans, but psychological evaluation has weight in a player evaluation. However, the interviews that the professionals perform don’t stop with the player. All over the football landscape, the backchannel conversations are happening as coaches talk to other coaches, and investigators scramble to conduct background checks on red flags raised during the process. The investment made by a franchise into a draft pick, especially a first round pick, is significant. With so much riding on the evaluation, teams go to great lengths to ferret out any information that may be relevant.

This includes “off-field concerns” that nebulous phrase that indicates some sort of problem that has nothing to do with what is “right there, on film.” This season’s highest-profile off-field concern is defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche, who fell out of a window and into a marijuana arrest. Teams interested in Nkemdiche’s physical talent are also forced to look deeply into his background, trying to divine whether giving him millions of dollars will make him more or less likely to fall again.

Based On The Traits

The final evaluation of a player takes into account all the information a team can gather about a player. It is not all the information a team wants, or needs. One of the most important tasks a first-year player will have is learning the playbook. And while teams attempt to measure player intelligence with tools like the Wonderlic, a below-average score isn’t necessarily an impediment. As the saying goes, book smarts are different from street (or football) smarts.

While college tape will tell you a lot about a player’s field intelligence, the scouting rules also tell us that what a player did in a college scheme isn’t what a player will do in the NFL. College coaches have become more explicit in recent years that they are in the business of winning games, not developing pro prospects. If the latter results from the former, so be it. But the priority is to win on Saturday, not on Sunday. This is the basis of the so-called “quarterback crisis” but it applies to all 22 players on the field. As offensive and defensive schemes diverge between the professional and the collegiate levels, translating what a player can do becomes more than “right there, on film.”

That’s why the best amateur evaluators like Matt Miller, Matt Harmon, Matt Waldman (hey, that’s a lot of Matt’s!) insist on trait based analysis. That’s also the approach taught at the Scouting Academy, developed by former NFL Scout Dan Hatman. Because without access to the interviews, parsing what’s “right there, on film” is of the utmost importance.

Evaluators must ask a slew of questions to get closer to the answer of what a player can do. Can the player use his hands properly/efficiently to shed a block or jam? Does he have good technique while changing direction? Does the player catch the ball with his fingertips, his hands, or against his body? What about footwork when executing a cut? What about the core traits? Does the player demonstrate an ability to achieve at the core traits for his position, whether it is arm talent for a quarterback or change-of-direction for a wide receiver?

It is up to the evaluator to dig into that film and find out what he can do. It is the traits, plus the unknowable, that makes a great player. The professionals then go a step further does this player’s traits fit our system? Cornerbacks for the Pittsburgh Steelers are not asked to do the same things in their scheme as the safeties, which is why they Steelers have invested more in safeties than corners in recent years. The Gary Kubiak offensive scheme uses zone blocking offensive linemen and one-cut running backs. Bill Belichick’s Patriots love to employ big linebackers. These are not hard rules, but general guidelines each of these teams would gladly employ, and tweak their scheme for, a great player who doesn’t fit their mold. But they also look for these traits because they are the best fit for their system.

As they build their boards, teams will try to synthesize what they can see on film with what they learn from interviews, and determine where to rank players based on their traits. Some have bumped up the combine’s best performers, while others are looking into every rumor and talking to every equipment manager and trainer they can contact. Despite this effort, mistakes will be made, and busts selected.

In 2012, the top pick was franchise quarterback Andrew Luck, and #9 overall pick Luke Kuechly has developed into the best middle linebacker in the game. However, the picks in between Robert Griffiin III, Trent Richardson, Matt Kalil, Justin Blackmon, Morris Claiborne, Mark Barron, and Ryan Tannehill are a motley crew of busts, disappointments, and Ryan Tannehill. The NFL draft is more than what’s on film, and it is up to professional scouts and evaluators to find out as much as they can, and to avoid the busts. Easier said than done.  

Follow @ITP_davemc on Twitter. Check out his other work here, or why the franchise tag should be eliminated and the Browns being the Browns.

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