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Lessons learned from the Steelers 2018 Big Board, and the actual NFL Draft

Talent evaluators at BTSC and in the media weren’t wrong about Terrell Edmunds and other draft “surprises.” Neither were the teams.

NFL: NFL Draft Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

I have run the BTSC Big Board for more years than I’d like to admit, and kept my own version for a few years before that. If you’ve read those articles you’ve also seen me harp on their limitations. This Board does not try to get it “right,” but only to achieve an average, Steelers-specific grade. That’s a big one because it frees people up to disagree so long as you have a reason.

But the most important limit is this: We can dig down enough to ask the right questions, but only the teams can move on to look for answers. Thus all our grades should be viewed as the center of a range, not a specific number. Nothing illustrates that better than the surprise picks in the most recent draft; both those who got picked earlier than expected, like the Steelers choice of Terrell Edmunds at 1:28, and surprise drops like Derrius Guice, Justin Reid and Ronnie Harrison.

Why Teams Have Higher Grades Than Outsiders - Terrell Edmunds

Here is a nutshell version of the description we published for Terrell Edmunds:

Portrait of a SPARQ-score superstar: the size of a huge, almost-linebackerish Strong Safety wedded with the exceptional speed and athleticism of a true Free Safety. Terrell Edmunds would be right up there with his brother Tremaine if he didn’t seem to lack the same level of football skills seen in the other Safeties… Open field tackling and poor angles (related issues) seem to be the primary issues, but they aren’t the only ones… Bottom line: this is a player with a genuine chance to be an NFL star but it won’t happen unless he can get coached up on various parts of his game.

In other words, Edmunds tested like the world’s best solution for the Safety/Nickel-LB role, a position the team has long sought to fill, but he never played up to that potential in college. Make no mistake: Our film watchers weren’t wrong about that. Pretty much everybody who looked at the tape saw the exact same thing. Cosmic potential but limited performance. But that only left us all with a question: Why? Why didn’t he live up to the physical talents outside of occasional flashes? All an outsider can do at that point is to speculate about the potential explanations and their weight. And believe me, we did! Big Board contributors regularly bounce those “ifs” and “maybes” around in search of a bit more precision. For example:

  • Edmunds played all of 2017 by a shoulder problem that eventually grew so acute that his season ended in mid November for surgery. How many of his limitations can be assigned to that injury?
  • But bad angles may also be the result of a low football IQ or poor study habits. Does it look like Edmunds he simply misunderstand what he was supposed to be and why? Did that effectively cripple his actual speed by making him a step late in starting? If so, should we assign it to being raw (a coachable flaw) or to being lazy (a trait that makes you draft pick poison)?
  • Or was it a scheme thing? What were his actual duties in that defense, and did his tape look off because he was doing a good job at tasks different than what he supposedly failed to accomplish? That is notoriously hard to tell because college teams often play some really exotic defenses, and Safeties are basically the hardest evaluation of them all even when you know the scheme. Their duties change too much depending on the actual call.
  • And worst of all, did he have some subtle athletic limitation like the dreaded ‘straight line athlete’ problem? I learned this lesson back in 2010 with a prospect – a Safety in fact – named Taylor Mays. He tested like an athletic miracle in just the same way as Terrell Edmunds. How well I remember the buzz when he ran a reported 4.24 dash! When he fell to the middle of Round 2 the pundits went berserk with amazement at the 49ers ultimate draft steal.“There aren’t many 6’3”, 230-pound safeties who play like a center-fielder and outrun WR’s!” Two years later the same pundits were declaring him the biggest bust of the class and wondering what the teams had seen that they had all missed. The verdict ended up as follows: his gifts were limited to straight lines while football requires constant curves and changes of direction. He was a Maserati, yes, but football is a cross country game. You need to have some Jeep in your bones.

Question marks equal risk, and risk requires a downgrade on the Board. Round 1 physical talent + Round 3 tape + potential injury concern = Fringe 2nd grade. That’s where we had Terrell Edmunds, along with almost everyone else. And it was the right grade given what we knew and what the tape showed.

