Inside the New York Jets' draft war room with GM Mike Tannenbaum & his inner circle
Inside the New York Jets' draft war room with GM Mike Tannenbaum & his inner circle
BY Manish Mehta
Although Mike Tannenbaum gets all the praise for the Jets' string of success in the draft, he has plenty of help. I spent some time with Tannenbaum's inner circle of advisors and evaluators that have helped Gang Green become one of the best drafting teams in the NFL.
The story appears in Sunday's Daily News.
I've also posted it below.
BY MANISH MEHTA
DAILY NEWS SPORTS WRITER
Inside a second-floor, windowless room, Mike Tannenbaum turned to the men at the white conference table for help.
On a Sunday afternoon two years ago, the Jets general manager was stumped. When Gang Green was on the clock in the sixth round of the 2009 NFL draft, a place typically filled with spirited debate fell silent.
Five minutes. That's all the Jets had. Five minutes to punctuate a draft that had already included monster trades for quarterback Mark Sanchez and running back Shonn Greene. The small group inside the war room decided to take a hurried look at video clips of three players.
"The first guy we looked at was awful," Tannenbaum remembers. "The second guy we looked at was worse."
The final player's video package never made it into the DVD player.
"The reason we took the third guy is that we didn't have enough time to watch the tape," Tannenbaum admits.
Two years later, Matt Slauson, the 193rd pick of the draft, is a starter for one of the best offensive lines in the league.
Through a little bit of luck and plenty of preparation, the Jets have become one of the elite drafting teams in the NFL. For all of Gang Green's bravado on the field, the difference makers on draft day have been unflashy for the better part of a decade, stars in the shadows for a franchise that has thrust itself into the spotlight.
They are Tannenbaum's inner circle, five former college and NFL players with defined roles, who have anonymously helped stockpile talent for a team that has reached two consecutive AFC Championship Games.
From the methodical point man who runs 12-hour meetings from sunrise to sunset to the experienced voice of reason with a closet filled with five-subject spiral notebooks, they are the heartbeat of the Jets' war room: vice president of college scouting Joey Clinkscales, senior personnel executive (and former GM) Terry Bradway, assistant GM Scott Cohen, assistant director of player personnel JoJo Wooden and assistant director of college scouting Michael Davis.
They struck gold with Darrelle Revis, D'Brickashaw Ferguson, Nick Mangold, David Harris and Sanchez.
They struck out with Vernon Gholston.
"We've all been right and we've all been wrong," Tannenbaum says.
"Everybody's DNA is on all the player reports. There's no I-told-you-so's or second guessing."
* * *
The path to the draft begins at a country-club resort outside of Naples, Fla., in late May, where Wooden, the soft-spoken former Syracuse linebacker who didn't make it out of the Cardinals' training camp in 1993, has a penchant for showing up at just the right moment.
"We'll see JoJo when it's time to golf," Clinkscales cracks.
Less than a month after the 2010 draft, Tannenbaum's team started preparations for the draft that begins Thursday night. The Jets, who have six picks beginning with the 30th overall, rely on National Football Scouting, an information exchange service that shares preliminary reports on players entering their senior season with 19 NFL clubs.
Clinkscales, whose three-year NFL career as a wide receiver for the Steelers and Buccaneers in the late '80s was curtailed by injuries, started with a database of 1,259 college players before beginning his trimming process. He gave the NFS reports to the Jets' eight regional scouts in May for further evaluations that are due after the college season.
By December, the Jets streamline the list to 500 players. Clinkscales, 47, also set up a cross-check system by position for players he believes will be drafted in the first three rounds. Cohen, a former wide receiver and pitcher at Division III Dickinson College in Pennsylvania, is a cross-check staple for skill positions.
In the past 11 months, the scouting department interviewed more than 300 players and produced 5,552 reports from 253 schools that include detailed breakdowns in 12 categories. It's a meticulous set of standards for an organization that has made an NFL-low 17 draft picks in the past four years. After the draft, the information will be transferred to the pro personnel department to keep in a database for two years.
"Although we're evaluating guys who likely won't be drafted by us," Wooden, 41, says, "it doesn't mean they won't be here at the start of the season, during the season or after the season."
In December, Clinkscales cuts the 500-player draft board in half. One half is called the "Back Board," a list of approximately 250 players the Jets won't target in the draft. Tannenbaum and Rex Ryan will likely never see that board.
Long after Davis starred as the only wideout in Division II Virginia State's Wing-T offense in the mid-'80s, the head of the talent-rich Southeast region has provided Clinkscales with thorough background information for years on prospects to give a fuller picture. He's thrived with a keen eye from the day Bill Parcells hired him 15 years ago and sent him on a three-week initiation roadtrip through seven states with one clear task: "Find me some players."
