Louis Riddick, a former NFL safety and Director of Pro Personnel, will be heavily featured on ESPN’s Draft Coverage tonight and this weekend. We met for a half-hour at a hotel in downtown Chicago on Tuesday night. This interview has been condensed for clarity.
Ryan Glasspiegel: Going through the quarterbacks – Jared Goff, Carson Wentz, Connor Cook, and we can also add Christian Hackenberg – who do you think has the highest upside, who has the highest floor, and who is best equipped to play in the league right away?
Louis Riddick: I’m gonna answer all those questions with the same guy: Jared Goff. I know conventional wisdom would be “Well, Connor Cook played in a pro-style offense and had pro-style responsibilities, and you can make a much more projection for him and Carson.” I get that. Scouts look for that type of thing.
But, Jared Goff’s football intelligence, his instincts, his football IQ, the things that he shows on third down – which is really the money down in the NFL – the footwork, decision-making, accuracy, succeeding amidst a poor offensive line and poor supporting cast at Cal. He took a beating all those years. Never flinched.
I think that shows he’ll be able to handle the responsibility of playing the Rams, he’s not a finished product and he’s going to take a beating there too. He’s gonna be in a big market. He’s been through that fire, too. He understands pressure in that way.
When you’re talking about his ceiling as a player, people will point to Carson Wentz and say that he’s a bigger, stronger, more physical athlete. Bigger arm and all that. The quarterback position isn’t defined by that. I know Cam Newton makes everyone think that’s what the standard has to be. You can draw a comparison on Thursday night between Goff and a guy named Joe Montana ….
RG: That’s pretty lofty…
LR: I’m just talking about from a physical dimensions perspective. The game is played between your ears. It’s about functional decision-making and accuracy over and over and over. Repetitive behavior. The tape shows that Jared Goff can do that. I’m gonna say he has the highest floor, and the highest ceiling.
The highest ceiling isn’t necessarily defined by the guy who can throw the ball the farthest. Carson Wentz can probably do that. The guy who’s ready to play right now isn’t necessarily defined by the guy who came from a pro-style offense. Goff has a tremendously high football IQ. I’m going to say across the board, hands down, that he’s going to be the best quarterback in this class when it’s all said and done.
RG: There’s been a lot of chatter about Connor Cook and people anonymously questioning his leadership. How do you feel in general about how this goes on before the NFL Draft, and how do you feel specifically as it relates to Cook?
LR: Well, it depends who the storyline is coming from. Anonymous scouts? I don’t really get into all that because as I’ve stated before I bet if you could put a face to some anonymous scouts, like I told Richard Deitsch, I wouldn’t trust their opinions as far as I could punt them through a goal post. I don’t really care what they say.
But someone who I knew? Then I’d give it some credence, whether or not I agree with it. I don’t think it’s real cool this time of year for people to [leak anonymously], but I understand why they do it. Scouts start talking because as the process gets closer and closer to its finishing point, scouts start getting weeded out of the process and it starts filtering up to the decision makers – ownership, head coach, general manager – so they end up getting left out of it and they want to talk to somebody.
Reporters prey on that, start building friendships, and next thing you know this guy is making anonymous quotes. Bad character, leadership, etc. This is how the Connor Cook stuff can start gaining legs. Have I heard some of this stuff through people that I trust that there is some concern? Yeah, I have.
So, for me, when you’re talking about him in particular, I’ve heard some of it. I’ve also heard that he’s trying to address it. Every team will look at it differently. Some teams won’t really care about the captaincy issue, or some of the locker room friction that’s been talked about. Some teams will say it’s a huge red flag.
How do I look at it? I’ve never talked to Connor Cook, so I’d really need to get a feel for him and whether or not we can manage that type of thing, if I was a GM on a team. Some of these anonymous scouts, though, if you put a face to them, you’d be like, “I can’t trust what that guy’s saying.” It really kind of goes in one ear and out the other. I don’t put much credence into it.
RG: When you’re evaluating prospects, not just quarterbacks, how much weight do you put into a) seeing them in person, b) film, c) what your impressions of them are when you meet face-to-face, and d) what you hear about them?
LR: Seeing them in person is important. There’s the old scouting axiom that the eye in the sky doesn’t lie. Well, sometimes it does. You can’t really tell body types until you get up on somebody. I have been shocked when I see a guy on film, and then I look at him in person and go that’s not what I expected.
