By Matt Waldman
Read an Internet scouting report; watch a video breakdown; or check out a message board, Twitter conversation, or comment section of a football website (like the one you're reading right now) and it's easy to see writers, analysts, and readers fighting against the unknown at every turn. The unknown is uncomfortable -- especially when trying to define, project, grade, and judge performance. There's an expectation that in order to appear smart in the world of football analysis, one must minimize the unknown as much as possible.
But as much as film study accounts for a vast majority of player evaluation, it cannot be the entire process. Good scouting isn't only about finding the right answers. If you're maximizing the potential of any analysis, it will also help you find the right questions.
This week's Futures examines two plays of Nebraska edge defender Randy Gregory -- a potential top-five pick, who told Tom Pelissaro at USA Today that he believes he's "worthy" of the top overall spot. One of these plays is Gregory's bread-and-butter pass rush move that he used numerous times against USC, and that helped him earn 17.5 sacks during the past two seasons. The other is a move he displayed only once in the Trojans matchup, but it may hold the key to Gregory's potential value to a team come May.
Teams often ask the right questions that eventually lead to answers that help them make draft day decisions. The most obvious example to me involved Teddy Bridgewater. Among the salient criticisms of Bridgewater the prospect was the Louisville quarterback's vertical accuracy. Watch the film on Bridgewater and it was clear that his passes beyond 35 yards were problematic. In some instances, these targets often overshot his receivers. In others, Bridgewater placed too much air under the ball and forced his teammates to wait on the target, giving the opposition time to recover on a route.
Identifying strengths and weaknesses is one part of the evaluation equation, but so is asking the question: "Is there anything the analysis illustrates that might reveal the prospect's capacity to improve within this area?" Vikings offensive coordinator Norv Turner saw Bridgewater throw the deep ball and asked the right questions.
According to Dan Pompei's excellent Sports on Earth feature, Turner posed those questions in actionable form when he worked out Bridgewater and gave the prospect some technique refinements that produced immediate results during the session:
The value in the private workout is that Bridgewater could be coached up. He could be corrected, and Turner could see if he could make changes. That's part of the evaluation. What they found out was Bridgewater could do pretty much anything they asked him to do. It wasn't just about the glove.
They tweaked some of the footwork that led to the shaky throws to his right at his pro day. They made sure his feet were under him when he delivered, and that his weight was not forward. They increased the "speed at the top of his drop," which means they got him to set his feet quickly on his hitch.
The Turners also asked Bridgewater to make every throw that he would be making in their scheme. It was a long workout, because the Vikings coaches wanted to see if his mechanics held up when he was fatigued… His mechanics held up, and his throws were strong and on target.
My colleague Eric Stoner says that once they make the physical-mental adjustment to the speed and enhanced complexity of the game, players are essentially the same guys in the NFL as they were in college football. I agree with this thought, but Bridgewater's deep accuracy is an example of enhancing a talent rather than overhauling his game.
The unchangeable part of Bridgewater wasn't his throwing mechanics, but his dedicated, intelligent, and humble approach as a student of the game. The Vikings' new quarterback displayed these tools well before the NFL. Yahoo Sports writer >Pat Forde's profile of Bridgewater and Louisville coordinator Shawn Watson highlights Bridgewater's talent for continuous learning and development:
Teddy started the last 10 games of his true freshman season and established himself as exactly what he was billed to be when the five-star recruit spurned Miami and LSU to come to Louisville. He was the future of the program, the Big East Freshman of the Year who broke a slew of school freshman records.
But college football is full of squandered ability and untapped promise. While Bridgewater played very well in his first year, he was nowhere near the player he could be. And Watson didn't want him to settle for anything short of his potential.
During a brutally honest meeting during the winter of 2012, Watson outlined all of the shortcomings the program savior had shown during that first season at Louisville.
"I'm telling you, there was a list," Watson said. "A long list. I told my wife, 'I met with Teddy today and I might have ruined him.'"
Actually, the coach wasn't very concerned about that possibility. He knew Teddy too well. He knew how he was going to respond.
"I was amazed at how terrible I was," Bridgewater said, laughing. "But it didn't hurt my feelings really at all, because I knew he was really trying to make me a better player."
