Writing in TheMMQB.com, Colts GM Chris Ballard gives us great insight into how Indianapolis drafted CB ROCK YA-SIN:
We go the extra mile to delve into players and see how they’ll fit. You are telling the locker room every time you draft a player, “this is what we stand for.” If you bring in someone with a poor work ethic, or someone who is selfish, or someone who is unwilling to put in the work, you’re telling the locker room that that’s OK. Jerry Angelo used to say all the time that the talent of a player will tell you his ceiling, but his football character determines his floor. It’s critical to get that right, so we know the floor.
Let’s take our first pick this year, Temple cornerback Rock Ya-Sin, and examine the process of how we reached our final decision, from the initial scouting report to draft day.
What traits make up a Colts cornerback? Is it possible to pick a Colts cornerback out of a crowd? The answer is yes, and there are a few things we look for. Ya-Sin had them all:
• Size and length. Ya-Sin is 5-foot-11 with 32-inch arms, which are considered long for a cornerback.
• Instincts and ball skills. Yup.
• Toughness. It’s impossible to play our scheme if you’re not tough. Frank Reich’s definition of toughness: A relentless pursuit to get better every day; an obsession to finish. Ya-Sin is a two-time state champion high school wrestler, fitting this definition to a T.
Some of these traits might seem generic, and, yes, you can find most of these qualities if you look hard enough. However, each player is not always drawn up that way. I think of Colts cornerback Kenny Moore as an example. At 5-foot-9 he didn’t pass our height standard for a cornerback. But his long arms (32 1/8 inches) allowed him to play with more length, and he passed the test. That’s something scouts brought to our attention when we acquired him before the 2017 season. Moore has since become a key player on our defense.
Our scouts were aware of Ya-Sin from his time at Presbyterian in South Carolina, but not as a top prospect. When he transferred to Temple, he was awarded a single-digit jersey within a few weeks and our Northeast Area Scout Mike Derice took notice. (A single digit jersey at Temple signifies a player as one of the toughest on the team. Even more impressive, the single-digit jerseys are voted on by the teammates.)
Ya-Sin looked like a Colt, and Derice said Ya-Sin had the right makeup to ascend within the NFL. Derice followed his season, watched him play against Buffalo (where he recorded his first interception as an Owl), and used his contacts at the university to get a sense of his character.
Derice’s first scouting report on Ya-Sin said he had great football character and his physicality fit what we needed for a defensive back. At that time, we thought he’d be drafted somewhere in the third round. We marked him with an ascending grade, one to watch hard at the Senior Bowl.
Ed Dodds, our assistant general manager, said we should go “A-Z” on him during the Senior Bowl. Ya-Sin had a standout performance. He was getting better every day, and Derice developed a strong conviction about his belonging on the Colts. We made sure to interview Ya-Sin at length because we put a big emphasis on knowing a player’s character and story. The story leads us to the answers that we’re trying to find out about each guy.
When we interview a player it’s not strictly a “getting to know you” session. We use as much time as we need to get our detailed questions answered. We might visit with that same player during one of our Top 30 visits—NFL rules allow each team to have 30 private visits—to continue to get a better feel for his personal makeup.
When I first took the job in Indianapolis, I wanted to find an expert who could help us get to the core of a player’s football character. We found the perfect person in Brian Decker, a former Green Beret and now our director of player development. He uses a model he developed in the military and applies toward our interview process. He interviews every prospect on our draft board and teaches our scouts specific interviewing techniques.
I didn’t know anything about Decker until I read an ESPN article about his journey in the NFL and the work he was doing on player character assessments to more accurately predict if a player will succeed or fail. I was really intrigued by this topic so I reached out to Decker to get to know him and pick his brain.
At the time I was working in Kansas City, and he was doing some consulting with for the Kansas City Royals. I was impressed right away with his intelligence, vision and humble spirit. He also had an easy way about him that made you want to talk to him. I knew after a few more visits that if I ever had a chance to hire him that I would do it. I can’t sit here and say I knew exactly what his role was going to be, but I did have a strong conviction that Decker would really help us get to the core of a player’s football character, which in turn would help us in our hit rate in the draft. His role has really grown in two years and has become a valuable resource to our coaches, scouts, and players.
I am not going to give away any trade secrets but here are the five questions Decker wants to get the answers to:
• Does this player have a favorable developmental profile?
• Does he have a profile that supports handling pressure and adversity?
• Does he have a good learning and decision-making capacity?