The more you can see somebody up close, the better, from a physical perspective. The more you can meet a person and talk to them and get a feel for their personality, the better.
Some of the scouting and trying to figure out if a guy is for you is about instinct. It’s about, do I really vibe with what this guy is saying? Is he being real and authentic, and saying the things that I need to hear out of high quality athletes, or is he bullshitting me? I think I have a good feel for that. I think most people who have played the game and been in a front office do.
As far as trusting other people and what they tell you, when you’re scouting prospects you can’t just get information from the football liaison at a school who is just going to give you very standard information and typical rhetoric. You need to build relationships. Some of the best information you could get was when people didn’t know why you were asking about a player, like when it came up in casual conversation. Like, a server at a restaurant on campus. It’s funny how people will just start talking about players and what they do.
Being a scout is like being a private eye. If you’re going to seek out people and ask for private information, you better be sure they’re telling you the truth. This isn’t to crush people, it’s about making an investment.
RG: You mentioned being after the truth. Do you think there are teams that will deliberately leak something negative about a player that they’re interested in as a way of scaring competitors off?
LR: I think it’s all part of the gamesmanship of the draft. It would be in very poor taste to leak something negative that is false. That borders on taking it way too far. People are always interested, though, in concealing their intentions. Kind of lead people off their path a little bit. Get teams to think you’re leaning one way when it’s another.
Yeah, I think the good old smokescreen is something that everyone’s trying to do. That’s why I think it’s probably good at this point to close your ears off to a lot of this information. Just kind of trust what your plan is, trust your eyes and your football knowledge about what a team is probably going to do.
If you start chasing every ghost of this guy’s rising or this guy’s falling – as a personnel guy it was my job to try and figure out what other teams were gonna do. So, when I was on that side, I’d listen to media and mocks and see what people are doing. It was like this shit’s getting real confusing because I’d see five different people project teams to take five different guys. You just have to trust yourself and your football knowledge.
RG: Speaking of smokescreens, now that you’ve been in the media for about three years is there a time you can think of where somebody connected with a team told you something and you think back on it now and realize that person was outright lying?
LR: No. Number 1, the people I talk to are all good friends. I trust them and they trust me. They know that I would never burn them. I would never put them out there. Whatever we talk about would be used tactfully and tastefully so I can do what I need to do, and they can perform their job without me compromising their information.
There is no lying. I don’t ever lie about information. And I know the people I talk to don’t lie to me. It’s very much a two-way relationship. I’ve known the people I talk to for a very long time. I don’t just talk to any old body. They don’t have my best interests in mind, and they don’t know if I have theirs in mind, so it’s kind of pointless to do that.
RG: Last week, Leigh Steinberg tweeted about your colleague Todd McShay’s analysis of Paxton Lynch, and questioned his credibility to speak on the NFL Draft because he didn’t ever work in an NFL front office (like you did). Having worked in the league, and alongside McShay – and Mel Kiper has also been subject to similar criticism over the years – what was your reaction?
LR: Honestly, I didn’t see it. But, just reacting to it now – agents have an interest that they’re trying to protect. They’re always going to get a little uptight when people criticize their clients. This has happened to me since I’ve been on this side.
When they then go to the next step and start attacking someone’s qualifications, that’s tasteless on their part. These guys work very hard at it. Because their resume is not the same as mine doesn’t mean that they can’t have acquired the requisite knowledge to have a very informed opinion that people should listen to.
They’re not always going to cast your client in the best light. Now, I bet if Todd had come out and said something very positive about Paxton and said he’s the number one prospect in the draft class, Leigh wouldn’t have had a big problem with it. Understand what his agenda and his intentions are.
When I was on the front office side, I’ll tell you this: NFL front offices, scouts, GMs, and personnel directors all think that they invented football. They all think that they’re the smartest football people in the world, and that nobody outside that little 32-team fraternity can ever question anything that they do. That’s why it’s easy for them to take shots at guys like Mel and Todd because they haven’t been in that environment before, and just discredit them.
Well, I can tell you this. Having worked in front offices, there are a lot of guys who are scouting right now that shouldn’t be scouting the local YMCA football team, let alone NFL players. I can guarantee you that. So, when people start criticizing guys in the media who really try to work hard at this job, and I know how Todd and Mel work, they better check their own resume and look inward at themselves a little bit.
