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From the Press Box: Interview with Matt Waldman of the Rookie Scouting Portfolio (pt 1)

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From the Press Box: Interview with Matt Waldman of the Rookie Scouting Portfolio (pt 1)

We're just a week away from the 2013 NFL Draft.

Over that next week I'm hoping to have several Draft-oriented interviews to post, showcasing a couple of analysts I like and (hopefully) one event I think will be well worth your time.

We start off with a guy who I've known for quite some time, who writes about as thorough an analysis of offensive rookies as you will find anywhere on the web.

Matt Waldman writes for both Footballguys.com and Football Outsiders, but his Rookie Scouting Portfolio has been around much longer than that.

The great thing about the RSP (which you can buy here at his website and is well worth the money) is the transparency in how he approaches things.

Most people who do draft analysis (including me) will give you all the stats and their thoughts on a prospect, but few (if any) beyond Waldman will make sure you know exactly how he arrived at his final grade.

Waldman spends a chunk of time before you get into his reports explaining exactly that. You may not agree with his final analysis, but you'll know how he got there in a way you don't with most other draftnicks.

I wanted to give you all a look into what Waldman thinks about this draft as well as the draft (and analysis) in general. Today we get the first of two parts of an interview from this past week with the man affectionately known around Footballguys circles as "Wildman".

1) You've been doing this longer than I've known you and have RSPs dating back to 2006—but what was the impetus to get started with this? What made you take the leap to the next level from basic fantasy football analysis to what's one of the deeper looks at offensive players out there?

Since I began playing fantasy football, I was always good at finding rookies and ascending talent for my teams. It became a natural area of focus for me as a fantasy writer. My first columns were about rookies and/or second-year players on the rise: Brian Westbrook, Larry Fitzgerald, Brandon Lloyd, and Frank Gore.

Westbrook was a particular point of fascination to me. Gil Brandt wrote before the 2002 NFL Draft that if the running back was a little taller and heavier, he’d be a top-10 pick overall. As I learned more about Westbrook’s high school and college history, I began to make connections that the NFL Draft was two different processes: talent evaluation and risk evaluation.

According to Brandt, Westbrook was a top-10 talent. Based on Westbrook’s second-round landing spot, his injury history, his physical dimensions, and resume at a small school increased his risk and diminished his draft stock. As a fantasy owner, I cared more about the talent evaluation process than the risk.

I think most people who play fantasy football care more about a player’s capabilities than what drives his market value. After all, talent and it’s capability of refinement ultimately drives market value at the end of the day. So I opted to take my experience with quality process improvement, operations management and combine it with my knowledge of football to develop a tool that would help me learn about players and the game while sharing that knowledge with others.
2) Since the primary intent has been to assist fantasy football owners, has it surprised you how widely regarded it's become among non-fantasy fans and draftniks?

Not at all – it was my aim all along. While I began writing about fantasy football at a point in time when the football media had a skeptical regard for the hobby, the ice has melted enough that many prominent journalists are embracing those with this expertise. Look at Gregg Rosenthal – eight years ago he was known best as a fantasy football writer.

I think the wider football audience beyond the fantasy enthusiast has a hunger to learn about the game. While analytics is a current rage, there is an equal desire among fans to learn more about the technique and strategy of the game. I think my work fits within that range of interest.
3) Have you thought about extending the coverage to the defensive side of the ball? (you know, because you have so much free time as it is)

This is a growing question I get from diehard fantasy owners and draftniks. Time is the variable here. My full-time job is as a features writer and associate editor of a business school magazine at a state university. My second full-time job is the RSP blog and publication. And my two part-time gigs are Footballguys and Football Outsiders.

At this point, I am limited to providing the most comprehensive coverage of offensive skill players as I possibly can. If and when I feel confident that I have the time to provide quality coverage of other positions I’ll explore it. However, it’s not a short-term goal.

 

4) A lot of your methodology is in the RSP itself, but can you walk us through your process? How do you approach a prospect (ie, when do you watch film, what part does Combine/Pro Day play, what part does All Star practices like the Senior Bowl play, so on....)?

I watch games year-round. I work from 5:00 a.m. to 9:00 a.m. Monday through Friday and then at least 15-18 hours most weekends. Most of my analysis comes from game study.

The NFL Combine and Pro Day workouts provide a chance to see how its measurements of athleticism relate to how I gauge athleticism on the field. It’s always a case-by-base thing, but to make a generalization, I will say that the underwear workouts only matter with a small number of evaluations.

All-Star games help me, but probably not in the ways you might think. In general I don’t place much stock in how good or bad a player looks in practice or the game. Sometimes it matters, but you have to prioritize your focus in the practices to avoid a false impression. You also have to make sure your impression of that player is appropriately framed within what that player demonstrated during his college career.

