Which receivers were truly most effective with the ball in their hands last season? We look at the leaders in YAC+ for 2014 and the last nine years.
22 Apr 2009
by Mike Tanier
Welcome to Walkthrough, where we're posting a new, complete mock draft every hour! That's right: seven rounds, 256 picks, updated every sixty minutes, all week long. So keep clicking and re-clicking "refresh" like some stalker girlfriend waiting for a return e-mail, and we'll keep flooding you with breathless, ill-founded speculation.
1) Detroit Lions: Jason Smith, OT, Baylor. We've had Matthew Stafford going to the Lions in our last 12 mock drafts, dating back to last night. But then we wondered: What if the Lions' courting of Stafford is an elaborate smoke screen to confuse other teams? Granted, there's no good reason for such disinformation, and the Lions are barely able to target and sign players they want, let alone use skullduggery to mislead opponents. Still, there's a chance they'll go in another direction, take an offensive lineman, then grab a guy like John Parker Wilson later in the draft. Next hour, we'll explore the possibility of a three-way, six-pick deal involving the Lions, Eagles, and Broncos, a possibility we just dreamed up while shotgunning Red Bull in the middle of the night.
2) St. Louis Rams: Matthew Stafford, QB, Georgia. Marc Bulger is getting old, right? The Rams need to groom a replacement, don't they? This makes sense. Tell me it makes sense. Reassure me it makes sense. Please, I've been awake for 114 straight hours.
3) Kansas City Chiefs: Aaron Curry, LB, Louisville. Curry is a great player who perfectly fits the system the Chiefs plan to run this year. Whatever that is. Wait, who's coaching the Chiefs?
4) Seattle Seahawks: Michael Crabtree, WR, Texas Tech. So groggy. Something something despite signing T.J. Houshmandzadeh something something Jim Mora is a ninny something.
5) Cleveland Browns: Mark Sanchez, QB, USC. The presence of Sanchez and Brady Quinn on the same roster will cause a Golden Boy explosion that will destabilize the global precious metals market. Yes! Still got it!
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6) Bengals: B.J. Raji, DT, Boston College. Raji has been all over the board in recent hours. We had him in Denver with the 12th pick last hour, Atlanta with the 24th pick before that, and Green Bay with the ninth pick in the infamous 5 a.m. draft that was the talk of the blogosphere for more than 20 minutes. The marijuana allegations make Raji difficult to project. If only there was some precedent to base conclusions on -- say, a massive defensive tackle who battled pot allegations before the draft but went on to multiple Pro Bowls. You know, a guy who went through this about 14 years ago who proved that despite using marijuana, the most dangerous of the performance enhancers, a player can get drafted early in the first round and go on to great success. But there's no such player, not a single one, to use for comparison. So we'll keep ping-ponging Raji around the board and harping on the pot story, because it's more interesting than talking about his footwork.
7) Oakland Raiders: Jeremy Maclin, WR, Mizzou. Leave it to the Raiders to draft the fastest player on the board. Hey, you know what: I got paid to write that last sentence! You could have written it. Any football fan over the age of 15 could have made such an obvious, oversimplified remark. But I made it, and it probably netted me about 30 cents, prorated across my fee for this column. Isn't life grossly unfair?
8) Jacksonville Jaguars: Eugene Monroe, OT, Virginia. In an hour, we'll flip this pick with Crabtree and call it an "update."
9) Green Bay Packers: Brian Orakpo, DE, Texas. Orakpo is a good fit for a 4-3 team that needs depth and versatility on the defensive line. Wait, did Mayock just say something nice about Aaron Maybin on NFL Network? Red alert! Move him up the board!
10) San Francisco 49ers: Aaron Maybin, DE, Penn State. Nice work.
Commercial: Just a reminder that Hourly Mock Drafts continue until midnight, April 18th. After that, you can look forward to:
11) Buffalo Bills: Brandon Pettigrew, TE Oklahoma State. The Bills need ... no, I quit. This is insane! It's all just idle speculation. I mean, we all know the top 20 to 30 prospects. Some teams have really obvious needs. But really, aren't we just shuffling a deck over and over again here? Is there any accountability? Is a mock draft any more interesting or useful than, say, a player profile? Or a study to determine whether 40-times are really valuable for running backs?
Oh wait: Mock Drafts generate eyeballs. Casual fans click the link, read about their favorite team for 30 seconds, then move on. It's a proven, easy-to-generate commodity in the marketplace. Heck, this isn't even that much work, even if I am chained to the keyboard and producing them round-the-clock. And in two weeks, it will be over, and I will be writing about actual picks by actual teams that will affect the future of the entire league. Hooray! I have found my motivation.
