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.
15 Apr 2010
by Mike Tanier
Demaryius Thomas looks like a movie monster, stomping through the opposing secondary. He's bigger than every defender. He outjumps those he can't outrun. He catches the tunnel screen, stiff-arms some poor nickel back, and scores another Georgia Tech touchdown. On the game tape, he looks like Plaxico Burress, a king-sized big play waiting to happen.
Then I remember what I'm watching.
Jonathan Dwyer is Brandon Jacobs, or maybe Franco Harris. He's a 240-pound bowling ball with moves. He makes one cut, breaks one tackle, and it's a footrace in the secondary. Despite his size, he often wins the footrace. He averaged 6.2 yards per carry in his college career, and it's easy to see why, with all the 40-yard runs he rips off. He looks like the ultimate "Thunder" back, with enough power for short-yardage situations and enough speed to produce big plays.
Then I remember what I'm watching.
I'm watching the Georgia Tech offense. The Yellow Jackets run the flexbone, an option offense made famous by Paul Johnson and by the service academies he coached. Georgia Tech is the only major-conference school to run the scheme, which is so odd that it bears no resemblance to any other major college offense, let alone an NFL system.
In the flexbone, almost every pass is either a tunnel screen or a play-action pass, usually off a rollout. Thomas' long receptions usually began with a play fake (often to Dwyer), with one or another wing backs drifting toward the sideline for an option pitch. All of this run action sucks up the secondary, sending safeties and corners toward the quarterback, Dwyer, and the pitch men. Thomas usually starts his route by pretending to block a corner or safety, then runs a fly pattern. If the quarterback rolls to his side, Thomas twists into a corner route. The cornerback, worried about the option first, doesn't have a chance.
It's exciting, but the scheme does much more work than Thomas does.
Dwyer is a single setback in the flexbone, standing about where an NFL fullback stands. He often gets the ball on simple dive plays, but he's never running against a stacked interior line. Those wingbacks are always threatening to take an option pitch, and quarterback Josh Nesbitt ran for 1,037 yards and 18 touchdowns himself. Inside linebackers must mind their keys, and they often follow Nesbitt to the outside while Dwyer rumbles past them with the ball. Safeties are nowhere to be found on Dwyer's longest runs because they are aligned close to the line of scrimmage, occupying option pitch lanes.
Again, the scheme does much of the work, and Dwyer gets the production.
Georgia Tech is the most extreme example of a system so unique that it makes scouting difficult. Even veteran scouts have a hard time separating the player from the system when watching such an unusual scheme. For drive-by draftniks like me, the flexbone offense makes precise scouting impossible. We can absorb the basics -- Thomas is tall and can adjust to passes in the air -- but it's hard to appraise a receiver's route running ability when he only runs three routes, or a back's vision when the hole opens right up for him.
Chris Brown of Smart Football watches more college football than I do. His focus is more on schemes than scouting, but he says that a keen-eyed observer can adjust to any system once he recognizes the change of emphasis. "If you play in Georgia Tech's offense you don't really do anything 'different' -- it's still football -- though your emphasis is different," he says. "If you're a lineman, you run block over and over again, and you do not get a lot of practice pass blocking. NFL teams don't run the triple option, but that's something the quarterback has to worry about. If you're a runner, your goal is still to find daylight, break tackles, and hit the hole."
That's all true, and Dwyer proved he could do all those things, to a degree. But a guy who runs for 1,395 yards in two straight years for, say, Auburn would typically be considered better than a third-round pick. Would Dwyer have gained 2,800 yards in two seasons at Auburn? "It is simply difficult to know whether a Paul Johnson running back got all those yards because he's the next Emmitt Smith or because he played in the Paul Johnson system," Brown said.
It's important to remember that full-time scouts aren't watching what we watch: highlight reels, television tape of last year's games. They are watching film, and they are keeping track of not just the player, but the opponent he is facing. When watching Georgia Tech play Duke, most of us instinctively take Georgia Tech's production with a grain of salt. Professional scouts are more precise: Duke's cornerback might be a real prospect, making Thomas' performance against him more interesting. If Dwyer puts a move on a Georgia linebacker, scouts know which linebacker it was and how good he is at open-field tackling.
