DLF Q&A: Matt Waldman

George Kritikos

hundley1To put it simply, any Dynasty League Football reader who is unfamiliar with Matt Waldman’s work is at a disadvantage. From his fantastic work at FootballGuys to his many podcast appearances, film room sessions, and the incomparable Rookie Scouting Portfolio (RSP); it is safe to say that Matt is a busy guy. All you need to do is crack open the more than 1,400 page PDF that is the RSP, available now at his website for the 2015 draft class, and you will understand the depth of Matt’s football knowledge.

For me, Matt’s tireless work on his RSP has been invaluable in not only becoming familiar with the skill positions, but also, his analysis and subsequent commentary is the type of work that makes you double check your own. I love any resource that challenges me to affirm my own opinion and Matt’s work does just that. In this Q&A, we will discuss how Matt’s approach to evaluation, get his perspective on the 2015 rookie class, and more.
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DLF: Let’s start at a high level. You have been doing the RSP for about 10 years now. Can you talk about how it has evolved over the years and what is the biggest takeaway you have learned in that time?

Matt:  I created a flexible process and this was my intent 10 years ago. It allows me to alter how I define and score criteria as my knowledge of the position and the game grows. Where it has grown the most are the intent of the checklist and the development of skill-based breakdowns.

The checklist began as a measure of talent. As the years passed, I realized that the checklist was only measuring one type of talent—breadth of talent, but not depth of talent. I developed the skill breakdowns from the checklist to measure depth.

Breadth of talent is a measure of the variety of skills and athletic requirements that a player might have at his position. The more areas marked “yes” on my checklists, the broader range of fundamental skills and athleticism he has at the position.

If I was evaluating talent for a writer, the checklist would include a broad range of criteria: grammar and punctuation; knowledge of the inverted pyramid; what constitutes a lede and setup; understanding of setting, plot, mood, and a variety of story forms. A writer who understands all of these things is more likely to be a competent writer, but this evaluation doesn’t measure ‘how good’ that writer really is.

I know writers who understand all of these things really well and they can write the hell out of a press release—a completely formulaic undertaking. Ask them to write a magazine feature of 1800-2500 words and they’re locked in their offices, missing meetings, and experiencing panic attacks. If they finish the feature it’s rarely a compelling story. The idea of ever writing a book, much less a novel, would be like asking them to build a spaceship and travel to Mars.

I also know writers who have consistent issues with specific grammar and punctuation points and they aren’t well-schooled in the deconstruction of writing into all of these academic elements. However, they can write one hell of a story.  Many of them could build that spaceship on paper and then tell you about the journey in way that holds your attention and remains in your memory long after you read the last page.

The first group of writers is competent with a broad range of fundamental knowledge, but not all that talented. The second group has depth of talent.  Robert Woods has a broad range of talent as a wide receiver. He may also have depth of talent, but we haven’t see how deep just yet. Kelvin Benjamin and Jordan Matthews have narrower ranges of talent, but their depth of talents makes them productive receivers in a well-matched offense.

The RSP has—and continues—to evolve from measuring breadth of talent to breadth and depth. In 2016, I will have a single score that also displays depth of talent and measures it across all positions. It’s based on both the checklists and skill breakdowns that I currently use.

DLF: How much post-evaluation do you do? In the last interview, you mentioned the 2009 wide receiver class as one of the best you have studied. How do you revisit your annual assessments?

Matt:  I do a great deal of post-evaluation, but not the way I think most readers imagine. My post-evaluation work is about process improvement. Judging the success of an evaluation on a player’s career is often too simplistic.

It’s easy to say that a favorable evaluation of players like Chad Spann and Cedric Peerman are mistakes because they never became starters or in Spann’s case, never stuck long-term with a single team. However, Spann’s issues were often health-related and Jay Gruden told the media after a good stretch of games from Peerman that the Bengals had long pegged the veteran as a special teams talent and “didn’t know what [they] had” in the running back.

Draft status of a player often dictates opportunity more than talent. Therefore, I’m not looking at the draft or statistics to evaluate my evaluations. I’m looking at the accuracy of what I see as the player’s strengths and weaknesses and how accurately I projected his development of those skills or his fit with a scheme that will minimize the weaknesses and maximize the strengths.

