What NFL Coaches Really Look for in Rookies

I think everyone has had an opinion on their favorite team claiming a seeming bargain off of waivers, or why or why not some guy with great measurables remains on the free agent block much longer than his athletic ability might suggest that he should be.

I got the idea for this article from a comment by a reader on another. He talked about Taylor Mays, who just got cut by the Vikings, and posted his measurables next to those of Shaq Thompson. Mays seems to be taller, (well, he IS taller) while Shaq is a bit more compact. They weigh the same. Mays is demonstrably faster (4.45 or so vs. 4.65 or so in the 40) Similar strength. Shaq has an edge in foot quickness and change-of-direction skills - more the sorts of things you use in an NFL contest than straight-line speed.

Measurables only go "So Far"

Taylor Mays was also never really "touted" coming out of USC - the "other" USC in Fornicalia - while Thompson was obviously on teams' radar screens. The Panthers nabbed him at the end of the first; most clubs had a second-round grade on him. However, to me, the whole deal smells like another draft steal by Gettleman.

The NFL is so quick to give fans the combine stats as soon as they are generated, but are mum on things like Wonderlic scores. Now, the effectiveness of the Wonderlic is controversial anymore, but I don't see the problem with it. I did write a post a couple of years ago now on C3 about the test. You can click here to open it in another window.

Although there is no direct correlation between high scores and productivity on the field, it doesn't hurt to have a good score. You can find the QBs from 2013 listed here, click to open in another window as well.

The first thing that jumps out at me is Blaine Gabbert's high score of 42. By contrast, Cam Newton scored literally half as well as Gabbert - a 21 - and is near the bottom of the list. So if Cam is so stupid and Gabbert so bright, why did they play as if it were the other way around?

Many coaches eschew those with very high scores because they can be "know-it-alls," and difficult to coach. Gabbert sure didn't seem to learn from his coaches and is buried in the depth chart in San Francisco now. Cam knew he had only a year at Auburn and in an offense where the coaches made all the play calls with signs on the sidelines holding pictures of SpongeBob Squarepants, Pee Wee Herman and a nice BBQ sandwich. Gabbert came from a slightly more sophisticated offense at Missouri, but neither program was anything close to an NFL-style offense.

Gabbert has looked lost for his entire career. Cam hit the ground running, putting up consecutive 400-yard passing games in his first two contests, and off of a lockout-shortened summer. So what gives here?

The fact is that the difference in physical attributes among combine players at any given position is relatively small overall. Sure, you'll have a couple that excel and a couple that are found a bit lacking, but they'll all have similar skill-sets in general among players of the same positions. 

Football Games are Often Won Between the Ears, not the Lines

Other than a "clean" character sheet, what coaches look for above ALL else, is intelligence. This could come in the form of "Football I.Q." or even someone more raw, but who does put a nice score up on Wonderlic - say, from a 24 to about a 34 or so - not too dumb to learn and not too smart that he won't listen to his coaches. 

Personally, I'd be looking for "outliers." Anything over a 40 and my questions would be "How did he improve during his collegiate career?" I would talk to his position coach, offensive coordinator(s) and head coach, probing them about how well he takes TO being coached. Does he integrate coached techniques and fundamentals within days or does it take a while, and repeated failures, for him to relent and finally try it the way he was coached to begin with? That sort of thing.

Any score under a dozen or so, and I'd question the coaches more about his overall understanding of the game, his position, responsibilities play-to-play, and/or changes in scheme if he experienced a major coaching change in college. I'd also find a few of his professors and ask them not so much about his actual grades, but his ability to take tests. Did he seem to know more in class but just not take tests well, or was he clueless in class and on tests too?

Whatever it is, at least some of Dave Gettleman's favorite things to look for have revealed themselves to me. First of all, he likes smart guys. You can see that in his middle-round selections when he took, for instance, David Mayo. Gettleman also likes guys who are productive, as in Mayo's case, and most certainly in Kuechly's case. With Kuechly, he had brains, productions AND eye-popping Combine numbers and likely was #1 on our draft board overall. Middle linebackers slide a bit in drafts because of the below average "positional value," but that's another discussion entirely.

Two-Time Super Bowl-winning coach of the Dallas Cowboys, Jimmy Johnson, has a saying: "Someone, PLEASE hit me in the HEAD with a HAMMER if I ever even THINK about drafting a DUMB guy again!"

That says quite a lot, considering the source. 

Lastly, look at many of the players in the NFL's Hall of Fame. Every last one of them that I have seen or heard speak has been better than average in expressing themselves and seems to be quite intelligent when speaking about a given subject or answering interview questions. Sure, some of them might have a bit flashier personalities than you might like to see, but I have yet to hear of anyone question, for example, Richard Sherman's intelligence. Bright guy - just has a big mouth. But he always backs it up, like him or not.

A Good Wonderlic Score Doesn't Guarantee Success

This came to me a bit over time more than having something "click" in my mind to realize it, but the time that passes only reinforces the idea.  The Wonderlic may not be a very big factor in and of itself during the player evaluation process, but I think it still helps provide clues as to what a particular player's mental make-up is and should produce a line of questions that need to get answered. 

Perhaps someone could just be good at doing basic math in his head. That would give him a leg up on the test right there. Perhaps some know "test taking skills" - for example, skipping longer questions and answering the easiest ones first, since it's 50 questions in eight minutes, it's not designed to be finished.

There's another place where intelligence shows up - the brighter guys are going to realize this and adjust....just like you have to do in the NFL. In fact if I were taking it, I'd make sure I do NOT score above about a 36 or 38. I'd want to fall in that "high sweet-spot" that isn't SO high it raises questions about my coachability and not low at all to raise questions about my innate intelligence. That's how *I* would "adjust," anyway.

As you can see by that 2013 QB chart, a high or a good score on Wonderlic doesn't guarantee a thing. Gabbert was tops on that list, but at the bottom of the barrel of NFL QBs. Cam is near the bottom and just signed a contract worth $60 million guaranteed. Aaron Rodgers made a 35; So did Christian Ponder. 

Scouting in the NFL isn't an exact science, but tools like the Wonderlic can help avoid draft-day disasters. Remember Morris Claiborne, the cornerback Dallas drafted a few years ago? He's done nothing in the NFL, and reportedly made a 3 on the Wonderlic.

Now, THAT is a score that would give me some serious pause when I'm evaluating anyone. If he can hardly add, what does that say to me about his ability to pick up the NFL's complex defensive and offensive schemes?

His career so far says it all.

Follow me on Twitter @Ken_Dye