Each year during the NFL Draft, the league opens its doors to hundreds of young, aspiring athletes looking to continue their dream and make a name for themselves at the highest level of competition. What happens after the draft, however, is ultimately more important. Unfortunately for these players, their ability to actually bring those dreams into reality is not fully under their control.
As fans and analysts of the game, we like to assume that a player’s success is all determined by talent and work ethic. We tend to believe that players with the most talent will find the highest success while players with lesser talents will find a lesser degree of success. Then, depending on the player’s work ethic, they can move up or down on that scale. As fans, this assumption allows us to easily understand which players are good and worthy of our support and which ones are not. As analysts and evaluators, this provides a clean-cut method for determining whether our evaluations and projections were right or wrong. Like most things in life, though, any answer that comes this conveniently cannot really be the answer we are truly seeking.
The truth is that there are several factors in determining a player’s ultimate success or failure and most are outside of their own control. Things such as a coaching, surrounding talent, and team leadership or mentorship, to name a few, are all major factors. Perhaps the most influential factor external to the player’s control, however, is the scheme their team employs and their usage within that scheme.
Each offseason, the New England Patriots bring in cheap, underutilized talents that the remainder of the league discards and successfully turns them into productive players. The truth is, though, most do not become better players when they join the Patriots. Their skill sets and inherent strengths and weaknesses, for the most part, remain the same. It’s actually just Bill Belichick and the Patriots’ ability to properly utilize those strengths and hide those weaknesses, that makes these players suddenly productive. But how do they do this so consistently?
The general concept is actually much simpler than many might imagine and is not based on information that other teams do not have. Like in all facets of life, the best solution to a problem is typically the most obvious one. If you were to ask any coach at any level of football how players should be utilized, you would get the same answer across the board. They would all tell you that, as a coach, you should put your players in situations that maximize their strengths and mitigate their weaknesses. The ability to understand this concept and the ability to put it to use, however, are two different things. The difference between Belichick and the Patriots and some other organizations, is simply that the Patriots actually practice what they preach.
All coaches have a core philosophy and scheme that they believe puts their team in the best position for success. Within the scheme, each position has several roles or responsibilities to fulfill to make that scheme work as intended. Just like all of the parts of an engine, if one part does not do its job, the engine will fail. In most instances, not all roles can be fulfilled by one player though. For instance, a linebacker will have several different responsibilities in the run game alone, all of which require different mental processing and physical abilities. In addition, they are also tasked with dropping into zone or man coverage, reading the route structure around them, and disrupting the passing game. Every player will be better in some of these roles than they are in others.
As coaches and NFL decision makers search each offseason for new talent, they typically look for players who can adequately fulfill all of the required roles of the position. Why wouldn’t they? If they can find a Julio Jones or a Von Miller to add to their team, they cannot pass that opportunity up. The reality, however, is that the large majority of players in the NFL cannot fulfill all of these roles at once at a high level. If they could, there would be far more Von Miller and Julio Jones caliber players than we currently see across the league.
With this in mind, the Patriots do two things very well that many other organizations seem to struggle with. They do an excellent job of laying out all of the roles that they need to fulfill each year for their scheme to operate effectively. They also understand that, in their typical draft position, they are not going to find players who can fulfill every role at their position. Instead, they leverage the strengths of the players on their roster and they search for players in free agency and in the draft who can complement their skill sets and provide coverage for all of the required roles in their scheme. Secondly, within the game plan each week during the season, the coaching staff looks to actually utilize those players, even if they have less overall talent, to execute within those roles.
Again, this seems like a simple concept on paper and is known by coaches and decision makers across the league, but is often not fully implemented. From a roster-building standpoint, many decision makers have trouble resisting the temptation to look for that complete player and sometimes may adhere too strictly to the specific traits they look for in each position. This results in commonalities with players at all levels of the depth chart having similar strengths and weaknesses. In addition, it creates a process that looks for the players with the fewest weaknesses rather than seeking out players with complementary strengths.
From a coaching standpoint, it is one thing to talk about maximizing your player’s strengths, but it is another to actually factor players, with lesser overall talent, into the weekly game plan to utilize their one or two strengths. This is a large reason why players like Dion Lewis didn’t get much time on the field in Philadelphia or Cleveland, but then suddenly found success in New England. As a result of this, just as in the roster-building example, coaches are actually using players with the fewest weaknesses rather than maximizing the strengths of their entire roster. This creates a couple different issues. First, it limits the growth of players with one or two really good traits that are lower on the depth chart. Second, it also puts the starters, unless they are Julio Jones or Von Miller, in a difficult situation, where they are asked to execute in all roles required for the position, some of which they are not adequately equipped to handle.
In the situations described above, the starters are being put in bad situations and the reserves are not being adequately used or developed. Unfortunately for players, their scheme fit and usage can have a major impact on their career, and it, in large part, lies out of their control. These issues are very common throughout the league. The Patriots’ ability to avoid these issues is the reason why so many “lesser talented” players tend to find sudden production and success in New England.
As fans, evaluators, and analysts of the game, this is something that we must appreciate. We need to understand that a player’s success is not just determined by their intrinsic talents and work ethic. What if Dion Lewis never got a chance in New England? What if DeMarco Murray played his entire career under Chip Kelly? Now that the smoke has cleared from the 2017 Draft and the 2017 season approaches, try to keep the players’ situation in mind. NFL coaches and decision makers, despite being highly successful people, are not infallible. And as they progress through their career, understand that a player’s development and success is not a linear process. There are countless external factors that can either push a player further down the path of future success or halt their progress at any point. Scheme fit and usage is just one of those factors, but it is an important one. As fans, analysts and talent evaluators, we owe it to ourselves and the players to understand it.