Guys like John Beck, Demaryius Thomas, and Blaine Gabbert are more accurate examples of misses I’ve had as an evaluator. What I missed from these players helped me develop better criteria for my evaluations at those positions as well as improve the weight of the scoring system to reflect the importance of these points. It also helped the skill breakdowns evolve as an important evaluation tool.

Even successful evaluations aren’t based on production. I’m known for pegging Russell Wilson, but it wasn’t about his ranking as so much as stating that he had potential to develop into a quality starting quarterback for specific reasons and I counteracted many of the points that others listed as negatives.

DLF: One more question before we dig into this year’s rookie class. I’ve heard you talk about “showing your work” and the value you place in it. Can you expand on that some more?

Matt:  Former players and scouts all earn instant street cred from readers because they held these titles. I had to earn mine. The best way to do it was to show my process: The play-by-play notes I take with every evaluation; the glossary of defined criteria on every position-specific checklist; and the illustration of every report that factors into my rankings.

Most people won’t examine the 1194 pages of checklists and play-by-play evaluations in the 2015 RSP. However they will “look at them” as a cumulative point that what I’m doing, how I’m doing, and the results I’m getting are based in a rigorous, well-planned process. It adds value for my readers.

For me, the process helps me learn more every year. The act of writing everything I see forces me to examine games carefully. It also allows me to see more details as each season passes.

DLF: Looking purely at the numbers, it would suggest that Marcus Mariota is arguably the top quarterback prospect. You, however, have him third behind Jameis Winston and Brett Hundley (albeit narrowly). What has you concerned and where is a landing spot that would make you agree with my placement of him above Winston and Hundley?

Matt: Mariota actually has as many, if not more issues handing pressure than Hundley, despite the fact the major media portrays 180 degrees different. Mariota is a task-oriented quarterback who executes a creative offense, but doesn’t thrive outside the structure of the play. He’ll often bypass opportunities that come as the play unfolds to stick to the play’s plan—even when the much smarter decision is to take what the defense gives him.

The best quarterbacks in the NFL are creative players who operate outside the structure of the play and recognize opportunities that are presented to them. Mariota has difficulties with this part of his game. I’m not willing to endorse him as a talent with a strong likelihood of becoming more than a competent starter. Philadelphia is the only team that operates an offense that is a clear match for a task-oriented, analytical thinker at the position.

DLF: I see a pair of small school quarterbacks in your top ten. How does the evaluation differ for them relative to a quarterback from a major conference?

Matt:  There’s often a difference in athleticism and talent of the surrounding talent, but no difference in the evaluation. I don’t think “level of talent” in a conference is a good factor of consideration.

The best evaluations of film are skill and trait based. Players are competing with themselves to execute the correct technique, make the correct judgements, and display their best athletic talents nuance of the game. It’s about having a fast processor and know how to apply these talents.

I watched Ahmad Bradshaw and Matt Forte have poor statistical outings (less than 3 yards per carry) and still saw the talent based on the factors above. I have also studied productive players with great athletic talent and concluded that they were highly flawed players with a longer development curve ahead despite the players posting strong box score stats against quality competition—Stephen Hill is a good example.

If your evaluation criteria is rooted techniques, good judgment, and demonstration of baseline athleticism and the standard of what you’re seeking has a foundation of what’s on display in the NFL, it doesn’t matter who the opponent is.

DLF: One more quarterback question. I noticed you repeat the idea of having a young quarterback sit and learn behind a veteran. Is that something you prefer across the board or have you evaluated quarterbacks in the past where you were fine with them being burdened with the responsibility of starting right away?

Matt:  It always depends on the player, but most quarterbacks I watch would benefit from time on the bench. The exceptions are prospects with excellent pocket presence and demonstrate advanced integration of disparate concepts to make plays.

What does that last phrase mean? It’s a display of a quarterback having the skill to combine many of his tools into one play.  An example is a quarterback reading a blitz, using his athleticism, arm strength, and communication skills to make a throw based on the structure of the play, but alter the structure to maximize the result.

Andrew Luck, Teddy Bridgewater, and Russell Wilson all had this quality. They are also voracious students of the game. And they were also mature beyond their years, capable of balancing a new life alongside their new profession.

