At the end of this month, one of the most widely-scrutinized sporting events of the year will take place, an event that every NFL team has been tirelessly preparing for: the NFL Draft. In recent years the draft has garnered hype normally reserved for championships, as thousands of fans and analysts eagerly examine the future stars of America's most popular sport.
This year the draft will be nationally televised on the NFL Network, moving from ESPN which had previously aired the draft. The increased enthusiasm and exposure for a relatively mundane affair is obviously welcomed by the league. However, for all of its hype and grandeur, the NFL Draft leaves the average fan feeling apathetic at its conclusion, as his favorite team neglects to pick his favorite prospects. And that is the glaring problem that has emerged in the modern draft: the front office loses rationality, leading to undesirable selections and a disappointed fan base.
At the root of this problem is the emergence of athleticism as a measurement of football ability. Granted, it helps to possess superior athleticism, but it shouldn't be a steadfast prerequisite. Every February the top prospects congregate in Indianapolis for the NFL Scouting Combine. Once there, the players are closely examined. The prospects' heights and weights are recorded before they are put through a barrage of drills intended to measure their athleticism. Vertical jumps, bench pressing, and long jumps are some of the workouts that scouts use to sort and rank the varying abilities. Perhaps the most notorious drill is the 40-yard dash, a timed sprint. "The 40," as it is often called, plays a prominent role in determining where a player is drafted.
There are two primary consequences of the aforementioned ranking system. The first is that remarkable athletes who are only average football players inevitably get taken too soon. An example of this occurred last year when San Diego was lured by the supreme athleticism of Antonio Cromartie, a cornerback from Florida State. Cromartie put on an incredible performance at the Combine, and skyrocketed up draft boards until he was considered a first-round talent. However, there was one glaring issue - Cromartie had started just one game during an injury-riddled collegiate career. The Chargers selected him with the 19th overall pick of the draft, investing millions of dollars in a player who had never proven himself to be an effective football player. Cromartie contributed 24 tackles last year, far from extraordinary.
The second consequence of the skewed ranking system is that remarkable football players who are average athletes are undervalued, and get taken much later than they should. Take, for instance, DeMeco Ryans. Ryans was a fierce, hard-hitting outside linebacker leading one of the top defenses in the country at Alabama. Prior to the Combine he was considered to be a top-15 pick. However, after a poor showing that included a dismally slow time in the 40, Ryans was passed over by team after team until the Texans snatched him in the second round of the draft. He would go on to start every game and record 155 tackles on his way to becoming the Defensive Rookie of the Year, leaving scouts to scowl and shake their heads.
Although substantial, the problem of poor drafting and imprecise talent evaluation can be fixed. The remedy depends on the scouts, who need to remember that teams are searching for star football players, not just athletes. With better, more common sense-based scouting that values production over raw talent, NFL teams can ensure their fans' satisfaction this year. Well, at least until the season starts.