Each spring, as the sun peeks out and the remainder of the heaping piles of plowed snow slowly melt away in the corner of the food store parking lot, the feeling of new life slowly disseminates through the air. Perennial flowers are taking shape in the garden and the sight of green leaves overwhelm the once barren branches of trees. More importantly, though, the NFL Draft finally commences after months of anticipation and speculation. As each team makes its selections, NFL fans and analysts around the country sit inside at their computer or on their smartphone (flowers and leaves are overrated anyway) furiously debating the latest additions to each team. There are home run picks, solid singles or doubles, crazy values, and then there are reaches.
Defining a Reach
In NFL draft terms, a reach is defined as a scenario in which a team selects a player earlier than they need to. In other words, that player’s talent was not worth the value of the draft pick spent on acquiring them and they could have been available later. The issue, though, is that in reality, a reach is almost entirely unverifiable. The draft process that NFL teams go through consists of two entirely separate processes, player evaluation and player valuation. To accurately claim that a team reached on a player, one would require a full understanding of both how that player was evaluated and how that player was valued by the team.
The evaluation process that NFL teams go through prior to the draft is the true nuts and bolts of the entire draft process. It is almost a year-long process that begins over the summer months, carries through the college football season and gets really hot and heavy in the winter months leading up to the draft. Think of this as the information gathering process. Scouts from every team are driving from school to school in their assigned areas to visit and evaluate all of the draftable players on each college team. The important thing to note though, is that the evaluation of a player’s talent is always relative to the eyes of the evaluator. What makes the college scouting process so interesting is that every scout or evaluator has their own unique viewpoint on a player. Some evaluators look for completely different traits or skills in a position, others look for the same traits or skills in a player but can still come to different conclusions regarding whether or not that player has those requisite skills. Two scouts, even from the same team, can look at the same play and come away with two different conclusions. If this can happen to two scouts on the same team, receiving the same guidance, imagine how different the player evaluations can be outside of the NFL.
Understanding Differences in Valuation
The valuation process for NFL teams consists of taking all of the information that was gathered throughout the year by the area, regional, and national scouts, assembling it into actionable data and setting the draft board. The board is set based on all of the data gathered but, more importantly, also factors in the values and priorities for that particular team in that particular draft. Each team has its own schemes and position specific requirements, and therefore value positions completely differently. To illustrate just how specific each team’s board can be, keep in mind that most team’s assemble draft boards of only 100-150 draftable players. That doesn’t mean that there are only 100-150 good players in the draft, rather than there are only 100-150 players that fit what that teams wants to do. The draft ends with close to 300 players being drafted yet, for each team, there are always players left from its top 100-150 to pursue as undrafted free agents. This just goes to show how unique and team specific each NFL draft board really is. Given this, it stands to reason that there could be several players ranked significantly higher on a team’s board than they would be by fans or media analysts.
For NFL draft fans outside the NFL walls, the best way to keep track of all 300 plus prospects entering the draft is by following the evaluations and rankings done by draft media. If you look across the landscape of NFL draft analysts, you’ll notice that, for the most part, player rankings are somewhat consistent. Each analyst has their personal favorites and some are way outside of the norm but, for the most part, players are ranked similarly by most analysts. This is not a knock on draft analysts, this is natural. When strictly evaluating players’ talents without scheme or position specific requirements in mind, there are going to be similarities. That is the major difference between the draft boards of media analysts and those of NFL teams. Without set parameters, outside analysts must value each player by carefully weighing the traits that he does and does not possess. Trying to determine the value of a strictly zone running back versus the value of a running back that is better in a gap scheme can be really difficult. A player that can operate in one scheme really well but not so well in another will probably fall lower on media analysts board due to their lack of flexibility. However, for a team that knows specifically what they are looking for in a running back, either player could be much higher on its board. A player that may seem like a major reach according to the media draft boards may actually be very high on a specific team’s board.
Draft Board Movement
Another common narrative behind draft reaches is the idea that players rise or fall on team boards. Is a player selected on Day 1 of the draft, who just two months earlier was widely discussed as a third-round prospect, considered a reach because of his quick rise up the board? The short answer is no. The vast majority of players do not actually rise or fall on NFL team’s boards leading up to the draft.
The majority of movement happens early in the draft season as teams get a chance to see players live and interview them at all-star games and the combine. Temple University’s Haason Reddick is a good example from the 2017 draft class. Headed into the 2016 college football season, Reddick was largely unknown by scouts and draft media. Even after his incredible senior season, scouts had questions about his ability to transition to the next level. Then, throughout the pre-draft process, Reddick answered those questions and, as a result, moved quickly up boards.
Reddick’s pre-draft story represents true movement up draft boards and there are other players in the same boat. The rest of the sudden movement, however, particularly as the draft draws near, is actually more a result of the media catching up to the NFL. In the weeks leading up to the 2017 draft, Ohio State cornerback Gareon Conley suddenly joined the conversation as a top 10 selection and the potential top cornerback taken in the 2017 draft. Conley didn’t suddenly become a better player though, nor did teams suddenly realize that Conley was better than they originally thought. The reason Conley’s name shot so suddenly up the board was because media analysts were given new information that NFL teams value Conley in that area of the first round. The same can be said for Christian McCaffrey or Charles Harris whose names suddenly appeared higher in mock drafts a week away from the big event than they had been before. These movements late in draft season are just an example of the media slowly uncovering the NFL’s actual feelings on certain players.
As the 2017 and future drafts unfold, I sincerely hope that you are happy with your team’s selection. If your team drafts a player sooner than expected, however, keep the factors above in mind. Remember that, without receiving inside information on your NFL team’s draft board, it is near impossible to accurately label their pick as a reach. The key word is “accurately” because you are certainly welcome to ignore everything above in the moment and call it a reach anyway. Not every draft decision yields successful results. Every fanbase has their own stories to tell in this regard. There have been plenty of players over the years who did not live up to their draft investment. That doesn’t mean, however, that there wasn’t sound reasoning and logic behind the decision to draft them.