What initially started as simply putting my passion for analyzing and studying college football and the NFL Draft into tandem with Excel and Word documents 15 years ago has now evolved into an evaluation process I enter into every year. The process begins during the college football season and concludes about two weeks before the draft with my final rankings for the current season and integrating that list with those of previous years’. While it has become a ritual that I maintain simply because I enjoy the draft and the history of the game, the historical rankings do shine a light on both the evolution of football and how current prospects should be viewed within the context of their predecessors.
The evolution of the draft and evaluation process since the time I started this 15 years ago is staggering:
- Far greater access to live games on television and film after the games have finished
- More data available to analyze
- A greater (but still evolving) understanding of analytics and it’s place in football
- A larger community exists devoted to studying the draft, which leads to a larger exchange of ideas
- Technology, more specifically social media, has made the process worldwide and year-round
One common theme in the above list of changes is MORE. What was once a Mel Kiper monopoly has turned into an onslaught of information that needs to be carefully navigated. The “noise” that could tarnish an unbiased evaluation needs to be separated from those insights that could be helpful to one’s own evaluation and opinion.
The style of the game has evolved as well. When I rated Oklahoma S Roy Williams as the fourth-best player in the 2002 Draft, it was because of his physicality and his fit as the prototypical box safety in the NFL. Today, it would take a very specific defensive system to take advantage of Williams’s positives as his lack of speed and athleticism relative to others at the position may be viewed as a liability in today’s league. Schemes have changed too, transforming a league full of 4-3 defenses into one where no one plays a traditional base. Everyone is now looking for explosive pass rushers who possess the athleticism to play both standing up and with their hand in the ground.
As the draft process and football have evolved, so has my own grading process. Over time, as more information has become available, my evaluation has become more nuanced. My process of evaluation is also drastically different than most who follow the draft.
At the beginning of each college football season, I create a list of 75-100 draft prospects that jump out at me at the beginning of each season. I then watch those prospects closely within the “story of the season” while adding to the list as the year goes along and digesting as much in-season tape as possible. Following the season, I reconcile my list with a consensus list of 250-300 draft prospects from a number of different sources. I then focus my attention on the highest ranked players on that list that I didn’t view as much as other players at the top, then work my way down through the rest of the list. Each player is then graded in 10 different areas (size, strength, production, potential, risk, etc) from 1-5 down to the tenth of a percent. That cumulative score then gets standardized based on the seven-point scale below so each player is slotted into a particular round. Previous years are used to settle disputes on where a player should be graded. It gives a larger data set with which to compare prospects. Small adjustments and improvements have been made over time, but in spite of the tweaks, the idea remains the same.
Let’s be honest, my ability to properly analyze players 15 years ago was extremely limited (see above for the evolution and availability of information) so there are inherent flaws in the process. Even now, because my focus is on a 20,000 foot view of college football, I’m focused more on seeing as many prospects as I can rather than a lot of tape on a few prospects. Another main problem, especially as it relates to the process a team or the Inside the Pylon scouting department has, is that I am the only one doing the grading. My access to information and time available to study prospects is limited. More people utilizing my same grading methodology would aid in making the process more comprehensive.
2017 NFL Draft Top 100
In solidarity with the top 100 list presented in the ITP Draft Guide, I present my own list of top 100 players. Each player has been given a grade and color coding according to the aforementioned methodology. There is more nuance and data that go into this system, but this is the simplified version for presentation purposes. Here are some highlights from my top 100:
- My post-bowl season top 10 consisted of eight of the players currently represented there with Lattimore and Reddick replacing Fournette in Watson throughout the evaluation process. Reddick is a player I’ve been extremely high since the beginning of the college football season, but I wanted to see his postseason performance to confirm what I saw on the field could then translate to the next level. I still have pause about Lattimore, but he has so much going in his favor that my concern about his lack of playing experience took a back seat to his traits and tools that make him the #1 cornerback on my board. Watson and Fournette dropping shouldn’t be taken as a big knock on them. I simply trust a productive edge and cornerback more than I trust a quarterback transitioning and the value of a running back.
- Garrett, Adams, and Allen have remained the top 3 since early December with Adams and Allen flipping spots due to concerns about Allen’s shoulder. Others have dropped him much farther in their rankings, but Allen’s tape is so good I have a hard time justifying a move further down. Adams is a player I’ve gushed about all season and I understand the concerns about a safety being drafted too high and whether Adams’s “in the box” style will translate to the pass-happy NFL. However, Adams is an unbelievably instinctual player that flies around the field and whose athleticism is underrated at this point.
- I gave 31 first-round grades, but the real depth of this draft is in the second and third rounds where I have 35 and 36 grades, respectively (two not shown on the chart above). This is the strongest draft at the top since 2014 and the deepest class I’ve looked at since 2012.
- The biggest risers for me throughout the draft process were Reddick, Forrest Lamp, Zay Jones, Chidobe Awuzie and Tyus Bowser. Like Reddick, Lamp, Jones and Bowser had very strong postseason showings that confirmed the tape, while Awuzie was a player I really gained an affection for as I looked at him more.
2002-2017 Top Overall NFL Draft Prospects
Integrating the current year’s rankings into the historicals is always a fun process for me because I get to reflect on past drafts and see where I went right, where I went wrong, and how the game has evolved. It also provides better context to the current year’s draft by appropriately putting it into its place. Too often, people get trapped in the recency that is the current draft and unfairly elevate the talent to a level it doesn’t belong. The 2017 class is one of those. It’s a good class, but not one deserving of historical accolades.
Julius Peppers is forever a mythical prospect for me. The first year I put these rankings together, I was blown away by everything I saw from Peppers on the football field. The combination of his athletic ability, size, production, and projection was unlike any I’d ever seen before and still haven’t seen since. Although Garrett has shown himself to be a top quality prospect, he’s not at the Peppers level. Based on the chart above, Garrett is the #25 prospect overall. He would have been the top pick in 3 of the past 4 drafts, but still ranks behind great edge rusher prospects like Peppers, Clowney, Miller, and Williams.
Only five prospects have received a rating I reserve for players I would unquestionably take with the #1 overall pick: Peppers, Andrew Luck, Ndamukong Suh, Calvin Johnson, and Joe Thomas. It’s pretty special when two of those players are in the same 2007 Draft (Johnson and Thomas). That’s not even including Adrian Peterson who was my ninth player overall. 2002 and 2004 both placed the most players on this list (nine), while the 2009 class garnered the least recognition with only three players. While not matching those draft’s quantity, the quality at the top of the ‘07 and ‘11 Drafts was better on average based on my player ratings.
I’m not going to pretend these rankings are perfect because they’re not. But as we like to say at Inside the Pylon, development isn’t linear. And that applies to the development of my grading methodology. My goal in matching this year’s ratings with historical ratings is not to be perfect in evaluation. It’s because I’m consumed by not only where the draft is been, but where it’s going. I hope these rankings accomplish my goal and provide a sense of the current NFL climate relative to the past, while adding some context to the current class and where it sits in NFL draft history.