12) Denver Broncos: Brian Cushing, LB, USC. With two No. 1 picks and a host of needs on defense, the Broncos will try to shore up their front seven. That means grabbing a sure-thing run-stopping linebacker like Cushing, who will help blah blah blah blah...
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Here are some scouting reports from old Pro Football Weekly draft guides. Can you figure out who the player is?
Tight End, 1997: "A huge blocking tight end who could eventually wind up where he started his college career -- as an offensive lineman -- if he learns to translate his strength onto the gridiron."
Linebacker, 2002: "Negatives: Lacks height, does not look that fast or athletic. Was really helped by his team's defensive scheme last season."
Quarterback, 2002: "Has the tools to develop into an NFL quarterback if he keeps his weight down, becomes more consistent, and learns to play within himself ... Is not the second coming of Daunte Culpepper, but there are similarities."
Quarterback, 2004: "Very good size and instincts for the position. Can manage the offense and is efficient with good leadership qualities ... Reminds scouts of Marc Bulger."
Defensive Tackle, 2004: "If the light stays on, has the talent to be a starter. If he resorts to earlier up-and-down effort and plays without desire, he's just a big backup with the underachiever label."
Cornerback, 2004: "Instinctive zone corner with outstanding production. Limited by his size and man cover speed but is a good football player in the right situation. Training camp player."
Ready for the answers? Matt Lepsis, James Harrison, David Garrard, Matt Schaub, Marcus Tubbs, and Nick Harper.
Old scouting guides are like old farmer's almanacs: There are pockets of wisdom buried in vast canyons of outdated guesswork. It's fascinating to see scouts nail an inconsistent player like Tubbs or predict that Lepsis would turn into a quality tackle. The world where "Culpepper-like" was a compliment seems to have disappeared long ago: Did people live in straw huts back then?
But the Harper scouting report is the most interesting: a situational player, a training camp filler who could improve. Scouting reports like Harper's help us cut through the hype and remind us that for all of the draft talk, player acquisition is not as important as player development.
Great players are made, not born.
If there's anything that eight years of draft analysis has taught me, that's it. Great players become great when they reach the NFL. They don't become Pro Bowlers or Hall of Famers in college, at the Combine or at the draft. They enter the NFL as raw material. They become players -- good, great, exceptional, legendary -- later in their lives.
Each draft class contains dozens of "potentially great" players, but each Michelangelo is still hidden in the hunk of marble. There's no secret method to reveal the masterpiece, because the master still hasn't carved it. The differences between the productive player and the bust, the good player and the all-time great, usually don't even exist yet on Draft Day.
Over the years, I've often been asked how so many teams could overlook Tom Brady. The answer is that he wasn't Tom Brady yet. He was just a second-tier Big-10 prospect with a decent arm and a good head on his shoulders. The Patriots coaches made him Tom Brady, and he made himself Tom Brady. To a degree, fate made him Tom Brady. A dozen other guys might have become Tom Brady, but instead became David Greene or Tim Rattay. Brady wasn't so much a draft-day steal but a triumph of postdraft management and development.
How did so many teams overlook James Harrison, an undrafted rookie in 2002? That's easy: Harrison wasn't Harrison. He was a raw, small-school athlete who wasn't even all that athletic. Justin Tuck wasn't Justin Tuck. Jeff Saturday wasn't Jeff Saturday. They were just athletes: very good ones, not exceptional ones. They became great in the NFL.
Archetypes: Every draft class includes a few outliers, followed by dozens of players that fall into one or more archetypes.
At the top of many draft classes are one or two transcendent athletes: Deion Sanders, Randy Moss, Michael Vick, Lawrence Taylor. These players are so gifted that the only force that can stop them is themselves. There is no such player this year.
Beneath them are usually two or three standouts whose gifts are not quite so preternatural: the Julius Peppers, Calvin Johnson, Reggie Bush, Darren McFadden class. Again, these players are capable of falling on their faces, but they are so talented that they look pretty good doing it. Michael Crabtree and Matthew Stafford are in this class. Andre Smith might also fit here. Standing beside these athletes are players with great athleticism and exceptional motivation and drive: the Ray Lewis, Peyton Manning types. Aaron Curry and Eugene Monroe fall into this category. With great work habits and top-notch skills, such players rarely go bust.
After the fifth or sixth pick, all the "can't lose" players are usually gone. What's left?
Two hundred-fifty-pound defensive end/linebackers, guys with a quick first step but raw pass rushing skills. Every draft produces about a dozen of them.
Tall wide receivers with 4.45 speed and great hands who never had to run a route tree. Again, every draft produces plenty.
Jumbo offensive tackles with good athleticism but bad footwork and exercise habits.
Cornerbacks who stand about 5-foot-10 and can outrun most wide receivers, but who know little about zone coverage or tackling and have king-sized egos.
