The Ottumwa Courier

April 24, 2014

What will happen in NFL draft? No one really knows

By Tom Lindley
CNHI News Service

— The subject on the sports talk show was both shocking and perplexing, but it probably serves as a good illustration for discussing the upcoming NFL draft.

The news was that University of Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, once thought to be an early selection in the draft, was invited and accepted an offer to join 29 other top collegians at New York’s Radio City Music Hall to find out which pro team they’ll play for next season.

The "analysis" then turned into a discussion about why Bridgewater would submit himself to such possible embarrassment and public ridicule if he falls into a later round and ends up sitting alone in the green room.

After Bridgewater led Louisville to a lopsided bowl game win over Miami, 36-9, last December, he looked to be a top 5 selection – a lock. But what transpired was a questionable showing at the NFL combine, which sparked nonstop second-guessing from those who write and comment about such draft matters.

So what's likely to happen to Bridgewater or any of the rest of the country's best college players from the 2013 season? Well, nobody really knows. Despite the hours spent interviewing coaches, watching film and developing well-reasoned mock draft lists, the truth remains a mystery, well-guarded by teams that have nothing to gain by publicly sharing their innermost thoughts.

But that’s what happens when you pair news concerning the country’s favorite sport with a sprawling media industry that needs topics to discuss for every hour of the day.

Couple that with a subjective, high-stakes business of grading players and projecting which ones will become stars and who will become quickly forgotten, it boils down to a gigantic Las Vegas-style roll of the dice.  Reputations – and careers – will be determined when NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell announces that "The Houston Texans select (fill in the blank) with the first pick in the 2014 NFL draft."

This year’s pre-draft assessment has been as fluid as butter on a hot ear of corn. Ratings – and rantings – shifted over whether Bridgewater, Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel or Central Florida's Blake Bortles had the most potential as a pro quarterback. Listening to all the talk and speculation served only to make one dizzy. That was followed by an equally spirited debate over whether South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney's defensive ability was more hype than performance.

Many of the draft gurus do have a flair for assessing talent and determining a team's needs, but there is certain information that the general public isn’t privy too.

Jack Bechta, who writes for the National Football Post, correctly pointed out that a potential draftee’s medical condition is never discussed. For a team to pass along information from a medical file or report on the outcome of a physical would be an open invitation for a lawsuit – a slam-dunk case if proven.

Discussion about a player's character or work ethic, often determined from studying practice films or interviews with college coaches, becomes classified information. Same with intelligence matters.

The so-called draft experts then must deal with information passed along by coaches, always speaking anonymously, who occasionally spread false and misleading information about a player to confuse teams also considering the prospect. It's one thing for a reporter to accurately pass along tidbits supplied by a coach or scout; it’s something else to know for sure whether that "news" also is the truth.

Except for the No. 1 selection,  there's no reason to think a team would ever knowingly tip its hand about who it will select.

This much is known about the 2014 draft. Not one running back was listed among the 30 players invited to New York. Alabama's Eddie Lacy came last year but didn’t get drafted until late in the second round. Alabama and Texas A&M will be represented by three players each. The Southeastern Conference has 11 invitees, more than twice as many as the Atlantic Coach Conference or the Big Ten.

If it turns out some skeptics were right and Bridgewater hangs around until all the hors d'oeuvres have been eaten and his name still hasn't been called, at least he spent time in good company.

In the end, though, the draft matters -- mock lists don't.

Tom Lindley is a CNHI sports columnist. Reach him at tlindley@cnhi.com.