NFLDraftScout.com's Rob Rang reminded me of those points when I asked him about another school I struggle to scout: USC. "I scout USC hard and focus on the individual matchups with good players from other teams -- not just scouting all Trojans from one or two games." Rang said.
USC's problem isn't a tricky scheme, it's the combined force of sheer talent on their roster, which allows them to pick which matchup they want to exploit. I had to re-watch tape to notice how often Everson Griffen recorded sacks just by running around some unprepared tight end. Scouts spent a lot more time focused on his matchups with good tackles, giving them a deeper understanding of what he can do in the NFL.
Ultimately, those of us who don't devote our careers to player evaluation must supplement our own opinions with those of experts like Rang or Russ Lande of Sporting News. I can tell Thomas can jump and block, and I know he didn't run a lot of routes. NFLDraftScout.com corroborates my route-running concerns and questions his acceleration, as well as his health after a foot injury. I can see Dwyer's power and cutback ability. The site also notes that he's a good receiver despite 15 catches, that he grades well as a blocker, and that he was productive as a rookie in a conventional system. Both are rated in the late 50s, making them late second-round picks.
It sounds right. The system made very good prospects look even better, but it didn't turn straw into gold. And just because a system inflates a player's numbers, that doesn't mean he's purely "a product of the system."
We'll wrap this segment up with my top five Toughest Programs to Evaluate:
1. Georgia Tech: As a fan, I love watching the flexbone. In fact, I'm often too distracted by all the motion to scout the players.
2. USC: Dozens of Trojans have fooled me over the past decade. Now, I watch the tape looking for examples of "too easy" plays made possible by the team's overall talent.
3. Iowa: Rang reminded me of what a pain it is to evaluate Iowa offensive linemen. "It's because of Kirk Ferentz's brilliance" he said. Their line is so fundamentally sound and perfectly coached that each player makes life easier for the others, making everybody look a little too good. Bryan Bulaga looks great on tape, but I remember saying some wonderful things about Robert Gallery a few years ago. Rang cites similar problems with the Alabama defense. "Nick Saban does such a spectacular job of coaching up defensive players that he is often able to mask their individual weaknesses. Rolando McClain certainly looks like an exception this year, but if you look historically at his linebackers and defensive backs, many of them earned lofty pre-draft billing and then either slipped on draft day or haven't fared as well in the pros."
4. Texas: The Longhorns feature a spread offense with a thousand tunnel screens and a coach that touts his players to high heaven, which can hamper objectivity. All of those spread-heavy Big 12 programs can be hard to evaluate. Rumor has it that Texas is switching to more of a Colts-style offense, with the quarterback under center. Maybe they'll take the other seven with them.
5. Florida: Between the end-arounds, option passes, and quarterback bellies, it's hard to find any old-fashioned NFL offense to latch onto. Plus, they have the USC "level of talent" problem.
I'll be covering the draft for The New York Times again this year, breaking down Thursday night's picks on the Fifth Down blog. I may provide some later-round coverage there as well. If not, I plan to stop by here and help with whatever shenanigans we have going on.
I have joined the Twitter nation. Look for me @FO_MTanier. I hope to start tweeting during the draft, then start using Twitter regularly during the 2010 season. I will still use Facebook (mostly for personal stuff) and maintain the Walkthrough Readers group, but apparently if I don't have a presence in at least 12 different social networking realms, I will cease to exist.
There's one more big announcement to come, but I am not at liberty to leak it just yet. If you liked the recent Milestone of McNabb Timeline in the Times, and you enjoy my ramblings about Philadelphia sports culture, you'll be excited by my next announcement, whenever I make it.
