The draft board is nothing more than a list. People make them every day.
But in the NFL, it takes months to make this list. And the teams that get it wrong, pay for it for years.
“We’re going to look at the draft board and take the best players, guys that can help our football team,” Dallas Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said.
Every team wants their draft board to be their guide.
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It makes sense. NFL teams invest millions into identifying potential picks, scouting them, interviewing them, testing them. The work need not be minimized.
Thousands of draft-eligible players are candidates for the board.
They are sorted into categories of potential — “blue-chippers,” “high-ceiling,” “projects.”
The prospects are vetted by scouts. Then the scouts rank them. The general manager and player personnel director put in their opinions.
Then, after the NFL season is complete, the coaching staff gets its first hard look at the first stages of the draft board.
At this point, the first rough outlines of who is a “first-round talent” and who is not come together.
“Teams spend six or seven months looking at thousands of players,” said Andrew Brandt, an NFL analyst for ESPN who spent nine seasons in the front office of the Green Bay Packers. “The players have been seen by more than one person. Area scouts, college scouts, the player personnel director, the general manager.”
All-star games such as the Senior Bowl, highly scrutinized tests at the NFL Scouting Combine and individual workouts help refine opinions.
By the late stages of the off-season, the board is complete or nearly complete. A failed drug test or a personal transgression can send a player off the board for some teams. But there are not major changes in the week or two before the draft.
“We won’t address any of those types of things, but our board, we’re still tweaking it,” Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones said. “I wouldn’t say it’s finalized, but we’re getting real close.”
Today, NFL teams rank about 200 players, former Cowboys personnel director Gil Brandt said.
“Then you have probably another 10 to 15 players ranked at each position so that after you use your 200, you know who to go for after the draft,” he said. “Everybody does it different. You try to get as many as you can in order.”
In the past, when the NFL Draft was as many as 12 rounds, the board was much longer.
“It’s just a different dynamic than it was 25 years ago,” Jones said. “We did it differently. We had a different group of people. Obviously, it’s evolved in how you draft. Everything’s just a little bit different.”
Jones said the Cowboys have a bigger board this year than they have in most years.
“To say exactly how many players? We’ve got more players on our board this year,” he said. “And I think it’s mainly because of the juniors.”
Andrew Brandt said it’s rare for a draft board to break cleanly into rounds because most years, there are not exactly 32 players that fit a round in terms of talent.
“My experience in Green Bay was that we would rank players on a first-round line, a second-round line. Sometimes it was a lot less than 32 players,” he said. “By the time you got to the fourth through seventh rounds, it might be more than 32.”
It is an advantage to have the board complete or nearly complete well before the draft. It helps teams practice the draft. If they can mock scenarios with a well-rounded board, there are fewer potential surprises on draft night.
“Everybody throughout this organization — the personnel people, the coaches, the Jones family, everybody — goes through a long process where we evaluate individual players, what we want to do to our football team, how we want to build our team,” Garrett said. “Communication is critical to the process. A lot of healthy conversation, healthy discussion, challenging each other, having conflict to get everybody on the same page. I think that is critical.
“I think we have done a good job of that on getting our board together. The next couple of days will be important to us as well as we strategize a little bit and go over a lot of different scenarios.”