NFL

Pro Days across the country are just about done. By the end of next week, the only working out we will see will be some private workouts for prospects that some teams still need information on. Once these are done, the next thing on the agenda for many of the NFL scouting departments is the pre-draft meetings where the board is put together and a draft strategy is developed.

I have always felt that the pre-draft meetings were the most interesting and fun part of the whole yearlong scouting process. Each NFL club will handle the format of these meetings a little differently but for the most part, the general objective is to make sure the draft board is lined up properly.

Stacking the Board

With the exception of one year in my career, these meetings usually lasted about a week to 10 days and were done by position. When we started to discuss a certain position, the people in the room would include the scouting staff, the General Manager, the Head Coach, the Coordinator and the position scout.

Each scout who evaluated the player during the year would have an opportunity to talk about the player, as well as the position coach and coordinator weighing in o the prospect. We would also discuss how this player fit our offensive or defensive scheme, and what we could expect his contribution to be during his rookie, second and third years. A plan on how to develop this player was also discussed.

When we were finished discussing a prospect, a final grade was put on the player, and he was then lined up on the draft board with the other players at his position. Part of the “lining up” process would be asking the simple question of, 'who would we rather have, Player A or player B?'

During these meetings, discussion can at times get heated, as some evaluators can have strong feelings about a certain player, positive or negative. There is nothing wrong with heated debate as long as everyone respects the others opinion. In the end, if the room can’t totally agree on a player’s value, the GM has to make that final decision as to where he is stacked on the board.

Once the players are stacked according to position, then the whole board is stacked from best to worst regardless of position. When this happens, there could be a number of players at different positons who have the same grade. They then are lined up by both value and priority. This is done so that when Draft Day comes, there is no argument as to which player the club prefers. All the “arguing” was done in the meetings.

When I first started in the NFL, most Draft Boards included about 250-to-300 players. That is no longer the case. Many clubs go into a draft with about 100 names on their board. It consists of players the clubs want in the different rounds of the draft, and players who fit the criteria the coaches are looking for. Players who are not scheme fits usually don’t find their way to the final board. There is no sense in cluttering the board with players a club will never draft.

Developing a Strategy

Once the Board is set, then a Draft Day strategy is developed. With free agency just about over, the club knows what its needs are. They know what players and at what positions they both gained and lost players.

With the knowledge of how many draft picks they have, and what their needs are, clubs can develop a plan as to how they are going to fill those needs. The strengths and weaknesses of the draft play into developing that strategy.

By this I mean that if a club needs a player at a positon where the draft is weak as far as overall talent, they may determine that they will draft a player from that positon early on depending on who they are looking at when they are on the clock. When a certain position has depth to it, then a club can decide to fill that need later on. Still, teams have to seriously consider drafting a player whose grade is a level higher than anyone else on the board because of the “best available athlete” theory.

The club may also determine that they need quality players at a few positons, meaning they have to select as many players as they can from these positon groups early in the draft. In order to accomplish this goal, it may be wise to try and trade down a few slots and pick up another high draft choice by making that trade. In a deep draft I have always felt that this is sound strategy.

If a club determines it needs to trade down, this usually isn’t a Draft Day decision. It is determined days before the draft, and calls are made to other clubs letting them know that you may be willing to trade down. Without having done this preparation work, a club could get put into a situation where they are stuck with a poor deal they don’t want to make.

As we get closer to the Draft, I will write more about how different Draft Day strategies and scenarios are put together.

NFL

PHOENIX — Most of you know the story behind the head coach of the Indianapolis Colts.

For those who don't, of if anyone needs a refresher, on Jan. 25, 2012 following a 2-14 season in Indianapolis, the Colts hired Chuck Pagano as their head coach.

Three months later, the Colts used the No. 1 pick in the NFL Draft to select quarterback Andrew Luck.

Eight months later, Pagano was diagnosed with Acute Promyelocytic Leukemia.

Following a Week Four 30-27 victory over the Packers and a 2-2 start, Pagano was forced to take a leave of absence to receive treatment for his Leukemia.

