Big Boards versus Mock Drafts April 23, 2014

NFL Commish Pete Rozelle at the 1970 draft. [photo courtesy of businessinsider.com.au]

NFL Commish Pete Rozelle at the 1970 draft. [photo courtesy of businessinsider.com.au]

This is the time of the NFL’s year when everyone and his agent comes out with a mock draft. But what is a mock draft and how is it different form a big board? Both are used in valuing potential players and projecting where they may be selected in the NFL’s annual draft, and both are very subjective; yet there are big differences between the two.

Big Boards

Each of the 32 teams in the National Football League has what’s called a “big board”. This is, essentially, a ranking of hundreds of the best draft-eligible prospects compiled by each team’s collection of scouts, evaluating staff and coaches. Every prospect has been studied and profiled to some degree, and a value (1-10) has been assigned. The player’s rank is determined by their raw value.

In addition to their name and value, the player’s position and school is listed on the big board. Typically other information appears as well (eg. age, notes, etc.), but not too much as to clutter up the board. It’s also common to project in which round, if any, the prospect would likely get drafted.

A player’s value is determined by a number of factors, the primary source being film/tape of games played and notes of any scouts/personnel who watched the player perform. Other key data include measurables from the NFL Scouting Combine or individual Pro Days 1, interviews (by the players as well as by teammates and coaches of said player), and notes from team visits and workouts.

Cowboys owner Jerry Jones at his team's big board [photo courtesy theboysareback.wordpress.com]

Cowboys owner Jerry Jones at his team’s big board [photo courtesy theboysareback.wordpress.com]

Values assigned around the time of the combine usually don’t fluctuate too much, despite what gets reported by the media.

Speaking of media, big boards are also created and communicated by leading prognosticators working for large media outlets, smaller specialized websites and even the league itself. The differences between these public rankings and the top-secret, ultra-private boards of each team are (a) the audience and (b) the scope. Many publicly available big boards don’t list many more than 200 or so prospects, while teams may calculate values and collect detailed profiles of over 1500 players. The depth of analysis could also be much deeper for the teams who each employ numerous scouts who work year-round on evaluating talent and building profiles.

Mock Drafts

Mock drafts differ from strict rankings in that they aim to predict which team selects a given player at specific turns in the draft process. To compose a mock draft, you begin by putting in order the teams’ respective drafting order. This starts with the reverse order relative to each team’s record in the previous year (i.e., the last place team gets positioned first), then takes into account any trades of picks that have occurred. Finally, the league awards 32 compensatory to teams “losing more or better compensatory free agents than [they have acquired] in the previous year” 2. These are awarded each year at the NFL annual meeting, traditionally held at the end of March.

The next step in a mock draft is to put yourself in each team’s shoes and make a selection for every turn. Although the order of players taken resembles the aggregate of 32 teams’ big boards, team needs play a large role in dictating selections. For example, a team may have no QB ranked higher than 20th overall, but they may need to fill that position urgently and be willing to “reach” in order to acquire that player sooner than the value dictates.

Some mocks go only a single round (32 selections) while others go deeper, potentially through all seven rounds, including the compensatory picks. While trades are somewhat common in the actual draft, they are difficult to reliably predict and usually omitted from mock drafts. If trades are used, one common guide is the draft trade value chart created by Jimmy Johnson in the 1990s.

While teams likely do their own countless iterations of mock drafts, trying to predict how their rivals will compete for players, the only mock drafts most of us ever see are those made by media analysts and armchair GMs. Some draftniks create multiple mocks beginning shortly after the Superbowl ends, adding revisions right up until the eve of the draft, moving prospects up or down based on new information (workouts, injuries), speculation or rumors – or anything in between.

1 – measurables include height, weight, hand size and wingspan; other outputs include times for the 40 yard dash, 3-cone drill, bench press reps, broad jump distance, etc.
2“NFL Announces 32 Compensatory Draft Choices to 15 Clubs,” National Football League press release, Monday, March 26, 2012.

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