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Monday, April 21, 2003
Updated: April 22, 11:22 AM ET
 
Long road winding down for NFL teams
By Randy Mueller
ESPN.com

Editor's note: Randy Mueller is the former general manager of the New Orleans Saints. He will be chatting with ESPN.com users during the upcoming NFL draft (April 26-27).

For most NFL teams, the road to this weekend's draft has been long and weary. With most teams' preparation nearly complete, let's take a look back at what has been a frantic four months for scouting staffs and coaches around the league:

The first chance for most NFL coaches and executives to see top-rated prospects is at All-Star games. Hoards of NFL personnel assemble at the Senior, East-West, Gridiron and Hula Bowls to get a thumbnail sketch of as many players as possible.

Getting started
Traditionally, the Blue-Gray game starts postseason evaluation on Christmas day in Montgomery, Ala. But this year, for the first time in recent memory, the Blue-Gray game was cancelled due to a lack of a title sponsor.

The Senior Bowl provides the most accurate talent assessment because it enables scouts to observe players coached by NFL staffs. Practice is intense and competition is spirited because there are no weak links. It's the best against the best -- mano y mano.

Most clubs meet nightly to review practice notes and rank players. So, the Senior Bowl also provides an opportunity for scouts to update coaches on various players.

When the All-Star games are over, teams retreat to their headquarters to compile evaluations and information gathered with reports from the previous fall performances. It's the first run through of what's called "stacking the board."

Hours of discussion result in the ranking of each player within his respective position. Though rankings change several times before the actual draft, it's through this process that coaches are assigned players to investigate and individual workouts are scheduled.

Combine time
Then, in February, the NFL Scouting Combine takes place in Indianapolis. This year, the combine was expanded to the top 350-375 players entering the draft.

At the combine, the majority of players don shorts and tee shirts for their on the field workouts. However, many top prospects now opt to skip the workout (and the 40), electing to schedule their own private workout later in the spring. Players are poked and prodded and asked to answer the same questions over and over again. For them, it's a true test of patience. But for NFL teams, it's a necessary step in the information gathering process. Remember, from a business perspective the athlete is a valuable asset. NFL teams spend a lot of money to acquire their services.

In addition to workouts, teams gain insight from athlete interviews and cerebral testing. But perhaps the most valuable information attained is a players medical information provided by doctors and trainers. Often, this medical evaluation is vital to making or breaking a young player's career.

Traveling band
In March, scouts and coaches spend much of their time traveling the country viewing top players' "personal workouts." Every school has one, or several, of these individual showings during which the player has the entire day to display his talents.

Because these workouts take place at either the school or in a player's hometown, it often becomes an endless chase that's frustrating at times. For instance, when you and three members of your coaching staff travel across the country to see a kid run, and he instead elects not to run for whatever reason -- I've heard everything from poor elements to a tight hammy -- it can make you want to pull your hair out.

In addition, since these workouts are staged in ideal conditions, most are taken with a grain of salt. Scouts will often say, "he was running downhill, with the wind at his back." In other words, all of the elements played to his favor.

When a player performs poorly at one of these staged workouts, it really throws up a red flag. So, there's a lot of pressure on these "one-time workout guys" to perform that day. There's usually not enough time to readjust and hold another workout later in the month.

Another interesting element about individual workouts is the amount of money spent on non-football oriented information. Four square times, broad jumps, shuttle times, etc. … are all very interesting, but once logged into a computer, they're seldom brought up again. (Evaluating players is difficult to do from numbers. Game film is still the best avenue.)

Back to the board
Around the second week of April, workouts are usually complete and it's back to the draft room. At this time, coaches get their say in the process. Some teams utilize their coaches more than others for final analysis, but it's important that coaches have some input into the players they'll potentially coach.

During these discussions, a player's strengths and weaknesses are assessed and compared with team schemes and what he'll be asked to do once he's on board. Since coaches spend the most time dealing with the players from this perspective, their input is crucial. Afterwards players are once again ranked by position with input from the whole staff.

The next step is for the entire staff to rank players 1-150 regardless of position. This process, which is a melding of scout's thoughts with coaching input, usually takes about two-to-three days. A team's general manager and head coach then use the information to begin developing a draft strategy.

Each year, the draft unfolds differently. Some are deeper with more trade activity than others. And it's not until about one week to 10 days prior that you start to get a real flavor for what to expect. So, the last few days are used for planning your strategy. Team needs, likelihood of trades, player availability, and salary cap concerns are all taken into account.

In some ways, planning for the NFL draft is a lot like preparing for a Sunday rival -- your game plan will determine your team's success (or lack thereof). It's necessary to have the foresight to imagine every possibility and to have an answer or predetermined reaction to whatever happens. Every crazy scenario is played out so the best counter-moves are limitless.

To the present
Which brings us to the present. With less than a week until the NFL draft, most teams will use the next few days to hold numerous mock drafts and go through various scenarios. In addition, scouts and coaches touch base with potential free agents (players who aren't expected to be drafted) to weigh their options.

By Friday everything will be put to bed -- or not -- many grind away late into the evening. Others disappear by noon in an attempt to clear their heads and prepare for what may come on Saturday and Sunday.

Draft weekend is the biggest event of the offseason for college prospects and NFL teams. And it should be for its fans as well. See you there.

Randy Mueller is the former general manager of the New Orleans Saints and a contributor to ESPN.com's NFL draft coverage.