• Is he a character risk and, if so, what can we do to help support him?
• Is he a fit?
THE ROOM OF CANDOR
There are times that I refer to our draft room as “the Room of Candor,” just like they have for film screenings at Pixar Studios. I picked this up in Kansas City while reading Ed Catmull’s book “Creativity, Inc.” and it has followed me to Indianapolis. At Pixar, they meet every few months about their current projects and honestly assess the films they create. They aim to put smart and passionate people in a room with an emphasis on problem solving.
Similarly, in our version, it’s a room for honest conversation, where everyone has a chance to present their case, ask questions, and speak to the abilities of each player.
From our February meetings until draft day, our team pokes holes in the viability of every player. As we enter the draft room, titles get checked at the door. We want everyone in the room to challenge and say what they think. You never know if what you say might spark a different mindset about the player. I promise, this is not easy for scouts. When you have scouted a player for a long period of time and everyone in the room is questioning your work, you have to fight the urge to be defensive. Saying that, it’s a great way to grow and learn because you get to hear other perspectives from the scouts.
What I have found over the years is that the better the discussions are on a player in the room, the more likely we are to get him right. We have some talented evaluators on our staff and also some real personalities:
• Ed Dodds, assistant GM, always has a strong opinion on players and never shies away from confrontation. Even with his strong personality, he has a humbleness to admit when he is too high or low on a player.
• Morocco Brown, our College Scouting Director, at one point was a Pro Scouting Director for the Washington Redskins. He has a 19-year mental library of NFL players and always is up for making accurate comparisons to whom we are watching. Brown might be the best report writer that I have been around. He can paint a picture of what the player can do and what he will be for the Colts in a very clear and concise manner.
• Kevin Rogers, our Pro Scouting Director, has a very similar library to recall players and is an elite evaluator. Dodds calls him “The Sniper” because he usually waits until the room gets a strong conviction on a player and then he “snipes” everyone from the back of the room. He can shoot down the momentum a player has gained with a comparable player from 15 years ago who struggled in the league.
• Both our analytics guys, John Park and George Li, have voices in the room, too. They both offer great insight from an analytic perspective and we challenge the numbers when we don’t like what we are hearing. It’s always entertaining to watch guys get defensive when they are spitting out numbers depicting how a player would struggle.
• Jamie Moore, our tremendous Southeast Area Scout, is passionate about his work and all the players he has scouted. He might take as much ribbing in the room as anyone, but he has a good time with it. What I love about Moore is that he does the work and is not afraid to voice his opinion. An area scout without conviction is just an information gatherer. There is no doubt about Moore’s conviction on players when we are talking and watching one of his.
• Our coaching staff also does a tremendous job working on the draft and are always welcome into our room. They have worked extremely hard to put together profiles on each position and the traits that fit our schemes. When we disagree on a player, we put the tape on and watch it together. The tape always tells the truth and settles disagreements.
THE BLUE CARDS
When we are in draft meetings, we talk about each player’s football character at great length to determine if a player fits our draft board. If a player meets our strict criteria in terms of his football character, he is given a blue card. There might be 10 or 12 blue cards in the entire draft and we want to pick as many of these players for our locker room that we can. Ya-Sin was a blue card.
On draft night, we felt like we would have a chance to move back in the draft and pick up an extra pick that weekend or in a future year. We have a strong belief that the more picks that we can acquire, the better it is for our team in the end. We don’t want to pass up a difference-making player so we are very thorough working through every scenario before we make the decision to move.
Ya-Sin was one of the players we considered taking as our No. 26 pick in the first round before we got a call from the Redskins. We felt like Washington’s 2019 second-round pick and the extra second-round selection in the 2020 draft was a very good offer and would be worth the trade back with the players we still had on the board. What also helped was that our No. 34 pick, acquired from the Jets the previous year, was only eight picks away.
The next day, there were five players we still liked who were available at No. 34, and the draft room was split. Half of the room thought we should trade again and acquire another second and third-round pick, and the other half wanted to stay at No. 34 and pick Ya-Sin.
Ultimately, the decision is on me. However, because of our collaborative process, I made sure I heard everyone’s opinion one more time before we made the selection.
I have been very fortunate to work for two great general managers in my career, Jerry Angelo and John Dorsey, who both believed in having scouts in the room on draft night. They both understood that the scouts worked an entire year and spent a lot of time away from their families to get it right for the organization. I have also been in their shoes and understand what it means to feel like a part of the entire draft process. It is powerful for a scout to be able to speak on draft night in front of ownership and others in the draft room on their feelings and why they think a player can help the Colts win.
