For Teddy Bridgewater, the damage was done by the time the NFL draft rolled around. From the day his college career ended at Louisville to the day he became a Minnesota Viking, Bridgewater's perceived stock endured a steady decline. Once proclaimed as the likely No. 1 overall pick in the 2014 draft, the quarterback ended up being the last man taken on the draft's first night.
The souring on Bridgewater was so intense that his selection at 32nd overall was seen as a success by some media members who had been expecting him to fall out of the first round entirely. His fall from grace was attributed to a number of factors, including his thin frame and, most notably, his pro day workout for coaches and scouts, which many in attendance slammed as being "average at best."
In the end, Bridgewater was the third quarterback taken last year, behind Jacksonville's Blake Bortles and Cleveland's Johnny Manziel. He was a victim of a pre-draft process that exposed his weaknesses and put NFL teams on alert.
Or at least, that's the convenient narrative. Except it misses an important detail.
"I knew teams they had a second-day grade on him at the end of the [college football] season," says Charlie Campbell, an NFL draft expert for WalterFootball.com. "The media was all projecting him to be a high first-day pick.
"Oftentimes, [a draft surprise] is more about the media catching on late that teams have a player rated lower than they thought."
In other words, Bridgewater was never penciled in as a top pick -- not by coaches or scouts, or anyone with say in the matter. He looked the part in college, putting up strong numbers and drawing attention from the NFL, but the prospect of him going first overall was fool's gold.
To varying degrees, this is a common occurrence -- and one of the main reasons prospects seem to plummet in the draft. Most team decisions aren't made on impulse: Draft boards are set, players are evaluated and considered over time, and draft decisions typically go according to what needs are most pressing, who is available, and what players sit at the top of team boards.
Draft surprises typically aren't a two-way experience. Bridgewater's dropping to the bottom of the first round didn't send any shockwaves throughout the NFL community. The lifespan of a player's hype has a knack for outliving that player's actual market value, but teams don't let that hype drive their evaluations and decision-making.
A good example, according to Campbell, is Matt Barkley. Coming out of high school, he was seen as a prototypical NFL quarterback with a great arm and a bright future. His early career at USC maintained that trajectory, but an underwhelming senior season put his status in doubt. The NFL draft combine and subsequent workouts didn't offer any evidence that his disappointing senior season was an anomaly.
He wound up being drafted in the fourth round of the 2013 draft -- a far cry from the top-five placement media members were projecting just one year earlier. Barkley's NFL career is still young, but there's nothing to suggest he's a star-in-waiting: In two seasons with the Eagles, he's gone 30-for-50 passing for 300 yards, no touchdowns and four interceptions. Barkley also has three fumbles and a career 43.8 QB rating, which isn't exactly the future he'd been assigned as a high school senior.
"The media was eager to make Barkley a top quarterback prospect," Campbell says.
Misplaced or unearned hype has contributed to plenty of draft surprises over the years. But it's not fair to pin every shocking draft development on media assumptions. Sometimes a free-fall happens even when the media is dead-on about a player. That's what happened to Aaron Rodgers in 2005: On live television, Rodgers sweated it out as he went from a potential top pick to the 24th overall selection, a devastating slide down the ranks -- and one that had Rodgers visibly upset when he took the stage as the newest member of the Green Bay Packers.
This wasn't an instance of a Barkley or Bridgewater miscalculation. Rodgers was, indeed, considered a top prospect, a potential star quarterback. Campbell says most teams had a first-round grade on him, but the problem of his freefall was circumstantial: Once outside of the top five picks, most teams were not looking to draft a quarterback. Absent a team looking to address their quarterback needs in the first round, Rodgers continued to fall under the Packers grabbed him.
Brady Quinn suffered the same experience in 2007. Although Quinn and Rodgers have had opposite pro careers, they both entered the NFL draft highly rated -- and then they got burned. Quinn missed a window of teams early in the first round -- most notably the Browns, Dolphins and Bucs -- that were looking for a quarterback but didn't take him. After those teams passed, Quinn hit a long stretch of franchises that didn't want to burn a first-rounder on a quarterback.
Cleveland, which took tackle Joe Thomas third overall, had another pick in the first round, and ended up grabbing Quinn at No. 22.
This type of thing happens every year, and it's part of what makes the NFL draft so popular on television. Areas of need can be so specific for teams -- and their valuations of players so varied -- that coveted players can remain available for what seems like far too long, giving fans hope that their teams can land a great bargain.
