2020 NFL Draft: Lessons learned from scouting hits and misses from past draft classes

Evaluating the NFL Draft can be humbling. You can pour over hours of film on a prospect and consider every available analytic, and, in a few years, your pre-draft evaluation proves to have been downright brutal. But it's not all bad. Hits happen a fair amount of the time too. And you can learn a lot from both outcomes. 

And it's crucial to acknowledge the lessons the NFL's yearly educated crapshoot session provides. These are the lessons I've learned in my comprehensive evaluation of the past six draft classes, (the two most recent here at CBS Sports).

Lesson 1: Don't underestimate arm strength and mobility for QBs

When it has come to quarterbacks, two schools of thought have clashed during every pre-draft process over the past decade. In one corner, the old-school infatuation with size, arm strength, and statuesque passing, all of which are said to represent upside even if intricacies of playing the position like fine-tuned accuracy, pocket presence, and progression reading are lacking or altogether absent.

In the other corner, the new-school adoration for quarterbacks with tremendous rhythm who can rapidly move through their reads and are surgically accurate at the short to intermediate portions of the field, the latter being directly tied to the yards-after-the-catch nature of an NFL passing game. It's argued that those attributes are in fact what creates upside and can mask a weak or average arm. 

As is the case with most arguments, the truth seems to reside somewhere in the middle of those two overarching thoughts. But, as a millennial, I of course leaned toward the new-school thinking, which had concrete, modern-day examples as backing, Philip Rivers, Tom Brady, and Drew Brees chief among them, although I understood how vital pocket passing was.

Therefore, in 2018, I loved Mason Rudolph as a draft prospect. He finished as my top quarterback -- and the No. 10 overall prospect -- in the most hyped quarterback class since 2004. While he fell clearly below NFL standards in the mobility and arm strength departments, he wanted to pass from the pocket, produced at a high level for multiple years in a spread scheme and stood nearly 6-foot-5 and 235 pounds. I figured the nuances he demonstrated at Oklahoma State would shine at the pro level. But I didn't place nearly enough weight on the limitations generated by his low-caliber arm and relative athletic stiffness when forced to improvise outside the pocket. The game is won inside the pocket! -- I thought. While quarterbacks still need to be able to distribute the football between their tackles, the NFL is undergoing a massive shift. Ultra-mobile, ad-lib specialists with huge arms are taking over. Why though? 

Teams are using more college concepts -- which are more vertically aggressive than the formerly ubiquitous West Coast Offense -- and offensive coordinators are actually accepting their quarterbacks quickly deviating from the play structure because those moments are impossible to predict -- especially compared to the robotic movements of getting through progressions -- therefore can be impossible to defend. With that style suddenly trendy -- thank you, Russell Wilson, Lamar Jackson, Patrick Mahomes, Deshaun Watson, Josh Allen, and even Dak Prescott -- it's obvious mobility and arm strength are pretty damn important. And, ironically, they can mask a lot of deficiencies in the finer details of playing the position. 

I'm close to labeling Rudolph a colossal draft whiff of mine. While there were flashes and his supporting cast was marginal at best in 2019, he certainly did not resemble a top-ten prospect while standing in for Ben Roethlisberger. The majority of his worst plays were the result of his inability to -- you guessed it -- extend plays with his legs and truly drive the football beyond 15 or 20 yards downfield. 

From Rudolph, I've learned there's a legitimate reason arm strength is often the initial attribute mentioned by veteran analysts and former NFL decision-makers-turned-media-members during draft season. In the NFL, it matters. A lot. And with freestyle quarterbacking more popular and potent than ever, your "pocket" quarterback better be able to get creative on the run too. 

Applying the lesson to the 2020 draft class

Joe Burrow is universally liked by draft analysts (currently No. 2 on our composite Big Board) because he excels in areas both schools of thought admire (although he doesn't have a cannon arm, it will meet normal NFL standards).

And the mobility and arm strength specialties of Utah State's Jordan Love are the main reasons he's widely considered a first-round prospect despite a final statistical season not of classic first-round caliber. Two years ago I would've been too quick to dismiss him as a top prospect because of accuracy and decision-making woes and his tendency run out of the pocket after his first read is covered. But his athleticism and arm strength won't be ignored.

Jacob Eason is listed at 6-6 and has a rocket launcher for an arm. Ok. That's good. But he looks more like a prospect who would've received No. 1 overall pick hype in, say, 2010 or earlier. He crumbles under pressure and, although he isn't Drew Bledsoe when things break down, doesn't have many improvisational successes on his resume. Not good. 

Tua Tagovailoa has a PhD in the subtleties of playing the position and can move a little. His arm is probably NFL average. Even if he weren't injured, he'd clearly be behind Burrow on my board. And Jake Fromm is the super-lite version of Tagovailoa, not as fast of a processor with less athleticism and a weaker arm.  

Lesson 2: Trust the combo of major production *and* an awesome combine

Film is the most important element of evaluating a draft prospect. But there's one problem with it. Everyone can (and seemingly does) interpret what they see with a player differently (at varying degrees). And while we can't blame anyone for trusting what their eyes tell them while watching film, history has shown that even the most brilliant football minds can't come remotely close to nailing every evaluation. Heck, hitting on 50% of draft picks would be a godsend for any team. 

That's where analytics step in and have a leg up. They aren't really subjective. And in the case of Courtland Sutton, I'm not even talking analytics. By classic statistical measures, he was a production-machine at SMU. 

