As NFL teams prepare to pick players in next week’s draft, a lot of the built-in narrative is focused on the unusual nature of this year’s process. In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, teams are having to conduct a lot of their preparations virtually. That includes meetings. That will likely include a lot of what happens during the three days of the draft itself.
And maybe most importantly, in includes the final stages of player evaluation. While the NFL Combine happened just before the shutdown, the “top-30” visits to team facilities — where 30 prospects are brought in and introduced for face-to-face meetings with several key members of organizations — were shelved. They can still conduct virtual meetings with prospects via FaceTime or Zoom, much like many of us have been doing for work-related meetings in the last month.
That has general managers concerned about the ability to correctly assess the players and evaluate the intangible “human element,” leading to thoughts that teams might struggle to make good draft picks.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Dave Gettleman is among those most worried, even as the 69-year-old Giants GM tries to adapt to a virtual world. Per Giants Wire:
“Obviously, when we would go to workouts, a lot of times the night before, our coach and scout that would be at the pro day would take one, two or three of the players out to dinner and have some conversation that way,” Gettleman said. “We’re losing the personal touchpoints. We have the visual touchpoint, but we’re really missing out on the personal touchpoint, when you can smell or feel a guy.”
If we can set aside the mild creepiness of the idea of smelling someone as some sort of draft metric, Gettleman’s basic point is this: People like being able to meet other people, face-to-face, to get what they think is a better read on what that person is all about. That’s how most job interviews work, for example.
Gettleman thinks he can glean information about a prospect from meeting him that he can’t get just from talking on the phone, watching film or evaluating other analtyics-based metrics.
And he’s right. But that personal information is often wrong — or at least misleading.
That was one of the evidence-based conclusions of Malcolm Gladwell’s most recent book “Talking to Strangers,” which happened to be the first thing I picked up during our stay-at-home time.
Gladwell provides a good example involving New York City judges trying to evaluate which defendants to let out on bail while awaiting trial and which to keep locked up. The judges have all sorts of information about the defendants — including the ability to meet them face to face and look them in the eye, which many judges value as a key to making a good decision.
But when the judges’ decisions were measured against predictions made by a computer algorithm that was granted only basic factual information about the same 400,000 defendants, the computer performed 25% better when determining which criminals were likely to commit crimes while out on bail and/or show up for their trial date.
The reason, Gladwell concludes at the end of one section, is that we think we know more about “strangers” than we really do — and that our tendency to default to truth makes us easily deceived.
“We think we can easily see into the hearts of others based on the flimsiest of clues. We jump at the chance to judge strangers. We would never do that to ourselves, of course. We are nuanced and complex and enigmatic. But the stranger is easy. If I can convince you of one thing in this book, let it be this: Strangers are not easy.”
Most NFL general managers have healthy egos and, one would imagine, fancy themselves pretty good judges of character. Some of them probably are. More of them probably aren’t, and they make mistakes as a result. In-person meetings might reveal some obvious red flags, but they create more false flags.
So let me posit this, which is the opposite of the conventional narrative in this strange draft year: The fact that teams and top decisionmakers can’t get to know these players as well as they do in typical years could actually help them draft better.
Instead of being potentially swayed by some piece or pieces of “noisy” information like a firm handshake, a quarterback’s appearance or — you know — whether a prospect somehow smells like success, teams will be more reliant on things like production, film evaluation and measurable athletic data.
And maybe, just maybe, it will change how the Vikings and other teams conduct draft business whenever things return to whatever the new version of normal is.