With Bridgewater onboard for tearing down and rebuilding his game, the two went to work. They reviewed every single play of the 2011 season, deciding which ones were great and which were bad -- and the bad ones outnumbered the great…
"He took the coaching points," Watson said. "We went through everything in detail. Then he came out and knocked the lights out in the spring, and I knew he was poised for a great year. The gloves were off. I gave him reality, and he responded with a great spring."
A great spring became a great fall. The potential was being fulfilled, and a program was rising on the shoulders of its reluctant superstar…
"He's a quick study," Watson says, rewinding video to pinpoint the small stuff. "Very quick."
Watson's account of Bridgewater's skill at picking up the fine points of the game adds background to what Turner discovered when he worked out the rookie. However, Bridgewater's enhanced deep accuracy didn't manifest under the lights until he had a month under his belt as a starter.
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Football is a performance endeavor, which means the first step of developing skills occurs in practice. It begins with drills and progresses to scrimmages. However, transitioning from rehearsal to performance often requires an extended period of time.
Incorporating new skills can involve developing them to the point that they become second nature. However, there are new approaches that require a player to either have the courage to try them under live fire, or the wisdom to pick a spot where the risk-reward is favorable.
When it comes to quarterbacking -- a position where every rep has the potential for a game-changing play, both good and bad -- the transition is a more gradual one. It's not so delicate a process at defensive end, but adopting a new technique can still require an extended timeline.
Randy Gregory is a quick, heavy-handed pass rusher. Doug Farrar referenced the Pelissaro-edited diary piece on Twitter and said, "Add a few moves, and he would be absolutely illegal."
Developing more moves is the pivotal point. Gregory has thrived off one move. This play against USC is a clear demonstration of his bread-and-butter chop -- which is highly similar to a wide receiver's release technique versus press -- to work around a blocker:
It's a versatile move that works well inside, outside, or to redirect as a run defender. However, Greogry used this move 25 times in this contest -- and three times in this game he tried the move multiple times during the same play. This tally wouldn't be a big deal if the context for the 25 uses of the chop included another 10 or 15 moves of a differing variety. Not a chance. Other than an attempt at a spin move and one other tactic early in the first quarter, Gregory was "chop or bust."
A one-note wonder as pass rusher isn't likely to succeed in the NFL -- think Aaron Maybin. However, this is an analysis of one game used as a somewhat hypothetical proposition that Gregory rarely displays a more than one pass rush move, and I'm only doing this to provide a backdrop to a greater point about how NFL teams use tape analysis to ask further questions.
While I wouldn't be surprised if Gregory is a one-note wonder off the edge (as this game -- and Farrar's Tweet -- suggest), this "answer" is far less important than the "question" it raises: Does Gregory display anything on tape that suggests he can develop at least one effective counter move that keeps opponents off-balance?
I believe he can. The first pass rush attempt on this tape offers a glimpse of his potential to do more off the edge than chop through arms like lumberjack in an axe-wielding contest:
As much as I like what Gregory does with his hands and feet to execute this move, it's not enough information to answer the question above. However, it's a good starting point.
Much like Norv Turner's work with Bridgewater, a wise player-personnel unit would use this play as impetus to put Gregory through a workout where he is given new moves to try ,and see how quick he is to pick them up during the session. Just as important would be to show Gregory this third-down play and ask him about it.
Here is a list of potential questions I'd consider asking Gregory about this play as the conversation during the film session unfolds:
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- "I haven't seen you use this move prior to this game, why?"
- "When did you begin working on this move?"
- "Why did you decide to use this move here?
Whether it was something he got from a teammate or coach, I'd want to hear Gregory say that he picked up this move in practice. I also want him to explain why he chose the first series of the game and the specific play to use the move, because it will speak to his approach as a student of the game.
As a potential top-five pick, I'm hoping these exercises will reveal that Gregory is a quick study. Watch the rest of this USC tape and you'll find a player who plays good team defense. He squeezes creases shut in the ground game, maintains gap discipline, and doesn't create huge gaps in the pocket by overrunning outside angles that don't lead to the quarterback. He's well-coached, for sure, but how fast is he at picking up techniques that will aid his development?
This is the question from the tape that will ultimately decide whether his draft stock matches his long-term value.
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.