by Matt Waldman
"Fit" is a recurring theme in this year’s Futures. Talent plus fit can create a superstar. The stories about LaRoi Glover and John Randle’s career births are prominent examples. Drew Brees was a Pro Bowl performer in San Diego, but his fit with Sean Payton in New Orleans helped Brees -– and the team –- play at the highest level attainable.
But talent minus fit is a recipe for failure. Who’s to say that Brees’ career wouldn’t have washed out if he landed in Miami? Take one look at Nick Saban’s offensive proclivities and it’s not a stretch to say that Brees would have been a glorified game manager.
Because Saban and the Dolphins used Brees’ injury as a bargaining chip and failed, the Saints are now fortunate to have an innovative offense that uses Brees’ mobility to open passing lanes. Brees will now be forever known as one of the most dangerous vertical assassins in the game without ever having a star vertical threat like Randy Moss, Calvin Johnson, or even Isaac Bruce.
Fit is why we’ve been so elated and disappointed with Robert Griffin the past two years. Washington’s coaching staff did a great job retrofitting Griffin’s skills to its existing offensive personnel last year. The result was a dangerous offense built on simple concepts that were hard to defend. A year later and an injury still on the mend, and we’re seeing the consequences of an imperfect fit.
Just last week I made the point that if Ray Rice was on Andy Reid’s incarnation of the Eagles the offense could keep rolling with minor adjustments, but it wouldn’t be the same in Baltimore if the Ravens stuck Brian Westbrook in its system. We sometimes think of players as cogs in a machine. Even if there’s truth to that notion, not all components have the same properties or fit the exact same way.
The safe method of finding talent that fits a team is to look in all the obvious places: starters at big-time programs; players with consistent production; and athletes with some combination of eye-popping height, weight, strength, and speed. Find enough of these characteristics in one player and the perceived risks to invest vast sums of money in him is lower than other prospects with a limited supply of these resume bullet points.
However, the greatest advantages often come with the most startling discoveries. In football, it’s often players who are exceptions to the rule. They can elevate a team’s standing.
The Pittsburgh Steelers began scouting players from traditional black programs at an unprecedented level in the late 1960s while Washington was still a year or two away from accepting George Allen’s ultimatum of "let me draft black players or I won’t accept your offer as head coach." Sounds crazy now, but Pittsurgh was the progressive front office taking the road less traveled.
Pittsburgh built a dynasty with many lesser-known quantities. Find a big-time player for a lesser investment of money and that guy not only changes the outcome of games, but he also gives his team more money to spend on other players. At this point, Russell Wilson is like a buy-one-get-three-free coupon at the NFL free agency store.
Imagine what Tony Romo, Arian Foster, Victor Cruz, and Antonio Gates saved the Cowboys, Texans, Giants, and Chargers. All four teams have been perennial playoff contenders as a result. Not that these teams didn’t target safe, known quantities in the draft. Safe picks are important, but there is a place in scouting to go off the beaten path and seek players who might be overlooked for reasons that aren’t as logical as they appear on the surface.
Priest Holmes, Terrell Davis, and Willie Parker weren’t great fits at Texas, Georgia, and North Carolina, respectively. One thing they had in common is that they didn’t fit –- be it the offense, style of play, mesh with coaching staff, etc. Yet, in the NFL, they were matches made in heaven for Kansas City, Denver, and Pittsburgh.
Last week’s Futures profile was Lache Seastrunk -– a perfect fit as a running back for a spread offense. But this week, I loaded this year’s UCLA-Stanford game into my DVR with the intention of profiling a known player like guard David Yankey, running back Tyler Gaffney, or receivers Shaq Evans and Davon Cajuste. Instead, there were two players I had no intention of studying, but they generated a strong impression.