Three-year starting defenders in Big-10 or SEC programs who are big, strong, and field smart but a step slow for the NFL.
Running backs galore, most of them around 215 pounds with good cutback ability and poor blocking skills.
And so on. All of these players can be ranked and graded, analyzed and scrutinized. One player has more experience, another played in a tougher conference. One left tackle has longer arms, another appears to have better balance. I can make a list, Mike Mayock can make his, Mel Kiper his, yours your own. The lists will be meaningless, for one simple reason:
The difference between the third and 13th best player at any position on these lists is infinitesimally small compared to the variables that will shape their growth once they reach the NFL.
When I put together draft lists, I usually follow a 1-2-3-Other rule. I study the first three to five prospects carefully, learning about their backgrounds, studying their game tape, reading about them and talking to experts. Everyone else gets a thumbnail sketch: stats, strengths, weaknesses, tidbits. I may list one prospect sixth and another 16th, but that's only for convenience, not because the sixth player is a significantly better prospect. The greatest experts in the world, be they Mayock, Kiper, or some Ravens scout on Ozzie Newsome's speed dial, may be able to discern a two percent difference between them. More likely, Mayock and Kiper are doing the best they can, and that Ravens scout is more interested in what his coaches need, and what they plan to do with their prospects, than in any two percent gradiation.
The Variables: Who is ranked fourth on your defensive tackle list? I have Evander Hood from Missouri. Who is 14th? Myron Pryor of Kentucky? Clinton McDonald of Memphis? All three of these guys are between 290 and 310 pounds, between 6-0 and 6-2. They all have pluses and minuses: Hood is the best athlete of the three and gets high marks for character, so he may be selected in the second round while Pryor and McDonald wait until the fourth or fifth.
Is Hood five percent more athletic than Pryor or McDonald? Ten percent? How do you calculate "athleticism" by percentage, anyway? Give Hood a half-step of quickness and a few pounds of strength over the others. Give him a few IQ points if you want. Those gifts will give him an edge. But these factors will have a much bigger impact on his future success than that edge:
Most of these conditions are invisible or inscrutable to the mass media. We don't know what coaches teach in minicamps or how well they teach it, the exact minituae of each system and how well a given player fits it except at the most superficial level. So we focus on draft status, heights and weights, Wonderlics and scouting reports. We anoint "good drafts and bad drafts": silly articles the morning after, serious ones dissecting the drafts of four or five years ago.
If Hood plays for a decade and goes to four Pro Bowls, he was a good pick. If he rides the bench for four years, then washes out, he was a bad pick. Most likely, he was just an ordinary pick: a big guy who fills a team's need. Pryor and McDonald, in either order, will just be picks, though they could grow into superstars or private citizens. What we are really seeing isn't really scouting acumen; it's the difference between good coaches and organizations and bad coaches and organizations.
Situation Nowhere: Let's give Hood and the other tackles a rest. Let's talk about pass rushing ends; not elite specimens like Peppers or Dwight Freeney, but the garden-variety early round pick. We're going to take the same player, a 260-pound 21-year-old with 4.6 speed, excellent agility, and 30 sacks at a major conference program. Let's call him Sack Man. We'll put him in two different situations. We'll call the good situation The Steelers Program. The bad situation is called The Lions Program.
In The Lions Program, Sack Man joins a team whose coaching staff is in its third year but has had no winning seasons. They are on the hot seat, and the team has a mediocre defensive line with no other pass rush threat. Sack Man's coaches are below average by NFL standards. At minicamps, the drills aren't sharp and instructions are often confusing or contradictory. The defensive coordinator wants a point-of-attack defender, but the defensive line coach stresses finesse moves. Specific skills aren't reinforced, so Sack Man doesn't get careful instruction and correction to his footwork or pass rush technique.
Because the team is bad, Sack Man is expected to be an every-down starter from Day One. The whole playbook is thrown at him. He's expected to stop the run, blitz, stunt, and drop into coverage during zone blitzes. He learns slowly and is yelled at by the coaches. Priorities shift as coaches juggle the roster or add new plays in a desperate attempt to change their fortunes. Sack Man sometimes plays out of position or is given no-win assignments. The locker room atmosphere is negative during camp and poisonous as losses mount. Other players shrug off coaches' criticism or go through the motions during drills. Sack Man has a good work ethic, but the organizational malaise rubs off on him, and he lacks role models to show him the best way to improve himself at practice. He keeps trying, but some bad habits rub off.
