Futures: Six Memorable Lessons About Talent Evaluation
By Matt Waldman
This will be the tenth season that I publish the Rookie Scouting Portfolio. One of the most frequent questions readers ask is, Who were your greatest hits and misses? It's an important question, because it naturally leads to a more vital query: Which players have taught me the most about the craft of evaluation?
I could name far more, but in the spirit of the RSP reaching its first decade of existence, here are four players who taught me six memorable lessons about talent evaluation. I could share far more than a half-dozen things that I've learned, but these lessons transcend technique and address the philosophical nature of evaluating performance.
Some of these players were my biggest hits and misses, but others make this list for reasons beyond the bottom line of career success or failure. Note that there is no particular order to the players mentioned below.
QB Matt Leinart, USC
Lesson No. 1: Trust What You See: The Heisman Trophy winner earned comparisons to Tom Brady, and many fans and analysts considered Leinart, who succeeded Carson Palmer at Southern California, the next big-time Trojans' quarterback prospect. The 2006 NFL Draft was my first season evaluating players for publication, and my take on Leinart generated a lot of internal cognitive dissonance.
I thought he was overrated, but the pervasive thought among those more experienced than I was that Leinart had top-10 talent. The fact that I wasn't seeing the magical aura of Tom Brady in Leinart filled me with a fair bit of self doubt about my evaluation. Fun
I had Leinart essentially tied with Bruce Gradkowski for third behind Jay Cutler and Vince Young in my positional rankings. Fortunately, I resisted the urge to frame Leinart as a top talent. My experience with managing personnel evaluation in a different industry taught me that the process is more important long-term than the result.
Get the right answer with the wrong process and it's far more difficult to replicate success. However, get the wrong answer with the right process and it is far easier to identify valuable lessons.
Although I thought Leinart was worth a first-day pick who could develop into a productive NFL starter, I didn't think the quarterback was worth a high first-round choice. More importantly, I trusted my eyes and identified a few areas where he would struggle as a professional. The two most important I'm sharing below.
Lesson No. 2: NFL Quarterbacks Must Operate Inside and Outside the Structure of a Play: Football is structure and chaos, and the best players are comfortable and productive in both environments. Leinart was excellent in structure. Pete Carroll's offensive staff operated a West Coast offense predicated on a lot of scripted details that often made Leinart look like a picture-perfect passer.
Leinart could make all the varieties of drops, utilize believable play fakes and pump fakes, and throw with designed movement. Combine the quarterback's polished fundamentals with surrounding offensive talent that included several productive NFL players, and even when Leinart's passes weren't pinpoint accurate, his teammates could bail him out.
Unfortunately Leinart struggled with chaos. When a play broke down or the opposing defense had an answer to USC's offensive strategy, Leinart lacked the athleticism, arm, and awareness to create production without extraordinary effort from his teammates. A majority of NFL defenses are good enough to take away part of the offensive game plan and dare the quarterback to beat them with his mind, his legs, and/or his arm.
Leinart was still on the mend from elbow surgery and could not throw the ball more than 30 yards without his accuracy falling apart. There were no guarantees the arm strength would return. He also lacked the mobility to earn significant yardage on improvised plays. Leinart had the coordination to execute designed movement, but he lacked the grace and athleticism to create as an improviser.
In contrast, my No. 2 quarterback Vince Young was everything that Leinart wasn't in chaos. However, Young was not polished or disciplined when working within the structure of the offense. It became even more evident in Tennessee that as long as teams limited Young's opportunities to improvise and stick to the play design, he struggled. He wasn't a student of the game, and as opponents got wise to the former NFL Rookie of the Year, Young essentially became a one-year wonder.
Jay Cutler was my No. 1 quarterback in this class, because he displayed skill to operate effectively within structure and chaos. Although he has had a mistake-prone career with ups and downs, Cutler played well within Marc Trestman's system and had weeks under Lovie Smith where he was a one-man show with trick-shot accuracy despite subpar surrounding talent that often let him down.