Sutton caught 49 passes at nearly 18 yards per grab with nine scores as a sophomore in 2015. Then, as a junior, he eclipsed the 70-catch and 1,200-yard receiving marks with 10 more touchdowns (and had a hefty 39.3% receiving-yard market share.) As a senior, Sutton caught 68 passes for 1,085 yards with 12 scores on a team with future (and currently active) NFL wideout Trey Quinn.

Sure, context is needed with all statistics. Strictly box-score scouting isn't a method I'd advocate. But occasionally we get bogged down with context. A wideout with the figures Sutton amassed is probably good at football. Even if you weren't aware of SMU's wide open, pass-happy offense during his time there, you could check his stat line, draw the sensible "he's good at football" conclusion, and assume he would be able to come at least close to repeating his collegiate success in the pros.

Then, you add in a stellar combine workout, and, man, the film can seem a distant memory.

At the combine, at just over 6-foot-3 and 218 pounds, Sutton ran a solid 4.54 but dropped my jaw in the Indianapolis Convention Center media room when his 6.57 time in the three-cone drill was posted. That placed him in the 96th percentile among all wideouts at the combine since 1999 regardless of size. Quicker than essentially every high-quality receiver in today's NFL. Talk about the ability to change directions and explode. His vertical still ranks in the 50th percentile and his broad jump is in the 75th. Sutton, quietly, tested like an athletic freak and was very productive for three seasons in college and boasted great size. 

While I loved his high-pointing skills and run-after-the-catch capabilities on film, the statistical and athletic evidence were huge indicators to me that Sutton was going to rock in the NFL. He was my No. 1 wideout and No. 5 overall prospect in the 2018 class. Somehow, he lasted until pick No. 40 that year. And now he's well on his way to being Denver's No. 1 pass catcher and is fresh off a 70-plus catch, 1,100-plus receiving-yard campaign with a gaudy 8.97 yards-per-target average. 

Also, importantly, missing on D.J. Moore is part of this lesson. He had more than one year of huge stat accumulation at Maryland and knocked his combine workout out of the park, but I wasn't enamored with his film, and he finished as my No. 10 wideout and No. 70 overall prospect in that class. He's been a monster in Carolina in both of his two seasons there. 

Applying the lesson to the 2020 draft class

It'll be a few weeks until the combine works its magically predictive powers, but I'm keeping a particularly close eye on those wideouts who've been highly productive for multiple years at their respective schools like Jerry Jeudy, CeeDee Lamb, Tee Higgins, Tyler Johnson, Denzel Mims, Isaiah Hodgins, Gabriel Davis, Antonio Gandy-Golden, and James Proche. 

Of that group, I'll be looking to see who double dips on the two objective portions of the evaluation process. 

And this lesson works for essentially every position, not just wide receivers. 

While grades will fluctuate based on observations made during extensive film-watching sessions, the prospects who produced at a high level (for more than one season) and have excellent combine workouts relative to others at their position have a decently strong likelihood of being really good in the NFL.

Lesson 3: Keep evolving with the league 

When I got into scouting NFL players, I figured it made sense to, after a few years, create a handful of tenets to follow every pre-draft process, rules to dictate which prospects I liked or didn't like. 

But I've learned through my hits and misses that the only tenet to have is -- don't have any steadfast tenets at all. Well, if there is one tenet I've adopted, it's to keep evolving with the league.

For example, I initially gravitated toward big, power forward type wide receivers during a time in the NFL when Calvin Johnson, Brandon Marshall, Jordy Nelson, Julio Jones, Dez Bryant, A.J. Green, and Demaryius Thomas were owning secondaries on a weekly basis.  

Unsurprisingly, I adored bigger wideouts, some who flopped in the league like Dorial Green-Beckham, Josh Doctson, and Marcell Ateman.

But the league has changed to being more separation-based at the receiver spot. Got to get open. Bigger receivers aren't completely defunct, yet consistently generating separation is much more valuable to the vast majority of clubs than the occasional high-point grab in traffic. Quarterbacks today like to see their target open before ripping it much more than they did in the past. 

Block-shedding used to be atop my priority list while watching linebackers. Now it's coverage by a wide margin. Pancake blocks for offensive linemen in the run game were cool. Stoning defensive linemen in pass protection is now way cooler. 

And who knows how the league will evolve. In the Not For Long league, the changes don't take 5-10 years. They happen in a flash, on a yearly basis. It's why I've changed the weight of each of the five skill/trait categories upon which I grade for each position every draft cycle and am open to replacing categories with new ones based on the way the game is being played at a given time. 

While it's impossible to know precisely what makes a quality player at any position, I believe it's imperative to continually tweak how I view every position skill and trait wise. 

Applying the less to the 2020 draft class

Looking for "new-age" prospects is key.

Linebackers aren't 6-1 and 245 pounds anymore and must be able to cover. Pass-catching is a now major component of playing running back -- in terms of adding value to an offense. Quarterbacks don't need collegiate experience under center or reading the entire field from inside the pocket. 

Safeties are part linebacker, part slot corner and still have to carry out traditional back-end-of-the-defense duties. Run defense doesn't matter nearly as much as pass-rush ability for defensive linemen. Blockers have to thrive in pass protection more so than for the ground game. 

And, every year, some of the refined skills and natural talent needed at each position will change.

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