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What turns an NFL Draftee into a Pro?

One of the aspects of NFL football that continues to be more and more important every year is drafting well.  The NFL, more than any other North American team sports, has many players who were drafted in later rounds and went on to become stars or even superstars.

In the NBA, for example, there are only two rounds in the draft and very few second round picks become stars.  In hockey, the skill of drafted players drops off very quickly even during the first round in most years.  Baseball is similar to NFL football in that late round draftees can become stars.  But it seems to happen more in the NFL. 

Why do many late round draftees become such big stars?  Here are some of the main reasons why late round picks in the NFL have a good chance to have successful NFL careers.

Teachability

This is a term that we find in sports quite often.  It refers to the willingness of players to learn from their coaches and teammates.  Every year, some players are drafted who have great athletic ability but are too stubborn or self-centered to learn.

Teachability is not as well known in other fields as it is in sports.  Many companies accept new college graduates in entry-level jobs where the employees will be pushed hard.  Some succeed and most find the going very rough indeed.

Teachability is also found in such out-of-the-box industries as the development of online casino games.  There are over 150 game providers but only a small handful are really successful.  That’s because it is very hard to teach admittedly smart people how to develop online games that people will want to play!

No athlete coming out of college has the experience to become as good as they need to be to become stars in the NFL.  Many players at certain positions have the physical attributes to become excellent players early in their rookie seasons but no one is a star immediately.

We can see in the careers of players like Tom Brady that the willingness to learn is a lot more important than almost any other attribute the player may bring.  In contrast to Tom Brady are all the first round and second round draftees who never get going in the NFL.

Were the teams’ scouts so mistaken in their evaluation of these players?  Probably not mistaken in their evaluation of the players’ physical attributes.  But certainly the teams were severely mistaken in their evaluation of the players’ personality and non-athletic attributes.

Coaches

From teachability we move on to the coaches players get in the pros.  Players have no choice of their professional coaches.  There are so many coaches from head coaches to coordinators to assistants that many players both in later rounds and also in early rounds suffer from the luck of the draw.  Some get poor coaches who are incapable of teaching even if the player is eminently teachable.

Patrick Mahomes has great athletic ability.  He is also fortunate to have been drafted into a system that is perfectly designed for his skill set.  And he is extremely teachable, having grown up with a professional athlete father who also made himself better than his own skill set by always learning more about his position.

On the other hand, Mitchell Trubisky was drafted ahead of Patrick Mahomes but had a coaching staff that ran a dull, uncreative offense.  He learned little in his rookie season.  Only last year, in his second year as a pro, did he have a coach who could run a creative offense and teach the young quarterback.

It isn’t only in the area of offense and quarterbacks that players need coaches who can teach.  Every position has complicated responsibilities.  We see many players fail both from their own personal failings and also from the failings of their coaches.

The NFL Has Many Players

There are over 1500 players in the NFL.  A player who is drafted late as a “project” and has a few years as a substitute, special teams player, or practice squad player and who escapes serious injury, may emerge as a fine player later in his career.  There is certainly a great deal of luck involved in NFL success.  It’s a bitter-sweet joke that NFL also stands for “not for long”.

The Overall Strength of Teams

Some late round draftees come to teams that are already strong.  These teams can afford to carry these draftees as third level replacement players.  Then, as the players learn the game from the pro standpoint, they often step into starting roles as very good to excellent players.

The same is true of the college programs some players come from.  A strong program with good coaches may bring even late round draftees a certain measure of football knowledge that translates quickly into the pro game.

Recovery from Injury

Many players slip into lower rounds despite having great athletic ability because they suffered a serious injury in college.  The injury may have cost the player his entire senior year.  It might be the type of injury that takes more than one year to recover from.

Teams that can afford to take a chance on great athletes recovering from a serious injury are sometimes rewarded as the player recovers fully from the injury and goes on to be a star.

Maturity

The last intangible element that goes into making late round players succeed in the pros is maturity.  We cannot overstate the importance of maturity in young athletes who have to talk to sports reporters, fans, hotel staffs, and just everyday people.

Many players come out of college still immature.  Once again, they may be fantastic athletes but if they are not prepared emotionally for adulthood as professional football players, they will fall into the later rounds or go undrafted altogether.

Many immature adults grow up without the scrutiny that pro athletes face.  Furthermore, pro football doesn’t have minor leagues as baseball has where immature young men can be “hidden” until they grow up.  Thus, it is exponentially harder for immature football players to grow up in the pros as it is possible in other sports.

Conclusion

It is hard enough for first round draftees to find long term success in the NFL.  It is so much harder for late round draftees to find success.  However, there are factors that are either in the player’s control or out of his control that allow some late round draftees to eventually succeed in the NFL.

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NFL Draft Diamonds was created to assist the underdogs playing the sport. We call them diamonds in the rough. My name is Damond Talbot, I have worked extremely hard to help hundreds of small school players over the past several years, and will continue my mission. We have several contributors on this site, and if they contribute their name and contact will be in the piece above. You can email me at nfldraftdiamonds@gmail.com

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