NFL pre-draft forecast: Smoke and misinformation

Texas Longhorns wide receiver Xavier Worthy (1) runs the ball during the Sugar Bowl College Football Playoff semifinals game against the Washington Huskies.
Texas Longhorns wide receiver Xavier Worthy (1) runs the ball during the Sugar Bowl College Football Playoff semifinals game against the Washington Huskies.

As we head down the final stretch to the 2024 NFL Draft (April 25–27), beware of new alleged insights that suggest a change in how a player should be rated. This goes beyond April Fools' Day. It is April Fools' month. You are warned.


It's fine to rethink opinions on players, especially if the source of reconsideration is from game tapes. But these final few weeks are what former NFL team executive Pat Kirwan labels the "lying season," when information from teams, agents and others with a vested interest cannot be trusted. 


That includes results from Pro Days, for which NFL+ and NFL Network increased production and hype this year, with the usual motive — money through subscriptions. NFL Network created a new Pro Day series for Big 12 teams, and more of these are planned.


Veteran scouts refer to these choreographed on-campus events as "Pro Daze" — and not in a good way. We will get back to that and explain what is NOT revealed from these popular workouts and even some secrets kept at the almighty Indianapolis Combine.


While neither the Indy Combine nor Pro Days give us the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, other sources provide more sinister disinformation: Agents, teams and even click-seeking media tell tales that further their own agenda.


Gen-Z impact?


This year’s class apparently expands on a newer wrinkle in the process. These tech-savvy Gen Z members, who already have NIL money in their pockets, seem willing, if not eager, to assert their individuality. Sounds like a logical result from an upbringing that included an intimate relationship with a smart device — a constant appendage which encouraged customizing apps to one's personal preference. 


USC quarterback Caleb Williams' nontraditional, off-platform magicianry has mezmerized a draft world that almost unanimously anoints him as the No. 1 prospect. As of early April that status seemed impervious to on-field red flags, including poor ball security, and pre-draft decisions to do as he damned well pleases. His most recent actions on and off the field impacted his place in our April ratings.


Williams accepted an invitation to the Indy Combine, but did little more than wander around Lucas Oil Stadium with a gaggle of friends and relatives. He became the first attendee in Combine history to opt out of the medical tests, saying only a few teams could draft him, so he would test with them. Well-schooled in social-media and interviews, Williams did keep his appointment for a media interview, which he handled with the skill of a presidential candidate from a previous century.  


Top-rated wide receiver Marvin Harrison Jr. did not work out at the combine or his Pro Day, although he did take part in OSU's 2023 Pro Day. 


Overall, player attitudes are definitely shifting. It will be interesting to see how teams fit such prospects into the diverse Mulligan stew that is an NFL locker room. We will continue to closely watch this phenomenon, especially as it impacts quarterback prospects.


Lest we forget, last year's lying season included an infamous cautionary tale: The "leak" of S2 Cognition tests, which denigrated C.J. Stroud, the Ohio State quarterback, especially when his S2 results were compared to those of Alabama quarterback Bryce Young. While Young had a 98, Stroud scored only 18. This revelation was written by a veteran journalist who had, in terms of credibility, decades of equity. But the veracity of the story begged to be challenged because it was so lopsided and contained damning quotes from unnamed sources.


We know now that Young was taken No. 1 by Carolina and had a rough season — not that surprising when you consider Peyton Manning led the league with 28 interceptions as a rookie. Stroud went No. 2 to Texas, whereupon he had possibly the best rookie quarterback season in NFL history. In the interest of full disclosure, or outright bragging, was all in on Stroud clearly being the best quarterback in last year's draft.


This year, Athletes First, one of the most responsible and reputable player agencies, informed all NFL teams that its clients were instructed to respectfully decline to submit to cognitive or psychological tests. The results of such tests have been mysterious and misunderstood. This goes back to the early days of the Wonderlic Test, which was improperly equated to an IQ score. Great move by Athletes First.


Much of the pre-draft runup is a traveling circus but has become a mandatory ritual embraced by an ever-growing following that is largely uninformed about built-in flaws. The calendar includes the Indianapolis Combine, Pro Days and each team hosting 30 player visits. It goes from February until the draft (this year, April 25) and leaves too much time for too much to be said, repeated and sometimes skewed to maintain interest when nothing is really changing.


Path to the Draft — lots of guesswork


NFL Network’s Path to the Draft is a well-produced series that runs five days a week, from April 1 to the draft. At its core, the program contrasts the opinions of five different co-hosts who describe themselves as NFL “insiders.” New concepts are offered daily regarding which players should be drafted where and by whom. Not surprisingly, variables of these concepts are repeated by thousands of online or on-air draft geeks. Listeners who hear the same idea repeated multiple times cannot know that all of those mentions are really from a single source's guesswork.  