"They pay us for our opinion and our opinion only," says Davis, the ultimate straight shooter. "You can only speak for what you see."
* * *
The copious note taker is the compass.
Bradway, who preceded Tannenbaum as Jets GM from 2001-05, has chronicled his 26 years of draft experience in more than 60 spiral notebooks. When the inner circle gathered in Florham Park in February a week after the Jets' AFC Championship Game loss, Bradway made sure the organization's draft philosophy wasn't lost during the initial stacking of the board.
Clinkscales began his February meeting at 7 a.m. sharp before the draft team left for the scouting combine in Indianapolis. For 12 hours, they ranked players based on the Jets' alphanumerical grading system compiled in the scouts' reports. For example, if a player has a medical issue or is projected to switch positions, he would recieve a corresponding letter (though the Jets would not reveal what those letters are) followed by a numerical ranking based on their football skill set on a scale of 1 to 9. The Jets rarely give out anything above a 7.99. They'll eventually set two draft boards to be used in the war room on draft day: 1) Positional and 2) Round-by-Round, which is divided into 1, 1-2, 2, 2-3, 3, 3-4, 4, 4-5 and 6-7.
Before the combine, each draftable player had five or six reports.
Early-round targets have as many as nine evaluations apiece after the combine, pro-day workouts and individual meetings, including 30 allowable out-of-town visits in the first week in April. The February draft board included reports only from area scouts, cross-checks and Senior Bowl/East-West game reports. The pre-combine grades won't be radically different from the adjusted grades in April.
"The (pre-combine score) is the purest grade you could have, because it's the grade of him playing football," the 55-year-old Bradway says. "No workouts, no interviews, no medical."
Cohen and Wooden spend the bulk of their time on advance scouting of opponents during the Jets' season before assuming larger draft roles in February. Cohen's responsibility involves gathering as much intelligence on teams' needs and interests to determine whether the Jets can navigate up or down the draft order. He'll track private workouts by teams and dissect rosters before offering scenarios and suggestions to Tannenbaum to gauge how many slots he can safely move for draft-day trades.
"A lot of teams will put smoke screens out there and are harder to read than others," Cohen says.
Wooden, the "most pure and natural evaluator," according to Tannenbaum, links a current NFL player to each prospect to give the brain trust an idea of what the college player could become in the years to come.
"We do a lot of great things, but until you win the championship, you can't write the book," Bradway says. "Our book's pretty good, but maybe we can't publish it yet."
* * *
Tannenbaum asks every prospect he meets the same question: Tell me something good you've done for someone else in the last seven days.
He asks his draft team that question too at random moments. He swears it came in handy two years ago when he landed his franchise quarterback.
The night before the 2009 draft, Tannenbaum had the framework in place for a trade with the Browns that would move the Jets up to the No. 5 pick to get Sanchez. After the Chiefs selected defensive end Tyson Jackson with the No. 3 pick, only the Seahawks stood in the way.
"I was scared to death that Seattle was going to take Sanchez," Tannenbaum says.
So, the superstitious man in charge issued a directive to his inner circle: "Wherever you were standing when Kansas City made the pick, stand in that exact same spot!" Tannenbaum told everyone in the war room that day. "And think of something good you've done for someone else."
Clinkscales, Bradway, Cohen, Wooden and Davis froze for 10 minutes. When the Seahawks chose linebacker Aaron Curry, they exhaled and executed the blockbuster deal. It highlighted the organization's quality-over-quanity mind-set that has given them a smaller margin for error than rivals such as the Patriots, who routinely stockpile draft choices.
"You try to find the true difference-makers in our sport," Tannenbaum says.
"You can find replaceable parts throughout the year, but true difference-makers are tremendous nuggets. If you have that opportunity, go get one."
They invest countless hours each year only to make a handful of picks.
The brain trust will spend the next few days fine-tuning the boards with three reviews with coach Ryan.
But the discussion never really stops.
"I want good debate," Tannenbaum says of having relatively few people in the war room. "I trust the people in there. I don't want ancillary B.S. that's not going to get us to where we need to go."
When the final boards are set Wednesday afternoon, Tannenbaum will work the phones for a few more hours. "You know me," he says. "I'm a dealmaker by nature. I'll certainly look into that. I promise you."
In the end, he knows he'll be perceived as the genius or the fool even though the efforts by the five people he trusts the most make all the difference. They've shared his successes and failures for the better part of a decade. They're all husbands and fathers like him. Their fingerprints on every draft are everywhere. They all work too hard.
A framed photo of Ella and Jacob Tannenbaum in a barn filled with hay rests in their father's office. It's a subtle reminder to all that they've prepared enough. They're ready.
"The hay is in the barn," Tannenbaum says with a laugh. "Time to go home and see the kids."