A year ago around this time, Big Matt declared “We Do Not Know This Man” after a similarly surprising 2011 draft by the Kansas City Chiefs GM Scott Pioli. It was an inspired point, one proven by Pioli stepping out of his “Right 53″ mantra to draft players with huge character concerns in WR Johnny Baldwin out of Pitt, and OLB Justin Houston out of Georgia.
The truth is, it’s been four years now and this front office can’t stop surprising us on draft day. I, in particular, read every snippet of draft coverage, watch tape, and follow every iota of Chiefs news that I can get my mitts on, and I’ve been surprised by all four drafts. I mean, I’m the guy who wrote Dontari Poe would never be a Chief. Four years in, and our pants are still getting pulled down by yet another draft class — not just in the players we take, but the types of players that we take.
To encapsulate this annual punking at the hands of Pioli, let’s just look at four years’ worth of Pioli’s first round picks:
2009: DE Tyson Jackson, LSU
2010: SS Eric Berry, Tennessee
2011: WR Jonathan Baldwin, Pittsburgh
2012: NT Dontari Poe, Memphis
Is there any line we can draw between these four players? Any at all?
Is there a high-character connection, maybe? Nope — you can put the Right 53 moniker to rest, because two of these guys (read: HALF) came into the draft with serious question marks around their character. While Jackson and Berry were clean as whistles, Baldwin was heavily regarded as a diva, and many questioned Poe’s allegedly inconsistent motor.
What about their preparedness for the NFL? Again, all over the map. Eric Berry entered the league ready to be amazing from the start. Jackson entered the league as a starter, but would need some development. Baldwin came to Kansas City in need of serious development. And Poe may not even start for the first year; he needs to be completely retooled by head coach Romeo Crennel as a true nose tackle.
How about that “team captain” line we all took after the captains-only 2010 draft? Nope, only Berry and Poe come to the Chiefs as captains of their college squads. Neither Jackson nor Baldwin were locker room leaders.
All right, well then let’s examine positional value. Pioli sticks to the critical positions on the field (QB, OT, WR, DL, OLB, CB), right? Again, nope. Certainly the positions of receiver and nose tackle are unquestionably important. And Jackson’s position of defensive end is a very important position, but Jackson himself is only a two-down player. And strong safety, as Pioli quipped in his now-famous smoke screen, is a position of lesser importance that virtually never warrants a top 10 pick.
Pioli likes safe picks, then? Nope (Baldwin, Poe). He likes players with huge ceilings? Nope (Jackson, Poe). He prefers drafting the position where the draft is the thinnest? Again, not the case — safeties were deep in Berry’s year, receivers were deep in Baldwin’s.
I’ve gotten this same sentiment from Patriots fans I know: this is what makes draft day as a fan of a Pioli team impossible to predict. And it’s because Pioli’s scouting team goes about the process of scouting for potential Chiefs draft picks in what I imagine is the hardest way imaginable.
Assume, for a moment, that your job was to draft for a football team, and you had to scout roughly 1,000 standouts throughout all levels of college football as well as occasional internationals. Think about all the time you and I put into debating the first-round prospects this year, only instead of debating 20 of them, we’re debate several hundred.
Different GMs go about that task in different ways, certainly. Clearly the most efficient way of doing so would be to establish some sort of metric, some sort of system that can be used to determine the “desireables” from the rest.
You can simply create the prototype of what you want at every position, in terms of size, ability, preparedness, character, program size, and whatever else you deem important. You’d be justified taking this approach — it makes a gargantuan task manageable. You simply learn about each prospect, and then fit them into your preconceived notion of what you want a player to be.
But the Chiefs, under Scott Pioli, do not take that approach. They keep a gargantuan task gargantuan. They do away with with preconceived notions, and for the most part, the prototype metric.
These four players I’ve discussed, all taken by the same guy for the same team in consecutive years, demonstrate that the Chiefs evaluate every single player on their own terms, rather than putting themselves into a box by their own personal ideas of what football players should be.
That means every evaluation of every player the Chiefs scout is completed on an almost comparison-free basis. They are held not to the standards of other players, but to the standards of themselves, and what they can become in the NFL. That means if Baldwin, as a prospect, has red diva flags all around him, the Chiefs, approaching things from Baldwin’s point in life, can get past that if they feel like they understand where it’s all coming from specifically for Baldwin himself and where he can go with it. The Chiefs can look past Berry’s lack of positional value, because they feel they understand how his talents could nonetheless impact a football team in ways that the mere X’s and O’s of a strong safety don’t show.
It’s astonishing that they take this approach, because the amount of work involved in it is inconceivable to somebody like myself, who is outside of the process. It’s been said before that the NFL Draft puts players under a microscope, but in Kansas City, that microscope is not a cold, dispassionate view from afar. It is a subjective, nonjudgmental process that attempts to get not just measurables on the field, but between the ears of every single prospect, to find out if this prospect makes sense. In the cases of the four men above, the Chiefs felt it did.
It’s also been said before that the Draft is an art, not a science. But in the past four drafts, Scott Pioli has truly exemplified that mantra in ways I never considered possible.
I will say this, however, as I was analyzing all four players that Pioli has selected for the Chiefs in the first round: if there is any line that can be drawn between the four of them, it’s that the player was drafted at a position the Chiefs were truly desperate at. When 2009’s defensive transformation began from the 4-3 to the 3-4, the Chiefs were skinny at all positions along the front line, but literally did not have a single defensive end on the squad. Thus, Jackson pops up in the first (and Alex Magee in the third).
2010, and the already-awful safety combination of Mike Brown and Jarrad Page was poof-gone, which later became Berry in the first (and Kendrick Lewis in the fifth). 2011, and while the team was sorely hurting at several positions, few positions were more desperate than the receiving corps aside from Dwayne Bowe, so Baldwin comes along. And in 2012, the last spot on our defense that needed to be properly staffed was nose tackle.
It’s possible to conclude from this that the only guide to the Chiefs’ first rounder position under the Pioli regime is need. After that, all bets are clearly off, as Pioli has proven he can think outside of almost any box you’ve got.