APRIL 24, 2015
DAN MASONSON: Good afternoon everybody, and welcome to today’s conference call to discuss our new show, “Pro Football Focus: Grading the 2015 Draft” which debuts this Monday April 27th at 5:30 PM ET. Joining us on the conference call are Sunday Night Football analyst Cris Collinsworth, Sunday Night Football coordinating producer Fred Gaudelli, and Pro Football Focus’ Neil Hornsby and Steve Palazzolo. Each of our speakers will offer a brief comment and then we’ll open it up to your questions.
CRIS COLLINSWORTH: This is obviously something new and exciting for us because we don’t cover the draft, specifically. We’re excited to dip our toe into the water. And we think we’ve brought a powerhouse lineup to this with Pro Football Focus that is a very unique group of guys. It’s about 92 people in all, that will be about 130‑something people by football season a year from now, and these guys are the only people that I know of that watch every play of every game in both the NFL and the NCAA, which leads to pretty incredible insight as to the specifics of what we’re going to get in this draft.
Neil Hornsby is the guy that started this company. He has relationships with half the NFL teams that use his data. Currently a couple of the NCAA teams are starting to use the data as well; that gets them into game prep. They issue 38- page scouting reports. They have integrated film systems that allow them to look very specifically at different players.
So I think you’re going to hear a few things different than what you hear from some other draft shows. These guys have some great insights and we’ve been studying long and hard for this draft as to some of these players and I think the order of players from our group may be a little different than some of the others and I guess at the end of the year and as we go forward into the next few years we’ll see how we do against some of the traditional views in the draft.
So NBC has been kind enough to allow us the opportunity to put on our first hopefully annual show. We’re really excited about it. Spent a lot of time getting ready for it and with that I’ll introduce Neil Hornsby, who is the guy that originated this group and put the whole thing together.
NEIL HORNSBY: Hi, guys. I think the key things that I’d like to go through at this stage is we don’t have an opportunity with the medical records of these guys. We don’t have an opportunity to sit in with the interviews of these guys. But what we do is we really focus on what we do well, which is production. The production. And we believe that is going to translate through to when these guys get into the NFL. And what we we’ve done is we relied on those grids and that production to drive what we do.
So everything that you’re going to see is going to be pretty much different than what you’ve seen anywhere else, because we are not trying to, in any way, shape or form get us what the NFL teams are going to do. We are going to tell you what we would do. And that’s I think the fundamental difference.
STEVE PALAZZOLO: I’m the senior analyst with Pro Football Focus. I’m here to represent all the analysts that put the work into making this happen and to actually thank Neil and Cris for helping this to happen. When I joined Pro Football Focus in 2011, definitely a dream of mine and others within the company was that we could someday be able to grade every single player in college football and every single play. And the hard work of all the analysts over 30,000 man hours to make it happen. It’s been a thrilling, challenging, but just amazing process now to see it ‑‑ to see all the data and see it all in front of us. And to put it to good use in the Draft. I’m just excited to be here and thanks to Cris and Neil for making it all happen.
FRED GAUDELLI: The thing that really made this attractive to me, in my former life I was the producer of 12 NFL Drafts at ESPN. And I got to work closely with Mel Kiper and other good analysts that ESPN has. But when I found out that somebody had actually watched every single play of every single draft-eligible player, and every single game, that really piqued my interest, because to my knowledge no one had ever done that, certainly not when I was at ESPN. I don’t think anyone is making the claim now at the networks. That piqued my interest.
And what furthered my interest, is some of the advanced metrics that PFF has come up with, whether it’s pass rushing or grading the quarterbacks, and obviously that’s a big topic this year with Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota. So to me, I saw a distinctive difference between what they could provide and what everyone else is doing, and hopefully you guys will see that difference on Monday night, as well.
Cris, ask about the quarterbacks, especially the Titans, do you see that being a good fit for them? Appreciate the work you guys do, I use you regularly.
CRIS COLLINSWORTH: Marcus Mariota for me is a guy that just keeps moving up. I don’t think I understood what Oregon was all about, and what Mariota was all about, until I really started watching the tape of him. You tend to think of him as being sort of this borderline wishbone offense, with a lot of action stuff.