It’s not uncommon for me to notice other players like this. Cardinals receiver Kodi Whitfield made a catch that placed him firmly on my Futures radar for later study:
It’s the type of acrobatic reception I’ve only seen six people make: Cris Carter, Brandon Lloyd, Randy Moss, Aaron Dobson, Whitfield, and, if you count a pickup game from 12 years ago with far lesser athletes, me. Just a sophomore, Whitfield will not be sneaking up on anyone by the time he’s draft eligible.
One player who might surprise is Stanford right guard Kevin Danser. He’s a 6-foot-6, 301-pound right guard who repeatedly impressed me with his ability to pull, get position in the second level, and deliver a great punch to linemen or linebackers. Not a well-known player outside the Pac-12, I wouldn’t be surprised if he gets on a few radars as a late-round pick.
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However, if you’re looking for one of those long shot, draft-day shockers, running back is always a good position to monitor. I still have a lot more to watch between now and April, but if I were to assemble a list of candidates who come out of nowhere to earn a shot in the pros, UCLA running back Malcolm Jones’ name is on it.
Unless you’re a UCLA fan or a college recruiting fanatic, Jones isn’t a name you’ll know. I didn’t. But before Jones even touched the ball in this game, I could see there had to be a compelling story behind his career. Unlike his predecessor Johnathan Franklin, who was a darter, Jones is a big runner with wide shoulders, a slim core, and thick thighs. Jones is built more like Jim Brown, or the player behind his choice of No.28: Adrian Peterson.
His first carry was a first-and-10 run from a 20-personnel pistol set. Jones took the ball towards center and right guard, dipped inside the center to give his guard a chance to engage his man, and then darted through the crease off guard and under contact at the line of scrimmage. He ended the carry pushing through traffic for three yards after contact.
Not a bad first impression. However, it was the next two plays that really caught my eye. The first was an 11-personnel run from shotgun to right guard. Jones worked inside the right guard with a notable burst, reaching the right flat, and gaining 17 yards.
UCLA ran the play again and this time Jones flew past the right defensive end, bounced off a safety’s hit at the sideline, and exited the boundary for a total of seven yards. Big, fast, and powerful, I wanted to see more of Jones. Considering these were first-quarter carries, I thought I’d see more of him in that drive.
I had to wait until the second half to see Jones again and when returned to the field he only earned two carries. The most notable of the two was a disaster prevention drill where Jones had to bounce off penetration that arrived from left guard, twist free of the wrap, and collide into more penetration. Jones gained next to nothing, but his athleticism served his team well.
There wasn’t much to see in this game -– five carries for 30 yards –- but when an athlete of Jones’ proportions demonstrates quality play in limited time, it should inspire some research. Jones' news trail took me back to 2010: Tom Lemming's No. 3 athlete and No. 40 high school player in the nation; Rivals' No. 9 athlete; and most impressive, the Gatorade National Player of the Year.
Not to be confused with the Gatorade National Athlete of the Year, the National Player of the Year Award for football has its own 27-year history. The first 13-14 years is packed with impressive alumni of college stars with varying degrees of professional success: Jeff George, Emmitt Smith, Terry Kirby, Robert Smith, Chris Walsh, Tim Couch, Travis Minor, and Peyton Manning.
Since then, the rate of winners becoming future NFL starters has dropped off a cliff. Joe Mauer is now a baseball player. Lorenzo Booker, Kyle Wright, Greg Paulus, and Mitch Mustain were college starters with shining moments, but never reached the same expectations as pros. Matt Barkley is the latest rookie to enter the league with this award on his resume.
Even if the award isn’t a predictor of future success, it’s an indication of a big-time prospect, which was the type of fanfare Jones had entering UCLA. But the belief that Jones would work and wait his turn to earn the starting job with the Bruins never happened. A major reason was a coaching change.
Rick Neuheisel’s regime recruited Jones and it used a more traditional, pro-style offensive set. This was a great fit for a big back like Jones. It was also a reason why, in looking back at Franklin's career, he was more impressive than his numbers under Neuhisel. Franklin was a smaller prospect that had NFL skills despite playing in this moribund system that critics deemed too conservative and the reason for UCLA’s struggles.