When he returned during the final week of the season, his team and his offensive coordinator and interim head coach, Bruce Arians, were wrapping up an 11-5 season, one for which Arians became the first coach in league history to be voted both the Coach of the Year and the Assistant Coach of the Year.

Tuesday at the NFL owners meetings in Phoenix, Pagano talked about how close the Colts and he came to not having Arians.

“Yeah, it was a pretty cool conversation, a pretty cool phone call. I love that story," he said. "You know him and (wife) Chris had just dropped off a load and hey were heading back to Pittsburgh to get another load and you know head to retirement.

“He was going to do it but he said it depends on what you’re offering, you know what are you talking about. So I said, 'Why don’t you fly in here and we’ll discuss that.'

“Thank God the stars lined up perfectly, you know for him to be available at that time so I was very fortunate.”

It was a fortunate year for Pagano, who has also remained Leukemia free since then.

Pagano’s Colts would go on to AFC South titles the next two seasons with back-to-back 11-5 records after Arians departed to become head coach of the Cardinals, and a 3-2 record in the postseason.

But with a midseason injury to Luck in 2015 and a failure to improve on the offensive line and defense, the Colts fell to 8-8, and Pagano and general manager Ryan Grigson, who hired Pagano in 2012 in his first year on the job, came under intense scrutiny from team owner Jim Irsay.

Part of their problem was a perceived disastrous relationship between Pagano and Grigson, but after several weeks of uncertainty, Irsay chose to give both men four-year extensions and orders to play nice together.

After another 8-8 campaign last season, both Pagano and Grigson were rumored to be in serious jeopardy again, but Irsay elected to fire Grigson while giving Pagano a vote of confidence and a new boss in first-time GM Chris Ballard.

Pagano is effusive in his praise and gratitude to Irsay, telling me, “Jim’s a great owner and he’s a great man. He’s got a first class organization, he’s got a winning organization so I feel very, very blessed to be in the position that I’m in. I’m grateful to Jim for this opportunity and you know he’s given me another shot to take another run at this thing.

“He does everything that you would want in an owner, he gives us everything that we need to compete at the highest level.”

When I pointed out to Pagano that some view Irsay as one of the games “quirkier” owners he begged to differ somewhat.

“No he’s a very unique man, he’s very, very bright and he’s a football man. This is all he knows, this is all he’s done," he said. “You know, I grew up in a football family. I grew up on the sidelines and Jim grew up the same way. He came up like I came up. We were picking up the jocks and socks and the towels in the locker room.

“The players that he got to hang out with as a young man growing up and then being a GM in this league at a very, very young age, being a scout, he’s done everything. He knows the business inside and out.

“He’s got the biggest heart of any man that I know. A lot of people don’t get to see a lot f things that Jim does for people. You talk about a selfless guy, he always talks about faith, family and football.

“I see it every day, I get to live it every day with him and it’s for real.”

Looking Pagano in the eye and listening, it is clear there is nothing phony, political or contrived about his fondness and respect for Irsay. It is from the heart.

But now it is time for Pagano to start winning again, and unlike some he doesn’t see anything easy about getting back to the top of the AFC South.

“Yeah, I mean [some] take shots all the time about how weak the division is, but ask any of the coaches or any of the players on any of the teams and they’d obviously tell you differently," he said. "Three teams, we were 8-8 and I think Tennessee was 9-7 and of course Houston’s won the division the past two seasons and it’s very, very competitive. I think the talent level on all the teams is getting better every single year.

“It’s a tough division, there’s a lot of marquee players in our division so I don’t know why that’s out there. If you just look at the talent, look at the rosters, things like that it’s pretty easy to see that it’s a pretty tough division.”

Pagano’s plan to get back to the playoffs starts with improving the competition in his own locker room.

“I think we’ve talked about the competition for a long time," he said. "Iron sharpens iron, man sharpens man you know so when you talk about getting better and you talk about improving you talk about guys raising their level of play there’s nothing like having somebody right on your heels, you know trying to take your job.

“And that’s a good thing you know, that’s not something that anybody should fear, if you’re a competitor you love that.