But you watch Mariota drop back in the pocket and he has movement skills and left to right vision going through his reads in a way I just didn’t expect to see. And then when you point blank compare release times and the ability to get the football out of his hands between these two quarterbacks, Mariota is actually better and quicker with the release. You add that to a clean history, you add that to obviously a smart guy, and somebody that you want to be the face of your franchise.
I was really big on Winston all the way through this. He looks like a Ben Roethlisberger- type player, the ability of people to bounce off him, and make plays from the packet, which I think is still the No. 1 way to win games in the National Football League. Mariota, the more you watch him and especially when I saw the comparison of the release times that you’ll see coming up on this program, he makes a big jump in my mind.
Was it a no‑brainer for you, for [th Titans] to take Mariota?
CRIS COLLINSWORTH: I just think the gap is so big, and if you’re thinking quarterback at all, I think you’ve got to at least consider this guy. He’s won a lot of football games. He doesn’t turn the ball over. He has an occasional wildness to him, that every once in a while he’ll make one of those throws that you’ll think. Where did that come from? I’ve seen Brett Favre and a few of those other guys make those throws, and Tom Brady at times.
So I just think the importance of the position and where they are at this point, would I do it, I would probably do it. At the very least I think someone is going to jump to No. 2 in the trade and get him. You should listen to my other guys. They’ve watched every single guy he’s played.
STEVE PALAZZOLO: With Mariota, I second what Cris said. I kind of came into watching every one of his throws wanting to pigeonhole him as a player. But I think the more you watch him and you see him actually go through progressions and his staple throw is like the backside post, the backside dig route. He does that well. The Oregon offense helps him a lot. I think when he transitions to the NFL you do need a coach like what happened with RG III, and Colin Kaepernick in his case in 2012, you want a coach that is going to play to their strengths.
Mariota does a lot of NFL things in the pocket. He’s not just a runaround and make plays type of guy. He does have that to him. He’s a dynamic runner, sometimes he gets in trouble with it, he tries to get a little too much and fumbles. But he does take care of the ball pretty well, hasn’t thrown a lot of interceptions. The way we grade it, we’re looking at where the actual throw went, not if it was intercepted or not. We’re looking at the quality of the throw. He protects the ball for the most part as a passer. You have to play to his strengths. Let him run the ball a little bit, work off of play action, and I think he could be a pretty good QB.
It’s been fun going back. We have only 2014 data. I had to go back and look at Winston and Mariota in 2013 to see the comparison. And there’s a lot of interesting stuff that we found and interesting stuff that we’re going to be talking about Monday night.
CRIS COLLINSWORTH: Steve, just tell him a little bit about your 2013 findings on Winston. You really think that he’s going to be the No. 1 pick more based on ‘13 than ‘14, right?
STEVE PALAZZOLO: I had to go back and watch 2013, because during this entire draft process, I’m asking ‘How is Jameis Winston a lock for the No. 1 overall pick?’ That’s all I’m hearing, he’s a lock. He did not play like that last season. It didn’t show in our grade. It didn’t show in his statistics. Definitely took too many chances. He did not look like a first-round quarterback. I had obviously seen his 2013 as a fan or in passing, and remembered it as being very good. But when I went back on a throw‑by‑throw basis, I was blown away with how good he was, especially early. The first seven or eight games he was off the chart, unbelievable quarterback play. When I went back and graded it, his 2013 was by far the best graded ‑‑ would have been the best graded season this year amongst quarterbacks. It wasn’t even close.
So now I went back and revisited and said, okay, he took a big step back in 2014. He was off the charts in 2013. If I’m looking at No. 1, I’m okay with saying I’ve seen the talent, I’ve seen that upside. I’m going to take a chance on him, because I’ve seen what he’s able to do, a little bit of Eli Manning in him, where he’s had good seasons, bad seasons. I think that’s actually worth taking a risk on, because the good can be really, really good.