Lesson No. 3: Good Pocket Presence Includes a Protective Instinct: Leinart could climb the pocket or slide from pressure while keeping his eyes downfield and maintain a throwing stance. However, he lacked good ball security on the move, he exposed his body to big hits, and he had difficulty with sliding as a runner. I feared Leinart would take too many hits to stay healthy long enough to earn the playing time he needed to develop as a pro.
Robert Griffin was a far greater athlete than Leinart, but his propensity to stand too long in the pocket and take hellacious shots was an example of a concern I long had with Griffin's game that I initially learned from watching Leinart. As we saw Leinart's career unfold, he failed to stay healthy long enough to hang onto a starting role.
I thought Griffin's issue might be mitigated by his athleticism, but three years into his career it appears his recklessness could have the Washington starter heading towards the same destination as Leinart from the opposite direction. In contrast, Russell Wilson has a knack for sliding and consistently avoiding hits despite earning more 100-yard rushing efforts this year than some of the more productive running backs in the league. Wilson's skill to operate within structure and chaos and his protective instincts with the ball and his body are two big reasons why he has been successful.
RB Ahmad Bradshaw, Marshall
Lesson No. 4: Some Statistics Don't Provide the Right Context For A Performance: Bradshaw was one of my favorite backs I have ever studied. He slipped to the seventh round mostly due to off-field concerns, but even with a clean record, Bradshaw probably would not have gone earlier than the draft's second day because he wasn't stopwatch fast, he wasn't 200 pounds, and he didn't play for a winning major college program.
However, Bradshaw's quickness was stopwatch worthy. As it turned out, his three-cone drill (6.70 seconds) was among the five fastest times recorded for a running back at the NFL Combine between 2006 and 2013. I didn't have the library of data to gain this perspective in 2007 that I have now, but Bradshaw's quickness leaped off the screen when watching his tape.
Here's a brief entry from the 2007 RSP about Bradshaw as my most underrated running back prospect in his draft class:
Bradshaw wasn't stopwatch fast, but he was stopwatch quick. More importantly, he was quick and powerful on the field of play. I believe Bradshaw is one of the best runners in this class. The Marshall back has terrific vision and instincts. In fact, his vision is better than any back in this class. Despite his sub-200-lb. size, Bradshaw rarely went down after the first hit against even the toughest defenses. He hits the hole hard, and is one of the more elusive backs in college football [who still] understands the concept of downhill running.
For some context, Bradshaw (my No. 4 running back) was in the same class as Marshawn Lynch (my No. 1) and Adrian Peterson (my No. 2). (By the way, Lynch earned the top spot by a slim margin because he was at the time a more versatile player with fewer ball security issues and more maturity as an interior/perimeter decision maker. However, I did characterize Peterson as a "once in a generation" talent.)
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Bradshaw, like Lynch and Peterson, was still performing a high level until very recently. One of Bradshaw's games taught me one of the most valuable lessons I have learned about running back play. Marshall played Tennessee's top-ranked defense in 2006 and compiled 72 yards on 24 carries. Several of his runs were for minimal gains or short losses against a defense that routinely dominated Bradshaw's teammates up front and penetrated the backfield.
Despite averaging 3 yards per carry on two dozen attempts, Bradshaw's skill to spot the penetration, elude or bounce off contact, find an alternate path, and make a mature decision under difficult circumstances was a fantastic display of how I eventually came to identify the "IT Factor," as "Integrated Technique."
More than any player that I had seen during my first two seasons studying prospects, Bradshaw displayed that traditional methods of showing production were not always good indicators of talent. I had this lesson validated in 2007 when I watched 2006 tape of Matt Forte's 11-carry, 25-yard performance against a loaded LSU defense and came away as impressed with Forte -- if not more -- as Bradshaw.
Yards-related stats often reveal a simplistic aspect of success and failure and do not reveal a player's knowledge of his role, his opposition, and the effort required to turn bad situations into workable solutions. This lesson also works in reverse. Darren McFadden averaged a half-yard more per carry over the course of his career than Forte, but the future Bears star was one of my underrated options at No. 5 on my list. McFadden was No. 11.