Even so-called factual data points are really versions of the truth. The NFL Network and report data which conveniently fits nicely into that graphic, regardless of its authenticity. Players are measured to an eighth of an inch in height, to the exact pound on that day and to a hundredth of a second in the very popular 40-yard dash. These become datapoints which will live forever in a player’s Wikipedia bio.


However, the times announced in the 40-yard dash — curiously labeled first as “unofficial” and then “official” — offer no explanation as to how they are acquired. They could be timed in one (or more) of the following ways: Using hand-held stopwatches (HH); a fully automated timing, as in the Olympics (FAT); or a combination of an electronic start off a pressurized pad and a laser finish. That last method, called electronic timing (ET) is usually listed as the so-called "official” time. But not always.


Mike Weinstein, who has a degree in mechanical engineering, is the founder of Zybek Sports, which has set the standard for timing athletes since 2008 at the Indianapolis Combine and hundreds of thousands in all manner of yourth sports. He noted that there is a disparity between hand-held and "electronic" time of between .04 and 1.02 seconds. That's a lot when teams are betting millions of dollars on a draft pick. 


This year, 219 players who ran at Indy were timed via HH and ET, and for those who listened to Weinstein the results were predictable. On the SAME runs, hand-held times were, on average, .04 seconds faster than the announced electronic times. In fact, 157 of those 219 runners had faster HH times than the announced ET times. Nineteen were about the same and 43 were slower, mostly by only .01.


So whenever a player defers to his Pro Day or claims to improve his Combine time at a Pro Day, do the math. What we have, then, are parallel realities. Neither is official or unofficial. But this does enable NFL Network and to label a time as a record.


This year, NFL Network celebrated the 40-yard time of Texas wide receiver Xavier Worthy, first announced as an “unofficial” 4.25 seconds. It was later changed to an “official” 4.21 seconds and declared a “Combine record.”


That 4.21 was Worthy's best electronic time. His best hand-held time was 4.20. For what it's worth, the time that is really the best in Combine history, regardless of methodology, is 4.16 seconds. That was the best hand-held result for Kent State's Dri Archer in 2014. His official time, however, was 4.26 seconds, his best ET. Yes, that’s a full tenth of a second slower, but “official” is “official,” right?


So if we can't fully trust the veracity of so-called "official" 40-yard times, how can anybody responsibly sort out fact from fiction in April's smoke-filled rumors and guesswork? 


Smoke-filled time of misinformation


The late, great Gil Brandt, a Hall of Fame icon who loved evaluating draft prospects, issued an annual warning about the weeks preceding a draft, calling that period "a smoke-filled" time full of misinformation. 


"Trying to separate fact from fiction is tough at this time of the year," he said in late March of 2013. "Teams are willing to get creative with the truth in order to advance their agendas. Most executives and coaches, for example, wouldn't hesitate to create the impression they're extremely interested in a prospect they have no plans of actually drafting, simply to create demand for the draft picks they hold — and increase the haul that they would get in a trade.


"Possible smoke screens will start popping up all over the place as draft day nears, making it tough to tell whether a team is showing legitimate interest in someone or attempting to pull off a con."


Brandt recalled one classic sleight of hand from 1998 that involved the Arizona Cardinals, who were notorious for keeping a low payroll. Cardinals personnel man Bob Ferguson dumped the expensive No. 2 overall pick — where a quarterback was a logical target — to San Diego for the Chargers' first and second picks that year (Andre Wadsworth and Corey Chavous) plus a first-round pick in 1999 (David Boston), plus Eric Metcalf and Patrick Sapp.


The Chargers, selecting after Indianapolis took Peyton Manning, drafted Ryan Leaf, whose tortured career lasted three seasons. So the caveat emptor to that story is one that should be respected in the 2024 draft that includes a similar need for many teams to move up for a quarterback.


Chicago traded into the first spot and made it clear it will draft a quarterback by sending 2023 starte, Justin Fields, to Pittsburgh. The Bears also have the No. 9 pick. Others shopping for quarterbacks are Washington (No. 2), Minnesota (No. 11 and No. 23), Denver (No. 12), Las Vegas (No. 13) and perhaps New England (No. 3). 


Four-to-six quarterbacks are rated by most to be first-round prospects: Williams, Jayden Daniels (LSU), Drake Maye (North Carolina), Michael Penix Jr. (Washington) and J.J. McCarthy (Michigan), whose recent ascent is dramatic and suspicious. There is also some backing for Bo Nix (Oregon), which could make it six quarterbacks in the first round, matching the famous 1983 draft.  


Logically, not all teams are targeting the same quarterback or quarterbacks. So there are plenty of opinions as to which teams want which quarterbacks and what they will do to get them. The smoke-filled lying season is already going full speed. Again, you have been warned.

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