I’m interested in the receiver class. For you, Cris, obviously you kind of were there for last year, your thought about the prospects this year versus the breakout group we had last year. And I’m kind of interested mostly beyond Parker, White and Cooper, guys like Perriman, et cetera, your thoughts on them, if you have some ‑‑ maybe if you have some wisdom on that.
CRIS COLLINSWORTH: I’ve got to tell you I’ve watched receiver classes for a long time. And yes, the one last year was very good. I think this has a chance to be the best draft class that certainly I’ve ever seen since I’ve been studying it for however long that’s been ‑‑ too long, I guess.
But there are guys up and down the board, if someone is going to hit, if Dorial Green‑Beckham ends up being able to keep himself straight and a player, Breshad Perriman from Central Florida can play at a 4.2 level, which apparently he ran at his pro day. I typically go through what I think are the first two rounds, guys, and then how they fall after that, I’ll rely on Neil and Steve to tell me all about them.
I couldn’t believe how many receivers I watched and thought they were first-round times. I got down to about 11 players that I thought had first-round ability. And sort of the sad part about this is that I think you’re going to see in this draft really top end players fall to the second round because teams are going to say I’m going to take an offensive tackle or a pass rusher in the first round, because this draft is so deep in receiver, even in the second round I’m going to get a great player, and there are some really good ones. You’ll go down the list and these guys will take you through it and I agree the top three are going to be talked about.
If I had to pick two wild cards out of the thing, I think Nelson Agholor from USC has a chance. If he plays with Peyton Manning or Tom Brady he’ll have a hundred catches. He’s as good a catch and run guy, as tough a guy as I’ve seen. And Phillip Dorsett out of Miami can run by pro corners. He has a burst and he has speed unlike ‑‑ you just don’t see it on tape like this. And then he showed a tough guy edge during the program, as well. These are some guys that I think are really going to be outstanding players, and I’m really excited to watch this wide receiver class.
NEIL HORNSBY: We were talking about what Cris is saying about the receiver class. The Baltimore Ravens want to take a wide receiver, they have only got Steve Smith left. And Devin Smith, everybody has talked about Torrey Smith ‑‑ if you need a guy to adjust to a thrown ball, who better than Devin Smith? Torrey Smith this year had 13 catchable balls, he actually dropped 5.
Devin Smith, with 18 catchable balls, he dropped one. This guy is a flying machine, and he adjusts to the ball, the totally thrown ball as well as anybody. And I think he could easily surpass a number of the players that may have been slated to go higher than him.
STEVE PALAZZOLO: Just to add to what they have said, I love the wide receiver class as well. Each of these wide receivers seem to bring a little bit something different to the table. Cris mentioned Agholor, we’re really high on him. Jaelen Strong is a guy that doesn’t do everything well, but probably goes up and he’s as well as anybody. Dorial Green‑Beckham does the same. Perriman is just an interesting case because he played with such core.
Quarterback play, love Devin Smith. When we were going through our mock draft which is what are we going to do, what would we do as PFF if we’re in the room making these decisions? We had a hard time keeping a lot of wide receivers out of the first round. We kept coming back to, well, here is a wide receiver on the board. Having these wide receiver classes, as good as they are, potentially really a game changer for the league, where I think it’s going to help mask some average QB play over the next few years, if a lot of these guys pan out.
Cris and Steve both mentioned Dorial Green‑Beckham. If the off‑the‑field stuff wasn’t there is he a top‑10 or better, in your opinion?
CRIS COLLINSWORTH: Yeah, probably so, even though there are so many other talented guys, I mean you just couldn’t ‑‑ I can’t help but think of Randy Moss a little bit. He’s nowhere close to Randy Moss’ speed, but it’s that same sort of decision, if you can remember like Jerry Jones backing off of Randy Moss. And I think for the rest of his life he always wondered sort of what if I had taken him in that position, because the off‑the‑field stuff and all that. Dez Bryant had off‑the‑field stuff and look at what he’s turned into. It’s going to be a really interesting decision.
And I’ve got to tell you, I can’t put these guys in order. There’s almost no order that somebody could come up with that I would go, that’s just foolish. I personally think Kevin White is the best receiver in this class, kind of a Julio Jones kind of looking guy. But it wouldn’t surprise me if we had a couple, three guys in the Pro Bowl out of this rookie class next year.
