by Matt Waldman
Unusual. Not typical. Uncommon. Extraordinary.
These are all meanings of "exceptional."
The best talent evaluators create opportunities within their process to find the exceptional. They understand what business writer George Anders means when he says that it’s important to keep channels open because talent does not always fit the typical requirements:
When hiring talent, many companies generally search for candidates with narrow, time-tested backgrounds. Hunting strictly in those familiar zones doesn’t find everybody, however. When selectors apply such rules too tightly, lots of fascinating candidates on the fringe get overlooked. There’s no mechanism for considering the 100-to-1 long shot, let alone the 1,000-to-1 candidate. On a one at-a-time basis, it’s easy to say that such candidates aren’t worth the time it would take to assess them. Yet ignoring all of these outsiders can mean squandering access to a vast amount of talent.
Good organizations, according to Anders, know how to balance a conventional process for hiring talent while taking more progressive attitudes about the initial search:
- Not restricting where they seek talent. Being open to alternate sources limits how often they have to pay a "conformity tax" by doing what everyone else does. Think Victor Cruz at UMass. The fact the Giants were willing to give Cruz a tryout was more than one could say about many teams.
- Suspending disbelief about a candidate in the early stages of evaluation. Seeing potential value instead of writing off a candidate before evaluating him. Think of the several NFL teams, scouts, and media-hired evaluators whose grades of Russell Wilson were low because their processes are about spotting flaws more than spotting skill or opportunities for skills to thrive. Of the many scouts who did see Wilson’s talent, a majority were driven by the preconceived expectation that their bosses would punish them for championing a player they knew their superiors would dismiss without an open evaluation of the quarterback’s ability.
- Realizing that other industries cultivate desirable skills that can create a viable pool of talent. Think Antonio Gates, Jimmy Graham, and Tony Gonzalez -– three basketball players in college and were encouraged to make football their professional goal.
Gates, Graham, and Gonzalez aren’t just examples of progressive scouts and front office types. They each heeded an inner belief that they could play at the highest level. This is a part of being an exceptional talent.
La'Roi Glover was an exceptional talent. The former Saint’s resume is that of a future Hall of Famer: Six consecutive trips to the Pro Bowl (2000-2005), a four-time All-Pro, and a member of the NFL’s 2000s All-Decade Team. Headlining those accomplishments was a 2000 season where Glover led the NFL in sacks and earned NFC Defensive Player of the Year –- as a defensive tackle.
Few NFL teams had anywhere close to this level of regard for Glover’s potential. A two-time All-WAC defender from San Diego State, Glover entered the league as a 6-foot-2, 290-pound rookie -– a generous listing of his physical dimensions. A baseline weight for NFL defensive tackles -– even the speedier, agile three-techniques in a 4-3 defense like Warren Sapp -– is 300 pounds.
The Oakland Raiders selected Glover in the fifth round of the 1996 NFL Draft. The team used the rookie in two games during the month of November and, at season’s end, allocated Glover to the Barcelona Dragons of the World League. Glover earned all-league honors, but it wasn’t enough for the Raiders to give him a second look. Oakland cut Glover on August 24 of the 1997 preseason.
The Saints signed the defensive tackle the following day and they weren’t as dismissive with Glover’s potential. They gave Glover a chance to play based on what they saw and not what their coaches were guessing. The next three seasons, the young defender demonstrated great promise –- earning a total of 23 sacks.
In 2000, new head coach Jim Haslett moved Glover to the three-technique, paired the explosive tackle with space eater Norman Hand, and the rest is history.
"Glover proved everybody wrong, especially our defensive coaches in New Orleans who initially thought he was too small to play in the middle of our 4-3," said former Saints president and general manager Bill Kuharich. "He turned out to be the greatest waiver claim in the history of the Saints."
Glover’s story is uncommon, but he's far from the only undrafted free agent-turned- Pro-Bowl player: Cruz, Priest Holmes, Tony Romo, and London Fletcher are prominent examples. Glover is not even the lone example of a defensive tackle that an NFL team deemed too small to contribute and cut from its roster only to watch that prospect terrorize the league with another organization for years to come.
Hall of Fame defensive tackle John Randle went undrafted, signing with Tampa Bay. The Buccaneers were so focused on Randle’s small frame (he was listed at 287 pounds, but there are several reports that Randle was 247 pounds at Texas A&I) during his tryout that they weren’t paying attention to what he could do on the field.
The Vikings had no such issue suspending disbelief. They signed Randle in training camp and by the time he retired in 2003, Randle was a six-time All-Pro, a seven-time Pro-Bowl selection, and had been named to the 1990s NFL All-Decade Team. The Vikings defensive tackle registered 137 career sacks, including nine against the Buccaneers in eight matchups during his 14-year career.
