If you thought ESPN analyst Matt Williamson’s path to becoming a paid evaluator of talent was unusual, consider NFL Draft Scout.com senior analyst Chad Reuter. The Wisconsin native lacks a football background, but he managed to transform a hobby into a job because of his tremendous analytical skills, sincere passion for the game, and a veteran scout’s work ethic. In this multi-part conversation, Reuter and I spent a couple of hours discussing a variety of topics related to player evaluation.
In Part I of this conversation, Chad and I discuss why he enjoys studying offensive line play, evaluating technique versus results, and balancing these two behaviors with the craft of projecting a player’s future in the NFL. In Part II we covered Reuter’s path to studying football as a full-time job, a defensive position that is difficult to evaluate, and why “instincts” and “intangibles” may not be innate after all. In this segment, Chad and I discuss sabermetrics and football, the mathematical logic of drafting a quarterback in the first round, and the importance of tiers when building a draftboard.
Waldman: There’s a growing camp of sabermetricians in football as well as the football media. While many understand why Bill Belicheck might use data to learn the odds strategic decisions, there are others who believe football can never completely embrace the Moneyball route. It’s obvious that you are both fluent in statistics and the craft of film evaluation. What’s your take on these two camps?
Reuter: I think data analysis is little more than a study of history. And I think you have to be cognizant of history when you are evaluating players — not just on the statistical side, but grouping characteristics with guys such as similarities in styles, size, etc.
But you can’t be a slave to it. There will always be a role for “feel” in the scouting process. You also have to understand when the exception to the rule could be involved. It’s a delicate balance, but a balance I am always working towards.
You have to try to understand when a trend is coming forward or why a trend is going to happen and when a situation is truly an exception.
Waldman: Can you give me an example of a trend?
Reuter: The quarterback class of 2011 is a prime example, because for the longest time most people had believed that Jake Locker and Christian Ponder should not be top-12 picks. And history tells us that most drafts you’re not going to see four QBs in the top 12–and that QB-heavy first rounds lead to a lot of expensive mistakes.
But the lesson to be learned this year was that sometimes the need for QBs totally overcomes everything. Not just in the first round, either–you also had two guys going in the second round who I don’t know would have been second-round picks in a lot of years.
Waldman: Which leads us back to understanding the history of the draft.
Reuter: Yes. When I say those quarterbacks wouldn’t have been second-round picks in a lot of drafts, it’s not because they aren’t good people or good quarterbacks lacking a chance to succeed. It’s just that a lot of similar guys taken in similar spots haven’t worked out.
Another lesson people need to understand about scouting is that everyone who is drafted is a good football player. It’s not about whether or not a guy can play. It’s about where you take that player and where is his true value.
When you take a guy it’s also about who you aren’t taking. If a quarterback is taken at the top of the second round it is good to understand that according to draft history, many of them don’t turn out. You should consider what you’re passing up.
You have to weigh that choice at quarterback versus taking a safety or a wide receiver – players that have a better chance of having a longer career. You need to be aware that history says you are passing up play makers for a guy who may or may not work out at quarterback.
Waldman: A few weeks ago I spoke with former NFL scout Dave Razzano. For those reading who don’t know about him, Razzano is an evaluator with over 20 years experience, including time with the 49ers when they were essentially a dynasty. Razzano said that when he was with the 49ers, the team’s focus was nailing the first 2-3 rounds.
He explained that the organization spent the overwhelming majority of its time on those early picks and in contrast, not much time at all on the later picks. The thought was these late-round guys weren’t as likely to make the team so why invest that kind of time and money on evaluating them?
In contrast, Razzano said that a lot of teams spent an inordinate amount of time on late-round picks. It seems to me that the 49ers of the DeBartolo era had the right idea.
Reuter: That’s right. Frankly, it almost falls into the fallacy of spending 90 percent on the 10 percent worst customers. What happens is that there are so many guys of equal value once you’re outside that top 80-120 that you’re not quite throwing darts, but the difference between the 12th and 13th inside linebacker is very small. At that point it’s almost personal preference.
You can try to spend a lot of time looking for the next Tom Brady or Antonio Pierce, but frequently there are just too many factors where predicting that is very difficult.
Frankly, I think part of the issue is that scouts believe they get paid on the third day of the draft. Anybody could tell you more or less the top 80 players, but those last few rounds are where scouts have the most input. So naturally, they feel this is the point where they are really earning their paycheck. They think about getting that one guy they can tell everyone to remember who they were responsible for.
It’s not ego; it’s just part of their job–and mine, too. Most casual fans hear plenty about the first round picks, but lean on draft analysts to find out if the defensive end from Podunk State A&M can help their team’s pass rush.
If you really think about it, most normal people spend a lot of time in their jobs trying to get something right that isn’t that important in grand scheme of things because they have a lot of say over it.
Waldman: Let’s return to our discussion of drafting quarterbacks. One thing that puzzled me when I first heard it was Bill Parcell’s response to a question Mike Tirico asked this spring during an ESPN draft special. The question was about the logic of drafting quarterbacks in the first round.
Parcells and Tirico were discussing the low success rate of quarterbacks drafted by round, including the first round. When Tirico referred back to these statistics to ask why teams still draft quarterbacks so high when the failure rate and resulting return on investment is so poor I was surprised that Parcells’ response was essentially that everyone else is doing it and you keeping doing it because you fear not getting one. Does this logic make sense to you?
Reuter: The fear of not finding a quarterback certainly comes into play for most teams. Let’s face it, coaches without a strong quarterback are probably going to be looking for work sooner than later.
I have a mathematical background so I have a bit different way of looking at this problem that a lot of coaches and football guys like Parcells may not.
