Falcons must trust their eyes during draft prep

After Dungy’s playing career ended, he went into coaching under the great Chuck Noll, the only coach to win four Super Bowls, in 1981.

When evaluating players for the draft in the pre-digital era, Noll had a simple approach.

“He sent me out to do some workouts,” Dungy recalled recently in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “He said don’t take a tape measure or weigh them and all of that. Just watch them play. If they can play in college, they will probably play well in the NFL.”

That was a different day and time.

Fast forward to 2014.

Teams around the NFL, including the Falcons, are finalizing their draft boards for the NFL draft, which is set for May 8-10. They are using all sorts of metrics and analytics to help them place grades on prospects.

NFL teams have spent millions of dollars examining, measuring, testing and interviewing the top prospects. Their analysis is much more complex today than when Dungy started coaching.

The Falcons and other teams are in a sometimes paradoxical corner.

How much do they rely on what they see on tape versus what their analytical numbers tell them.

“Now, we kind of get immersed in all of these different things and what guys can do and how fast they can run,” Dungy said. “They go get personal trainers. You get all of these guys who have these great workouts and then you look at the tape and they aren’t that good as players, but they work out really good.”

Teams can get fooled and miss on legitimate football players.

If Falcons president Rich McKay and Dungy went purely on measurables, they would not have drafted Warrick Dunn with the 12th overall pick in 1997 while together in Tampa Bay. At 5-foot-9 and 180 pounds, Dunn was seen by some scouts as too small, someone who wouldn’t hold up to the rigors of the NFL.

Dunn proved them wrong by rushing for 10,967 yards over 12 seasons.

“He didn’t pass the eye test,” Dungy said. “There are so many guys like that. (Seattle quarterback) Russell Wilson is doing it now.”

Later as head coach of Indianapolis in 2003, Dungy was dazzled by the tape of Atlantan Robert Mathis, who starred at Alabama A&M after his days at McNair High.

“It was one of the best college highlight tapes I’ve ever seen,” Dungy said. “Maybe only Barry Sanders’ tape was better. But people kept saying: ‘lack of competition’ or ‘Mathis is only this big’ instead of saying, ‘how did this guy perform.’’’

Mathis went on to help Dungy earn his second Super Bowl ring. He won one as a player with Noll. Mathis is still terrorizing NFL quarterbacks and has posted 111 sacks over 11 seasons.

With less than a month to go in the process, the Falcons are finalizing their plans. They’ve made it no secret that they plan to fortify their offensive and defensive lines. They also have holes at free safety and tight end.

With the sixth overall pick, they will have a chance to help the offensive line by selecting either Auburn tackle Greg Robinson, Texas A&M tackle Jake Matthews or Michigan tackle Taylor Lewan.

Or, they could elect to improve the talent along the defensive line by trading up to land South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney or they may be in position to select Buffalo linebacker Khalil Mack or UCLA linebacker Anthony Barr.

Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff has traded up in three of his six drafts, including the mega-deal to land wide receiver Julio Jones in 2011.

Whoever they select, Dimitroff, Falcons coach Mike Smith and the personnel men and scouts, must balance the eye test vs. the tape-measure test.

Smith seems to be in the Dungy-Noll camp. He puts a lot of weight on what he sees — the eye test.

“It is a long process that we go through in evaluating draft-eligible players,” Smith said. “The actual tape is the players’ DNA and (it) gives us an opportunity to see his reaction on the field, depending on what his position is. … The biggest factor is what you see on tape because they’ll be lining up and playing the game of football.”

Falcons owner Arthur Blank, who purchased the team in 2001, remains intrigued by the draft process. He appreciates the advent of analytics and background checks.

“At the end of the day, you rely very heavily on tape, the history of what they seen over the last few years of the player,” Blank said. “Then they spend a tremendous amount of time — personnel and coaches, including (Smith) and the coordinators and position coaches — with each individual that they are looking at and try to understand the player, not only production-wise, but the player in terms of their football character and their background.”

Dungy is a big proponent of character analysis, too.

“For me, the character was critical,” Dungy said. “It’s not about just bringing in talented guys. There are a lot of talented guys in college.

“There are a lot of talented free agents that you can bring in, but is the guy going to fit into your team? Is he going to make your locker room better? Is he going to do things the way you want them done.”

Blank doesn’t buy the theory that the Falcons lack toughness because they won’t select any so-called “bad apples” or players with character flaws.

“I don’t think they are separate things,” Blank said. “You can have players that are tougher and grittier and etc. and not end up in the wrong section of the newspaper. By and large, we have a lot of players that are as tough and as gritty as you want them to be.”

In the end, the Falcons plan to trust their eyes.

“It’s not about all of the numbers and the testing,” Smith said. “(The measurables) are an important piece, but really that tape is the most important thing. We probably spend a larger percentage of our time on the tape and juxtaposing players by their tape. The numbers are the numbers, but ultimately it’s what you see on that tape.”

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