“You love to compete, you love to compete on Sundays. You try to make your roster as competitive as you possible can because it brings out the best.”

If there’s anything Pagano’s established in his tenure with the Colts, whether it’s his battle with Leukemia, his kinship with Arians or surviving the Grigson regime, he’s certainly not afraid to compete.

And he’s a hard guy not to pull for, too.

NFL

PHOENIX — Chicago Bears general manager Ryan Pace is looking and acting very much like a young man quite comfortable in his own skin and confident he is guiding his organization down the right path.

Make no mistake, Pace isn’t happy for a second with 3-13 nor is he under any illusions that kind of futility can continue, but he has no intention of deviating from his plan.

“Building through the draft is the primary way we want to do this” Pace told a small group of us from the Chicago media at the NFL owners meetings on Tuesday.

As for free agency he explained, “We always say, the best form of free agency is re-signing your own players because you know the most about those guys.”

No team though can completely ignore free agency or build exclusively through the draft, and Pace discussed the possibility that quarterback could fail to make his shopping list in the draft again after adding Mike Glennon and Mark Sanchez.

“Mike Glennon is our starting quarterback and Sanchez I see as a really good solid number two quarterback," he said. "I think (Sanchez is) the kind of player that exudes confidence. I like that about him. He’s knowledgeable, he’s smart and him and Mike have already kind of clicked.

“We’ve talked about it before, there’s no more important room than the quarterback room and we put a lot of thought as to how that room blends together, especially with the number two position.

“I think we’ve created an environment not only with him but also with Connor Shaw where it’s a room that can really click together and make each other better.”

When Pace first came to town, he talked about drafting a quarterback every year to constantly try and upgrade the position, but he has yet to take one in his first two drafts.

Will 2017 be different?

“We talk about it a lot. We’re going to draft the best players available, wherever that may be," he said. "And if it’s a quarterback, it’s a quarterback. But we’re going to take the best players available.”

It does feel like it would be stunning if the Bears took a quarterback at number three, and listening to Pace it’s hard not to feel right now he might like Glennon, who is just 27 better than any quarterback available in the draft.

Pace will be ready either way.

“We’ll have an elite group of names that we’re confident will be there (at No. 3). Three names, yeah," Pace said. "But beyond that there’s some pretty good depth in this draft, too, so are there scenarios – and it’s easier said than done – where we can trade back? Those things will be discussed.”

Two positions the Bears won’t be drafting at No. 3 are wide receiver and guard.

Of his first ever draft pick, Kevin White, Pace said, “I’m glass-half-full, I’m optimistic. But I’m also mindful and responsible about creating the right depth.

“I’m excited about where he’s at right now, where his mindset is at right now, and it’ll be exciting to see that moving forward.”

Pace is also confident of a return to form from his Pro Bowl guard, Kyle Long.

“Fortunately we came to the conclusion that he really didn’t need the shoulder [surgery]. I think that helps a lot," Pace said. "For a player like that to have two surgeries in an offseason is challenging. But for him just to deal with the ankle, I think that was kind of a relief for him. Genetically he’s a freak, so he’s progressing very well.”

Team Chairman George McCaskey is as frustrated with the losing as Pace, but he told me he’s as confident as ever that his young GM is the guy to get it fixed.

While there is still no immediate pressure on Pace to win now, it seems very likely down the road we will look back on next month’s draft as a turning point in the Pace regime. Right now he sounds ready and raring to go.

NFL

PHOENIX — With the phrase, “Our owners approved overwhelmingly the move,” NFL commissioner Roger Goodell made it official, the Oakland Raiders will become the Las Vegas Raiders in 2020 upon completion of the new stadium being built in the “entertainment capital of the world.”

Few will argue with that last quote, but it was Raiders owner Mark Davis who anointed Las Vegas with that title saying, “My father used to say the greatness of the Raiders is in its future.

“The opportunity to build a world class stadium in the entertainment capital of the world is one opportunity that will give us the ability to achieve that future.”

Goodell, Texans owner Bob McNair, Chairman of the Finance Committee, and the Steelers' Art Rooney II, Chairman of the Stadium Committee, all went to great lengths to explain their exhaustive efforts to keep the Raiders in Oakland before being forced to move on to Vegas.