In terms of the 49ers, I wanted to get your assessment on their wide receivers. They’ve got a hole to fill after this off season. But wide receivers seem to be a perennial with them. Just kind of your assessment on the receiving part and why it’s so hard to draft someone?
CRIS COLLINSWORTH: They also had Joe Montana and Steve Youngs of the world, too, you know. Hand in hand and some guy named Bill Walsh, too. So I’m really going to be interested in seeing what new offensive is going to look like. Because you certainly ‑‑ you’ve got Colin Kaepernick in this case with a unique skill set. He’s been working with Kurt Warner and some of the guys to tighten up the motion. I thought he had a few accuracy issues a year ago. But do you then go out and get some of these guys that may be able to play. Jaelen Strong, Breshad Perriman, Kevin White, somebody that can go up and make plays, where everything doesn’t have to be pinpoint accurate, in order for it to be effective.
But if you were going to take a chance on a wide receiver class, and I wouldn’t be surprised if some team that needed wide receivers took two. Took one in the first round and took one in the second round. Because you could sort of set yourself up for a number of years, between that position and some of the pass rushers that are in this draft, to really be set with some star players. But I do think there will be a couple of teams thinking we could take one in the first round and maybe get one even better in the second round, depending on how they come out.
What’s the deal with Chris Conley? Why is he not coming on board? Looking at all these wide receivers, Chris Conley’s name is usually down there a little bit. Why isn’t he higher on the board?
STEVE PALAZZOLO: We didn’t really have him graded amongst the best. He only played a little over 600 snaps. I think ‑‑ his rise really happened in February in the Combine. I think that’s where he really made his rise. And again, we’re going ‑‑ personally we’re looking at production, and how well they played on the field. We try to stay away from a lot of the measurable stuff. I know he’s an intriguing guy because he’s so big and so athletic. And to me a big part of it is just how deep the class is.
We have, as Cris said, 10, 11, 15 guys that are legit, top‑round talent. He’s a good player, probably gets lost in the mix and probably gets overrated a little bit because of that athleticism.
Just wonder specifically about the Texans. Last year they had the No. 1 overall pick. And in 2013 they went 2-14 and really had ‑‑ seemed like only had three players left on their roster from that entire draft.
Cris, for you and the other guys, if you’re looking at this big picture, whether you’re the Patriots or Baltimore or the Texans, how important is for you to find value when you have an opportunity, not to “blow it” and can the draft really be a separating factor between the teams that annually figure out and some of the ones that don’t, like maybe Jacksonville or Tennessee, Tampa Bay, Cleveland, always seem to be at the bottom tier of the league.
CRIS COLLINSWORTH: I think if you look at the playoffs, it’s basically the same quarterbacks that are in the playoffs every single year. Until you get that position figured out I don’t know that a lot else matters. Can one of these guys step up and be that level of quarterback? I would have to see that in order for it to happen. And then you have to ask yourself, ‘Okay, how much ‑‑ if you’re not going to be a quarterback‑driven team — are you really going to spend that much capital on wide receivers, when you could probably, in the second or third round, get a guy that sort of fits the need?’ And then go ahead and add somebody and all the guys you have playing on defense, and try to be the Baltimore Ravens or somebody, and win it that way.
I’ve heard a lot of coaches over the years say that they tend to build on one side of the ball or the other. That if you’re mediocre or average on both sides of the ball you lose a lot of football games. So I think you’ll see some teams that build the defense, some teams that build the offense. And I know it’s not exciting to think about. But I’m not so sure that this franchise shouldn’t be built around some of the players they’ve got on the defensive side.
Cris, I was going to ask you about rankings over receivers, but you said it would be awfully difficult. I was wondering if you thought the Dolphins move from Wallace and Hartline to Greg Jennings and Kenny Stills as a wash, an upgrade, a downgrade?
CRIS COLLINSWORTH: I don’t know. The hard thing with Greg is you almost have to see him year to year at this age. Stills can play, I don’t worry about that. I like this offense. We didn’t get to do one of their games this year, but I like a lot of the stuff that they do. There’s not Philadelphia stuff in there, and there’s some things that I really like, and the mobility of the offensive line, getting Pouncey I back to center is going to help this team, obviously.
