Former 49ers head coach Bill Walsh's draft wizardry built the Team of the Decade in the 1980's, when he won three Super Bowl Championships. Now an advisor with the 49ers, Walsh notes that changes in the NFL system dramatically impact the way teams approach the college player draft. This article is part of a series written exclusively for the Bill Walsh NFL Draft Insider, a special product brought to you by Pro Sports Xchange.
Drafting in the 1990's:
Players Must be Ready
By Bill Walsh
PSX Draft Insider Special
Imagine a draft in which Joe Montana and Dwight Clark might not be considered.
Welcome to the National Football League Draft of the 1990s.
This seemingly absurd scenario shows how demanding the requirements are for NFL draft prospects. In this era of the salary cap, free agency and only seven rounds of picks, there is no room for taking chances. No gambles. No projects.
Teams must identify players who can contribute immediately and quickly and embrace a solid role. This is important for the player and the team because in three or four years that player will be eligible for free agency. If there are questions between player and team after three years, then the whole free agency issue becomes even more difficult to evaluate.
Montana really had not established himself as a consistent starter even at Notre Dame, although he did show flashes of brilliance that offered a peek into his future NFL stardom. We took him in the third round.
Clark had good size at 6-4, 215, but was deemed far too slow for the pros. Still, he was worth a chance in the tenth round of that same 1979 draft. Of course, Clark went on to set receiving records with the 49ers and was named Sports Illustrated's NFL Player of the Year in 1982, when he made one of pro football's most memorable plays, which will be forever known as "The Catch."
For the most part, teams can't afford to take chances on potential or projects any more. Teams don't have the luxury of taking a gamble even on an intriguing prospect.
A player entering the draft in the 1990s is expected to be further along in his skills, further along in the level of competition that he has been involved in ... and further along physically.
He's going to need that maturity. He will have to demonstrate that he is already an instinctive and natural player. He's going to be expected to have some specialized skills that can be of value almost immediately upon joining an organization.
He's going to have a short trial period because decisions will have to be made. And, along with your first two or three draft choices, the competition will come from aging veterans who will take a reduced contract to be backups and adept journeymen who have learned to adapt by moving from team to team each year and identifying some place where they fit.
So the young, collegiate player is going to have to meet that kind of competition immediately because he is not going to be considered a long-term project. They're not going to look at him and say "ultimately he will be better than.'' ... an aging veteran, or better than a journeymen who has played in the league. Consequently, these draft prospects must meet that competition almost immediately.
The ability to do this could depend heavily on the coaching and the programs that he has experienced at the collegiate level. I don't see as many of the players from smaller colleges making NFL rosters. Not the way they have in the past. They will be overlooked because there is a shortened draft, with only seven rounds where there once were 12 or even 17. They also are overlooked because of a smaller training camp roster. And they are overlooked because teams are seeking players who can perform immediately, in the first preseason game.
Notably, this will impact the great athletes from the predominantly black colleges, which have historically provided some of the most outstanding talent in the NFL, with such Hall of Famers as cornerback Willie Brown from Grambling, offensive tackle Art Shell from Maryland-Eastern Shore and defensive end/linebacker Willie Lanier from Morgan State.
Also impacted will be players from small schools, which gave us such stars as former MVP quarterback Ken Anderson from Augustana, tight end Jackie Smith from Northwestern State in Louisiana, or four-time Super Bowl winning quarterback Terry Bradshaw, from Louisiana Tech.
It will be difficult for teams to take these types of players knowing it will take time to fit them into the fast-paced, high-caliber play of the NFL.
Now, even backup players must be able to contribute more than on just special teams. These players will be expected to be able to step in and start in the event of an injury to a starter. Salary caps mean limited rosters and limited rosters mean teams must maximize use of their personnel.
Just as important is the fact that drafted players cannot come in and work full time with their new pro team until after June 1. In the past, players split their time between their final school obligations and working with their new pro team. This is a critical learning period that no longer exists and further encumbers a new player's ability to assimilate into the pro game.
So it is a tougher challenge for the collegiate player now, except for those great athletes whose abilities are very obvious and who will be on the field immediately.
Joe Montana was not highly rated by the scouting dynasties because of his size and because of what some people interpreted as a spotty collegiate career.
He may not have had the attention or the consideration even in his day. But today he might very well be eliminated from consideration because of his size, stature and so-called arm strength. In reality, with some patience on the part of the organization, he could become one of the greatest players of all time.
Matter of fact, he did.
It's difficult to conceive of a Dwight Clark being considered today. First, you only have seven rounds in the draft and he was a No. 10 even in 1979. So you would assume he would be a free agent at best in this era. As a free agent he might be signed to service the veterans in minicamp. He would have to make some spectacular plays in minicamp to create interest.
So that's how difficult it is to utilize the draft to build a team in the 1990s. Even the Montanas and Clarks become longshots, if indeed they are given any shot at all. Their apparent inability to contribute immediately could easily preclude their getting a chance.
Makes you wonder about the players who are being overlooked out there in recent years.
Players at some positions are still able to overcome this otherwise short-sighted approach to evaluating young players.
Receivers and defensive backs, as an example, are able to demonstrate their skills in the open field and the evaluations are made more easily. They can, by the nature of their position, be part-time players their rookie year. A receiver can get a chance in situations that call for three or four wide receivers. Conversely, these situations may open the way for a corner or safety to be used as the fifth or sixth defensive back, in what we call nickel or dime defenses.
Still, they then must quickly show the poise and ability to meet the competition.
It's more of a challenge for the scouts and the organizations to evaluate offensive linemen. In the past, linemen were brought in and given a couple of seasons to fit in and learn how to play the pro game. Now, they need to come in and be first line backups, or even in some cases starters. In many cases, they did not previously demonstrate how they would perform in a pro-type offense. What they are asked to do in college is usually very different.
So that means it takes a visionary scout to find that offensive lineman who can make the step up into the pros and be ready to contribute.
The same holds true for most defensive linemen. Some will just stand out and, if you believe they will be great you sometimes are satisfied at first if they are able to be at least adequate.
But the other down linemen, especially the inside people, will find it more difficult because they will have to play immediately. Playing defensive tackle requires a number of varied abilities that, again, are not necessarily required to be learned on the collegiate level.
An example would be Pierce Holt, Kevin Fagan, Michael Carter or Jeff Stover, who all became outstanding defensive linemen for the 49ers on Super Bowl champion teams. In these cases, it's not likely they would have become NFL players of the '90s or the next Millennium. Each of those players had a shortfall -- an injury, a lack of football experience or skills that needed time and work.
Jeff Stover didn't play college football.
Michael Carter, who was an inconsistent nose tackle, but a medal winning shot putter in the Olympics and a superb natural athlete.
Kevin Fagan came in with a knee injury and had to sit out a full year.
Pierce Holt came from a small college and was a much older rookie.
Each of those players was able to go on and play in Super Bowls or at Pro Bowl, or even All Pro, levels.
But now these are the are the kinds of men whose profile I don't think we will see among the selections in the NFL drafts of the 1990s.
Along with Montana and Clark.
Makes me wonder what the 1980s would have been like without "The Catch."