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Liberty quarterback Malik Willis could be a top-10 pick in the 2022 NFL draft. It didn’t look that way in December. At the end of the college football season, Willis was thought to be an end-of-the-first-round to second-round pick. Despite not supplying additional game tape, Willis dramatically vaulted up mock drafts.
Willis’ journey isn’t unprecedented. Lamar Jackson saw a similar rise up mock drafts, as did Mac Jones. Seemingly every year, you can find at least one big-name quarterback whose stock suddenly rises.
Do NFL scouts, coaches and executives really change their minds that much about players in the months between the end of the college football season and the draft?
There’s a difference between mock drafts and draft boards. Prospects may skyrocket up mock drafts as analysts get more information from sources. That information is based on where NFL teams value those players once they compile their final draft boards. When a quarterback previously thought to be a second-round pick by an analyst jumps into the top 10 of a mock draft, it’s not a sign NFL teams have changed their opinion, it’s a reflection of mock draft analysts reacting to new information.
“I don’t believe guys rise and fall,” long-time NFL scout and former director of scouting for the Chicago Bears Greg Gabriel told Yahoo Sports. “They are pretty much the way they’ve been on teams' boards all along. It’s that the draft analysts are finding out they had it all wrong.”
When the college football season ends, the NFL is still in the midst of its regular season. Most NFL general managers are focused on trying to get their teams into the playoffs, not wondering which quarterback might be available in the first round.
“NFL GMs don’t have a great picture of who the best players in the country are in terms of quarterbacks going in to their senior year … because they haven’t looked at them at that point,” said Russ Lande, former NFL scout and current director of U.S. scouting for the Montreal Alouettes. “In December, that’s when the season is over, the media puts their draft board, based on all the results of talking to all the people together. Well, December and January are when teams start having their first real ‘draft meetings’ and building their boards.”
When the NFL season ends, potentially in January or early February, that’s when teams start prepping for the upcoming draft. Everyone — scouts, cross-checkers, coaches and directors — submits their grades on players, which may have changed drastically depending on whether the quarterback took a major step forward the past season. NFL draft boards don’t get finalized until two weeks before the draft, which explains why players like Willis sit outside the first round on mock drafts done in December and get selected in the top 10 on draft day.
Interviews, private workouts can determine NFL prospect's value
There are some factors that can influence where a player falls on a team’s final draft board between December and April, even with little to no new game tape to study. Player interviews can help a team feel more confident about placing a certain grade on a player.
“How do you handle the process?” Lande said. “How mature are you throughout all those things? How do you handle different coaches, being pulled in a million directions, being interviewed, going through the ringer? Those are the things that can affect the team’s confidence in placing a grade on you.”
Private workouts could play an even bigger role in the process.
“Private workouts are a huge part of the process,” Gabriel said. “Because if a coach goes out and works out a guy and he comes back, he could either really love the guy or really hate the guy. And if he hates the guy, it doesn’t matter what kind of grade you got on him. You’re not going to take him because that player is not going to succeed on that team.”
Interviews and workouts occur before draft boards are finalized, so while they may influence the final grade a team places on a player, they don’t create scenarios where players dramatically rise or fall on draft boards. Mock draft analysts react to that news, which could explain why some players start to move into the first round in January and February mock drafts.
Given the importance of the quarterback position, what happens when all the top quarterbacks are gone and a team has a need? Will that lead to a team jumping that player up their draft board and “overdrafting” a guy?
Not necessarily. The draft board is the draft board. If a guy projected to go No. 30 overall gets picked No. 15, it’s because the team that selected the guy thought he was worth the No. 15 overall pick.
There are scenarios where a team prioritizes a quarterback over other similarly ranked players, but that’s not technically an overdraft. Only a handful of players receive first-round grades in each draft. Once you reach the bottom of the first round, teams generally have second-round grades on the available players left.
“If you have a second-round grade generally, or higher, there’s a good chance you’re going in the first round,” Lande said. "You talk about those picks from about 12 to about 25, if they have a good solid second-round grade grade on a kid, they know he’s not going to be there when their pick comes up in the second round.
"So what do they do? They may try to trade down in the first round to try to get a pick at the top of the second, but if they can’t, do you risk not having one of the quarterbacks you have a good solid second-round starting grade on and hope he’s there? Or do you just say, ‘You know what, it’s pick 17, let’s just roll the dice, let’s take him here.’”
That quarterback might not be a superstar, but he’ll be a solid starter in the mold of an Andy Dalton. There’s value in having a guy like that.
“When a team finds a guy like a Dalton,” Lande said. "They are going to generally win more games than they lose. And if you do that, those 25 coaches, their families, the 10 or 15 scouts, their families, the 10 or 15 executives and their families aren’t going to get fired and have to move to another city.”
By keeping their jobs, maybe those coaches and front-office members get another shot at drafting a generational talent at quarterback down the road.
Quarterback class in 2022 is hotly debated
Whether a certain player is a generational talent at quarterback varies by team. That could explain why some players see meteoric leaps in mock drafts in the months before the event.
Take Willis, for example. Some scouts view Willis as a sure-fire first-round talent. Others are not sold.
“I spoke to one scout this week who I have enormous respect for,” Lande said. “He thinks Malik Willis is a throwaway-type late-round guy. I spoke to two scouts this week that I respect also. Both of them said Willis is the only quarterback they consider in the first round. These are three established, long-time successful guys. So this is a year where there is so much uncertainty and debate about quarterbacks.”
The mock drafts that are compiled before draft boards are set rely on analysts speaking to scouts and other sources about players. The information they receive can vary greatly depending on the source. Those sources are also incentivized to misdirect and say as little as possible when it comes to their team’s plans.
“I know what information I gave out [as a scouting director], and I know 95 percent of it was bulls***,” Gabriel said. “It’s because … my job is at stake. The future of our franchise is at stake. Why should I give out intelligence that we have gathered on players?”
Gabriel knows that’s the case even now, when he’s the one seeking information.
“I’ve got GMs that have been friends for 25 and 30 years and they won’t tell me a f***ing thing,” Gabriel said. "And why should they? I get it. You know what, I wouldn’t tell them a thing either.”
This isn’t a phenomenon unique to Willis. Teams will have similar debates over quarterbacks most years. This quarterback class in particular, though, invites more questions and variability than most. Pittsburgh quarterback Kenny Pickett and Willis are strong bets to be selected in the first round of the 2022 NFL draft, but others, like Matt Corral, Sam Howell or Desmond Ridder, could all sneak into the top 32 despite barely appearing on any mock drafts.
When that happens, those players won’t be overdrafted. They’ll go exactly where NFL teams believe they could go.
It doesn’t matter what the mock drafts said in December.