WR DeSean Jackson, Cal
Lesson No. 5: A Prospect Doesn't Have to Win Everywhere: Put the 5-foot-9, 169-pound frame to the side for a moment. I was willing to view Jackson within the archetype of successful, but diminutive pro receivers like Steve Smith, Santana Moss, and Marvin Harrison. OK, maybe I wasn't. I had Jackson as my No. 8 receiver behind scintillating, durable, and reliable talents like Devin Thomas, Earl Bennett, Malcolm Kelly, Limas Sweed, Adarius Bowman, Early Doucet, and Paul Hubbard.
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All seven were at least 5-foot-11 and 200 pounds. None of them were as explosive or as dangerous as Jackson. I said he could have Moss' upside, but my criticisms stated otherwise.
I worried about his ability to handle press coverage, break tackles, block in the run game, and earn positioning on possession style routes. In short, this was not Jackson's game, but I didn't fully understand that skill positions are not roles where one size fits all.
Part of my development as an evaluator included learning something that my counterpart Josh Norris at Rotoworld states very well about a prospect's potential, "Where He Wins." The phrase isn't, "He Wins Everywhere." Few players have the physical dimensions, technical skills, and savvy to win everywhere. However, many players have enough talent in a few specific areas to produce in a role that calls for those skills.
Jackson displayed game-changing skill as a vertical threat and return specialist, but I evaluated the receiver's potential within the context that he had to display a big man's game in addition to his current talents to win in the NFL. Templates don't apply as rigorously at the skill positions as they do along the line of scrimmage.
If a player has enough skill to do a few things better than most, he has the potential to develop into a quality starter even if you can't check every box and make him everything to every offense.
WR Demaryius Thomas, Georgia Tech
Lesson No. 6: The Tape Doesn't Lie; However, Your Eyes Might Not See The Truth: Thomas was my most egregious mistake as an evaluator. I didn't think he had true downfield speed. I made this assessment before seeing his workout times and I didn't go back to the tape to crosscheck his performances with the stopwatch.
Georgia Tech, height, and weight are the only three things that Thomas and Calvin Johnson have in common as receivers. Thomas lacks true downfield speed, runs a very basic route tree, and has lapses in concentration catching the football. Thomas can catch the ball in traffic and break tackles after the catch. He's an intriguing prospect, but not the same game changer Johnson was and it's unfair to Thomas to put those expectations on him.
Maybe this doesn't induce quite an "oof," when I think of the take as opposed to reading it, but then I see that I had 10 receivers ranked ahead of him.
I should have cross-checked what I saw from the stopwatch with what I saw on tape. If I had, I would have gained a clearer context of Thomas' speed.
Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that I would have seen speed that I didn't see before, although there were games where it was there to see. But if there wasn't this kind of tape available, I would have seen what was covering up that speed, such as the trajectory and anticipation of a throw and the lack of polish with a route. The more a player has to think or react to imprecision from teammates, the slower he can appear.
It's important to learn how technique can obfuscate athleticism and the level of difficulty required to develop these skills. Get this right and you're one step closer to making sound projections about a player's future.
This final lesson hits on a larger point about scouting. You might be right about what you see happening today, but you have to engage in some projection of how a player will develop. It's a skill that requires knowledge of what works and what doesn't in the NFL.
It's a little like time traveling between the past (college) and the future (pro). One reason why this column has the title it does.
Matt Waldman authors the Rookie Scouting Portfolio. available for download now. The guide covers 164 prospects at the offensive skill positions (QB, RB, WR, and TE). If you're a fantasy owner the 56-page Post-Draft Add-on comes with the 2012 -- 2014 RSPs at no additional charge and available for download within a week after the NFL Draft. Best of all, 10 percent of every sale is donated to Darkness to Light to combat sexual abuse. You can purchase past editions of the Rookie Scouting Portfolio (2006-2013) for just $9.95 apiece.