There was no mistake in how the amateur community broke down what they saw on tape. It’s the ‘what we knew’ part that lets Colbert & Co. move on so much further ahead. Outsiders like us, and quite frankly like the folks at ESPN and NFL Network, can dig down enough to ask to the right questions, but only the teams can move on to look for answers. This is why we could all be right with a late-2nd grade, and the Steelers be just as right to award a late-1st. The two do not contradict each other because the team has data that we do not. Consider our speculations from above:

  • How big a deal was Edmunds’ shoulder? Does that injury provide a medical explanation or just a convenient excuse? Should we be giving extra credit for flashing as long as he did, or saying that even tough guys can have serious technical flaws? And is the shoulder a problem that’s likely to recur?

The wrong answer for any of those questions would, and should, kill a prospect’s grade. The right answer could actually raise it. With a board like ours the community can only consider how big a swing those answers would cause, call it an unknown risk factor, and downgrade accordingly so he sits in the middle of the gray. The teams start from that point and then move. They obtain medical records instead of rumors, and professional opinions from actual doctors. That would cut through a lot of fog! And after that they speak with the coaches, have scouts nose around for ‘word on the street’ with other players, interview the young man himself, and then reevaluate the film in light of all those extra bits of data. By the time they’re done, Colbert & Co. are working from answers, not questions.

Give any of us all that information and the grade might change by a lot. Might, not would. If we pegged that midpoint-risk correctly, our mistakes in either direction would average out and a lot of the time our tentative grade would be dead on point. In other words, it is entirely possible to be “right” on the forest even when you know you’re being wrong about the trees. Consider this statement: Men Are Taller Than Women. It is reliably true in every statistical sense, and reliably wrong in any number of specific cases.

  • Football IQ, work ethic, and questions about scheme.

Again, one answer kills the grade and another could elevate it. We have no way to know because we don’t get to actually speak with the young man, discuss football concepts, go over the film, ask him for explanations, evaluate his answers, and then follow up for an even deeper review. The teams can do that, and can often double check their conclusions by talking to the prospect’s coach (what else are friends for?).

The teams can also factor in the even more subtle and hazy factors like upbringing, ethical code, and overall approach to life. Those matter a lot... but more on this part later.

  • Subtle athletic limitations?

Yes, a truly great coach like Mike Munchak can look at an O-line prospect and see more than reviewers at BTSC, who might be merely good. It’s why he gets the big bucks. But that’s a shade of gray, not black and white, and there is a more important factor than mere expertise.

I used to teach a lot of martial arts stuff and can guarantee that working with someone in person gives you different types of information than you can see on film alone. Even when you watch film of that exact same workout. I have little doubt that this is why so many teams kept passing on Taylor Mays back 2010 despite the objective test results. Those numbers showed a beautiful forest from a thousand feet up, but down at ground level the trees didn’t match the canopy. That created a risk in their minds that wasn’t - and could not be - there in ours.

So here is the bottom line. The universe of draft pundits is not peopled by ignorant morons and arrogant amateurs. Their late-2nd grade on Terrell Edmunds was entirely justified and properly grounded. But that doesn’t mean the Steelers “reached” with the pick. Outsiders had to discount for all the question marks, while the teams had answers that let them see deeper. There is no contradiction and anyone who can’t see that has a problem of their own.

The Myth Of Draft Day Bargain Shopping

People have been criticizing the Edmunds pick for one simple reason: The Steelers could have gotten someone else at 1:28 and then circled back for Edmunds at 2:28. He would have still been available according to [pick your] Board...

Oh really? That’s only true if you assume that other teams toil under our limitations and without the Steelers’ added insight. And that’s just false. Those teams had the same privileged access as Colbert & Co. They also got to interview the young man, look at his medical records, & etc. Why should anyone believe he’d stay as a fringe-2nd on their boards instead of rising to a fringe-1st like he did for the Steelers?

