NFL teams spend months preparing for the draft, which this year begins on Thursday and runs through Saturday, in Nashville, Tenn. A team’s first-round pick will be vetted by as many as half a dozen scouts. General managers and coaches will scrutinize his game film, the team’s security personnel will delve into his conduct away from the field.
The teams will have access to intelligence tests, personality tests, medical tests, and scouting combine results that measure just about every possibly applicable athletic trait.
And yet, sometimes you end up taking linebacker Marcus Smith in the first round (26th overall, in 2014). Or offensive lineman Danny Watkins (23rd overall, in 2011).
It’s understandable when a first-round pick, especially one taken in the bottom half of the round, turns out to be kind of an ordinary player, and not a star. The difference there can be half a step, or an intuitive spark about what the opposition might be doing. Teams say there are only 15-to-20 “true” first-round talents in every draft, so the guys taken in the 20s often aren’t that different from the guys taken in the 40s and 50s.
But how, after all that work, do you just get a prospect completely wrong, how do you use one of those precious first 32 picks in a seven-round draft on a player who ends up never really contributing much?
It’s complicated, say the people who have been there and done that.
“Very rarely does a player fail because of physical ability,” Eagles player personnel vice president Joe Douglas said recently. “All these players are being discussed and drafted for a reason. There’s all prerequisites in common. I do think intangibles come into play quite a bit, when you’re talking about success and failures.”
Howie Roseman, the Eagles’ executive vice president for player personnel, added that “environment’s a big factor – getting the right guy in the right scheme, with the right personality, to fit what you’re trying to look for. It’s all about fit. A lot of times, when you look back at some of the mistakes, those are the reasons for it.”
Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh, a former Eagles assistant from the days when the team spent first-round picks on wideout Freddie Mitchell (25th overall, 2001) and defensive end Jerome McDougle (15th overall, 2003), said: “My gut says the common thread is priorities – the player isn’t enough about football, and how hard it is to be successful in this league.
“It’s hard to tell. Some guys that you don’t think have their priorities right do, and some talented guys you think do, don’t. … It’s just an imperfect science. It’s not a science.”
Andy Reid was coaching the Eagles in 2011, when they selected Watkins. That draft was one of the worst in recent Eagles history, with the team picking five players in the first four rounds (Watkins, safety Jaiquawn Jarrett, corner Curtis Marsh, linebacker Casey Matthews and kicker Alex Henery), none of whom became a long-term Eagles starter. In fact, of the whopping 11 players the Eagles drafted in 2011, only fifth-round running back Dion Lewis and sixth-round center Jason Kelce became significant NFL contributors, and Lewis didn’t really break through until he got to New England, having been released by the Eagles and Browns.
The fundamental problem in 2011 was simple: the NFL lockout. For the first time in many years, the draft occurred before free agency. Normally, you plug holes in free agency, so that you don’t have to pass up a great talent in the draft because you need a left tackle and the future Hall of Fame guy sitting there when your pick comes up is a cornerback. But the Eagles didn’t know when or if free agency would happen. They drafted to plug holes, rather than taking the best player available.
“Sometimes you can be selfish, you’re pushing a position,” said Reid, now Kansas City’s coach. “But if you take in the whole room, and listen collectively to people, I think that ends up working the best. … If you push for need, and you selfishly do that, that can be a problem. I think everybody’s been there.”
Reid said need isn’t the only reason for mistakes: “Sometimes it just doesn’t work. You’ve covered all the bases, or you think you have, and it’s a flop.”
Asked specifically about Watkins, a Baylor tackle drafted to play guard, Reid said: “That was a unique one. There were a lot of factors that went into that one.”
Most Eagles fans know the Watkins story all too well: He was a Kelowna, B.C., firefighter enticed to play football for the first time in his life at a California junior college, where his strength and agility got him a major college scholarship. He presented himself as eager and earnest, but Eagles teammates came to feel Watkins’ heart wasn’t in football, that he was just there for the paycheck. Watkins preferred hanging around Philly firehouses over watching the film cutups provided by then-offensive line coach Howard Mudd. He was out of football and back to full-time firefighting by 2014.
The common thread between the draft mistakes made on Watkins and Smith might be an overemphasis on physical traits that overlooked a lack of expertise, which the player was not dedicated enough to overcome. Watkins played tackle on an island at Baylor, one-on-one against a pass rusher. Working inside with the Eagles, performing combo blocks and sorting out stunts and twists, was like learning a foreign language to him, and he wasn’t a diligent student.
Smith was always an athlete in search of a position. He came to Louisville as a quarterback, played linebacker, then defensive end. As an NFL pass rusher, it was quickly apparent that Smith had no understanding of technique, lacked strength, and didn’t play with great intensity. Seattle picked him up after the Eagles gave up in 2017, and at one point last offseason, Smith was being considered for a starting job. After the Seahawks cut him in August, he played two games for Washington.
Seattle coach Pete Carroll cited Smith’s “personal issues” in cutting him. The NFL Network reported that Smith was considering retirement, something he must have reconsidered. This spring he has returned to the Redskins’ roster, after being cut by them in December.