Do I think they could still upgrade the wide receiver position this year? Yeah, I think they’re still going to end up needing a guy that’s a consistent playmaker. And for them maybe it’s one of these guys that goes up over the top, one of the guys that really shows the ability. There’s some big guys that make plays, Perriman is the guy, Parker, White, Strong, Larry Fitzgerald kind of players, where then they’ve got others that are smaller, the Devin Smiths, the Dorsetts that are smaller, quicker kind of guys, Beckham, there’s a lot of free offense that comes from ‑‑ back in my day, you had to get open to get the ball thrown to you. You had to have a step on somebody.
The way they play now, in sort of the post Larry Fitzgerald when he came in the league, as long as they’re one‑on‑one, just throw it. Let these guys go up and make a play. Let them just jump up over somebody, and you have to think that maybe that frees you up a little bit. It gives you a deep threat without having to run by somebody all the time. And it’s always easy to say give me at 4.3 guy, but there is an alternative with the way the game is being played now, and that’s why I think you’ll see such a big run on these receivers, because there’s about five of them up here that just play above the rest.
You have another receivers question. Talk about the depth of last year’s last class and this year’s class. My question is, why is this happening? What are the changes at the college game or whatever, that are yielding all these top prospects for the NFL?
CRIS COLLINSWORTH: You know, you want to address maybe that one, or maybe it’s more about the decline of the running back position, and kids want to play there instead of some of the other positions.
NEIL HORNSBY: I think the other thing is just the personnel in the NFL league is the three receiver package. And that’s why these kids are going to get a chance. When you look at teams they’re now looking at saying, well, maybe two receivers, no I want three receivers. I want to be able to give my guy options all over. We see great guys coming through. Don’t be surprised to see four or five teams in the NFL playing three very, very good receivers and 11 personnel.
CRIS COLLINSWORTH: Could we switch over a bit? Neil Hornsby has done some pretty remarkable things on the pass rushers coming out in this draft. And the depth of the data that Pro Football Focus can put forth on defensive players and individual players in the pass rush and these sort of things. Neil can you do a little bit of that for everybody?
NEIL HORNSBY: Sure. So one of the things about pass rushers that always used to be interesting was that a pass rusher was judged by the number of sacks they got, and that was pretty much it. People started adding in things like hits. You started to realize that actual pressure on the quarterback is probably one of the most important things. You don’t just have to sack him. If you can put pressure on the quarterbacks statistically, they go down from a 97 NFL rating in the pocket to a 65 NFL rating outside (with pressure on them) ‑‑ and that’s the equivalent of turning Tom Brady into Blake Bortles on every single play that you’re doing.
Getting pressure on the quarterback is the most important thing. Sacks are great. Nobody is going to stay there and get sacked, statistically, a very small portion of the picture. But then you come in and you say, well, okay, so not all sacks are created equal. It was the difference between getting the sack in 2.5 seconds, or 4.5. Then you go on and you say, not every pass rushing situation is created equal. So there’s a difference between a guy who comes in and rushes the passer the third or fourth down, when they don’t have to concern themselves about a run, and somebody who is having to rush on first and second downs, as well. What we’ve managed to do because we have all that data is to be able to take it on a play‑by‑play basis, the actual opportunity to get pressure, and how much pressure was of use.
So we’ve been able to work with a number of NFL teams to come up with new metrics on passer productivity. We considered every single metric that we can, and we’ve brought it in. And then we’ve taken the NCAA level and looked and said, okay, so in order, here’s was a guy, you know, it was always willing to be an example where the guy comes inside.
So what our system did is we can look up pass rushing productivity from both positions on the level playing field, and we’ve been able to work with a number of NFL teams giving them this data to help them to make better decisions in both free agency and the draft.
CRIS COLLINSWORTH: It helps you compare a Jordan Phillips and a Danny Shelton to a Leonard Williams and a Dante Fowler and a Randy Gregory, right?
NEIL HORNSBY: That’s exactly what it does.