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Chiefnj2
03-18-2009, 04:22 PM
06:17 PM CDT on Tuesday, March 17, 2009

By TODD ARCHER / The Dallas Morning News
tarcher@dallasnews.com

IRVING Over the next few weeks, NFL draft boards will come to life, taking on different shapes and sizes with players rising or falling like a game of Chutes and Ladders.

Picture a giant puzzle where pieces fit one by one, row by row, round by round.

It's a mix of names, heights, weights, schools, colors. Some boards have photos. Most are magnetic. A few exist on a computer screen, as a bow to technology.


"Everyone tweaks it in their own way as they become the person in charge of pulling the tag off the board," Atlanta general manager Thomas Dimitroff said.

"It's become lot more colorful, just the basics of it. Some teams don't have a magnetic board. Other teams do and make like we're in the backyard."

But how do the boards come together, and how has putting them together changed?

The evaluation process

The process gathers momentum in December when the scouts gather after the college season. Cowboys owner and general manager Jerry Jones has said this is the best information he gets because it is the truest grade of a player from the actual games.

After underclassmen declare for the draft, it gets re-tooled. It is revised again after the NFL scouting combine and other workouts. Personnel staffs get together for these collective evaluations. Position coaches are involved in the final evaluations.

The boards change as information comes in, but not drastically. A player who has an unspectacular college season but stands out at the February combine and goes from a fourth-round grade to a first-round grade can be flagged for more discussion with the groups. If a player's 40-yard dash time, for example, is slower than expected, the conversations will last longer.

Dimitroff said the meetings are not contentious but offer a give and take because scouts will believe in players and try to sell them. Mike Lombardi, who worked in personnel departments in San Francisco, Philadelphia, Cleveland and Oakland, said it could get heated, "especially if it means something to you."

That's what happens when a scout spends countless hours evaluating a prospect. The scout's reputation and future are at stake based on his recommendation.

Ron Wolf, who helped build Super Bowl teams in Green Bay as general manager and for the Raiders in Oakland and Los Angeles through drafts, said the debates lead to better evaluations, which makes slotting players easier.

"The way we did it, everybody was in the room and we had this big screen and you watch a guy play four or five games," Wolf said. "You could see if he was a player or not, and we've all been embarrassed by that, myself included. You think this guy is good, you watch the games and he looks like a stiff, and you wonder what's going on. It all just works itself out."

The Cowboys way

At the beginning of Jones' tenure with the Cowboys, the draft board overflowed. Because the new regime had little NFL experience, nobody knew any better way, so players were ranked one through whatever, regardless of position.

The result was an unruly draft board. Those early drafts fared well despite the process, however, because Jimmy Johnson and most of his coaching staff recruited the top players coming out of high school while they were at the University of Miami and knew the good players three, four, five years later.

"Once Jimmy left, we stayed with it the next couple of years, and the next problem we had is the staff changed," said Larry Lacewell, who was the director of college and pro scouting for 13 years. "We made a mistake listening to coaches, quite frankly, and did not know whether they could scout or not. That's changed dramatically."

Now the Cowboys rank players by round and by position. And like a lot of teams, the number of names on the board is limited. The Cowboys will end up with roughly 120 names when the evaluation process is done.

"Even that sounds a little high," Lombardi said. "Most of the time, it's 110, 105."

Other teams, such as the New York Giants, will have more than 300.

"We put a lot of names on the board although some names we wouldn't touch," Giants general manager Jerry Reese said. "They earn a grade, so we put them on the board."

Quality over quantity

The Cowboys started to shrink their draft board around 2002, according to Lacewell, after receiving some ideas from Tom Ciskowski, the Cowboys' current director of college and pro scouting; Jeff Ireland, now Miami's general manager; and Bryan Broaddus, who was part of Green Bay and Jacksonville's scouting departments and was assistant pro personnel director for the Cowboys.

"Bryan brought with him some old Green Bay draft boards, and they might not have 13 guys in the first round," Lacewell said. "And if you're drafting 18, it makes you nervous, but it also makes you realistic. It kind of tells you maybe you need to trade up or maybe you need to trade out. It gives you a new viewpoint."

Even though there will be 32 selections in the first round, rarely does a team have close to that many first-round grades. The same goes for each round, and it helps make the selection process easier as names get plucked off the board.

Last year, the Cowboys had a third-round grade on cornerback Orlando Scandrick but scooped him up in the fifth round even after taking another cornerback, Mike Jenkins, in the first round.

Teams will finalize the board a few weeks before the draft, but there can always be some final maneuverings because of new medical information or agent switches. Rarely will what happened in workouts change the board.

Grades will vary across the league and can lead to some moments of fear on draft day. In 1994, Green Bay had a fifth-round grade on Shante Carver. When the Cowboys took the Arizona State defensive end with the 23rd overall pick, Wolf told his staff, "Boys, we better be right on this guy."

Turns out the Packers were right, but the wondering remains after a pick like that.

"You hope you're right, but you never can tell. That's the exciting thing. The best quarterback in the game is a sixth-round draft choice," Wolf said of the Patriots' Tom Brady. "Heck, Kurt Warner wasn't even drafted. That's why it's so exciting, because you can go through these experiences. And the great thing is just when you think you know it, something jumps up and tells you, 'You don't know a darn thing.' "