I value the practices for other reasons: the opportunity to observe the techniques and drills NFL teams use to teach players; the rate that players demonstrate the ability to absorb and execute new techniques over a span of practices; the effort that players make during practice; and the time to speak with a few people about the craft of player evaluation.
5) What is one thing you look for in any player regardless of position which either can make him an "elite" prospect or shove him down your board?

I wish there was a singular quality that tips the scales in one direction or another, but there isn’t. I also think evaluators are attracted to the way that players play based on their personal experiences of the game. My formative experiences with football came as a youth watching the old AFC Central and the hallmark of that division was physical play.

So it should come as no surprise that hitting and a comfort level with hitting are important to me. If a player allows physical play to have an adverse effect on this game on a consistent basis then it impacts my evaluation. This is a fundamental quality that I hope to see with enough study.

Another quality that often elevates a player in my eyes is the ability to integrate each of his various skill sets in an unplanned situation: physical talent, conceptual skill, and awareness of his surroundings and game situation. These displays are often overlooked moments because they sometimes lack a great statistical outcome.

 

6) How much do you weigh off the field issues like drug use or DUI?

Since I don’t interview players nor do I tend to trust the frame of reference that most others provide second- and third-hand, I don’t place a lot of weight here. As an operations manager with over a decade of experience interviewing, training, developing, and disciplining employees with a wide range of ages and experiences, I have learned that people the ages of 16-25 undergo the largest amount of changes in the shortest period of time when it comes to maturation.

Change often comes on the heels of unpleasant experiences. I try to take this into account so unless there are multiple run-ins with authority or criminal behavior I’m inclined to take a bad experience – or even two – in stride.

While I believe criminal behavior should be punished, there are a lot of behaviors that are encouraged on a football field that attracts personalities in need of learning to balance risk-taking with limitations. It’s sometimes a difficult environment for a young man to learn this balance because of family background or authority figures that enable their behavior for their own selfish ends.

7) Getting more specific to this group of players, let's talk quarterbacks. The overall class doesn't look as good as the last few and it seems as though people's rankings are pretty much different from analyst to analyst. In your view, is this class really as weak as some feel it is, or have we been spoiled by the last few quarterback classes?

We’ve been spoiled rotten. I’ve commented that the richness of the 2012 class was on par with the 1983 class that yielded John Elway, Dan Marino, Jim Kelly, Tony Eason, and Ken O’Brien. Did you know Gary Kubiak was in this class? He was a heck of a backup to Elway.

This class has 14 prospects at the quarterback position with a chance to develop into relevant players at the NFL level. I define ‘relevant’ as a starter or backup capable of making a positive difference for a team. I think eight of these players have the most potential to at least become the direct backup to a current starter and develop into starters with additional work and an opportunity.

8) Looking at the quarterbacks in the RSP, two names jump out at me. First, you're not terribly hot on Geno Smith. What's the problem here for you and why should fantasy owners and teams avoid him in favor of some of the other players ahead of him?

I understand that your assessment of my view of Smith is based on the fact I have him ranked fifth in my pre-draft publication. I understand why you would say I’m ‘not terribly hot’ on him, but I like him.

As you know, the RSP is divided into a pre-draft and post-draft publication. I use the pre-draft publication to give more weight to talent and less on the likelihood of opportunity that comes with that risk-assessment that I referred to in my answer to your first question.

The post-draft publication provides a ranking that takes opportunity into greater account. Barring any draft-day surprises, Smith will have a higher ranking in my post-draft addendum.

I think Smith possesses a lot of good qualities that can make him a successful starting quarterback. He’s patient in the pocket, maneuvers around pressure skillfully, and displays a base level of accuracy in every range of the field.

Consistency of execution is probably the single largest part of his game that is missing. His footwork on drops lacks consistency when watching the same plays for each style of drop he’s using and the accuracy suffers. He’ll need to address this aspect of his game to develop a consistent level of pinpoint accuracy that the NFL game requires. There are also conceptual lapses that I think he must address. I believe it will come with greater experience and maturation as a young adult about to encounter the game at a higher level, but it may take more time along the lines of players like Brandon Weeden than Russell Wilson.

Smith also lacks an A-plus game when it comes to his physical skills. So when I factor what he needs to learn, what he does well, and the boundaries of his athleticism, I don’t see an immediate superstar in the making. That said, I do see potential for Smith to become a good starter.
9) The other names which leap out are definitely Tulane's Ryan Griffin and Duke's Sean Renfree. While you're clear that both need work to succeed, you're higher on either of them than I've seen almost anyone. What made them stand out to you and why do you think both teams and fantasy owners might overlook them?

