Q: I will be the first to admit I learned a lot from reading your draft breakdowns. How the pass rush is the key to any good defense? A great pass rush can impact the secondary of the defense. You don’t pay for age in free agency.
A: When free agency arrived back in 1993, I wrote there would be five positions that teams would spend the money – the five most important positions on the football field – quarterback, running back, left tackle, edge rusher and cornerback.
Over the course of time, wide receiver has replaced running back as a money position.
Those positions also started to dominate the drafts. If one of those five positions were there, you drafted that guy because you’d get him for five years on a rookie contract. It’s more logical to build a championship team by drafting those positions than overpaying for them in free agency. You can count on probably two hands the number of free agents over the years who actually played to the level of the money and duration of the contract.
Championship teams always start with the draft, not free agency. You can go sign a key piece in free agency but the salary cap would not allow you to succeed long term if you focus on buying all five of your key pieces in free agency. And not paying age was common sense.
Most players rise in his first 4-5 seasons and decline thereafter. You can’t tie up salary-cap dollars in aging, declining players. Ezekiel Elliott is a classic example. He was a great player in his first four seasons but has been on the decline ever since. He can still give you short yardage and pick up the blitz – but he’s not a guy you can continue to pay franchise money if he’s no longer a franchise player.
Q: Do you think it is even possible in today’s salary cap era to build a similar team like that? It seems like the ways of how Bill Walsh would do things are forgotten. Disregarding how well those 49ers teams were built by Walsh. The same thing applies to how Ron Wolf would always draft a QB. Fans and media think you need to win in free agency as opposed to building your team with the draft.
A: That’s because free agency offers up known commodities. The draft is the great unknown. When you sign a player in free agency, you already know he can play in the NFL. You see a guy catch 80 passes in the NFL or sack 10 quarterbacks and you feel you know what you’re getting. Fans are comfortable with those players.
There is no comfort level with the draft. There’s no guarantee a great player in college will continue to be a great player in the NFL. Baker Mayfield was the first overall pick of a draft, Mitch Trubisky a second and Blake Bortles a third. The chance of a bust scares any fan in April. Fans always favor what they know (free agency) instead of what they don’t know (draft).
Q: The draft is a few weeks away. I know you no longer cover the draft anymore, but do you miss it? I know I miss reading your mocks.
A: Sure I miss it. I told one NFL owner the other day I had more fun covering the NFL in March and April than I did in September and October. You build championship teams in April. That team building has always intrigued me. And it all starts with the draft.
Talking to my network of sources and studying the intel I gathered from them gave me an inside look at the construction of rosters. Those three drafts I covered as the Cowboys’ beat reporter was a master class for me in team building taught by Jimmy Johnson. He and Bill Walsh were the best I’d ever seen at roster construction.
Over the 20 years I worked the draft, I would build draft boards of 500-600 players. So it was fun on draft day knowing all the players. I could always tell why a team took this player in the fourth round or another team took this player in the sixth round. It was a matter of matching a team philosophy with a team need with ability of the draftee.
Q: After every draft it seems like everyone is in a rush to grade the picks. Like last season, Tyler Smith was drafted in the first round and not minutes passed and people were labeling him as a bad draft pick. No time being allowed for the player to play his first game or even develop. The same with Jalen Tolbert. He is being labeled a bust after one season. Why do you think people are in such a rush when judging an inexperienced player? I recall Bill Parcells making mention that after three years you should know what kind of player you have on your roster.
A: It’s because the media has evolved into instant analysis, instant opinion. Be it our politics or our sports, The quick takes on Twitter. We need to know NOW. That’s where accountability should come in. But that isn’t the case. You can say whatever you want today and it’s forgotten by tomorrow.
When I did my draft grade cards, I gave the overwhelming number of teams C’s. I’d give out 1-2 A’s, 4-5 B’s, 22-24 C’s, 2-3 D’s and occasionally an F. My logic was simple — the overwhelming number of drafts throughout NFL history have been average – so I started everyone off with a C. You did a little better, you got a B. You did a little worse, you got a D. Then you could determine which truly were the great drafts – or the atrocious drafts – after 3-4 years.
I wasn’t in a rush to proclaim any greatness the night the draft finished, which is when I had to file my draft card. I look at all the A’s and B’s given to teams in grade cards these days and wish I had teachers like that when I was in school.