Draft analyst discusses Mendenhall’s NFL future

By Laura Hettiger

Scott Wright, founder and president of NFLDraftCountdown.com, has been scouting players and evaluating the NFL Draft since 1993. He took time out of his busy schedule to talk with The Daily Illini about this weekend’s NFL Draft.

Daily Illini: First and foremost, how and why did you get so involved with the NFL Draft?

Scott Wright: I started off just a fan like everyone else I think. I really got into it in 1993, I was a Notre Dame fan, and there were a lot of top prospects that year. I just really enjoyed it and became a huge fan.

DI: Why do you think the draft has become so popular in the last few years? (draft parties, mock drafts, etc.)

SW: I think it’s a few factors. I think one thing, it’s right in the middle of the offseason; it’s a good way for people to stay in touch with football. The draft is the perfect marriage during those two things, the offseason and the regular season. It’s in the middle of April, that’s another thing, intrigues all the speculation of potential trades. It’s a day when every team has hope. It doesn’t matter if you are the worst team in the NFL, you can find the core of the future team in the draft. It doesn’t matter if you won the Super Bowl, or if you are the worst team in the NFL, you have a lot riding on that weekend.

DI: In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Illinois had three No. 1 picks (Simeon Rice, Jeff George and Dana Howard). What do you think made these former Illini stand out in NFL teams’ minds?

SW: I think they are talented. You look at Jeff George, he had every physicality you want in a quarterback. Simeon Rice was a big guy, great guy, and they both played credited positions – defensive ends and quarterback. Teams are always looking for help with that. They are just very talented players.

DI: Comparatively speaking, what would make a team choose between Mendenhall and Arkansas’ Darren McFadden?

SW: Well, I think one thing that kind of separates them is character. Darren McFadden has had some trouble with the law where Mendenhall hasn’t had that. And I know that Mike Mayock from the NFL Network has gotten a lot of publicity for having Mendenhall ahead of McFadden, but I think he is, that’s only a minority. I think 99 percent of teams that people have McFadden rated at the top ahead of Mendenhall. I don’t really think there’s that much of a chance that Mendenhall is going to be before McFadden, but Mendenhall is a little slower, but he’s also a lot bigger than McFadden, Mendenhall is a lot more physical between-the-tackles type.

DI: How important is it to get drafted compared to entering the League as a free agent?

SW: It kind of depends, in some cases I think it could be better to go undrafted rather than be a seventh round pick. Now obviously if you’re drafted, a team is going to be committed to you, and they might be more hesitant to cut you during training camp. They might give you more of a benefit of the doubt, but if you are an undrafted free agent, you get to pick the team. You can examine the depth charts, you can pick the situation where you might have the best chance to succeed, and I think that’s important. It’s always nice to be drafted and have a little more security, but at the same time, I don’t think you should underestimate the advantage it would be to be able to pick the situation that would fit you best and give you the best chance to succeed.

DI: Illinois has a handful of players trying to enter as a free agent this season. What do you think the free agency talent level is?

SW: You know, there’s always very good players that go undrafted every year and I think the classic example, Tony Romo, the starting quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys, a Pro-Bowler, he wasn’t drafted. Ryan Grant who was arguably the best running back in the NFL down the stretch last year for the Green Bay Packers, he went undrafted. So you know, it remains to be seen which guys who go undrafted and there’s all these little surprises, but once the draft’s over, the teams aren’t done. They’re able to talk to people, even in the late rounds of the draft; they’re calling guys saying ‘hey, if you don’t get chosen, we’re very interested in signing you so just keep us in mind.’ So there’s no question that’s the first and second day of the draft, it does get a lot of attention, but it’s very important for a team to bring in 10 to 20 undrafted free agents right afterwards.

DI: With Miami initially selecting offensive tackle Jake Long of Michigan, what is with the rise of offensive lineman getting high picks?

SW: Well, it’s what I talked about earlier, one of the four premium positions, and the problem is, if you need a top offensive tackle, the only way to get one these days is through the draft. Because if you have a good one, they just do not hit the open market. You look at guys like Orlando Pace, Jonathan Ogden, Walter Jones, they all played for one team their entire career, and there’s a reason for that. And this past off-season was a classic example. Flozell Adams for the Dallas Cowboys was set to become a free agent; they were trying to do a huge deal before he ever hit the open market. And I think the classic example of how important the offensive tackle position has become: the Pittsburgh Steelers, in what’s called the transition gig on their backup right tackle, so they paid seven million dollars in 2008 to keep their backup right tackle rather than risk losing him, so I really think that speaks volumes of staying in that position. And Jake Long is a very talented player. In this draft, I have him as the No. 2 player in the whole draft; he’s definitely worthy of going as the No. 1 pick. The Dolphins had a huge need there and it just made sense and it was perfect fit for them. And another factor, too, the NFL draft is always a crapshoot. You’re always taking risks. But by and large, offensive tackles are taken at the top of the draft because it’s one of the safest positions. You will see some failures, but by and large, most of those guys end up having, at least become solid players, I think you have a higher success rate by taking offensive tackles in the top three and five overall picks.

DI: And then that also begs the question, because Miami already made up its mind three days early instead of the traditional day before, do you think teams No. 2 and 3 have already made up their minds about who they’re going to take, or how do you think that will play out this year?

SW: Well the third team is kind of waiting on No. 2. The third team knows the guy they want, they want Glenn Dorsey from LSU. The problem is he’s still in consideration from the Rams at No. 2 and St. Louis hasn’t made up their mind yet. They are going back and forth between two guys: Glenn Dorsey and Chris Long. And that’s really the turning point in the draft, and that’s the million dollar question right now, what are they going to do? Because depending on what they do there is going to have a huge ripple effect on the rest of the top 10. So that’s what everybody’s watching right now and they definitely haven’t made up their mind yet. And they’re not allowed to negotiate with a player, even though the Miami Dolphins have signed their guy and technically we know who it’s going to be. St. Louis is not allowed to negotiate yet, so it could come down to the wire with the Rams.

DI: After Illinois’ surprising run to the Rose Bowl, will that affect the way the Illini are treated in the League?

SW: Definitely, I think you’re seeing guys like Mendenhall, I don’t think he was regarded as a top prospect before his junior season, so success in college brings success in the NFL Draft. I think you see two teams that have had a lot of players drafted in recent years – Miami and USC, so it’s not a coincidence that those are also two of the most dominant teams in the last decade. But there’s no question, Illinois has a lot of good, young prospects and NFL scouts are already paying a lot of attention to them. And they’re still young guys. I think next year with Vontae Davis, the cornerback could potentially be one of the top players at his position if he came out early, whether it’s 2009 or he waits four years until 2010, and then they got some young guys from the freshmen class last year, Arrelious Benn, Martez Wilson, so they’ve got the talent coming up. When those Ron Zook recruiting classes start getting older and becoming draft eligible, I think you’re going to see Illinois be a much bigger factor in the NFL Draft than they have been in a long, long time.

DI: What are you planning on doing the day of the draft?

SW: You know, I just kind of turn into a fan on draft weekend, I don’t schedule any interviews and I just stay home, I watch it here at the house, I don’t go to the draft, I enjoy staying home, I’ve turned into a big draft geek. I make a board and label it with all the prospects and cross them off as they’re picked and I do live analysis on the site. I type up a paragraph about each pick and my initial thoughts, but for the most part, I’m just a fan and I enjoy it. After a year of going toward this, its fun just to sit back and watch it the weekend and see things unfold.