RENTON – When the Seahawks drafted tight end Luke Willson last year, most people probably had two reactions. First, to make a joke about the Seahawks taking an actor (Luke Wilson, one L) in the fifth round. And, second, to look up who the heck Luke Willson (two L’s) was.
But Willson offers an interesting window into the draft. He played at Rice with Vance McDonald, another tight end who the 49ers drafted in the second round. Willson was highly productive as a sophomore and junior, but he battled injuries as a senior. His stats dipped significantly.
Where McDonald was viewed as a high draft pick, Willson was not invited to the NFL combine. But some of Rice’s coaches insisted there wasn’t a huge difference between the two, and Seahawks general manager John Schneider said Willson tested the second-best of any tight end in the draft.
“We saw the talent, we saw the range of ability,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. “But it was really John Schneider’s knack of understanding where he would get drafted that made him so valuable to us. At that spot, that’s as good a pick as you could make.”
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General managers must identify talent, project where their teams’ holes will be two years down the road and determine which players fit their schemes. But there is another aspect of the draft that separates teams — a high-stakes game of poker where the best players win more than lose.
“There’s evaluating a player, and then there’s determining his value as it pertains to the draft,” said former NFL scout Louis Riddick. “And that’s where general managers separate themselves. Most people can get their evaluations correct. It’s evaluating players in terms of what price you’re going to pay. Some people have a better feel for reading the tea leaves on draft day.”
THE MOST FAMOUS EXAMPLE is Russell Wilson, who Schneider thought so highly of he wanted to draft him in the second round. The Seahawks thought he would still be available in the third, so they gambled, drafted linebacker Bobby Wagner in the second round and still landed Wilson.
The Seahawks had Doug Baldwin graded as a fifth-round talent but signed him as an undrafted free agent. They valued Byron Maxwell in the third round but picked him in the sixth. And they also had a third-round grade on Richard Sherman but got him in the fifth.
“Everybody can identify the talent,” Carroll said, “but where it fits and where the availability shows, that’s a real knack, and there is no question that we have great strength there. John has a tremendous feel for that.”
Said Jerry Angelo, the former Bears general manager, “That’s where competitive advantages come from.”
But playing poker isn’t without risk. Greg Gabriel, the former director of college scouting for the Bears, said Chicago thought the league viewed safety Mike Mitchell as a fourth-rounder in 2009. The Bears were going to take Mitchell in the third, but the Raiders grabbed him in the second round.
Charley Casserly, the former general manager of the Redskins, had the opposite happen. Casserly had a first-round grade on Will Shields, a guard from Nebraska. Shields was still available in the third round of the 1993 draft, but the Redskins took linebacker Rick Hamilton because of position need. Hamilton played only four seasons in the NFL; Shields was a 12-time Pro Bowler.
“That taught me a valuable lesson,” Casserly said. “We didn’t need a guard then, but in this free-agency system, you usually need everybody in two years.”
THINK ABOUT YOUR POKER GAME with buddies. There’s the guy who only bets when he has a good hand, the guy who blabs when he’s bluffing and the new guy whose tendencies aren’t known.
The NFL draft operates under similar, if more complex, guidelines. Toward the end of the process, Schneider and his lieutenants try to read the market for players: Who has shown interest, what insight do teams’ track records offer, what needs do teams have?
For example, Schneider knows that since 2011, San Francisco, Green Bay, New England and Philadelphia have traded the most in the draft. That’s important not only when looking for trading partners but also when evaluating which teams might jump up and take a player.
“Poker is a game of incomplete information,” said Ari Nissim, a former Jets front-office executive. “You don’t know what the rest of the actors are going to do. You can look at their history and trends and try to come up with tells. But at the end of the day, no one can look inside the other person.”
Schneider’s success in the draft has almost taken on hyperbolic status.
Khaled Elsayed, the chief operating officer at Pro Football Focus, spent three weeks last year reviewing how teams fared in the NFL draft. He concluded, “There’s no one else who really compares” to the Seahawks. Ben Volin from The Boston Globe set out to find which teams performed the best in the draft. He wrote, “Schneider should have some type of front-office award named after him.”
Schneider comes from a football lineage where value isn’t just determined by how you evaluate a player.
“John and I were taught by the same guy, Ron Wolf,” said Ted Thompson, one of Wolf’s successors as Packers general manager. “I think that background of watching Ron do his thing and sometimes we might like a guy at a certain place or we might like a guy way over somebody else, but you still wouldn’t take him too early depending on the position and things like that. It’s all got to be worked through, not only your value you put with a particular player, but what position he plays, what kind of values that sort of person holds around the league.”
Angelo, the former Bears general manager, lays it out like a math problem.
A general manager who can read the market and get a player at his prime value can result in an extra player or two. A coach who can develop players, like Carroll, can net another couple players. Angelo calls them extra players, but he’s not referring to quantity. He’s talking about quality, particularly in the later rounds.
“You’ve got to covet players, and you have to look for advantages,” Angelo said. “You can get it through coaching, you can get it through this exercise that I’m talking about with the draft. Then, when you multiply these things, all of a sudden you’ve built yourself a pretty good roster.”
A FUNNY REALITY of the Seahawks hiring Jeff Ireland as a draft consultant is that he and Schneider can now speak honestly.
Schneider and Ireland, the former Dolphins general manager, worked together in Kansas City, but as competing GMs they couldn’t tip their hands when discussing players.
Said Schneider, “He’ll be like, ‘Yeah, I was BS-ing about that guy. I did like him a lot better than I said.’ ”
No poker game would be complete without bluffing, and the NFL draft has no shortage. “Everybody is chasing ghosts,” Casserly said.
To counter that, the Seahawks often keep their cards face down. In fact, there have been a number of players who were surprised when the Seahawks picked them because they had so little contact leading up to the draft.
“I thought that y’all forgot about me,” running back Christine Michael said last year.
That game of shadows can also artificially inflate a player’s stock — or at least attempt to.
In tactics that sound like they’re from “The Wolf of Wall Street,” Gabriel said, “I was as good a liar as anybody. You might push up a guy to give the perception that he’s going to be pushed up. You’d say, ‘This guy’s stock is really rising. He’s probably going to go in the second round.’ You’re just hoping somebody buys into that or looks at a little extra film and goes, ‘Yeah, they’re right. We better take this guy.’ ”
The other trap teams walk into is one they set themselves. Because of need and outside pressures to fix problems, teams end up overvaluing players and pushing them up on their board.
Schneider faced that concern when he selected defensive tackles Jordan Hill and Jesse Williams last year. The Seahawks wanted to address a hole at defensive tackle, but Schneider’s fear was that he would overplay his hand.
“That was the one spot, quite honestly, when you’re putting it together, you’re nervous that maybe you’re pushing players up because of need,” Schneider said.
All those elements of deception and evaluation unfold like hands in a poker game, and the good general managers are able to piece it all together to form the best picture of the market.
“That’s the Vegas part,” Angelo said. “You’re seeing all that gamesmanship going on, and it keeps everybody waking up for the chase. It’s like a guy up at 3 or 4 in the morning still playing poker. He’s worn out, he’s tired, he’s sick, he can’t wait to get away. But he’s still got cards in his hands, and he can’t wait to play them.”
Jayson Jenks: 206-464-8277 or firstname.lastname@example.org