More details to come. In the meantime, enjoy the draft coverage, as well as the next segment, a strange an unexpected trip to Romania:
Reader Pallos Levente of Hungary sent me this message via Facebook:
My main interest in the draft is Meskó Zoltán, the best Hungarian kicker in the league since Gogolak. I guess you won't be breaking down picks when he comes around.
Sorry, Levente: I won't be doing pick-by-pick coverage in the late rounds, when the punters fly off the board. I rarely do any real scouting of kicking specialists anymore, so I didn't know much about Mesko, even though he spent the last four years punting for Michigan and earning tons of Big Ten accolades.
But in the interest of comprehensive international coverage, I did some research on Zoltán. For the record, Hungarians list the family name first and the given name second, like the Chinese and Bajorans.
First, Zoltán is from Timisoara, which is the second largest city in Romania and the first mainland European city to be lit by electric streetlamps. Timisoara was under Hungarian rule for many centuries, as well as Ottoman rule for a while, Soviet control, plus a brief Nazi occupation. Zoltán is ethnically Hungarian, and he speaks Hungarian, Romanian, German and English fluently, which is probably a good thing when you are born in some of Europe's most frequently seized real estate. Zoltán and his father, a professional bowler, left Romania when he was 11 and settled in Twinsburg, Ohio, which was the first mainland Ohio city to be lit by electric streetlamps, as well as the location of a failed Sherwood Anderson sequel.
(Actually, Twinsburg is home to the Twins Festival, held each August. Don't just grab an identical or fraternal sibling and head there, though: While some events are open to the public, the Friday Night Welcome Weiner Roast is only for registered twins. Unregistered twins will be shot on sight.)
Zoltán made it from Timisoara to Twinsburg to Ann Arbor, then finally to Indianapolis, where he measured 6 foot 4, 240 pounds at the Combine, officially making him somebody you wouldn't want to f--- with in any of four languages. He benched 225 pounds 16 times, because it's important for punters to lift. Combine interviewers apparently have nothing to ask Romanian punters. According to Zoltán, a group of special teams coaches asked him to tell a joke. "'I was like, 'Uhhh, I wasn't prepared for this,'" Mesko said in an NFLDraftScout.com interview. "I told this joke that was so bad and they were like, 'OK, let's just get your cell phone number and stuff for draft day.' It was two guys in a bar, one of those generic jokes."
I have a joke. Three NFL coaches travel to Timisoara, Romania, and attempt to communicate in the most basic way: read a transit map, order a meal, find a bathroom, locate the American Embassy. Then some guys offer them food and water if they can tell a joke in Romanian. That would be pretty darn funny.
Maybe the scouts were expecting too much. Doug Farrar tells me that Zoltán was among the best interviews at Indy. If he wanted to, he could have knocked 'em dead by showing the video where he gets thumped by the Go Blue banner and trampled by half the Wolverines roster before a game.
Zoltán has traveled a lot since Combine. He visited the Patriots, Jets, Eagles, and Chiefs in the last month. Pro Football Weekly ranks him second to Matt Dodge of East Carolina (who has kickoff experience), but offers a positive review: "Big, thick, long-levered lefty with all the tools to be a very effective NFL punter for a long time." He's the first kicker or punter ever to be named a Michigan team captain. He's an Academic All-American. He's big enough to truck your free safety.
He'll probably go in the sixth round. When it happens, come on back and read this profile. Szep Napot!
A friend threw a party a few weeks ago, asking guests to bring 12-packs of microbrews so we could mix, match, share, and compare. On the advice of my ex-students, several of whom now work in liquor stores (which may reflect upon my teaching somehow), I brought some Stone Ruination IPA. Here's an excerpt from a review of the brew from a guy named Dan at a site called The Full Pint:
You've probably read reviews like those before, usually by wine connoisseurs. Nowadays beer, whiskey, and probably malt liquor fans devote paragraphs of elegant prose to the nutty, peaty, or asparagusy characteristics of their favorite beverages. Well, I drank a Stone Ruination, and it was delicious. My friends had some, and they liked it. We could tell it had a lot of character, though no one mentioned pine or grapefruit.