Pocket presence, anticipation, and accuracy. Both players display these skills and I think Renfree has these in abundance. The Duke quarterback throws the intermediate and deep ball with excellent skill in a variety of situations and I’ve seen enough examples where Renfree does so while under pressure or with his receiver in tight coverage.

Both players are pocket passers and operated in offenses where they were the true stars of the unit while lacking superstars to bail them out. This meant there were sometimes fewer instances where they had the luxury of a teammate making a great play on a bad decision.
10) RB value has taken a hit in the NFL, but is still vital for fantasy owners. While the NFL teams may be able to wait and find talent later in the draft (or in some cases, off the street), dynasty owners can't. What's your advice for owners going into their rookie draft this year (allowing for the fact that the value could change drastically depending on where they get drafted in the NFL)?

Draft as many backs as you can and keep an eagle eye on your waiver wire while monitoring the news. I realize this is common sense advice, but it also doesn’t account for the fact that you need players at other positions. This year’s running back class has nearly 30 players worth monitoring over the next 2-3 seasons, but only 5-7 players with a clear likelihood (before we see draft fit) of contributing in an offense right away.

11) You break the RBs down in a ton of categories, but speed vs acceleration is always one which trips up fans. Which do you think is more important and how does having one but not the other affect the future of an NFL back?

I’m in the acceleration camp. Most of the game is played in a radius of 20-25 yards of the line of scrimmage. Most of the game is played with stop-start movements and changes of direction.

Although we could argue the semantics of the definition of speed and acceleration, I think a basic, working definition of speed in the NFL is what they time in the range of 40 yards. Quickness and acceleration is then more a product of the shuttle and cone drills.

While many of the great players possess long speed, none of them lack quickness and acceleration. It is human nature to want everything and this doesn’t change for NFL personnel managers. This means players with both speed and acceleration tend to have a higher value during the draft than those with just strong acceleration.

However, I’m a believer that this sorts itself out in camp. The problem with attempting to quantify this kind of question is that there are so many other factors that make a quick player without long speed a better option than a quick and fast prospect: pass protection, vision, receiving skill, functional strength, etc.

A player with enough skills to produce and possesses long speed is less likely to be looking over his shoulder on the depth chart compared to one who has everything but that ability to score touchdowns from 40 yards away or greater.

 

12) There have been several lively discussions about which running back the Packers should take between Stepfan Taylor and Johnathan Franklin. Given what they have in DuJuan Harris, Alex Green and James Starks, which of the two would be a better fit? Or do you subscribe to the idea that perhaps the Pack should jump on someone like Eddie Lacy early?

When it comes to the Packers and running back, I think the answer is less about fit within a bunch of players who have talent but this point couldn’t grab the opportunity to win the feature role with both hands and hold on tight. There is no doubt that the committee approach rules the day in the NFL, but I still think teams seek a primary back who can be ‘the’ guy while hoping to have a secondary option good enough to split time.

I think Stepfan Taylor has a chance to be a good runner, but not a great one. This makes him a perfect fit for the Packers roster if you want to add the same player to your depth chart that they already have in abundance.

The best value of the three players you mentioned is Franklin. He also fits the mold of what I see in Packers skill players – versatile, explosive, smart, and physical. Franklin has a chance to be a very good runner, which is a cut above the current depth chart.

13) One last RB question: what do you think the future holds for Marcus Lattimore?

He’s a gamble that you want to see pay off. How close you want to get to that action is a personal choice. I think the wise assessment is to see where a team drafts him because it provides an indication of their confidence level in Lattimore’s prospects for recovery.

If the confidence is high enough to take Lattimore before the third round, I think he’s worth gambling a first-round pick in dynasty leagues. If it’s between rounds 4-5, then I think teams believe Lattimore’s upside is still feature back quality, but they are keeping their expectations limited and hope he can at least work in a committee. Rounds 6-7 would indicate to me that they think he can have a limited role that is helpful, but it will be up to Lattimore to surprise them with a recovery of his full range of athletic gifts.

And so there ends part one of the Matt Waldman interview. We'll have some more in the next few days (possibly over the weekend as I am traveling) and hopefully a couple more interviews before we kick off our live coverage of the 2013 NFL Draft here at CheeseheadTV.

On a side note, most of you probably know by now that I will no longer be serving as the Bleacher Report NFC North Lead Writer, which means all my draft coverage will be here at CHTV. That will include video interviews and press conference coverage direct from Radio City Music Hall as I will once again be fully credentialed at the draft.

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