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Talking Draft Boards And The Ketchup Bottle Test, With Austin Gayle

Malik Willis seen pointing upwards after the LendingTree Bowl, a real event.
Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

Mere hours from now, that little ESPN Draft Chime is going to sound for the first time, shortly before the Jacksonville Jaguars make someone the first pick of the NFL Draft. Over the course of seven rounds and three days, it will sound a couple hundred more times; things will, as all things generally do, only continue to get dumber and more overheated during that stretch. What sets the NFL Draft apart from most things is that this process will for the most part be fun. Maybe not gripping television, although Mel Kiper Jr. joining the action from his home studio should provide a few solid jump-scares, but an opportunity to bluster and posture and be wrong and angry and/or happy in all the ways that this sort of event always provides. Drew and I are both already pretty certain that our teams are not going to do what we want them to do, in the draft or anywhere else, so we invited Austin Gayle, the Director of Content at the indispensable Pro Football Focus, to talk about not what is going to happen in the NFL Draft, but why and how those things will happen.

The answer, as always with the NFL, will be the result of heated combat between ancient caveman-brained institutional approaches and the sort of new and nuanced data that is Pro Football Focus’s stock in trade, with the usual pro sports cynicism and calculation riding over all of it. Gayle understands all of the above very well, and managed to give some illuminating answers to questions about how the NFL has and hasn’t changed when it comes to evaluating and understanding its players and their worth, and I was polite enough not to badger him into trying to explain Dave Gettleman’s Whole Thing on the record. There really is a sense in which the NFL is in a sort of renaissance, just in terms of understanding and refining processes that were, until very recently, very proudly grounded in whatever the exact opposite of understanding and refinement is. In another, equally valid sense, the NFL remains the NFL—backwards and superstitious and ridiculous.

It could not be otherwise, and at this point in my Stockholm Syndrome–intensive relationship with the league I do not really know if I would want it to be otherwise. But I felt like I came out of the conversation knowing more about how this stuff gets done than I did going in. I still don’t know if Malik Willis is going to be a good pro quarterback or not, but given that no one else really does, either, I’m perfectly willing to settle for a better understanding of how and why he might become one, or not. I do not want to give anything away, but either way the answer is going to depend upon the ability of a bunch of extremely stubborn old football men to think in flexible and self-critical ways. So uh good luck to everyone, there!

The stupid stuff was abbreviated, because we really were talking sports very strongly on this one, but the back third of the podcast still contains a brief discussion of Cincinnati’s polarizing local foodways and a well-intentioned New York attempt to elevate its grim n’ chocolatey local chili into high cuisine, a bone-chilling Phil Simms imitation from Drew, an appreciation of Darrius Heyward-Bey’s decade-long NFL career as a crypto-bust, and a frank discussion of what to do when one is called “buddy” in the workplace. I make a Pauly Shore joke but it is at the very end of the podcast so you should have a decently easy time avoiding it. Once you hear the phrase “weezing your nugs” it’s too late, but you probably already knew that.

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