The defensive staff and scouts talked through the direction we wanted to go and we debated a couple of players on the board. We had a specific safety we debated hard for weeks and thought he could move to corner. He reminded us a lot of Rashean Mathis when he came out of college. We debated taking him if we moved down. We had a strong conviction about what type of player he could be and he had good football character. Saying that, blue card players are hard to find and there was the chance that we’d lose Ya-Sin if we hesitated and didn’t make the pick.
Matt Eberflus, our defensive coordinator, talked about Ya-Sin’s fit on the Colts. Derice then noted Ya-Sin’s character, grit, toughness, and will to be great. Furthermore, about four days before the draft, I had asked Decker to give me a list of the top players based on football character available in the draft. Ya-Sin was on that list.
The other half of the room—who wanted to trade back—thought we could still get Ya-Sin, but at a lower pick. There’s never a perfect alignment in the room, but once we make a decision, there is no looking back and second-guessing.
Coach Reich and I huddled for a few minutes and we decided we couldn’t afford the chance to lose a blue-card player like Ya-Sin. He fit exactly what we wanted at corner and there was no way we could pass on him at No. 34.
(A quick aside: Reich is tremendous on draft day. He has a lot of faith in our scouting group and allows us to work. He will also give us his opinion and allows our scouts to challenge him. His open mindedness really is special.)
It’s obviously not possible to know for sure if we’ve had a good draft yet. But we do feel 100 percent confident in a player once they’ve made our board. We’re not always right, but when we put in the work, the many man-hours challenging each other in the draft room, getting to the heart of ‘who is this player?’ and a million other questions, combined with the tape and the analysis and getting opinions from the coaches, we can feel validated.
At the end of the day, the players have to earn their place on the team and we as an organization have a responsibility to develop the player. Once they’re with us, we feel we have everything in place to get them to their ceiling as long we’ve got the football character right. Why? Because players who have football character want to get better and can overcome adversity. They never let the ups and downs of this tough league get in the way of their improvements each and every day.
Here is some more background on Ya-Sin. His given name is Abdurrahman Ibn Ya-Sin and he went to Southwest DeKalb High School near Atlanta. A two-star recruit, he first went to Presbyterian, then transferred to Temple after Presbyterian downgraded its program.
A Q&A with Ya-Sin on why he was not a D1 prospect coming out of high school:
How did you end up at the FCS level in the first place?
“I only played football in high school for two years so I was slightly under recruited I feel like. So that was probably the biggest reason.”
Why did you only play football for two years?
“My first time playing sports was in eighth grade wrestling and I was a wrestler throughout high school up until the 11th grade. I gave football a try and it worked out well for me.”
When you started playing football, did you keep wrestling at that point?
“Yes sir. Yes sir.”
So you wrestled all the way through senior year?
Do you think wrestling helps the football side of things?
In what ways?
“Just the competitiveness. The way in wrestling – it’s a team sport, but it’s a lot of one-on-one matchups. (It’s) the same thing in football. It’s a team sport, but a lot of times you are asked to be one-on-one with a guy and you have to beat that guy. And just not being afraid to be one-on-one because when you wrestle 150 matches in high school one-on-one versus another opponent. So you’re not afraid to stand in front of a guy and play man-to-man or stay in the zone and go one-on-one and tackle the running back.”
Some more about his time at Presbyterian whose nickname is the Blue Hose:
Ya-Sin could have wrestled in college.
A two-time Georgia state champion at Southwest DeKalb High, Ya-Sin had scholarship offers to wrestle at Virginia Tech, Virginia, North Carolina State and Chattanooga, schools far bigger than the ones pursuing him as a football player.
But his wrestling coach, Keith Johnson, convinced Ya-Sin to leave his first sport behind.
“He told me I should probably play football,” Ya-Sin said. “I’d only played for two years. My ceiling was so high. I had so much potential, just keep going with it and see where it would take me.”
Ya-Sin chose Presbyterian, a school of 950 students in Clinton, S.C., one of the smallest schools at the FCS level. He chose Presbyterian because Blue Hose coach Tommy Spangler had been after him longer than anybody and found him after Ya-Sin played the first football season of his life.
Nobody else had found Ya-Sin yet. All of the athleticism was there; the lack of his experience meant his high school tape was far from impressive.
