Draft science has improved, but it’s still hit and miss

With no desperate needs that require immediate attention, the Cardinals have plenty of reasonable options at No. 20. Click here to see a dandy dozen hopefuls who might make sense.

TEMPE, Ariz. — Hindsight is a flawless tool for evaluating a team’s draft success. 

It can tell us that the 2008 Draft was not a great one for the Cardinals since their top two picks, running back Beanie Wells and linebacker Cody Brown, didn’t pan out, even though the Cardinals got safety Rashad Johnson in the third round, cornerback Greg Toler in the fourth round and running back LaRod Stephens-Howling in the seventh round.

Hindsight can tell us 2010 was an impact draft with defensive/nose tackle Dan Williams, inside linebacker Daryl Washington, receiver Andre Roberts and tight end Jim Dray all coming aboard.

Fans and media members throw around the ‘home run’ and ‘busts’ terms with equal (and often reckless) abandon when evaluating teams’ performance on draft day and down the road. But what do team executives consider a successful draft? 

"I think you shoot to hit on three guys who are at least impact players and starter types," Cardinals general manager Steve Keim said. "Last year, I really do feel like we did that with (defensive back) Tyrann (Mathieu) and (running back) Andre (Ellington), and really obviously think (left guard Jonathan Cooper) is the real deal, just had the unfortunate injury. 

Beyond that, Keim said the Cardinals "try to have at least two role players, two guys who can at least play a significant role offensively or defensively and help you on special teams."

Linebacker Kevin Minter and running back Stepfan Taylor appear to be those guys from the 2013 Draft.

NFL Draft 2014

There are some analysts who believe teams have improved their draft-day success dramatically in the past few years. Better access to players and access to better technology are the driving forces.

"Technology is so incredible now that teams can see seemingly every snap a player’s taken," said Peter Schrager, FOX’s senior NFL writer. "Access to that film is far easier now than it was even three or four years ago. For teams, it saves a lot of time and frustration. 

"Much is made of coaches for team X and team Y not attending player Z’s Pro Day. They don’t have to. They’ll see it on tape from their desk that night." 

Keim acknowledges that technology is far better than it used to be, as are team’s metrics and processes for evaluating players. But there are drawbacks.

"There are times where I think we can overthink the process, because you’ll be sitting there and talking about a guy who has had a few off-field incidents and you’€™ll start to ding them a little too much, when you think to yourself there are probably about 15 guys over in this locker room that are no different," Keim said.

"But at the end of the day, these guys are unproven on the field. So if they’re unproven on the field and they have some off-field issues or they have some major character concerns or they have medical concerns, it becomes a major risk. I think that’s one of the biggest things that we try to do is eliminate risk in our business."

It’€™s an inexact science because it’€™s hard to judge the heart and the mind.

Steve Keim, Cardinals general manager

If the process goes well, Keim believes a team can build a successful roster in two to three years if it adequately supplements that roster through free agency.

"The fans and the media, they don’t want to hear that. They want to win now, and I completely understand that. That’s no different from the mindset that the owner, the head coach and the GM have," Keim said. "At the same time, as a general manager and a head coach, when you’re drafting, I think you have to look at the long-term health of your organization. You have to almost look at it with a three-year view and understand that when we are talking about certain positions, they may not be the biggest need right now, but in 2015, that may be our biggest need."

And however much technology improves the evaluation process, there will always be myriad human variables beyond a team’s control — variables that will always make the draft an inexact science.

"There are so many armchair GMs out there that I think it’€™s a lot of spit-balling going on — throw it against the wall and they have all the answers," Keim said. "At the end of the day, if you look at the percentages of hits and misses, they can really understand that it’s an inexact science. It’€™s an inexact science because it’€™s hard to judge the heart and the mind.

"We can see all the physical tools on tape with their size, their athleticism, their movement skills, but you can’t always judge how much they want it and whether they can understand what you’re trying to ask them to do schematically. That’s the hard part for some of these young players to come in and get this playbook that’s this big and try to comprehend that and be able to transfer it to the field."

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