DLF: When reading through the running back assessment, you indicate to dynasty owners the depth this class has. What would be your strategy walking into a rookie draft in regards to the position?

Matt:  Stockpile.

DLF: Simple and I couldn’t agree more. Talk to me about Jay Ajayi. You have him ranked eighth among rookie running backs. DLFer Scott Fish sings his praises on a daily basis. How much does your ranking reflect the aforementioned depth compared to deficiencies that Ajayi has in his game?

Matt:  It’s mostly depth-related. Last year Ajayi would have been in—or closer to—the top five. However, he has to mature conceptually between the tackles. He was still inconsistent in this regard in 2014. So was LeSean McCoy and Jamaal Charles when they entered the league.

DLF: You have Todd Gurley first in your running back rankings like many evaluators do. I still want to talk about him though. Where would you place him among the running backs you have evaluated in the past?

Matt: Gurley would be among my top 10 prospects of the past 10 years.  He’s a strong, fast, and versatile runner, receiver, and blocker. He also displays good judgment.

DLF: Everyone loves a good sleeper. Who is a running back you have seen going outside the first round in rookie drafts that you would tell dynasty owners to maximize their shares in?

Matt:  There are other backs I believe are deeper sleepers, but you’ll have to check out my work to see them. A more popular guy who fits this scenario is T.J. Yeldon. He has excellent feet and he runs with vision, control, and power. He’s strong pass protector and receiver. A team won’t need to take him off the field. He’s a chain mover with excellent burst and savvy who got lost among the list of flashier backs in this draft.

DLF: After the great success of the 2014 rookie wide receiver class, how much should we temper expectations in regards to the 2015 rookie receiver class as a whole?

Matt:  Even if this class was as talented at the top of the board as last year’s, I’d say temper expectations. Opportunity dictates production and talent does not always dictate opportunity. Cody Latimer was one of the better talents of 2014’s class. However, put Odell Beckham in Denver and he does not beat out Emmanuel Sanders or Demaryius Thomas for playing time. He might have had good showings in practice (if he was healthy there), but John Fox doesn’t like playing rookies.

The 2015 class has depth of talent and some talent at the top. It’s still a group I’d invest in alongside the running backs.

DLF: Another guy you are high on is Kenny Bell, ranking him sixth at the receiver position and above a personal favorite, Nelson Agholor. Do you think Bell is being underrated because he was a Nebraska receiver?

Matt:  NFL teams tend to like using higher picks on investments where they can cover their assets. The credentials they lean on include but don’t have to include every single one of the following: strong combine production, strong statistical production, major college program, program with a history of productive players at the position, and above average height and weight. 

Bell played for a program that hasn’t had a starting wide receiver in the NFL since Irving Fryar in 1984 (the No.1 overall pick of the Patriots). Nebraska is a ground-oriented program right now.

DLF: Who the heck are Darius Davis and James O’Shaughnessy and tell me why I should keep an eye on them?

Matt:   Here is a link that will highlight players like Davis and O’Shaughnessy.

DLF: I’m going to circle back to the 2014 class. Is there someone you are still eyeing as a player of interest who hasn’t had his opportunity yet?

Matt:   Latimer.

DLF: You had Virgil Green as your top tight end when he came out a few years ago. If he is given the chance to start in Denver, what can you tell dynasty owners to expect?

Matt:  Subscribe to my blog, which is free, and you get answers to Davis, O’Shaughnessy and Green!

DLF: Going to get you out on this one. For the devy fans and those looking ahead to next year’s class, is there anyone you are enamored with who decided to stay in for another year?

Matt:  Most of the players I studied who are staying in school weren’t fantastic prospects. Duke Williams, the Auburn receiver is an exception. He’s a nice player with good hands and skill after the catch. D.J. Foster is a back I’d recommend readers to watch. He plays at Arizona State.

DLF: Matt, this has been fantastic. Thank you for setting aside the time to answer some questions. This has been extremely valuable, much like all the great work you do.

You can find Matt on Twitter at @mattwaldman, check out his work on FootballGuys and don’t forget to visit Matt’s website and purchase his Rookie Scouting Portfolio here as well.