The commissioner explained, “We work very hard to avoid the relocation of a franchise and that means exhausting our options and doing everything we can.

”In this instance and in this market as you know there has been a stadium situation that has been addressed and both parties have agreed that it’s not going to be relieved for the long term in the best interests of the team or the community.

“We believe we and the Raiders have worked earnestly with Oakland for over a decade to try and find that viable option.”

Goodell also pointed out the 32 owners offered to contribute $100 million more to help finance a stadium in Oakland than they had in any other market, but to no avail.

McNair said, “We’ve worked for probably two years now, not just the last nine months to try and find a solution for the Raiders and of course our first choice was to try and find an answer in Oakland.

“Unfortunately we were unable to do that and the plan that the Raiders now have to be in Nevada and Las Vegas is a very sound plan, one that we’ve looked at very carefully and it meets all of our standards and financial conditions.

“So we’re delighted for the Raiders, we think this will lead to a more stable franchise and that’s the goal of all of us in the league is to have 32 clubs that are all strong.”

Some have believed over the past couple of years that McNair might have been an important voice in a group of owners who would object to Vegas as an NFL city because it is also the legalized sports betting capital of the world, but there were no mentions of that concern by the commissioner or any of the three owners who spoke at the press conference announcing the move, nor were there any questions on that topic from the media.

Rooney’s take was, “As the commissioner said we appreciate the efforts of (Oakland) Mayor (Libby) Schaaf’s efforts to try and put something on the table.”

“My own personal opinion is that the presence of the baseball team (Oakland Athletics) on that site was a complication that they really couldn’t find a way to work around.”

Davis was clear when asked what the last straw was making it clear to him a deal could not be reached in Oakland.

“I believe it turned during the L.A. part where before the vote for Los Angeles, Oakland had an opportunity to come in and make a presentation to the league and they came in with a five-page piece of paper that had nothing to do with anything.

“They claimed that they would wait for us to lose the vote and then come back and then they’d have all the leverage.

“We lost the vote and then came back and we negotiated a one-year lease with the two years of options and talked about getting together and talking about a long term future together.

“A week later I got a phone call from one of the county board supervisors telling me ‘Mark, I’m sorry but the lease that we just negotiated, the three years of leases are not going to be valid and we’re going to raise the rate three times on you.

“At that point we ended up signing that lease anyway but we decided we had to start looking elsewhere to see if we could find a long term solution.”

While Davis announced his club’s move to Vegas almost a year ago, it was thought to be problematic because the principle financing was originally coming from Casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, a man who accumulated his billion dollar fortune in the gambling business and was not thought to be welcome in the NFL owners circle.

When Adelson dropped out of the deal following a dispute with Davis over terms, and Goldman Sachs pulled additional financing due to Adelson’s departure, the move appeared to be in serious jeopardy.

But Bank of America stepped into the void with a $750 million investment in the stadium plan and when the NFL owners agreed to a relocation fee from Davis that is reportedly slightly more than just half what the Rams and Chargers recently paid to move to Los Angeles, the deal was all but secured.

With his team’s move to Las Vegas now formally approved, the only hurdle remaining for Davis is the new Nevada stadium, which will not be ready for play at the earliest before the 2020 season, and Davis only has guarantees to remain in Oakland through 2018.

Davis indicated he will talk to the city of Oakland about a deal for 2019 but will also begin to look for other options for that one season in the event a deal cannot be reached.

Will the legendary “Raider Nation” follow the club to Las Vegas? That remains to be seen.

What we know for now is one of the longest running sagas in the history of the modern era of the NFL has come to an end with a Davis-owned franchise now destined for a permanent home in the Nevada desert.

NFL

This story is from our 2017 Pro Football Weekly NFL Draft Preview Magazine, which features over 250 scouting reports from Greg Gabriel. Order yours here

Follow the money and the premium draft picks, and safety is the least important position on a defense.

It’s also the position that teams are desperately looking to fill with a game-changer, and the position that is one of the strongest in the 2017 NFL Draft.

