Late Draft Picks Can Make a Difference in NFL
The media lights, glory and glitter are heaped every year upon the National Football League’s first-round draft picks.
They are earmarked as the gifted ones who will transform a yearly loser into a Super Bowl champion. However, the real test of a front office’s drafting ability comes much later. In the depths of the fourth, fifth and sixth round.
“Ideally, players in the first two rounds should be the ones who take a team to a Super Bowl,” said Tony Razzano, San Francisco 49ers’ director of college scouting. “But there are still players available in the draft that can help you. Those are the ones that make you look good as a scout.”
The 49ers have had a history under Bill Walsh of coming up with excellent picks in the middle rounds. In 1979, San Francisco drafted Joe Montana in the third round and a wide receiver Dwight Clark in the 10th. The pair have developed into one of the most effective passing combinations in the NFL.
Other notable late 49ers picks include punt return specialist Dana McLemore (10th round, 1982); starting linebacker Riki Ellison (fifth round, 1983); starting nose guard Mike Carter (fifth round, 1984), and nickel defensive back Jeff Fuller (fifth round, 1984).
Razzano credited San Francisco’s ability to find gems in the late picking to the team’s evaluation process.
“The only difference between the players we select and those other teams take is a matter of evaluation,” he said. “In 1984 for example, going into the draft we projected Jeff Fuller as a late first-round pick and felt Michael Carter would be gone somewhere in the second round.
“When they were available to us in the fifth round we were surprised. Apparently, other teams had evaluated both players differently than we did.”
In their rookie season, both Carter and Fuller played key roles in the 49ers 18-1 Super Bowl championship year.
Bobby Beathard, a man who built the Washington Redskins into a contender using late-round picks and free agents, credits his success to a little luck and a lot of homework.
“I think we’ve been a little lucky in the draft,” he said. “But we also do our homework. We don’t look at the last part of the draft any differently than the first part. We’ve never been a group that says after the fourth or fifth round that selecting players is like throwing darts.”
Both Razzano and Beathard said they do not hold the popular belief that you draft the best athlete available. The key, the two say, is productivity.
“They are all good athletes,” Razzano said of the players in the draft. “I’m more of a production guy. I want a guy who can get the job done.”
Said Beathard: “I generally go for the best football athlete available. You get burned too many times if you just stay with the best athlete. We’ve made mistakes like any other team has by taking a great athlete and believing we can teach him to be productive. We need that background of production.”
The Los Angeles Raiders add another factor.
“What we try to do is take it one step further to what we think the player is going to be,” said Ron Wolf, the Raiders’ draft coordinator. “We attempt to look into the future and hopefully come out with the right player.”
Wolf said much of the credit for the Raiders’ successes in the late rounds goes to an open line of communication with the coaching staff.
“Our coaching staff is very active in the selection process,” he said. “They have a good feel of what it takes to make it in this league.”
Beathard said a reason for the Washington success is its scouts never go into a school with just one player in mind.
“Our people go in with the idea that they are not going to look at just the obvious players,” he said. “We look at other players who for one reason or another have not reached their full potential.”
That kind of thinking helped the Redskins come away with rookie defensive tackle Dean Hamel, who ended the season a starter because of injuries to others, in the 12th round of last year’s draft.
“He’d (Hamel) been back and forth between the offensive and defensive line throughout his college career,” the Washington GM said. “We had seen him in a couple of films and kept him in mind. When he got to camp, he did so well he had us saying, ‘How did we overlook this guy in the first round.’ We’re just lucky that no one else saw him like we did.”
Another draft coup for Beathard came in 1984 when the Redskins took quarterback Jay Schroeder in the third round of the draft despite the fact that he had played just one complete game while at UCLA.
As for this year’s draft, both men agree it’s going to take some skillful drafting to come away with a talented defensive player after the first two rounds.
“Numerically, this is the worst draft year defensively I can remember,” Razzano said. “There are a few quality players at the top, but then it drops off drastically.”