Get over it. In real life, Kevin Colbert would be a fool to pass over a higher graded player on the assumption that other teams wouldn’t see him in the same light. What we do up to the end of April parallels what they do up to the end of around November. From December on the teams are making changes based on answers that we don’t have. Take the NFL-evaluator away from that data and you end up with the media pundits like Charlie Casserly (a retired NFL GM), Brian Billick (a retired NFL head coach), and Daniel Jeremiah or Bucky Brooks (retired NFL scouts). Guys who produce boards that look a lot like ours...

Why Teams Have Lower Grades Than Outsiders - Derrius Guice, Justin Reid and Ronnie Harrison

The BTSC Big Board, and basically everyone else, had Derrius Guice listed as the second-best running back in the draft and an easy grade in the Top 20. In the event he fell to 2:27 a/k/a #59 overall a/k/a ten spots lower than Taylor Mays. Justin Reid and Ronnie Harrison both had all-but-universal grades in the mid- to late-1st, and were regularly mocked to Pittsburgh. In the event they both went in the third. Indeed, Ronnie Harrison was available to the Steelers at 3:28 and they made a head-scratching offensive line pick instead, even though their very next pick was a Safety in Round 5.

So, do you really believe that every film watcher in the media and on BTSC is that much of a boob? Or might there be something else going on that the teams can see but we cannot?

Kevin Colbert and his peers have often said that most of their real failures come from things that can’t be measured. The phrases get used so often they’re almost trite: “Didn’t love football enough,” “lacked football IQ,” “didn’t fit in the locker room,” etc. Once burned, twice shy is a rule of life. So it makes complete sense to believe that those intangibles are where Colbert and his peers will focus the lion’s share of their attention.

So am I saying that Guice, Reid and Harrison are beset by one or more of those fatal flaws? Of course not! I don’t know enough to say that’s true, let alone which catchphrase might fit to any particular player. I am, however, quite certain that Colbert and his peers are all beset by fears that these prospects might have a flaw along those lines. It only makes sense. Question marks = risk and risk = a lower grade. That’s what happens if you flub an interview.

At a deeper level I’m actually glad to know that those concerns make such a big difference. Those same fuzzy, subjective, all-too-human factors are what make sports such a magical thing. Consider: Do you think that everyone who “missed” on their evaluation of Antonio Brown and Tom Brady was a fool? I don’t. I believe that both young men got graded fairly and according to what could be seen when they were coming out of college. Then they went on to prove yet again that the unseen factors can matter even more. Yes Virginia, intangibles really are enough to make GOAT candidates out of 6th Round picks. And lack of intangibles are enough to drive GOAT physical skills out of the league entirely [too many names to list].

The problem with intangibles is that they are, well, intangible. They can’t be measured, just estimated. A knack for judging the human parts of player evaluation is the true skill that separates successful NFL talent evaluators from those who try and fail. It isn’t a crap shoot or just a set of guesses. We know that for sure because some people are consistently better at it than others. But it’s just as clearly a fuzzy process for even the best GM’s. Gems like Brown and Brady slip past, gems like Aaron Rodgers prove to be real despite the doubts, and apparent gems turn out to be dross.

I believe that all those GM’s who met with Guice, Reid and Harrison walked away with more question marks than anyone saw on film. And I believe those question marks probably have to do with fuzzy intangibles, because otherwise we would have heard. It wasn’t enough to make them undraftable, but it was enough to add some risk that dropped their respective grades. Simple, easy to understand, and frustrating only to people who refuse to view this most human of endeavors as something more or less than “merely” human.

Question marks = risk = lower grade on the board. Imagine that! We really are doing the same thing. It’s just that we outsiders are doing it from a thousand feet up, while the professionals have a chance to walk on the ground as well. The magic of sports will wither and die if anyone ever learns how to quantify the roots and branches of the human soul, but somehow I don’t feel a whole lot of risk on that particular score.