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When Jim Mora, Jr. replaced Neuheisel in December 2011, in came a spread offense. Jones, already waiting his turn, now had to adjust to an offense that was a great fit for the talented Franklin, but not ideal for a 6-foot-0, 224-pound runner with natural power. Then again, Eddie Lacy has performed well from the shotgun when Green Bay uses it. Jones flashed some of that same skill in the Stanford game, so I’m still not sold on this being the reason Jones didn’t earn more time.
A bigger reason is Jones. Being a big, strong, and swift runner is good, but technique and desire are equally important. Jones runs with a high pad level -- this can be a real problem for a taller back. At the same time, Adrian Peterson, Eddie George, and Eric Dickerson are three examples of great runners with an upright style who knew how to use their pads when necessary. The common characteristic that all three shared is they ran with great intensity.
Mora has mentioned that Jones only began "running angry" on a consistent basis this summer. This came after Jones quit the program before the 2012 season, sat out a year, and contemplated an offer from San Diego State. Jones told the media that he was miserable sitting out a year and decided to stay at UCLA, but the team told Jones that if he wanted to return he didn’t have a scholarship waiting on him; Jones would have to return as a walk-on.
It’s a big step backwards for a player like Jones, who has the pedigree and goal of making it to the NFL. (It's even noted on his Twitter account.) However, despite the lack of playing time and sitting out football for a year, he is not fatally flawed.
Bryce Brown, the Eagles’ second-string back with high-end starter potential, barely played football after his freshman year at Tennessee. Brown then quit Kansas State’s team during the season and he had a lot more fence mending to do than Jones. Brown’s still earned an April selection because Reid and the Eagles didn’t want to have to compete to sign the talented player off the street.
I heard lots of speculation that Brown was soft. Rumors and whispers might hold truths on occasion, but they lack the conviction or guts to say it with a name attached, so it’s best not to buy into them.
Mora’s assessment of Jones gives the impression that the UCLA running back doesn’t play with intensity. Although Mora didn’t go so far to say Jones is soft, this is something that might be said about the runner if he even registers on the pre-draft media radar. Another speculation about Jones’ character and mentality will be that he was entitled and pampered as a top recruit.
A big-time recruit who quit the team and whose coach has criticized him for his lack of consistent intensity will thematically fit the themes above. Former draft analyst Wes Bunting shared a garage theory he had when it came to the number of stars next to a high school prospect’s name:
It’s the four-car garage theory. You grow up and you have four cars in your garage you’ll never work for anything. Three, probably not; two, you have a chance; and if you don’t even have a garage you’re going to work for everything and do everything that you can to succeed.
These five-star guys all come from that four-car garage. They were given everything and they were always told how great they were and therefore never had to work for anything. When they get to the NFL and they actually have to work or sometimes even the college level you’ll see them react like, wow this is hard, forget this – just give it to me. And no one hears from them anymore.
Jones will have to prove he doesn’t have this mentality or that it was old hat and he won’t wilt when the going gets tough him again.
Head coaches are generally smart about assessing their players, but they are human. A bad coach-player-system fit can bury a player. Arian Foster was labeled soft. Ray Goff refused to show tape of Terrell Davis to scouts for similar reasons. A healthy amount of skepticism about a coach’s assessment of a player to the media is a good thing.
Although we continually act surprised year after year by players who come out of nowhere, we shouldn’t be shocked that players fall through the cracks. Having an open mind and room in an evaluation process to spot players with underdeveloped potential can help transform an organization.
Jones may never be anything more in the sport of football than a great high school player, which is a lot more than most people who’ve strapped on pads and a helmet can say. However, there’s a glimmer that he can do more. If he does, expect the team that capitalizes on Jones’ talent to be a perennial playoff contender.