Sack Man's rookie season is pretty good: six sacks, a bunch of highlights. But the team goes 6-10 again, and the coaches are replaced. The new coaches have new terminology, new roles, new procedures. The old squad wanted Sack Man to line up on the tight end's outside shoulder, twist inside, and attack the tackle between the numbers on a Texas stunt. The new coaches want him head-up on the tight end and attack the tackle-guard gap on the same play. Sack Man barely learned the basics under the old coach, and now he's trying to adjust. The new staff isn't markedly more competent than the old, and they are much less experienced. The new coach is eager to put his stamp on the roster, and Sack Man is under pressure to make a big improvement, even though his skills are still raw and he never had time to grow into his role. Suddenly, he's talked about as a disappointment, a holdover from a failed regime.
Where is Sack Man in four years? Maybe he keeps battling, rises above the turmoil, and becomes an All-Pro. More likely, he hangs around for a few years, garners a few more sacks, but starts to fade as his athleticism slips. If his work ethic sustains him, he becomes a high-motor guy with a little speed who becomes a rotation lineman. If he was drafted in the first two rounds, he's a "bust."
In the Steelers situation, Sack Man joins a team whose experienced coaching staff has run the same kind of system for years. The scouting department works hand-in-glove with the coaches, finding players with the exact skill sets needed to thrive in the system. The defensive line coach has a precise regimen he uses for new pass rushers, and Sack Man learns the basics during tightly run camps. Coaches knew they were getting a kid who needed to improve his footwork; they told the scouts that footwork wasn't a major issue for a player with Sack Man's other talents. The coaches are masters of footwork improvement, and that's what Sack Man works on most during practice.
Sack Man doesn't have to start as a rookie because the team's overall talent level is solid. Coaches can emphasize techniques instead of teaching him the entire playbook. Sack Man has time to develop. He learns to tackle by playing special teams. Coaches measure and monitor everything, including his workouts. There's no pressure to throw him into the lineup, because everyone's job is relatively secure.
Sack Man gets into some games as a situational pass rusher and notches a few sacks. In his second year, the coaches change his goals: He becomes a starter, though he still leaves the field in some packages. The new goals are clearly articulated, and practices are adjusted to prepare him for his new role. Sack Man didn't take a rookie pounding; instead, he bulked up and learned. He wasn't forced to change schemes, wasn't asked to play roles he wasn't ready for. In his second year, he records 10 sacks and makes a bunch of plays in the backfield.
Where is Sack Man in four years? A perennial Pro-Bowler, barring injury. If he was selected in the third round, he's a draft day "steal." No one wonders what might have happened to him in the Lions situation.
Variables and Possibilities: In between the Lions and the Steelers are 30 other teams, some with better coaches than others, better training staffs, better locker room cultures. Some coaching staffs can develop one type of player well but not another. Most staffs have mixed resumes, which is understandable since coaches are just a few of the thousand variables affecting player performance. Some teams have scout-to-coach communication issues, others don't. Some do a better job at player guidance and counseling than others. And so on.
No one can account for all of the variables, but we must admit that they are more important than predraft scouting reports for all but the most gifted or unusual players. In the right situation, Josh Freeman could emerge as a superstar, but if the 49ers draft him and throw him in the starting lineup, he'll flop. Michael Oher might get your quarterback killed as a Day One left tackle starter, but he could anchor the right side of your line after a year on the bench. As an in-space, Cover-2, weakside backer, Clay Matthews could play for 12 years. Make him play close to the line of scrimmage and battle tight ends on every snap, and he'll wear down immediately.
Even our FO metrics only take us so far. The Lewin Forecast is best used as a red flag, a sign that scouts grew enamored of a quarterback's size, speed, or arm, ignoring a (usually skimpy) collegiate resume. Speed Scores identify running backs who fit a mold: They can pick out the very good and weed out the very bad, but they only fill in a little detail for dozens of running backs who fall into an acceptable size-speed range.
Perhaps the best lesson learned by deep analysis is that we shouldn't analyze too deeply. Hour ten of film study won't tell us much about a fourth-round pick. The 21st scouting report on a player offers nothing that wasn't covered in the first 20. The time spent determining whether Chip Vaughn is a better safety than Patrick Chung would be better spent watching NFL game film, learning just how each team uses its safeties, determining if safety is a team's major need, and perhaps checking the coaching staff's track record in developing safeties. That kind of research can tell us if either rookie safety, or any other, is in good position to develop.
So as I assemble my scouting reports for the New York Times draft blog, I separate big from small, slow from fast, experienced from green. I write vignettes about the prospects: pertinent stats, interesting stories, jokes about their famous uncles. I add some color from my notes and tape study. But I don't micro-analyze the players. It's a fool's errand, searching for features that aren't yet there or haven't yet developed. The marble hasn't been carved yet. All we can say for sure is that there are many very promising slabs.
89 comments, Last at 30 Apr 2009, 8:49am by Kevin from Philly