If you're familiar with my work, you know I often preach that clubs have to be prepared for the worst-case scenario on draft day. How do I know this? I had to go through a draft when the team that employed me wasn’t prepared for the worst-case scenario when it came time for us to make our first selection.
The year was 1996, and I was a scout with the New York Giants. Back then, Rounds 1-3 of the draft were held on Saturday, April 20th and Rounds 4-7 were on Sunday, April 21st. The scouting staff traveled to New Jersey on Easter Sunday, April 7th, so that our final meetings could begin on Monday.
When I was working for the Giants, we would stack the draft board top to bottom, beginning with the first round and on through seven rounds. That meant the board would include about 155 players. As each player was brought up, we would discuss him thoroughly before placing his name on the board. We then compared him to the other players who were already stacked above him. Anyone who wrote a report on a given player could speak on the player being discussed. Arguments on certain players could get lengthy — and sometimes heated — but in the end we felt we assigned the right grades
In 1996, though, the meetings were a bit different. Dan Reeves was about to begin his fourth and final season as head coach of the Giants. In his first two years, Reeves led the Giants to winning records, and we went to the playoffs following the 1993 season.
Ultimately, 1993 was our best year under Reeves, as our won/lost record got worse each succeeding season. With the losses, the relationship between Reeves and the scouting department and the front office got worse every year.
Reeves had come from the Denver Broncos, where he had total control over the roster and the draft. That wasn’t the case in New York, where George Young was the general manager and had control over the 53-man roster and the draft. Reeves was fine with the decisions his first few years, but as time went on he did not like playing second fiddle to Young. That made our draft meetings contentious to say the least. By 1996 it was basically the coaching staff against the personnel staff ... and the meetings weren’t fun.
Our prep meetings for the 1996 draft began right away with the best players in that year's class. First up was Jonathan Ogden, the big UCLA tackle, followed by USC WR Keyshawn Johnson, then Illinois LB Kevin Hardy. We got through those first three players fairly quick, placing them on the draft board. Following Hardy was his Illinois teammate, DE Simeon Rice, whom our scouting department wanted.
As strong as the scouting department's feelings were for Rice, it was the opposite from the coaches, and Reeves wanted no part of Rice being a Giant. After we had gone through the first three players in just over an hour, we spent a day and a half on Rice. Yes, until noon on Tuesday before we came to a consensus opinion, and to this day I really don’t believe it was a consensus. It was more Reeves finally giving in.
While the discussion on Rice took about 11 actual hours, it seemed like a week. The Giants personnel director at the time was the late Tom Boisture, who was not about to give in to Reeves and the coaches. We watched every game of Rice as a group, and though it was easy to see Rice’s talent on tape, Reeves was not going to give an inch in the discussion. It became a power struggle with egos involved and Young let the arguing go on for those 11 hours.
During the discussion, Reeves was looking at other names that we would soon get to, locking on Oklahoma DE Cedric Jones. The grades the scouting staff had on Jones made him a mid-to-late- first-rounder, but not close in talent to Rice. To appease Reeves during the discussion, we watched a few games on Jones, and while Jones did flash, Reeves became adamant that he would much rather have Jones than Rice.
To further appease Reeves, we ended up giving Jones a grade that placed him in the top 10 on our board, but he was not about to bump the first four players in our rankings.
In 1996, there wasn’t close to the amount of draft information that's now available to the public. The main analysts were ESPN’s Mel Kiper and Pro Football Weekly’s Joel Buchsbaum. There was no twitter, no “Path to the Draft" and “NFL Live” and rumors were scarce. To find out information on what other clubs would do, team executives had to rely on friendships around the league and hope that what we found out was correct.
The Giants held the fifth pick in the 1996 draft. The first four selections belonged to the New York Jets, the Jacksonville Jaguars, the Arizona Cardinals and the Baltimore Ravens, respectively. As a club, the Giants felt that three of our four top players (Ogden, Johnson, Hardy and Rice) would go in the first three picks. The team we were unsure of was Baltimore. Giants owner Wellington Mara was close to Ravens owner Art Modell, and Mr. Mara felt confident after many conversations with Modell that the Ravens were going to select Nebraska RB Lawrence Phillips.
It was the first year for the Ravens, who had just moved from Cleveland, and front office executive Ozzie Newsome — who didn’t yet carry the GM title — was running his first draft. Newsome was well aware that Mr. Modell wanted Phillips but felt that Phillips was a ticking time bomb about to explode and refused to give in to the owner’s wishes. Of course, the Giants did not know this part of the equation.
Going into the draft, we felt confident that, at No. 5, we would land one of our top four players — with Rice our most coveted. Even if we didn’t get Rice, we would have been more than happy with any of the other three players.
What we didn’t do is prepare for the worst-case scenario. At no time did we feel that we wouldn’t get a shot at one of our top four players. That mistake falls on the hands of the scouting department, as you can’t assume anything when it comes to the draft.
As the draft began, the Jets selected Keyshawn Johnson with the first overall pick. A few minutes later, Jacksonville selected Kevin Hardy at No. 2. Next up, Arizona promptly took Rice, our favorite player. Now, Baltimore was up and Johnathan Ogden was still there. While Rice was the player we wanted, Ogden was rated as the best player on our board. With Baltimore on the clock, we felt confident Phillips would be the pick, leaving Ogden for us.
As I stated above, Newsome was not going to take a risky player with his first-ever draft pick and he went against Modell’s wishes, selecting Ogden. We were now on the clock and the four players we wanted were gone — we didn’t have a player to draft. In our preparations, we never thought about another player to take if the top four were gone. We had briefly talked about Jones, but not to the extent of the other players. Yes, we had failed to do our due diligence.
Young felt the best thing to do was trade back, but when a club tries to trade back without being prepared to do so, panic enters into the equation. He quickly called the next four or five clubs in line, and no one wanted to trade. Young finally found a team willing to trade — the Houston Oilers, who had the 14th pick. Knowing we were desperate, they offered us a seventh-round pick to make the deal. Young knew he couldn’t, that we would look like fools getting so little to move back nine slots. Instead, we kept the fifth overall pick and took Jones. We should have traded! Yes, Reeves was happy, but the draft room was silent.
When a club doesn’t do its proper prep work on a player before the draft, it can get burned — big time — like we did. Before making the selection, we did not check with the medical department, and we found out later that Jones was blind in one eye. No, I don’t remember which eye, but it meant he could only play on one side of the formation because of his blindness. Needless to say, it was an awful pick, as Jones had a nothing career for the Giants.
That first round taught me a very important lesson: Always be prepared for the worst-case scenario when it comes to the draft. In meetings leading up to the draft, always have a plan that accounts for the worst-case scenario. Be prepared to trade down days ahead and make calls letting teams know that we may want to move. Have a list of fallback players ready for if the players we originally wanted aren’t there.
In my nine years in Chicago, we were never unprepared for anything. We never selected a player out of panic and we always had a plan in place. You could argue that we may not have always taken the right players, but you can’t argue that we didn’t do what we thought was in the best interest of the Chicago Bears.