We haven’t seen a safety taken in the top 10 in the draft since Mark Barron in 2012, and he’s now a linebacker. The last safety to go in the top five? Eric Berry in 2010, and we know what he’s accomplished in his NFL career.

Other top-10 choices like LaRon Landry or Michael Huff might keep teams from reaching for a safety. But look at what Keanu Neal meant to the NFC Champion Falcons, or how important Landon Collins was to the Giants’ defense last season. It’s apparent why LSU’s Jamal Adams, Ohio State’s Malik Hooker and Michigan’s Jabrill Peppers will be getting just as much, if not more, attention in the coming weeks as the draft’s cornerbacks and edge rushers, the sexy and rich defensive positions.

***

Malik Hooker played only two seasons of high school football, then one as a starter in college, but it was remarkable. Hooker was a first-team All-American for the Buckeyes in 2016, intercepting seven passes while also racking up 5.5 tackles for loss.

“He’s got freaky ability,” Ohio State defensive coordinator Greg Schiano told PFW. “Great range. He’s one of the best I’ve ever coached. Incredible ball skills. He really has incredible hands and ability to catch the ball. When the ball is in the air, he believes it’s his, and then he goes and gets it. Once the ball is in his hands, he’s an incredible ball-carrier.”

Hooker reportedly underwent surgeries to repair a torn labrum and a hernia on Jan. 16 that prevented him from participating in the NFL Scouting Combine, but think about this: he put up those numbers in 2016 playing through those injuries.

"The injury happened Nov. 26 in the game against the team up north," Hooker told reporters at the Combine. "When that happened, I didn’t really notice it until after the game. After the game, I couldn’t really walk, I was limping. In practice that week, I wasn’t able to run as well and I just kept playing through it. I played the Clemson game with the injury as well."

Jamal Adams was an All-American for LSU as a true junior. He leaves Baton Rouge with five career interceptions, 17.5 tackles for loss and 15 pass breakups.

"Leadership is definitely my main [attribute]," Adams said at the Combine. "As well as on the field, I can play everything in the back end, whether that's covering in the slot, whether that's playing man-free, whether that's being in the A and B gap, filling that hole, or locking down tight ends. I feel like I'm versatile to play everything in the back end, and that's what makes me a special player."

Those two join Peppers, the versatile and electric athlete, to give the draft three blue-chip safeties and back-end game-changers.

***

Schiano, who spent five years as an NFL coach including two as a head coach for the Buccaneers, explained why we see such fluctuation at the position in terms of the draft. Last year’s first-round safeties, Neal and Karl Joseph, were considered reach picks by some analysts. No safety went in the first round in 2015, and none went in the first 17 picks the previous two seasons.

“I think you can get away with a good player at safety and not a great player. But when you have a guy like an Ed Reed, if he’s that outstanding, he can really change a game,” Schiano said. “But if he’s not that outstanding, incrementally I don’t think it’s as big a jump from a good player to a great player.”

As for the player he coached last season, Hooker, Schiano believes some team is going to get that "great" player at the safety position.

“I put Malik in that class of rare, rare ability in his range,” he said. “When you’re a free safety, a deep safety, range is everything. ... That’s where he’s unique.”

Finding a player who can range from sideline to sideline can be a “lifesaver, both in the run game and the pass game,” Schiano said. With the increased passing in the NFL game to go along with the Rob Gronkowskis and Travis Kelces running down the middle of the field, finding that rare safety can change a defense. That’s why the position has evolved over the years.

“Nowadays, you have big tight ends who can run, so they’re pretty much like a receiver in a tight end’s body. A safety has to do more than just tackle,” Bears assistant defensive backs coach Roy Anderson said. “They have to be able to cover guys and get guys lined up, so you want smart guys who are good in football situations. Just have to have the total package, but it’s changed how offenses have evolved.”

Texas A&M’s Justin Evans is in the second tier of safeties in this the NFL Draft. With four interceptions last season, Evans hopes to be that ball-hawking cover safety that teams hope to find every spring.