And, despite the long stretches of preparation and evaluation, teams aren't immune to mistakes made in the 11th hour. This can happen one of two ways. The first is making an impulse reaction to new information: Campbell points to Warren Sapp in 1995. After reports of testing positive for cocaine and marijuana before the draft, he fell from a certain top-five pick to 12th.
The second misstep is what Campbell calls "paralysis by overanalysis."
"You can outthink yourself into a bad situation, and by looking too much at the periphery, instead of who's the best football player and who has played the best on Saturday," Campbell says.
He says at least one NFL team takes extreme measures to avoid over-analysis and burnout: The unnamed franchise sends its scouts on vacation for the week before the draft, just to make sure they enter the three-day event refreshed and with a clear mind.
The risk of an error in judgment rises closer to the draft, in part because of the event's inherent pressure, but also because information continues to fly at a frenetic pace. On the day Campbell is on the phone, the day's big story is about Jameis Winston's crab legs scandal.
After admitting that he stole the crab legs from the Publix store in Tallahassee, Florida -- and repeating this on several occasions to police, media, and the school itself -- his story changed last week, with Winston saying that a worker had given the crab legs to him -- an action that would serve as an impermissible benefit under the NCAA's rules.
When asked whether this is the type of story that could cause a team to waver, Campbell is skeptical. He says this type of thing happens all the time: an old story is fanned to life, and a player's draft status is automatically called into question.
It's also something teams are used to.
"It can be the media looking for a story, considering that it's just getting brought back up," Campbell says. "There are agents out there that want Jameis Winston to fall. There are other teams [outside of the top NFL draft picks] that want a shot at him, and there are agents that want their own players to go before him.
"You never know where the stuff is coming from. it's kind of the crazy."
Considering all the interviews and investigative work Tampa Bay has put into Winston, the crab legs story isn't likely to cause them to reconsider. Short of a significant reveal of new information, he expects Winston to go No. 1 overall in this year's draft.
After Winston, things get less clear. Nebraska defensive end Randy Gregory is someone who has seen his draft stock fall, mainly for a failed drug test early in the pre-draft process. Campbell said Gregory could have gone as high as No. 2 overall to Tennessee, but character issues have placed his NFL draft position on shakier ground. Campbell could see him going as a mid-first round pick, but there's no telling which teams will decide he's worth the risk.
"He has the failed drug test and teams have other concerns about him -- I think it makes him a luxury pick," Campbell says. "But he comes from a military family, so I think there are enough teams that feel they can work with him."
When mixed with potential star talent, character concerns can be an area of great uncertainty. Teams must consider not only their areas of on-field need, but also the condition of their locker room, their willingness to take on a potential project, and the risk/reward balance of a potential Pro Bowl talent who could just as easily get himself into trouble and squander his career.
That leads Campbell to his best bet for an NFL draft day slide: Oklahoma receiver Dorial Green-Beckham.
Green-Beckham is seen as an incredible talent -- a clear top pick based on performance alone. But his personal life is a mess: He was kicked off the Missouri football team and joined Oklahoma's program, yet he never played a game; he tallied multiple positive drug tests; he was involved in a domestic violence dispute that involved kicking down his girlfriend's door.
Perhaps most damaging, teams don't look at Green-Beckham and see a person ready to change his ways.
"Teams didn't feel he really interviewed well with these issues," Campbell says. "You've seen projections of him going in the first round, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he falls into day two."
Meanwhile, the Vikings are one year removed from spending their first-rounder on Bridgewater. They might have had the highest valuation of the Louisville quarterback, and after a respectable rookie season, Minnesota looks to have its first franchise quarterback in quite some time.
Does that mean Bridgewater is surpassing his pre-draft expectations?
"I think it's honestly too early to really say," Campbell says. "That’s kind of a cop-out, but we've seen some quarterbacks have really good rookie seasons, and then their play tails off the following year. Robert Griffin III had a phenomenal rookie year, and the past two seasons things just haven't gone well. The team is now at a point where there are questions about his future."
That's the final myth of the NFL draft: That at the end of the day, there are winners and losers. It takes years to get those answers.
Sometimes teams gamble and get lucky. Other times they bet on the sure thing and lose. And then sometimes, years later, they look at a top pick and still aren't sure what they have.