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NFL Draft: The meanings and motives of pre-draft meetings and visits

NFL: Combine Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

We’re nearly there. No, I’m not talking about the latest Avengers movie releasing next week. I’m referring to the Draft endgame that commences next Thursday. Despite such close proximity to hearing “The Seattle Seahawks are on the clock” and the glorious bell jingle, there is one area I still don’t properly understand. What do meetings and prospect visits actually mean?

Fans and analysts get excited whenever their team is reported to have met with a player, particularly if it’s their draft crush. The rumors drive the pre-draft media cycle. In my first year attending the Senior Bowl, I hungrily tweeted about players I could see sitting down with teams in the lobby of the Renaissance Riverview Plaza Hotel. I eventually realized that pretty much every player was meeting with every team.

For some clarity on the meetings and visits part of the pre-draft process, I enlisted the help of Dan Hatman. Hatman has scouting experience in NFL Front Offices, including an internship with the New York Giants that ended in a Super Bowl XLII ring. He now runs the Scouting Academy, an opportunity for anyone to learn how to evaluate players. The program has plenty of alumni in the NFL and college football.

I first asked Hatman whether my ideas around the Senior Bowl and Combine meetings were correct:

“Am I right in saying that at the Senior Bowl and Combine, pretty much every team meets with every player? I realize the combine limits the formal interviews to 60, 15-minute interviews though.”

Hatman’s response confirmed my pre-conception:

“Most teams have the goal of getting every player interviewed (at least informally) between all-star games and the combine. The formal (15-minute) interviews are only for the 60, but you can actually get more time with some of the informals and the ‘interviews’ extend to pro days, private workouts, and even ‘30 visits’ where you take time to talk with prospects.”

I then questioned whether the ‘1 of 30 visit’ was the most important:

“How much more importance would you place on the “30 visits” over the combine formal intervals?”

I expected Hatman to tell me that the ‘30 visit’ was by far the most important. His answer surprised me:

“Not much. Some teams will use the 30 visits as recruiting trips for UDFA types.”

Hatman raising the subject of recruiting future UDFAs was an interesting point. Looking at Brandan Schulze’s excellent tracker and the brilliant work of Alistair Corp, there are a number of UDFA types on there.

Hatman forced me to re-evaluate what the purpose of meetings, visits and private workouts is. The motives behind seeing a prospect vary from team to team and player to player. Reports of combine meetings rarely distinguish between whether it was formal or informal. Facing this barrier, I came up with 6 pieces of rationale behind a team talking to prospects:

1. Face value

Most of the time, the reasons for the interest can be taken at face value. The team likes the player, they want to find out more about them. Schneider has talked about finding players with the “take jobs” mentality. Speaking to them, staring contests included, helps. It was no surprise that long cornerback Lonnie Johnson had a formal interview at the NFL Combine with Seattle.

2. Future process

Even if the player isn’t picked by the team interviewing them, or if the prospect won’t last to the team’s pick, it helps a Front Office evaluate players down the road. How accurate were they in their projection? This particularly applies to the enigmatic quarterback position. You’ll remember that John Schneider attended Patrick Mahomes’ pro-day. If he had an elite grade on Mahomes, who was a divisive prospect coming out, Schneider knows he did a solid job.

3. Trades or free agency

The same applies to trades or free agency. A highly picked player perceived to be a bust may become available via trade or in free agency. At that point, a Front Office has to know as much as possible about the player. They need to know what the person is. Did the player bust because of a poor attitude? Or it was due to the many other potential explanations, such as bad coaching or terrible schematic fit.

4. Gain information on a teammate

It was hypothesized that Seattle was doing this with Parris Campbell, instead preferring Terry McLaurin. The interest in Campbell seems too strong for this though. Asking a quarterback about his stud offensive player is an option though. Seattle’s meeting with Gardner Minshew at the Senior Bowl would have proved valuable. Minshew, cliché I know, is a coach on the field—he almost gave up playing to be a grad assistant under Nick Saban. Asking Minshew about his Left Tackle, Andre Dillard, would have been illuminating.

5. Smokescreen

The draft is prime lying season—just look at the games being played in Arizona with the “will they, won’t they?” of Kyler Murray. Using certain players as a smokescreen, to hide true drafting intentions, is something that all teams do. Sometimes a player will be so coveted by a Front Office that they are terrified of showing a pre-draft interest in him. After all, scouts will have met that player during the college football season anyway. The Packers meeting with Daniel Jones after going all in during Free Agency feels like more of a smokescreen. The key is that a smokescreen must be believable. For instance, if the Seahawks hosted a cornerback who projected to the outside yet didn’t have long arms, a team wouldn’t bite on that.

Gain more complete evaluations

Ultimately, both meetings and visits are designed to gain a more complete evaluation of a prospect. This doesn’t just help with picking capable players. It also helps project where players are going to go, avoiding massive reaches but also reducing the chances of being sniped by another team. Sometimes the eval might already be complete, as was the case with Tyler Eifert and Greedy Williams:

Yet this is rare and gaining as deep an insight as possible into a player is crucial to an optimal process. The formal meetings, pro-day interest and ’30 visits’ likely reveal who is on a team’s draft board. Yet teams have about 100 players on their board, so it’s not an all-encompassing, big reveal.

For instance, this year the players Seattle has met with, visited and hosted all make sense. If predicting the Seahawks’ draft board, all these players would have been on there. Some may have been moved up the board by the Front Office based on having a promising character, and some may have been removed from the board entirely based on a poor mentality. Similarly, Derrek Thomas’ private workout was likely designed to give Pete Carroll the chance to see if Thomas had enough traits that he could convert into a quality NFL corner.

On the other side of the draft business, player agents are prone to leak to the media if their player visited teams to try and inflate the draft stock of their client. We never hear of every visit, meeting or private workout plus certain agents are more aggressive.

It’s under a week until the draft and we still don’t know what order the prospects are on the Seahawks’ draft board, or who John Schneider and Pete Carroll really want, because we aren’t privy to how this massive part of the draft process went. Things will become much clearer after next week.