“Offenses these days throw the ball 50, 60 times a game, I feel like it’s just as important as playing quarterback on offense, a safety roaming, playing free safety is just like a quarterback,” Evans said. “I feel like it’s really important for a defense.”

UConn’s Obi Melifonwu is going to intrigue teams with his 6-foot-4 frame to go along with the ability to run with big receivers and tight ends. His outstanding Combine performance, which followed a strong Senior Bowl week, has vaulted Melifonwu into the first-round conversation.

“I think I can be very good at the next level, especially with my versatility and the amount of receivers that are getting taller, the tight ends that are getting taller, I could definitely be an asset to every team,” he told reporters at the Senior Bowl.

Anderson, who coached in the Senior Bowl, said it’s important for safeties in 2017 to show traits that are usually associated with cornerbacks.

“You want to see guys who can back pedal, turn their hips and guys who can play the ball downfield,” Anderson said. “A lot of times you see guys who don’t judge the ball downfield, but you want guys who can attack the ball, high-point it and make plays on the ball.”

***

When Schiano talks about Reed and those elite safeties, the type of player he believes Hooker can be, he’s discussing the most instinctive players on the defense. No position on ‘D’ relies on instincts like safety. Players have to read the quarterback to make a play on the ball.

Anderson said during the pre-draft process, especially in an All-Star game setting like the Senior Bowl, coaches can see how draft prospects react to unique situations.

“A new play they haven’t seen, how do they adjust? Can they be the quarterback on the field and get guys lined up? If you see guys doing that,” Anderson said, “then you know, ‘Hey, this guy’s a football player.’”

Schiano is confident that whichever team selects Hooker will find those important instincts.

“He really has great spatial relations,” Schiano said. “You can coach a guy until you’re blue in the face, but to get him to understand when the quarterback is looking at a certain area and the receivers running, to get him to connect the dots and understand where that interception point is going to be, that’s not easy. That to me is instincts. Malik’s really blessed in that. That’s one of his strengths. He can really put together the pieces in his mind almost subconsciously and get in the right spot.”

Evans prides himself on instincts and having a strong football IQ to try and predict what the offense is going to do next.

“It’s a God-given talent. It’s natural ability, really,” he said. “I don’t think you can really teach instincts. You can teach technique and to see something a little quicker, but instinct-wise. I feel like it’s just natural.”

***

Evans isn’t expected to be a first-round pick, let alone a top-10 or even top-five selection like Adams or Hooker, but he has the same goals as the other highly touted players at his position.

“We’re all trying to do the same thing,” he said. “They got them in the top five, so I’m trying to be just as good as them if not better. We’re all trying to be better than each other.”

Hooker’s medical evaluation may help boost Adams to be the top safety taken, and Adams' combination of size, speed, strength and athleticism will be valued highly in the center field of any secondary.

Other early-round safeties include Washington’s Budda Baker, Utah’s Marcus Williams, Florida’s Marcus Maye and Alabama’s Eddie Jackson. Teams can certainly find Pro Bowl safeties in the later rounds, but this is the draft to find that potentially franchise-boosting player to patrol the back end for years to come, and for Schiano’s money, that player can be Hooker.

“As good as he played, his best football is ahead of him just because he hasn’t played a ton,” Schiano said. “I think he’s going to get better and what he did this year was outstanding. He’s going to make somebody really happy.”

With only eight practices remaining in the spring for the Clemson Tigers, the sense of urgency will be ratcheted up with a return to the practice fields Monday after a week off for spring break.

In 1970, John Brown was the first high-profile recruit to choose Missouri over a host of nationally prominent programs. More than four decades later, Michael Porter Jr. becomes the latest. In between, the Tigers have lured their share of celebrated recruits to Columbia. Here are the five biggest.

Prized recruit Michael Porter Jr., the No. 1 ranked high school player in the country for the 2017 class, said he will be attending Mizzou. He led Tolton Catholic High School to a Class 3 Missouri High School championship last year and Nathan Hale High School to the Washington state title th…

The University of Washington conceded the departure of Michael Porter Jr. without much argument. The school was willing to pay that price to fire Lorenzo Romar and new coach Mike Hopkins is moving on without him.

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