These guys know what they’re doing. They know what they’re talking about. Their opinions? I don’t agree with all their opinions. We see things differently a lot of times. But, for people to do that, I understand why it happens but you should kind of back down on that stuff and let it ride a little because unless you’ve worked with Mel or Todd, or watched film with them and know exactly how they’re looking at things, scouting’s a very subjective thing.
I could give five people who all have the same qualifications as me and we could all look at Paxton Lynch and see five different things. People get uptight when it doesn’t get their guy in a positive light. Leigh stands to make a lot more money the higher Paxton’s drafted. That’s not being disrespectful for Leigh. I get it. I think people should cool it when they start attacking the credibility of people because it’s a little disingenuous and it doesn’t paint the picture you want.
[editor’s note: Steinberg did apologize for criticizing McShay’s background, but still called his analysis of Lynch a “toxic assessment”]
RG: Now that you’ve worked with Kiper and McShay, I assume you have a different impression than you did before?
LR: I’ll be perfectly honest. When I was in the front office, I used to think because I was there and [they] were not that they didn’t understand what was going on, and that sometimes they ought to keep their opinions to themselves.
Now that I’ve been on both sides, I’ve talked to Mel and Todd about that. I didn’t know Mel Kiper before I started working here. When you see his personality on TV, you think that guy’s kind of brash and in your face. Mel Kiper is one of the best human beings on this Earth, period. Football or not.
Todd McShay works his ass off. Period. He talks to a lot of people. He knows the game of football. So, yeah, my opinions of them on a professional level have changed. I think if people knew them and knew how hard they worked, they would have a better opinion of them too.
RG: You mentioned in your interview with Richard Deitsch that you’d go back into the NFL under the right circumstances. What’s an example of the perfect situation?
LR: From the philosophical standpoint it’s gotta be [in a pairing with a coach] who’s been taught the x’s and o’s of the game, the organizational structure as far as it pertains to professional football, and player profiles the same way I have.
RG: But wouldn’t you go back into the front office ideally with the power to choose the coach?
LR: Ideally you would, but I’m saying if I can link up with a coach, that’s what it’d have to be. If I could go and run a front office with the opportunity to choose everybody from the top down, I know the people who I’d go after. I know immediately. That would be easy.
I’m just saying, if I’m being realistic about it, are there people who I know I’d like to work with who I’d either pick or go in with together? Absolutely. It would have to be people who I have those philosophical commonalities with. I’d never go back to the NFL to be a pro director or personnel director, and I’m never going back to work with someone who philosophically doesn’t see football the same way.
I miss the NFL. I miss the challenges of trying to build a football team. There’s certain things that can never fill the gaps when I’m not involved there. But, I’m not dying to get back there. I’m not using ESPN to try to get back into the league at all, and I think everybody knows that by the way I approach the job here. I’m not trying to protect or not hurt anyone’s feelings, but if the right situation comes up I think everyone at ESPN knows I would look at it.
RG: Who are some coaches who you think you see the same way as?(This was asked knowing he was not about to tell me.)
LR: I’m not saying, but there are some out there. I’ll just leave it at that. There’s a bunch of people in the NFL who I respect the hell out of. Everybody knows how I feel about Bill Belichick. I don’t think he’s leaving New England anytime soon. He and Nick Saban are the people who taught me the game at this level. It doesn’t get any better than that. That kind of football philosophy is what I’m drawn to.
RG: Could you see Saban going back to the NFL?
LR: I could, yeah. I can’t speak for Nick, and I never would, but I think what would be important for him to have someone from a philosophical standpoint, like I just said, sees it like he does. I don’t want to say it’s unique because everyone likes big, strong, fast football players like he does. But it’s the way that you coach them, the mental makeup, the character profiles that you’re looking for.
Not everyone’s cut out for the ways Bill and Nick coach. That is about as intense and pressure-packed as it gets, and that makes a lot of guys crack. So they look for special kinds of guys.
Nick would need somebody whose onboard with that kind of philosophy, and someone who quite honestly can deal with how intense he is and the kind of demands he puts on people. Not everybody can work for him. Not everybody coach for him, that’s why he is who he is.
[Display photo via ESPN Images]