We each then sampled another IPA, from another fine brewery, and it was also good. Did it have sugary spice malts? Possibly, or maybe spicy sugar malts. None of my friends are beer or wine experts. Most of us can tell great from good, good from bad, IPA from stout, Belgian ale from Hungarian punter pilsner, at least until the fifth or sixth one. But we don't have to know pine notes from spice notes to enjoy what we drink, or even to evaluate and discuss what we drink.
Which brings us back to the draft.
Here's a bit of a scouting report on a defensive end taken from the 2010 Pro Football Weekly 2010 Draft Preview:
That's not Carlos Dunlap or Jason Pierre-Paul. It's Junior Galette, who was kicked off the Temple team and finished his career at Stillman College. He's a 6-foot-2, 257-pound player who dominated small college competition and did well at the Combine. He'll leave the board at about the same time Mesko Zoltan does.
You can see some similarities between the beer review and the scouting report. There's a lot of technical jargon, used by experts to explain hard-to-quantify attributes. There are things we understand: Most beer drinkers know what a mouthful of hops tastes like, and we all know about leverage. And there are concepts on the fringe of our understanding: pine notes, loose shoulders.
Beverage connoisseurs study their craft closely and give language to sensations that defy descriptions. Scouts study their craft closely and try hard to break down a player's performance and potential into its component parts. Both do something interesting, entertaining, and valuable within the field.
But both beer experts and draft experts drill far past the level at which most of us experience their area of expertise. And sometimes, in their quest for completeness and precision, they drill past the point of relevance.
Back to that fancy beer for a second. I drank one Stone Ruination from the bottle and one the next day in a wide-mouthed glass. It tasted much better in the bottle. I tried one on ice from my fridge later. The fridge beer tasted better. There are good reasons for the change in taste. The bottle's thin neck concentrated the aromas, and the optimum temperature for a high-character beer is probably closer to 50 degrees than to the ice-filled cooler temperatures that are perfect for Miller Lite.
If changes in glass, temperature, and atmosphere make such a difference to taste, what becomes of those pine notes and lemon flavors? Do they become bread and tangerine? (I found those descriptions of the same beer on another site). Dan at The Full Pint no doubt drank from the correct glass at the correct temperature for a Combine-like beer tasting. Those of us drinking the beer from the bottle in the basement during the Sweet 16 had no use for those optimal-condition observations.
And what of Junior Galette? Won't his pad level and leverage change after a year in an NFL camp? Will his loose shoulders be a factor if he is stuck in a system that uses him poorly? As a variable, Galette's hand usage will have a tiny impact on his pro potential when compared to his size and quickness, coachability, work ethic, the team that drafts him, his place on the depth chart, and other factors.
We can lose a lot of detail, in beer appreciation and scouting, without sacrificing accuracy or information. Stone Ruination Ale is a dry, hoppy India Pale Ale from a respected California brewery. It is complex and a little bitter, light in body and fairly light in alcohol. Galette is an end-linebacker' tweener from a tiny program. He had 9.5 sacks against small-school competition and had a solid Combine but was dogged by issues before leaving Temple.
Really good microbrew IPA. Got it. Late-round developmental pass rusher with baggage. Got it. Save the pine notes for the master brewers, the loose shoulders for the coaches. If I want more, give me background, not details -- the player's history, the roster hole he's filling, an interesting quote.
I am a drive-by draftnik, a guy who switches to the draft after the Super Bowl and switches back in May. I've seen a lot of Gerald McCoy, but I've never seen Galette's shoulders, or his face. I can spout jargon with the best of them -- I've written glossaries of it. For a kinds of players, like a first-round quarterback, that might be appropriate. But when writing about the draft, it's usually better to be a little more global and tangible and to leave the nano-specifics to full-time experts. It's more entertaining, And it's really no less informative.
Thanks for reading. Damn, I'm thirsty.
39 comments, Last at 03 May 2010, 5:48pm by MilkmanDanimal