I wrote the bones of this article about five years ago, I've changed some of it, but it is still pertinent today because I firmly believe that in order to have a successful Draft, a team must be prepared. By prepared, I mean that in the club's draft preparation and strategy sessions, the decision-makers must go over all scenarios that can happen in a Draft. Things don't always go right, so you must be ready for when things go wrong.
Teams have to be prepared for worst-case scenarios.
The following is a story about not being prepared for a Draft and what it taught me. It was a valuable lesson, and because I experienced this, it changed my whole outlook on how to prepare for a Draft.
The year was 1996, and I was a scout for the New York Giants. That year the Draft was held on Saturday, April 20, and Sunday, April 21, with rounds one through three being held on Saturday and the others the next day. The scouting staff traveled to New Jersey on Easter Sunday, April 7, so that our final meetings could begin on Monday.
When I worked for the Giants, we would stack the Draft Board top to bottom, beginning with the first round and on through seven rounds. That means the board would have about 255 players in it. As each player was brought up, we would discuss the player thoroughly and then place him on the board. We would then compare that player to the other players that were already stacked above him. Anyone who wrote a report on a given player could speak on the player being discussed. Arguments on certain players could get lengthy and sometimes heated, but ultimately, we had the correct grade on the player.
In 1996 though, the meetings were a bit different. Dan Reeves was about to begin his fourth and final season as Head Coach of the Giants. In Dan's first two seasons, the Giants had winning records, and we went to the Playoffs following the 1993 season.
The 1993 season ended up being our best under Reeves, as our won/lost record got worse each succeeding season. With the losses, the relationship between Reeves and the scouting department, and the front office got worse every year.
Reeves had come from the Denver Broncos, where he had total control over the roster and the Draft. That wasn't the case in New York, as George Young was the General Manager, and George had control over the 53-man roster and the Draft. Reeves was fine with decisions in his first few years, but as time went on, he did not like playing second fiddle to Young. That made our draft meetings contentious. By 1996 it was basically the coaching staff against the personnel staff, and the meetings weren't fun.
Our prep meetings for the 1996 Draft began on Monday, April 8, and we immediately started with the best players in the Draft that year. First up was Jonathan Ogden, the big UCLA tackle, followed by USC wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson, and then on to Illinois linebacker Kevin Hardy. We quickly got through those first three players and placed them on the Draft board. Following Hardy was his Illinois teammate, defensive end Simeon Rice. Rice was the player the scouting department wanted for the Giants in the 1996 Draft.
As strong as the scouting department's feelings were for Rice, it was the opposite from the coaches, and Reeves wanted no part of Rice being a Giant. While we had gone through the first three players in just over an hour, we spent a day and a half on Rice. Yes, it was until noon on Tuesday before we came to a consensus opinion, and to this day, I really don't believe it was a consensus. It was more Reeves finally giving in.
While the discussion on Rice took about 11 hours, and it seemed like a week. At the time, the Giants' Personnel Director was the late Tom Boisture, and Tom was not about to give in to Reeves and the coaches. We watched every game of Rice as a group, and while it was easy to see Rice's talent on tape, Reeves was not going to give an inch in the discussion. It became a power struggle with egos involved, and George Young let the arguing go on for those 11 hours.
During the discussion, Reeves looked at other names that we would soon get to and locked on Oklahoma defensive end Cedric Jones. The scouting staff's grades on Jones made him a mid to late first rounder but not close in talent to Rice. To appease Reeves during the discussion, we watched a few games on Jones, and while Jones did flash, Reeves became adamant that he would much rather have Jones than Rice on the Giants.
To appease Reeves, we gave Jones a grade that placed him in the Top 10 on our Draft Board, but he was not about to bump the first four players in our rankings.
In 1996, there wasn't as much information about players available to the public as there is now. The main Draft Analysts were ESPN's Mel Kiper and Pro Football Weekly's Joel Buchsbaum. There was no Twitter, no "Path to the Draft," and no "NFL Live," so rumors were scarce. To gather information on what other clubs would do, club executives had to rely on friendships around the League and hope that what we found out was reasonably correct information.
The Giants held the fifth pick in the 1996 draft. The first four selections belonged to the New York Jets, the Jacksonville Jaguars, the Arizona Cardinals, and then finally, the Baltimore Ravens. As a club, we felt that three of our four top players (Ogden, Johnson, Hardy, and Rice) would go in the first three picks. The team we were unsure of was Baltimore. The Giants owner Wellington Mara was close to Ravens owner Art Modell, and Mr. Mara felt confident after many conversations with Modell that the Ravens were going to select Nebraska running back Lawrence Phillips.
1996 was the Baltimore Ravens' first year in the League, having just moved from Cleveland. Front office executive Ozzie Newsome didn't carry the GM title then, but it was his first year running the Draft for the Ravens. Newsome was aware that Mr. Modell wanted Phillips, but Ozzie felt that Phillips was a clicking time bomb about to explode, and he refused to give in to the owner's wishes of drafting Phillips. Of course, the Giants did not know this part of the equation.
Going into the Draft, we felt confident that we would land one of our top four players at five, with Rice being the player we wanted the most. Even if we didn't get Rice, we would have been more than happy with any of the other three players.
What we didn't do was prepare for the worst-case scenario. We never felt that we wouldn't get a shot at one of our top four players. That mistake falls on the hands of the Scouting Department, as you can't assume anything regarding the Draft.
As the Draft began on April 20, the Jets with the first pick selected Keyshawn Johnson. A few minutes later Jacksonville selected Kevin Hardy at the two slot. Next up was Arizona and they promptly took Rice, and our favorite player was gone. Now Baltimore was up, and Johnathan Ogden was still there. While Rice was the player we wanted, Ogden was rated as the best player on our Draft Board, so with Baltimore on the clock, we felt confident they would take Phillips, and we would get Ogden.
As I stated above, Ozzie Newsome was not going to take a risky player with his first ever draft pick, and he went against Art Modell's wishes and promptly selected Ogden. We were now on the clock, and the four players we wanted were gone… and we didn't have a player to draft. In our preparations, we never considered another player to take if the top four were gone. We had briefly talked about Jones but not to the extent of the other players. Yes, we had failed to do our due diligence.
George Young felt the best thing to do was trade back, but panic enters the equation when a club tries to trade back without being prepared. George quickly called the next four or five clubs in line, and no one wanted to trade; George finally got a team willing to trade, and that was the Houston Oilers, who had the 14th pick. Knowing we were desperate, the Oilers offered us a seventh-round pick to make the deal. George knew he couldn't do that, as we would have looked like fools getting so little to move back nine slots. We instead held on to the fifth overall pick and took Cedric Jones. We should have traded! Yes, Reeves was happy, but the Draft Room was silent.
When a club doesn't do the proper prep work on a player before the Draft, they can get burned, and yes, we got burned… big time.
Before making the selection, we did not check with the medical department, and we found out later that Jones was blind in one eye. I don't remember which eye, but it meant he could only play on one side of the formation because of his blindness. Needless to say, it was an awful pick as Jones had a nothing career for the Giants.
That first round taught me a very important lesson. Always be prepared for the worst-case scenario when it comes to the Draft. In meetings leading up to the Draft, always have a plan if that worst-case scenario happens. Be prepared to trade down days ahead and make calls letting teams know we may want to move. Have a list of fall-back players ready if the players we originally wanted aren't there.
In my nine years in Chicago, we were never unprepared for anything. We never selected a player out of panic, and we always had a plan in place. You could argue that we may not have always taken the right player, but you can't say that we didn't do what we thought was in the best interest of the Chicago Bears.