Futures: The Inner Game and the 2015 Class
By Matt Waldman
I host a weekly show on YouTube called The RSP Film Room. I suppose this is an indirect promo, but that's not the intent. There's a larger point to broaching it here.
Typically 60 to 80 minutes long, the show is a Google Hangout where two football analysts watch a prospect's cutups. We comment on a player's technique, his athleticism, and his understanding of his position and the game. We also discuss the broader demands of a position, the differences between college football and the NFL, and what we value from players.
The guests make the show. They share a seemingly endless supply of instructive nuggets: How Lance Zierlein sees athletic parallels between offensive line play, basketball, and boxing. The physical and mental exercises that former MAC Offensive Player of the Year Chad Spann put David Cobb through last offseason to help the Minnesota running back improve his overall game. And the way Ryan Riddle and Sigmund Bloom discuss the emotional and psychological side of the game.
It's this inner game beyond technique, strategy, and athleticism that fascinates me most. Whether it's present or absent in the tape, all of my guests value it. The common threads underlying all of these interactions are Football IQ, toughness, and the wisdom to balance aggression and restraint.
These are qualities -- physical, mental, and emotional -- of good football players that we often hear can't be taught or captured in a scouting report. I agree that a strong inner game doesn't come through formal instruction. It can be shown, but it won't be learned as much as it is unearthed over time.
Most players competing for an opportunity to play professional football possess a baseline amount of inner game. However, professionals at the top of their field often possess an inner game that's a cut above their peers.
I also disagree sharply with the notion that the inner game cannot be identified and quantified. Toughness is a good example.
This week, I'm sharing my thoughts on the Inner Game -- highlighting the concept of Toughness -- and then sharing associated thoughts I'm having about several players from the 2015 class.
Football Toughness is Physical, Mental, and Emotional
Here are some general behaviors on a football field that indicate an elevated level of toughness that separates the best from the rest:
- Performing well with a specific injury.
- Taking physical punishment on the field and rebounding with smart, calm, physical effort afterwards -- even elevating their performance.
- Relishing the delivery of physical play as the aggressor or recipient.
- Remaining calm, poised, focused, and effort-driven when the game or individual performance is going sour.
While a lot of unknown variables on and off the field can affect a player's performance and require toughness to overcome, there are enough criteria inherent with each position where a higher degree of toughness can be monitored. Here are some that I have built into my evaluations:
Catches After Contact
I track these as hits during the act of securing the football, and I do it for backs, receivers, and tight ends. A player who consistently abandons attempts on targets due to an imminent collision lacks that elevated toughness as a receiver in the passing game. He might be tough enough in other areas, but not in that specific environment of play.
More common issues that fall within this realm are players consistently dropping the ball due to collisions and losing concentration because of the potential for imminent contact. Brandin Cooks dropped his fair share of contested targets, but he also made enough big plays in similar situations that I didn't question his capacity to win against physical play. Marqise Lee had a few big plays against physical coverage, but they were much fewer and far between a lot of dropped passes, and I'm still waiting to see consistent proof that he can deliver beyond a highly defined supporting role.
Initiates Contact and Punishes Defenders
I seek this from backs, but it's not defined as a bone-jarring collision meted out by the runner. The most notable hallmarks of Jamaal Charles' game are his speed and agility, but among the qualities that Charles always had in long supply since I saw him at Texas was his willingness to attack defenders with the first contact in the hole or in the open field.
Charles isn't trying to run over defensive tackles and inside linebackers when he does this, but he has the toughness to take the action to the opponent with the hope of catching them off balance so he can mitigate the collision, bounce off glancing contact, and continue into the secondary. There's very little physical contact here, but it's enough to be the aggressor. The risk of being the aggressor in these situations is getting hammered, and Charles has met those consequences throughout his career. However, the reward has been long gains.
I grade all non-quarterback ball carriers in this area. There is the minimum effort of keeping one's legs moving after contact, and then there's the mentality that Sigmund Bloom refers to as the confidence that players like Marshawn Lynch and Adrian Peterson or prospects like Josh Robinson, Todd Gurley, Ameer Abdullah, and Duke Robinson have that they can win 1-on-11 in any given circumstance.
There is a time and a place for this kind of effort, which is where wisdom becomes an overriding factor, but most evaluators want prospects with the ability to translate their unrivaled belief in themselves to the field. Ron Dayne was a big back, but he was not a punishing player at his position. Years ago, I heard a story from a friend of mine who knew former Georgia linebacker Kendrell Bell. According to my friend, Bell said Dayne displayed audible discomfort that Bell thought was unusual to hear from a back when Georgia limited Dayne to a 36-yard effort in a bowl game against the Bulldogs.
Admittedly this is second-hand information and hearsay, but Dayne was a scatback in a big man's body. It wasn't a style of play that translated well to a more athletic NFL, because his speed and agility weren't unusual and he lacked that 1-on-11 mentality.
Pocket Criteria: Willing to Take a Hit to Deliver the Ball, Doesn't Freeze Under Pressure, and Doesn't Overreact to Pressure
Jeff George often dropped to the ground rather than deliver a ball and step into an oncoming defender. At this stage of his career, there are cases where Peyton Manning does, too. Ideally, you want a player who will stand and deliver when there's a clear opportunity for a big play. Manning picks his spots at this point and has built enough equity in his on-field smarts to get away with it due to concerns about his neck.
George, on the other hand, gradually began to freeze under pressure, and his processing of what was happening past the line of scrimmage disappeared. It's a common issue for quarterbacks who suffer beatings early in their NFL careers and fail to grow past it. David Carr and Trent Edwards had their pocket toughness beaten out of them.
