The offseason is a tough time to be a professional football junkie. Once the last whistle sounds on Week 17, an ESPN lackey presses the defrost button to thaw Mel Kiper, Jr. out of his cryogenic freeze. Then we get four months of mock drafts, uneducated guesses and complaints from experts about a potential pick because he’s a “system quarterback.”
But once late April is upon is, about 254 young men get drafted by a professional football team. They are the lucky 0.0015-percent of men who’ve slogged through scorching high school football practices, withstood the intensity at the college level and made it through a circus sideshow of drills, interviews and questions.
We want these prospects to bring our team from the frozen lakes of despair to the glory of an NFL championship. Unfortunately, these draft picks take at least three years to start making impacts to a squad. And that makes sense; going from college football to the grind and intensity of professional football is not easy.
If you ever played high school football, you may remember how fast the game looked or how complicated new plays sounded as you went from the junior varsity squad to varsity, or even transitioning from high school to college football.
Now take that memory or moment, and put it on a Saturn V rocket bound for the infinite depths of space. That’s what these young men are preparing for.
What’s even more daunting are the odds of succeeding in the NFL, even for a number one or two overall selection.
Looking at each draft from 1992 until 2016, number one picks play an average of 110 games and start 103 of those games. That means the team with a first pick is trying to wring out as much talent from a player for about seven seasons.
If your team picks second, expect that player to play in about 95 games and make 85 starts, or just over five seasons worth of football.
Welcome to the short, rough life of a professional football player.
As fans, it’s hard to watch the combine, college-day workouts or college film and determine who will or who won’t be a success in the NFL. Too often, we jump on the bandwagon and assume that Player X will resurrect a franchise.
Take Mitch Trubisky, the University of North Carolina quarterback who some pundits feel the 49ers will take with their second overall pick. Twitter started blowing up about his height on Thursday morning. Apparently, Trubisky is 6-foot-2-1/8 inches. (Source)
Because if he were 6’1, the world would crumble at our feet! The divine trumpets of the apocalypse would sound, and we’d witness Jesus split the sky on an eight-legged steed with Archangel Uriel’s flaming sword ready to smite we sinners!
Okay, so that last part is a bit much. But, as we get through the next two months of speculation, we can be smarter than the average fan. One inch more or less of height or a languid effort on the bench press will not make or break Trubisky or Christian McCaffery’s success in the NFL. Besides, the bench press is poor way to measure overall strength.
Most of what plays out from now until April 26 goes entirely unseen by fans. And it’s unfortunate. The only real inkling we have into the mind of a quarterback is Jon Gruden's QB Camp. No, it’s not perfect, but at the very least, we can see how well Trubisky or any other quarterback can break down a play, the defense or listen how he handles the verbiage of an NFL play. Even seasoned NFL veterans can stumble over ‘Q Brutus Left, Open Tite, U-Right Alert 98 U Truck.’
For all of Leonard Fournette’s speed or Jabrill Peppers’ overall ability, what fans never know is a player’s heart and desire. Coaches and scouts can’t measure that in a three-cone drill or vertical jump.
Years after the 1997 draft, we learned that Peyton Manning showed up to his interviews with a laundry list of questions and notebooks full of football information. A scouting report stated Manning was “not quite as natural a player as Leaf.” (Source)
Ryan Leaf showed up with a strong arm, but ready to leave interviews and drills and head to Vegas to burn through a future signing bonus.
We know how that story ended.
What the 49ers need more than anything is a player like Peyton Manning who chews through miles of film, or an undrafted player like James Harrison who crushes weight like a Mack truck. Both men devoted every molecule of their ability to keep getting better.
Determining a player’s devotion to his craft is a far better measuring stick for John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan. They need to find young men with the drive and coachability to adapt to whatever system Shanahan decides to employ.
For the next 55 days, listen to what some of your favorite picks have to say during interviews. Don’t worry about an errant throw, a dropped pass or a lineman’s tight hips. Bringing the 49ers back to an improved level of football is going to take more than the second overall pick, and it’s certainly more than Mitch Trubisky’s short stature.