Draft intrigue forces teams to analyze reams of data
By Bill Coats
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
Friday, Apr. 24 2009
For weeks, Rams coach Steve Spagnuolo and general manager Billy Devaney have
been sifting through reams of information on prospects for this weekend's NFL
draft. Reports funnel in from a multitude of sources; the challenge is to
separate fact from fiction.

It's not nearly as simple as it might seem.

"We both have close friends in the league, but at this time of year, I wouldn't
trust anybody as far as I could throw him," Devaney said. "You block everything
out. You take it as it's all a lie, no matter what you hear."

Information and misinformation run rampant in the lead-up to the draft. It
swirls from all directions: scouts, coaches, agents, etc. Anyone with an agenda
has a reason to spin.

It's up to the talent brokers to determine which data to file away and which to
toss away. "Everybody is trying to

finesse somebody else's thinking," said Gil Brandt, the Dallas Cowboys'
personnel chief from 1960-89.

That is attempted in several different ways. Injuries are played up or played
down; interest in a certain player is hyped or feigned; teams' intents are
shrouded in a haze that Cleveland Browns general manager Phil Savage calls the
"fog of confusion."

Dick Vermeil, former coach of the Rams, Philadelphia Eagles and Kansas City
Chiefs, believes that the use of smokescreens has abated a bit. "I think it's
harder to deceive anybody anymore," he said. "Still, you've just got to be
careful. You don't want to be gullible."

DEEP BACKGROUND

Better technology has led to an increase in teams' scrutiny of draft prospects
in recent years. Information is more easily gleaned via the Internet, and
portfolios are examined more thoroughly. Still, nothing beats old-fashioned
legwork. Scouting departments have grown in conjunction with the mega-dollars
that are being doled out to the most coveted rookies.

The Rams' scouts "have been terrific," said Spagnuolo, a first-time head coach.
"The wealth of knowledge that these guys gather is amazing. And we've dug deep."

Far more than on-field talent has been evaluated. As character becomes an
increased emphasis in the NFL, teams are vigilant about scouring a prospect's
background for any signs of potential trouble. Police blotters have become as
germane as film sessions.

"You've just got to stay in tune with all that," former Rams GM Charley Armey
said. "You can't gather too much information."

And you can't have too much suspicion about that information, Spagnuolo noted.
"Half of it you believe, half of it you don't," he said. "There is
gamesmanship; I understand that."

Some play more effectively, and consistently, than others. Bill "Parcells was
great at it," Armey said. "He would throw stuff out and see how much of it
stuck. He tried to gather information by putting bait out there and seeing how
people would respond."

Teams have been known to fly a player to town for a pre-draft visit, even when
they have no interest in him, just to keep others guessing. Conversely, they'll
practically ignore a player who's listed high on their draft board, so as to
avoid drawing attention to him.

In 1982, Vermeil and Buffalo Bills coach Chuck Knox matched wits in a chess
game involving wide receivers Mike Quick of North Carolina State and Perry
Tuttle of Clemson.

"Knox and Vermeil would share their thoughts about players, and Vermeil told
Knox how much he liked Tuttle," Brandt recalled. "Buffalo was picking behind
the Eagles, and Chuck traded up ahead of the Eagles and took Tuttle" at No. 19
overall. Vermeil then grabbed Quick the wideout he wanted in the first place
with the 20th pick.

Tuttle lasted just four seasons in the NFL, totaling 25 catches, 375 yards and
three touchdowns. Quick played for nine years all with the Eagles and made
five Pro Bowls. He finished with 363 receptions, 6,464 yards and 61 TDs.

IN-HOUSE INFORMATION

More nefarious tactics also are used, often perpetrated by those with personal
financial interests. They can involve bogus medical reports, false accusations
of failed drug and steroid tests, or trumped-up allegations of legal
difficulties.

"Players get destroyed," St. Louis-based agent Ben Dogra told The New York
Times. "You could say you're going to draft the pope, and someone would say
he's too old. Draft Santa Claus, and someone would say he wouldn't fit down the
chimney."

Because they hold the No. 2 overall choice, the Rams have less to fret over.
Initially, anyway.

"Sitting at 2, you're only really worried about one other team right now," said
Spagnuolo, referring to the Detroit Lions, who pick first. But as the draft
moves on, "then you listen to all the other things," he added.

The safest approach is to rely on "what we have in-house," Spagnuolo said. "We
have all the information, it's documented, we've factored it all in, and
hopefully we'll make real smart decisions over the weekend."