Blaine Gabbert has many excellent tools as a quarterback, but he overreacts to the threat of pressure, delivering passes in a clean pocket from angles that would lead one to believe in a vacuum that opponents were inches away from destroying. It's a form of dysmorphia that doesn't work in the NFL.
There are numerous ways one can infuse toughness into evaluation criteria. Some that come to mind include charting productivity after big mistakes, off weeks, or after a play or series of plays where the individual is physically dominated.
But enough about how toughness can fit into evaluation practices. The RSP Film Room conversations with my guests also inspired several thoughts and ideas about prospects from this 2015 class as the Combine takes place.
The Oregon Passing Offense
During a routine conversation with colleague and friend Sigmund Bloom, I passed along a thought that guest Eric Stoner and I discussed during our review of UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley's tape: What if Hundley and Marcus Mariota swapped programs?
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For those who dismiss Hundley out of hand, it won't matter much. However, I believe that kind of dismissal of the UCLA passer is a huge mistake. Stoner pointed out that Jim Mora's regime did not allow Hundley to adjust plays at the line of scrimmage. There were no checks to runs or changes of blocking schemes versus pressure. There were often drops accompanying blocking schemes that actually demanded Hundley to retreat beyond the proper fit of the pocket design. Combine these issues with a struggling offensive line and Hundley dealt with more significant obstacles than Mariota in the passing game.
While Hundley has been criticized for seeking the escape hatch too soon, I have seen multiple games where he has shown high-end, NFL-caliber pocket presence under pressure, and made some of the best throws you'll see form a quarterback in this class. I am not denying Hundley's penchant for the egregious, unforced error, but the caliber of skill I have seen under difficult circumstances leads me to imagine Hundley in Oregon and Mariota in Los Angeles.
Mariota, although likely to flash the speed of a running back or wide receiver, isn't as savvy of a runner as Hundley, who displays actual patience and nuance to set up defenders, even when breaking the pocket on runs that weren't by design. Mariota, in contrast, is more of a "one issue at a time" ball carrier.
Thanks in part to the Ducks' offense, I have also seen far fewer successful throws with tight-window accuracy from Mariota than I have with Hundley. Considering how well Nick Foles and Mark Sanchez performed in this style of scheme in Philadelphia, it poses a sensible question: does the offense inflate the perceived talent of a quarterback?
The opposite proposition might be that Mark Sanchez was better than we saw in New York on a Rex Ryan-coached team that didn't develop a strong offensive system after Sanchez had a solid beginning to his career. Likewise, Jim Mora -- like Ryan -- is a defensive-oriented coach with a similar history of uninspired offensive football. Perhaps Brett Hundley's potential has been limited by the Bruins' offense, and could blossom in a more imaginative environment?
I'm still pondering these questions, because there are moments where Hundley is the most impressive passer of his 2015 group. (More on Hundley here.)
Some players never see an opportunity to do something flashy that they don't like. Last year, Lions tight end Eric Ebron was a great example. There were multiple games where he tried to hurdle defenders in the open field. There were at least three games I remember where he had to leave the field because that showy display of athleticism got him dinged.
It was an egregious example of a player who lacks that balance between aggression and restraint. Robert Griffin's tendency to wait a split-second longer in the pocket to deliver a high-risk throw and take a horrific shot is another. Michael Vick exhibited the same tendency throughout his career.
Devin Funchess (discussed more here) strikes me as the kind of player where there's a gap between his ability and how he applies it in optimal ways. He can make the eye-popping adjustment in the air at the sideline against tight coverage one play, and the next try to catch a ball as if he was clapping for his favorite standup comedian. He'll display fluid athleticism to earn yards after the catch, then fade away from a target when he should have attacked it.
Funchess has the talent to earn a role in the NFL and perform it well. However, there's a tendency for him to hit bad notes with a great instrument, and it's something that would lead me to put a lot of weight on a site visit and interviews.
If Funchess' light flickers at game time on offense, Miami linebacker Denzel Perryman has a similar circuitry issue on defense. His reads and reactions can be slow. He'll stack the incorrect shoulder of an opponent and have difficulty shedding to make a play on a ball carrier. There are also too many questionable pursuit angles.
These issues detract from Perryman's skill to balance patient diagnosis and downhill aggression through a crease, because his demolition work of backfields are too often bookends for a long, voluminous shelf of yards given up. Perryman is at his best when he can work in the open, which means he'll need a terrific front man at the line of scrimmage to protect him. I see a prospect with the body type of Stephen Tulloch with too many questionable behaviors.
UCLA linebacker Eric Kendricks is plugged in. Watch the Virginia tape and within the span of the late second quarter to the early third quarter, Kendricks forces a fumble that leads to a defensive touchdown and undercuts a checkdown in the flat for a pick-six. However, it's more than the big plays that catch my eye.
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Kendricks moves around the line of scrimmage like a quarterback with strong pocket presence. The steps come with economy -- even if there are initial steps that lead the linebacker away from his eventual destination, his body remains under his feet. There's a control to his diagnostic game that will help him transition fast to the NFL.
For more on Kendricks, John Owning wrote a fine piece on this future "Will" backer.
One of my favorite players in this draft, regardless of talent or draft status, is Nebraska wide receiver Kenny Bell. A wiry player, Bell has the quickness and precision to develop into a refined route technician, the athleticism to win in the open field after the catch or in the return game, and the toughness to give and take punishment.
There's a dash of Hines Ward to Bell's versatility and football mindset. There are also shades of players like Donald Driver, Marvin Jones, and Emmanuel Sanders in his athleticism and technical strengths. I don't expect Bell to get drafted before the third day, if at all. However, I do expect him to make a roster and develop into a productive contributor in a passing game rotation. He's one of those players whose inner game shows up on the field in ways both little and big.