Before the Raiders and Buccaneers got it wrong with Glover and Randle, the Cleveland Browns oddly got it right with the undersized Michael Dean Perry. Cleveland picked the Clemson star in the second round of the 1988 NFL Draft and the 6-foot-1, 285-pound defensive tackle earned six trips to the Pro Bowl, including two All-Pro selections during his 10-year career.
Regardless of how they got to the NFL, "exceptional" describes the careers of Perry, Randle and Glover to the letter. Arizona State defensive tackle Will Sutton had an exceptional junior year. He earned All-America Honors over the likes of Star Lotulelei –- a player I considered one of the five best prospects in a deep 2013 NFL Draft class.
However, this year Sutton’s reputation is getting jobbed by some of the NFL Draft media. The defensive tackle’s story is turning into another example of where the system is focused on spotting flaws more than serious consideration of how to maximize available talent.
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The 6-foot-1 defensive tackle took college football by storm as a 271-pound junior. However, the NFL’s Draft advisory committee gave Sutton a fifth-round grade at season’s end –- the same round Glover was drafted 14 years ago. However, Glover was a lean, muscular, and undersized defensive tackle, who didn’t try to gain weight for the sake of pleasing a bunch of guys with a clipboard.
There will be some who believe that the advisory committee’s fifth-round grade of Sutton motivated the Sun Devils star to gain 34 pounds. These were some of the same people writing off Sutton as a limited prospect when he played at a weight similar to Glover and Randle. This is the same mindset that dwells on the rule rather than being open to the exception.
Their evaluations are rooted in a process that prevents them from spotting the exceptional. The longer I do this, the more I value the process over the outcome. Yet it's still prevalent in the world of draft analysis for analysts and scouts to make an accurate overall call based on a bad process. It's this same mindset that will compel people to downgrade Sutton now that he’s gained the weight even after they complained he wasn't big enough as a junior.
What many people don’t realize is that 300 pounds is not new territory for Sutton. The defensive tackle tipped the scales over three large as a sophomore. At the time, his coach Todd Graham considered it "bad weight."
Sutton lost 30 pounds prior to his All-America season. While he was destroying offensive back fields at 271 pounds, Sutton physically looked like a smaller Warren Sapp with Glover and Randle-like technique and intensity.
A year later and a slow start in the box score, the word from some corners of the NFL Draft Media is that Sutton has become an ordinary football player. There’s even a scout saying that Sutton regained the wrong kind of weight.
Compared to Geno Atkins, a 6-foot-1, 300-pound strongman with great quickness, Sutton may never develop that complete trifecta of strength, quickness, and technique. However, I do think there is some serious mischaracterization of Sutton’s performances this year.
Some of the analysis I’ve read after studying Sutton’s game reveals a lack of understanding of the defensive tackle position. It doesn't connect how Sutton's senior-year peformances are putting his teammates in position to make plays. These writers and scouts are too focused on the box score and not enough on the field.
Sutton’s Junior Highlights: A Disruptive One-on-One Player
If you judge Sutton on the basis of his skill to disrupt an offense as a penetrator and pass rusher, the NFL Draft advisory committee’s fifth-round grade is a conservative assessment. I think there are four reasons why Sutton earned this grade:
- Below average height.
- Below average weight.
- One year of productivity.
- The mission of the advisory committee.
In some respects the NFL Draft advisory committee is designed to discourage a high percentage of juniors from leaving college early. The origin of the committee provides this context: When the league changed its eligibility criteria to permit underclassmen, 76 of the first 165 underclassmen to apply for the NFL Draft were not drafted.
The NFL believed that agents were overselling players on their potential. When these players left school to declare for the draft, they lost their college eligibility, which meant their scholarship and their best fiscal opportunity to earn a degree. This trend hurt both the player and college football.
Barring any off-field issues we don’t know about, Sutton wouldn’t have been a cautionary tale if he opted for the NFL last year. I think the committee underestimated his grade by at least a round, if not two, based on its cautious nature. Sutton’s skill as a one-on-one player flies off the screen. Watch the first 1:41 of this highlight package and there’s a lot skills you’ll see running throughout the rest of this analysis.
It begins with quickness, but there’s far more happening. Sutton uses his hands as well as any lineman in this class. He can rip, club, or swim to beat his opponents and his hands are always active.
There are two running plays in this first 1:41 where Sutton demonstrates his active hands to shed his opponent and close fast on the ball carrier. On one of these plays, Sutton limits the runner to a loss from an angle of pursuit that I didn’t think the defensive tackle could reach.
