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Finding the right ‘fit’ for an NFL franchise is more difficult than most assume

There will be a plethora of talented players available this off season via the NFL draft and free agency, but each team must decide which players actually fit their schemes and culture.

NFL: Combine Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Every NFL scout wants to find that proverbial diamond in the rough. The previously undiscovered gem that can be transformed into a thing of great beauty, and value, with a little bit of elbow grease and polish. Any employer would secretly hope for no less with any new hire, and who can blame them? We are all looking for an advantage, a way to get a leg up on the competition, so to speak. Recently that has become an increasingly difficult task for all the team’s scouting departments.

That whole “undiscovered” part.

Back in the old days before social media and cell phones, a scout could be traveling on a Friday night through a small town to his next scheduled visit, stop for the night, decide to check out the local high school football game, and actually stumble upon the next great player. The scout would make his notes accordingly, then follow the player’s college career attentively, culminating with the scout providing personalized information when the player became draft eligible. Many players were truly “local legends” who’s exploits achieved almost folklore status. Those days are long gone!

Now it is almost impossible for a scout to get lucky and find an unknown talent. Every high school player harboring a dream to play college football has been given a star rating from some recruiting publication. Most players who possess the athleticism to be recruited by a major college program already have videos of their accomplishments posted all over the internet before they ever get there. The game has evolved, and scouting departments have had to evolve with it.

So, if theoretically there is no undiscovered talent to be found anymore, how does a scout earn his money? They earn their keep by identifying a players fit and function. There will be a smorgasbord of talent on display this week at the 2018 NFL Scouting Combine. The players will get to display their physical abilities, and to a lesser degree, their mental acuity. The various drills and one-on-one sessions provide the teams an opportunity to evaluate how each player handles the immense pressure and scrutiny during the biggest job interview of their lives. Some traits needed to be a professional football player will be easy to identify; like size, speed, and strength. Others are harder to quantify, such as heart and work ethic. One trait that has never before been more important to recognize is fit.

Not every player is a good fit for every team. No matter how talented a player may appear, he may not be a good fit for a certain team. Identifying which players fit best in your system can be the difference in a player being labeled a bust, or becoming a major contributor in your team’s endeavors. Often times a player’s success results from the perfect unit of scheme and environment.

Take Joe Montana at the helm of Bill Walsh’s West Coast offense for instance. Never before was there a more perfect fit of a player’s talents to a particular scheme. His 4-0 Super Bowl record can only be matched by the Steelers very own Terry Bradshaw, and he was named Super Bowl MVP three times, matched only by Tom Brady.

Would Joe have reached these levels of success quarterbacking a power running attack favored by so many teams during that time? Highly doubtful, considering that offense wouldn’t have been a good fit for his arm talent.

A modern day example of a player’s environment greatly contributing to his success is New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees. Brees is the poster child for a dome quarterback. Playing in the controlled conditions of a dome perfectly suit his abilities and limitations. He wouldn’t have been as productive playing in cold weather conditions associated with open air stadiums like Pittsburgh, Green Bay, and Buffalo, to name a few. This is in no way a knock against Brees. He has proven to be one of the greats, a champion on and off the field! Only an acknowledgement of his perfect situation with the Saints organization.

I feel the Pittsburgh Steelers presently have a couple examples of this on their roster; Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown.

Big Ben’s physical attributes were a perfect fit for the Steelers’ scheme. He possessed the requisite size to withstand the inevitable pounding associated with an ultra physical division, and the arm strength needed to whip the ball through biting winds of late season cold weather games. However, due to his own immaturity and sense of entitlement, this perfect idea almost never came to fruition. Ben has been able to right the ship of off-field issues and become the player, and man, we all hoped be could be. He is simply the face of the franchise, and the Steelers always have a chance to win when he walks on the field. He is their most indispensable player and a future Hall of Fame player who continues to evolve into a better husband, father, and member of society. We have been blessed to bare witness to the development of an all-time great player, with more to come.

Antonio Brown is the best wide receiver in the game. He ended any argument on the subject last season, and is currently on a five-year stretch of excellence unmatched in football history. If he can maintain his current level of production over the next four or five seasons he may have to change his legal name to GOAT. As it is he is arguably already the greatest receiver in team history. Apologies considered to John Stallworth, Hines Ward, and my personal all-time favorite receiver Lynn Swann. Brown’s competitiveness and unrivaled work ethic form the perfect marriage with Pittsburgh’s blue collar reputation and beliefs.

Hopefully this off season the Steelers can find some good fits in free agency, like the great James Farrior, or a more recent example of Tyson Alualu last season. Maybe the draft will provide fans with another breath of fresh air like JuJu Smith-Schuster or T.J. Watt.

We can only hope to get so lucky.