Expert Analysis


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It's NFL Draft Smokescreen Season — How to Decipher Fact from Fiction Amidst Hype

Malik Nabers runs with the ball
Tigers reciever Malik Nabers 8 runs the ball as the LSU Tigers take on Georgia State in Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

It’s smokescreen season in the NFL.

Every year, like clockwork, during the last couple of weeks leading up to the NFL Draft, the reports and rumors start coming out fast and furious.

“Team X really likes Player Y.”  

“Player B’s stock is on the rise because he has crushed the pre-draft process.”

“Player Z is falling down draft boards because of injury or off-field concerns.”

There are already examples of all three, including some quotes from anonymous sources over the weekend saying that LSU wide receiver Malik Nabers is “high maintenance” and may “struggle in a big city.”

My advice is to take everything with a grain of salt. When in doubt, think about who would benefit from the information being reported because there is a decent chance they’re the source.

Consider Who Benefits

Let’s start with some logic. If any member of an organization has information they think is reputable and valuable, why would they ever knowingly or willingly reveal that information to anyone else? 

After all, knowledge is power, and when it comes to the NFL Draft, having any intel on what teams might be thinking in terms of players or positions they like can be significant.

There are examples of this every year, but one that immediately comes to mind was the 2021 NFL Draft when the Philadelphia Eagles traded up from pick No. 12 to select WR DeVonta Smith with the 10th overall selection.  

Based on whatever information they had gathered, the Eagles clearly believed that Smith was firmly in play for the Giants at No. 11, so they leaped over New York to take him. The Giants promptly traded down to No. 20 and drafted Kadarius Toney, furthering the belief that New York would have taken Smith at No. 11.

Situations like that are a big reason why teams are so adamant about keeping their cards close to the vest. Some franchises will go so far that they only allow two or three people to actually have access to the team’s draft board. 

That means any information out there coming from a team source is either intentional, a “bartered” information transaction or a case of loose lips.

That’s why so much of the information that will be released between now and the first night of the draft on April 25 is bogus.

Considering some examples above — like a player being linked to a specific team that really likes him — there is no way that organization would want that information out there if it were true. 

Is it an agent trying to prop up his player? Is it another team that is lower on the player putting it out there in the hopes it will generate buzz and he will be selected ahead of their pick, thus dropping a player for whom they have a higher grade? Or does the organization have an internal leak that they need to plug?

Will Levis yells to teammate during Titans and Steelers game
Tennessee Titans quarterback Will Levis (8) gestures to the sidelines against the Pittsburgh Steelers during the third quarter at Acrisure Stadium. Pittsburgh won 20-16. Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Quarterback Rumors Are Especially Tricky

Think about last year when there was all kinds of chatter in the two days before the draft that the Indianapolis Colts would take QB Will Levis at No. 4. Obviously, that didn’t happen. 

They chose QB Anthony Richardson instead, which led to Levis falling to the Titans in the second round.

Was that Levis’ agent trying to get someone to move up? Did the Colts put that out so a team would leap them for Levis, allowing Richardson or another player to fall their way?

We’ll never know, but we do know it was patently false.

The same goes for the year before when, ironically, Levis’ Titans teammate Malik Willis was “firmly in play” for the Detroit Lions with the No. 2 pick, according to ESPN the week before the draft. He was selected 86th overall.

Some Rumors Have Merit

That’s not to say all of the information that comes out is untrue and thus a smokescreen. A lot of it isn’t. 

I distinctly remember being in Dallas, working the 2018 NFL Draft, and talking with Boise State LB Leighton Vander Esch the day before the first round and a few hours after a report came out that his neck had medical concerns.  

He insisted it wasn’t true and was visibly upset that, in his mind, someone was spreading false information to hurt his draft stock. Notably, Vander Esch retired this offseason after six years in the NFL due to repeated neck issues.

That was also the same year that Buffalo Bills QB Josh Allen came under fire less than 24 hours before the first round for racist social media posts from high school.

As always, information like these two examples raises more questions than answers. Did a team member just happen to let Vander Esch's health information slip, or was it intentional, with the hopes that he would fall to them? 

Yes, teams do their own medical checks, but once information like that is out there in the public sphere, the team subjects itself to criticism if it selects the player, and, in the Vander Esch example, it rears its ugly head.

The same is true for Allen. Obviously, that information was intentionally leaked, but by whom and for what reason? And if it was by a team with the hope that the player would fall to them, how should we feel about that? Is all fair in love and war, or is it a step too far in the highly competitive NFL?

Time will tell what information comes out this year, although the reports that the Washington Commanders might select Michigan QB J.J. McCarthy has already gotten my attention. 

Why would Washington want or need any type of smokescreen when it feels like a lock that the Bears will take Caleb Williams No. 1 overall? The Commanders can select whomever they want at two, right?

They wouldn’t unless they think they can trade down and still get the guy they want. That’s why it is much more likely that this is agent chatter aimed at increasing the drumbeat that McCarthy is a likely top-four pick.

Unfortunately, we will never know the source of many of these reports, so the focus — and the fun of it— is to try to separate fact from fiction as the information becomes available.

Tags: NFL Draft