Those active hands extend to plays where Sutton can’t reach the pocket. When a guard on passing downs stalemates Sutton, the tackle has the awareness and timing to knock down passes. Considering that Sutton is known as an undersized, disruptive force with a speed game, it shouldn’t go unnoticed that Sutton can temper his aggressiveness and read the play.
A terrific example is his defense of a middle screen against Oregon State.
Note how Sutton moves laterally after he realizes that the guard was setting him up. Sutton’s movements illustrate a player in control. He’s patient and gets his body square to the receiver, which allows Sutton to burst downhill and deliver a hit that jars the ball loose.
It would have been easy for Sutton to loop around his teammate and attempt to chase. This is what I commonly see with young, athletic linemen. If they’re quick enough they might get an ankle tackle as the best possible outcome when they take that kind of looping angle. Sutton foils the play with patience and control that resembles a linebacker reading a play.
Add to the mix that Sutton is playing with a bone bruise on his knee and the defensive tackle’s display of quickness to close on the quarterback in the play below is another positive.
After doing a fine job of using his hands to work inside the guard, it only takes Sutton three steps to close six yards. The pressure forces the quarterback to rush his release and lose control of the football before Sutton arrives with a hard hit that chops the quarterback at the waist.
In contrast to last year’s stud college defensive end Star Lotulelei, whose quickness was built on superior anticipation of the snap, Sutton’s swiftness is rooted with his hands and feet after he engages a defender. Here’s a quick rip up the middle to force the running back to change direction in the backfield.
If Sutton had Lotlulelei’s get-off, he’d be a first-round pick. If he can acquire that kind of get-off, he’ll start for a 4-3 defense as its three-technique working in tandem with an earth-mover.
Here’s a run where Sutton’s initial get-off isn’t fast, but his work after contact to close on Arizona’s star runner Ka’dDeem Carey is blistering in comparison.
The guard and tackle stand up Sutton with a double team, but Sutton does a fine job of using his hands to split the linemen, gauge the runner, and work outside to wrap the back –- limiting Carey to less than a yard.
Once again, Sutton has a minor aggravation of a knee issue that lingered for much of the 2012 season, but it doesn’t stop the defender from a high level of play.
Sutton works across the face of the guard, uses his speed and leverage to push the lineman five yards into the backfield, and then force the back to reverse his field. While Carey demonstrates excellent quickness, Sutton’s penetration is the reason the back has to demonstrate great athleticism to limit the loss to two yards.
Here’s a bull rush that forces Matt Scott to hurry this release and throw an interception.
Sutton’s quickness is also evident when used as a defensive end on a tackle.
It’s another great display of his hands to work inside and deliver a square hit on the runner in the backfield. The next play is similar to one I showed last year with Lotulelei.
The hands, the quickness, and the hit and wrap are all consistent qualities of Sutton’s game. There were times last year where Sutton was unblockable one-on-one at the college level. It’s a huge reason why he led the Pac-12 in sacks last year.
Senior Highlights: Remove the Box Score-Lined Glasses
The splash plays that Sutton generated last year were one-on-one displays of athleticism. He didn’t face consistent double teams. He wasn’t required to stand his ground against multiple defenders to free up his teammates so they could make plays.
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Sutton and his coaches knew this was going to change in 2013. Opponents now knew Sutton was the guy to stop on the Sun Devils defense. Sutton knew he would have to get bigger and stronger.
When I look at Sutton’s physique this year compared to last, I wish I saw a more defined athlete. I don’t think it has hurt his game, but Sutton’s physique lends to the perception that he has lost the athleticism that made him a star as a junior.
What you’ll see from his senior film reveals that this notion is false. However, as we’ve seen with the mistakes evaluators make with dozens of players including the likes of Glover, Randle, Wilson, Romo, and Cruz, talent is dismissed out of hand based on faulty assumptions. The reality is that perception has power.
Based on perception, it might have helped Sutton to split the difference between his 271-pound frame as a junior and his current 300-pound body. If he gained a solid, 10-15 pounds of muscle, eliminated the body fat, and reported to summer practices at a rocked-up 285 pounds, he would have been stronger, more explosive, and in a position to stair-step his weight to 300 pounds over the next two seasons.
This would have eliminated the perception that he’s out of shape. It would have also planted the seed that Sutton could gain good weight and reduce the perceived risk of investing in his services.
What’s frustrating is that this line of thinking is real despite it having no basis in what Sutton is doing on the field. The vast majority of snaps I’ve seen from Sutton’s junior year were one-on-one assignments against a guard or tackle. This year, one-on-one assignments have been the exception.