My research into drafting quarterbacks reveals a second-round prospect’s chances of becoming a solid starter is around 20 percent, maybe a little higher for earlier picks in the round. But the likelihood of a second-round pick at another position becoming a true difference-maker is probably 50-50 at best.
So, if you value a QB 3-4 more times than a typical position player it is understandable to me why people will take that 20 percent change on finding a quarterback. The likelihood of something happening times the value of something happening is the expected value. The expected value of a quarterback is probably considered by NFL teams so much more than another position player that they don’t care about getting another position player because they need that quarterback. They believe it is a better investment.
Waldman: Give me a non-football example of expected value.
Reuter: If somebody says, “I’ll flip a coin and I’ll give you $100 if you guess correctly,” you expect a value of $50 because you have a 50-50 shot of getting it right. If someone else says, “If you cast this die, and you roll a one then I’ll give you $400,” then that expected value will be $66.66 (1 out of 6 x $400).
The math of it makes sense for teams that believe the QB is worth the chance. That’s not exactly what Parcells was saying, but that’s what most coaches would tell you if they had the mathematical background.
Waldman: So, do you think it makes sense for teams to reach for a quarterback?
Reuter: A 20 percent hit rate in the second round isn’t very good, but it continues to get worse and worse as the draft goes on. The Bradys — and even the Hasselbecks — come few and far late in the draft. So I can understand why teams take the chance.
However, you still have to be careful that you’re not overlooking really good players at other positions to get a quarterback in the second round. Especially when you can get somebody really similar in the third round. Picking guys in the right spot is as important as picking the right guy in some ways.
Waldman: That last statement you made is something we hear over and over, but break it down a little more if you will.
Reuter: Because I think you have to really understand the tiers of talent within a draft as an evaluator. Especially an evaluator on a team who has input towards setting a draftboard. You have to know where the breaking point is between getting a difference maker, a guy who could maybe start for you in time, a career reserve, and special teams contributor.
Ultimately you need to think about every player you’re considering with a pick and determine if you can get that quality of player later. If you’re considering a linebacker in the second round you have ask yourself whether you can find a similar guy at that position in the third round, and instead take advantage of better value at another spot.
Waldman: So this is where team needs come into play?
Reuter: Trying to get the best value at every pick also factors into a team’s needs. A lot of people say my team needs first a receiver, then a cornerback, and then a linebacker. But you have to match up your needs with the value available when you’re picking.
Just because cornerback in a team’s second-biggest need, they can’t just take one in the second round when they could get a corner with similar value later in the draft. You have to understand how the whole draft is going to play out and not just go down an entire laundry list as if it were a collection process. That’s where major mistakes are made.
It’s also human nature for needs to creep into team’s draft boards. Teams not looking for a young quarterback were much less likely to be interested in Cam Newton, for example, than those who were. So even though every team’s general manager will say that they take “the best available player”, there is always some bias towards area of need for a team.
Waldman: When I talked to Matt Williamson about the difference between grading for ESPN and an NFL team like the Browns he used an example with Casey Hampton and Aaron Smith to discuss grading for need and fit. He then brought up an example of needing a tackle and considering that guy as a second-round pick when he had a third-round grade.
Reuter: I think that’s right. What is so difficult about doing what we do is building these consensus value boards. In truth every player has a different grade for all 32 teams.
So we try to build a league wide consensus board knowing full well that a player with a third-round grade could be drafted in the second. There is always a chance that a guy is drafted higher than where we have him because the need for the position with that team is greater than the others.
You could look at a defensive tackle and depending on the scheme he could be a 3-4 difference maker or a 4-3 ‘tweener. It’s why I don’t get too upset if a guy is drafted a bit higher than we graded him. He might be a better fit for a particular system or team.
Waldman: You have to believe making successful decisions of this type requires some great communication among all facets of coaching and personnel staff.
Reuter: I don’t think people get the relationship between coaches, scouts, and GMs when it comes to looking for specific qualities from a particular player. If you’re a scout and give a huge grade to a 5′ 11″ nose tackle but your coaches don’t want anyone shorter than 6’3″ on their line, then you are not doing your job as a scout.
This is what makes it difficult for media talent evaluators to be more than generally accurate about where teams are trying to select them.
Waldman: I imagine it can get really complicated then a GM wants one thing, a coach wants another, and the scout doesn’t see a fit for the either one’s guidelines. Some of the more successful teams seem to have GMs with scouting backgrounds: Atlanta, San Diego, Green Bay, New England, etc. I see the importance of a GM telling a coach he wants input about scheme and general attributes of a player, making sure they match up before talking with the scouts.
Reuter: This conversation needs to happen before the fall when these regional scouts go to the schools. You have to have that communication. But even if the discussions happen before the season, things can get difficult in the draft room.
The coach generally knows the type of player he needs and that includes the physical characteristics that will help the player accomplish what he wants him to do. But coaches tend to be more short-term thinkers while general managers try to find the best value at each pick, even if they know that the player will be playing in a rotation until a veteran is allowed to leave in free agency.
That’s why there are heated debates in draft rooms — both sides think they are doing the right thing for the team.
Waldman: Which makes getting on the same page so important. Otherwise you can’t drive your goals throughout the organization. The result can be failing to get the production you need out of your evaluation team.
Reuter: And getting true consensus on any player doesn’t happen as often as you’d think. You come to an agreement, but somebody is going to think it’s the wrong move. Especially when you are outside the top 20-25 prospects, or others who can fit into multiple schemes. But once you get outside that top 20-25 group there are a lot of schematic reasons why teams want certain players. The Colts are a good example of a team that will go off the consensus of guys because those players fit their particular scheme. It makes it very contingent.