There was something about Ya-Sin’s character, the way he worked and presented himself, that Spangler couldn’t shake.
“I’ve done it long enough,” Spangler said. “I could sense there was something special about this guy.”
Spangler showed up to Ya-Sin’s wrestling matches, spent time at his house, ate dinner with his father. That fall, Ya-Sin earned all-region honors, and Spangler admits he spent a lot of time worrying about somebody else swooping in and realizing how good Ya-Sin could be at the last minute.
The Atlanta area is one of the most fertile recruiting areas in the country; all it might take is the right coach showing up at the right time.
But the discovery never happened. Tennessee State tried to get involved late, and Hampton gave it a shot. Ya-Sin stuck with Presbyterian and the coach he’d come to know well.
“You know what happens nowadays,” Spangler said. “People get done with recruiting so early, they don’t actually recruit seniors any more. They recruit freshmen, sophomores, juniors and make decisions. By the time a kid’s a senior, the big boys feel like it’s too late.”
Football was still relatively new to Ya-Sin, and he struggled at times during his freshman season. Playing at a small school like Presbyterian ended up giving Ya-Sin the playing time he needed to develop; he might have gotten lost in the shuffle at a bigger program. Presbyterian gave him a chance to play right away.
Under the tutelage of Spangler, who coached the defensive backs before starting his second stint as the program’s head coach in 2017, Ya-Sin kept getting better, earning a starting role as a sophomore and then blossoming into a first-team All-Big South cornerback as a junior, breaking Presbyterian’s school record with five interceptions.
Ya-Sin loved Presbyterian, loved playing for Spangler. Even now, after a season spent at Temple and a whirlwind draft process, Ya-Sin still talks to Spangler all the time and called him the night before his first minicamp practice with the Colts this week.
When the bad news hit at the end of that breakout season, Ya-Sin didn’t even realize it might represent a chance for him to take his career to the next level.
“Transferring didn’t really cross my mind,” Ya-Sin said.
Spangler was the one who saw the opportunity.
Because of Presbyterian’s decision, any scholarship player on the Blue Hose roster could transfer to any school and be eligible to play immediately, rather than being forced to sit out a season.
And by that point, he knew Ya-Sin might be special. Only one Presbyterian player has ever been drafted — the Arizona Cardinals selected Justin Bethel in the sixth round in 2012 — but Spangler coached several NFL-caliber players in six seasons as Louisiana Tech’s defensive coordinator, and he thought he knew how good Ya-Sin could be.
“If this kid keeps developing, he’s going to have a chance,” Spangler said. “Did I think the second pick of the second round? No.”
While Spangler thought Ya-Sin had the talent to play in the SEC or ACC, he knew his protégé might not get a chance to start at that level with only one year of eligibility left, so he called the coaching staffs at Louisiana Tech, Georgia Southern and Coastal Carolina, imploring them to take a look at his best cornerback.
All of them passed. Temple listened. Geoff Collins, Temple’s coach at the time, had a friend on Presbyterian’s coaching staff and a need at cornerback.
Ya-Sin couldn’t have picked a better place to land.
And what about Ya-Sin, the name? Ya-Sin is apparently a letter in the Arabic alphabet, a book in the Qu’ran and one of the names for the Prophet Muhammad. This from Wikipedia:
Yā Sīn (also Yaseen; Arabic: يس) is the 36th chapter (not a book) (sūrah) of the Quran. It has 83 verses (āyāt). Regarding the timing and contextual background of the supposed revelation (asbāb al-nuzūl), it is an earlier “Meccan surah”, which means it is believed to have been revealed in Mecca, instead of later in Medina. Some scholars maintain that verse 12 is from the Medinan period.
It is named “yā sīn” because the chapter starts with the “disconnected” or “mysterious” (Muqatta’at) Arabic letters: يس (yā sīn). The meaning of these letters has caused much scholarly debate. Tafsir al-Jalalayn, a Sunni exegesis (tafsir), concludes, “God knows best what He means by these [letters].”
Yasin is also one of the names of the Prophet Muhammad, as reported in a saying of Ali, “I heard the Messenger of God say, ‘Verily God has named me by seven names in the Quran: Muhammad (3:144; 33:40; 47:2; 48:29), Ahmad (61:6), Ṭā-Hā, (20:1), Yā Sīn (36:1), thou enwrapped (Al-Muzzammil; 73:1), thou who art covered (Al-Muddathir; 74:1), and servant of God (ʿAbd Allāh; 72:19).'”