The Wisconsin and Stanford games are great examples. If Sutton isn’t getting double-teamed by the guard and tackle or guard and center, then a running back is chipping him. When an offensive line assigns a double-team of a defensive tackle still playing a lot of one-gap assignments, the guard only has to account for one side –- he’s not worried about getting tricked. As a result, double-teams will often neutralize a defender’s ability to generate tackles and sacks with his speed and quickness.
While his box score data suffers, Sutton’s skill to draw double-teams provides more opportunities for teammates to make plays. This play against Wisconsin is a great example. Sutton draws a double team from the left guard and center. Arizona State knows this is likely to happen so they overload the opposite side of the line and send a blitz off the edge, which creates a four-on-three advantage for the defense.
The result is a deflected pass, but the first play where Sutton draws a one-on-one opportunity he disrupts the pocket. Sutton gets a hit on the quarterback that is a split-second from being a safety or a strip-sack for a defensive touchdown.
Sutton is quick enough to get depth into the pocket and then change direction fast with good leverage. He uses his hands to shed the lineman and hit the quarterback during his release. Is his weight slowing him down? I don’t think so.
Here’s a rare play against Stanford where he draws a one-on-one opportunity against the right tackle.
Sutton drives the lineman backwards, sheds the blocker, and delivers a strong, square hit and wrap on the running back a foot behind the line of scrimmage.
Here’s another quick-penetrating play outside the right guard on a run play against Wisconsin. If not for the right tackle arriving with the double team on Sutton, the defensive tackle would have greeted the back for a loss.
When the media has asked Sutton to respond to the criticism that he’s not playing to his 2012 standard, the defensive tackle said that he’s doing a better job of maintaining his ground and opponents are unable to run through his gap even when he’s double-teamed. Based on what I’ve seen, Sutton is right.
There are maybe three plays where Wisconsin successfully runs through Sutton’s gap. When they did, the gains weren’t significant. Sutton is strong enough to hold his ground at the line of scrimmage and this is giving his teammates time and room to hold the runner to a minimal gain.
You don’t find that kind of good work in a box score.
Double teams also force a defender to expend more energy. If Sutton were out of shape, he’d lose intensity and sharpness of technique in the second half of games. I’ve seen nothing to indicate that he’s tired, especially in this final drive in the Wisconsin game where the Badgers are down by two with 1:36 left.
On first-and-10, Sutton works inside the right guard with ease and forces the quarterback to climb the pocket and rush his throw. The guard has to wrap Sutton at the legs to prevent the sack, drawing a holding penalty. Another good play not attributable to him in the box score.
On the next play, Sutton bull rushes the guard to collapse the pocket and then uses a swim move to reach the quarterback and hit the passer’s arm.
The pressure forces the quarterback to check down for a minimal gain with 1:27 left. On third down, Wisconsin reverts to a double team of Sutton and gets a first down. Although Wisconsin loses this game due to a mental mistake at the end of the drive, Sutton had multiple plays in the fourth quarter where he was within a step or a hand’s length of forcing a fumble or generating sack.
It would be disingenuous of me to say these double-teams aren’t slowing Sutton by a step, but if the added weight were a major factor, he wouldn’t have the same intensity to make these plays as close as they were.
Sutton is playing good football. The added weight hasn’t changed his initial quickness, he’s still demonstrating good leverage and a variety of effective techniques with his hands, and he’s making plays on the rare occasions he’s left one-on-one. Moreover, Sutton is sustaining his intensity for 60 minutes.
Unfortunately, some who are writing about Sutton are missing these points that don’t show up in the box score. This is a common mistake I also see with running back evaluations where it’s easy to place too much emphasis on the box score and far less focus on technique, decision-making, and athleticism.
It’s a telltale sign that some people don’t know what to study –- especially if they comment about games they didn’t evaluate of a running back because "they didn’t have room to run." If the plays aren’t working as intended and it skews an evaluator’s ability to evaluate, they aren’t looking at the right things. Sutton is the victim of a similar type of misinformed analysis as a defensive tackle.
While Star Lotlulelei is a bigger, stronger player than Sutton, he didn’t face a single offensive line the caliber of Stanford and Wisconsin when he was at Utah last year. Nor did I see him double-teamed with the same frequency. Sutton may not be a flawless player, but his skill is much closer to a first or second-day pick in April than some characterize.
Author's Note - Here is a comment from @ASUDevilscom to my Twitter account that is worth posting.
Good Sutton article. Agree with it mostly, but I cover ASU for a living and Sutton's weight was inaccurately listed last year. His June weight of 267 was listed during [the] season, but he weighed 280-ish to start the year and 290-295 by the bowl game. That's definite. ASU media relations should have updated it, but didn't and it created a false perception of a 30-plus-pound weight gain that isn't true.