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New thoughts on "safe picks."

Edit: 4 PM. Removed Clayborn analysis in favor of a breakdown of positive and negative traits to look for in calculating the odds of a prospects success.

I was thinking today about Gene Smith's draft history. It's a nice combination of big guys and little guys, big name players and little school guys. There is this idea out there that there is this universal "Gene Smith type" that he always seems to draft for: the Senior, team captain, who played for a small school... We all know the deal. I had another thought though:

Gene Smith is drafting "safe" players. Now, to define what a safe player is, I'd have to explain that it's not a game of numbers, it's a game of percentages. What is the percentage likelihood that, based on this player's skill set, he can survive and succeed in the NFL.

Think about Tyson Alualu: He didn't have an extraordinary combine performance. He ran a 4.87, benched 21 times and measured in a 6'3, 295 pounds. If you look at those numbers, nothing jumps out at you. 4.87 is an average time, 21 is an average number of bench reps, he doesn't have ideal size for the DT position, but what you do see is that these measurable are all within the functional range of a professional DT. Said another way, if you were to rate Alualu like a grade A to F, he'd be at about an 80, a B or a B- and seem like a stretch at number ten overall. However, considering his consistent production, good character, and the overall measurables comparable to other NFL players, the odds of him being a good professional are pretty high. He is not necessarily exceptional, but he has the basic makeup of an NFL starter.

Derek Cox is a similar case: Good character, productive in college, measurables that match what was expected for a player at his position. Some call him a reach, but he showed the potential to be an NFL player, so Gene pulled the trigger.

Why is this important? It changes how you look at potential draftees. Physical talent is not the only indication of how well a player will perform. If it was, Dontay Moch would be the first defensive end off the board and we all know that's not gonna happen. Emotional and physical maturity are indicators of a player's ability to manage the media and hold up for a long NFL season. Hard work and leadership skills indicate the player will put in the effort necessary to succeed. Productivity is very important: if a player can't succeed against college players, how is he supposed to succeed against pros, right? Consistency is important as well.

On the negative side, one year performers haven't shown any consistency. "Character issues" range from legal trouble to ego to how well can you get along with your teammates on a personal level. These are detractors. Even when these "trouble" players do succeed, there is almost always some negative fallout from their presence, (think Terrell Owens, Chad Ochocinco). Even if a player does perform, outspoken and unlikable players often find themselves traded or cut (Brandon Marshall, Jay Cutler, Randy Moss), and the goal of the draft is to keep your draftees and get them on the field. Other negatives are unfitting body types if a player is too heavy or too short, has bad top speed and especially the dreaded label of "soft." Production in bunches is also indicative of a potential bust.

Is this actually the way Gene Smith looks at draft prospects? Who knows. It does select for seniors (who have had time to build physical and emotional maturity in college), team captains (leadership and production in college) and "high character" prospects, and allows a team to look past the combine numbers at who a player is likely to be. Overall, I think Gene drafts "safe" players because "safe" drafting is efficient drafting, and efficiency leads to a talented roster.