Mocking the draft is a skill, but don't believe everything you read
Michael Lombardi is a 22-year veteran of NFL personnel departments, spending eight years with the Raiders and nine years with the Browns, in addition to brief stints with the Broncos, Eagles and 49ers. This is his second column for SI.com. You can read his debut here.
Twenty-three years ago this month, I was sitting in the San Francisco 49ers draft room, less than 24 hours from being involved in my first NFL draft. My career started with San Francisco as a glorified errand boy willing to do whatever job it took to learn all about football. A frantic call came into the draft room: "Michael, Coach Walsh wants to see you in his office right away."
Scared and nervous, I marched up to see the Boss. Bill Walsh, in his eloquent voice and serious tone, told me: "I need to know what Will McDonough of the Boston Globe is going to have in his Mock Draft tomorrow. Do you know anyone in Boston who can read you the morning paper? I have Dr. Z's mock from Sports Illustrated in front of me here, but we need another reliable source to determine how high we may have to go to get one of those great wideouts."
Back in 1985 there were very few mocks and even fewer reliable ones. So off I went to get Bill the information he needed.
That next morning was draft day, and at 4 a.m. PST, with McDonough's mock in hand, I told Coach Walsh the news. He then told our general manager, John McVay, that we needed to move up into the "high teens" to assure us a chance to get our wide receiver. McVay, a very crafty executive and unsung hero of all the 49er championship teams, knew how to handle his job. He made a trade with the New England Patriots, moving us from 28th in the first round to 16th. Walsh was ecstatic, yet still nervous. He thought that was not far enough and asked, "Can we get any higher?"
Each attempt we made to move higher failed, and with the 10th pick in the first round, the Jets selected the first of our three wide receivers, Al Toon from Wisconsin. Three picks later, with Walsh on the phone trying to make another trade, the Bengals selected wide receiver Eddie Brown of Miami. We were down to just one. A very nervous and anxious draft room became scared to death. Buffalo was next and they selected Derrick Burroughs, a defensive back from Memphis. A big sigh of relief was exhaled throughout the room. Only the Chiefs stood in our way. Taking all their allotted time, the Chiefs finally selected running tight end Ethan Horton from North Carolina. The room erupted into a load roar and quickly we called New York to send in the name: Jerry Rice, wide receiver, Mississippi Valley State. We had our wideout.
Twenty-three years ago very few people did mocks. Eventually it got to the point that even my neighbors in Oakland would leave their mocks in my mailbox along with a few suggestions. Now everyone does a mock.
While I was with the Raiders, the mock drafts were important data for us to research. We would assign someone to sort all the Mocks and keep tabs on where and when any player was projected to go in the first round.. We would tally the amount of times we saw each player in the first round and had a pretty good idea, come draft day, of when players might be picked.
But most important to me were the players who were not mentioned. I knew certain players were really a perfect fit for the NFL, but would never see their names as a "top" player. I knew other teams shared the same thoughts and it made me wonder how high would these players rise in the actual draft?
A perfect example of a player who was never mentioned in the top 15 picks occurred during the 2002 mock draft period. The Raiders held two No. 1 picks as a result of the Jon Gruden trade with Tampa. Some people in our draft room loved the talent of Syracuse defensive end Dwight Freeney. In our mock research, we never read Freeney's name in the top 15; he was rumored to be a late first-rounder or early second. My sources around the league led me to believe the Denver Broncos were a potential suitor for him at 19. Seeing Freeney in the uniform of our archrival would have been my worst nightmare. We had made plans to move up based on our mock research and we felt that we would be safe at No. 17, two spots ahead of Denver.
The draft that year seemed to go as expected until the 11th pick. All the publications suggested Indianapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy and president Bill Polian needed to get a lineman who could add size to their defensive front. Unfortunately, it was not Wendell Bryant from Wisconsin as most mocks had suggested. It was Freeney. That one hurt. Our draft room in Oakland was stunned.
Was it a reach? Could the Colts have traded down and still gotten Freeney? The answer is a resounding no. Trading down always looks appealing to the fans, but when you have a player you love and know he can make a difference in your team's success, why risk losing him? The key to the draft is not what team has the most picks, but what team makes the best picks. The most critical lesson to learn here is one that was taught to me by Walsh. He used to say to me all the time during our draft preparation, "It does not matter where we pick them, it matters how they play."
So to help you along, here is my basic set of rules for making a mock:
1. With one week before the draft, never believe any team officials' quotes, especially what direction they may be headed with their selection. It is not in their best interest to let anything out.
2. As you do your research, if the team and the player are always the same, then the chances of that player going there are not very good. This applies particularly in the bottom 15 of the first round. Think outside the box and remember misinformation is what most teams are trying to pass along.
3. Running backs tend to slip. Backs have a short career in the NFL, so picking one high in the first round is a huge investment.
4. If the mock you're reading does not have six defensive linemen in the first round, stop reading it. Defensive linemen will go quickly. You have to work defensive and offensive linemen heavily in the first round.
5. After the 10th pick in the first round, it is all about how well you know what each team needs. Study the team needs and forget about the "Best Player Available" theory. It no longer applies. The draft today is so even in terms of talent that teams just pick to fill their needs. Put the player in the spot that fits those specific team needs.
6. The Giants, Raiders, Dolphins, Jaguars, Cowboys and Packers are size/speed teams. They will pick players that fit the size and speed profile for the position. So think "big and fast" before putting a name in for these teams.
Michael Lombardi has 22 years of NFL experience, working in player personnel with the Broncos, Raiders, Browns, Eagles and 49ers. Email comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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