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25 Mar 2015

Futures: Rookie Rankings

By Matt Waldman

I hate rookie rankings. You love rookie rankings. It's a beautiful relationship.

Seriously, I hate rookie rankings. It's a black-and-white expression of 18 to 24 months of research and analysis that has more than 500 shades of grey. Why in the hell would I want to distill it to a "yes-he's-good"/"no-he's-not" proposition?

Because as much as I hate it, you love it, and when it comes to you reading my work I (begrudgingly) like what you love.

There is a one caveat. You must (begrudgingly) follow me down the rabbit hole and take my tour of the shades of gray that I call "context." Think of it as eating your rankings vegetables.

You hate vegetables. I love vegetables. It's a beautiful relationship.

Informative prospect rankings require context:

  • Who is the client?
  • How much of a gap is between players or groups of players?
  • Why is a list not as simple as high-better, lower-worse?

My client is you. Some of you are in the NFL. Most of you are in an office, a classroom, or your living room reading from a screen avoiding work for a few minutes (or hours).

Most of you don't represent a team. You're a vast collection of fans, draftniks, and fantasy owners who care about talent and fit with one of 32 teams.

Let's face it, you really don't care about fit, either. You say you do, but when your team selects Rookie A, and you think Rookie B is more talented, you're ready to put the personnel department on a garbage barge headed for God knows where. (Like real garbage, much of the NFL garbage is recycled). Is it fair? You don't care.

It is what it is.

Like it or not, fit matters, and many of you see talent without context. Yes, it's time for a spoonful of peas. Do you want to do the airplane heading for the hangar or the train into the tunnel?

Scouting talent is a misleading endeavor to fans, because with the exception of a small group of players, talent isn't the same thing to every team. Draft media loves the word "prototypical," and it is one of the more confusing terms this time of year. The term has two meanings that can apply to a prospect:

  • An original type, form, or instance serving as a basis or standard.
  • An original, full-scale, and usually working model of a new product or new version of an existing product.

If a player is prototypical of his position, is he a model of excellence, or do his skills simply meet the acceptable baseline, even if they aren't necessarily top quality? If this confuses me, I have to think some of you out there reading this have been wondering the same thing.

I tend to believe the talking heads mean the player meets a standard of excellence, but three years later that guy they were referring to looks pretty average, at best. I know when I play a talking head on YouTube that I've been guilty of the same thing.

I can't give you a definitive answer to this issue. I can tell you how scouting talent actually works and why rankings or round values aren't an accurate reflection of a player's talent and potential, or a team's valuation of that player.

Pretend you're an action hero and someone big and bad is out to kill you. Yes, it's a violent example. No, I haven't been reading Life in Prison by Tookie Williams again.

Stay with me now.

You're an action hero with a bad-ass coming for you and you're presented with two weapons: a Ka-Bar Full-Size USMC Straight Edge Knife with a 7-inch blade that's nearly a foot-long from handle to tip, or a No. 2 pencil.

Not a mechanical pencil, an old-fashioned wooden pencil sporting a pink rubber eraser on top.

Ask 100 people their weapon of preference and I'd bet 99 of them don't hesitate when they respond, "knife." It's made to inflict damage. It's a no-brainer of a choice. But of those 100 people staring at the fighting knife and the pencil, one will ask, "Where and how will I need to use the weapon?"

Congratulations, you just found a person with the mindset of an excellent scout.

If the "Where" is the front of a war zone where there is hand-to-hand fighting, the answer is still the knife. If the setting is a pharmaceutical corporation boardroom in a building with strict security measures and the bad-ass is believed to be someone working close to you while setting up an ambush, the six-inch stick with a lead tip looks a lot more appealing.

This is what rankings without a team as its audience fails to show. Most draftniks and analysts have Tyler Lockett ranked eight to 12 spots higher than Ty Montgomery. Lockett has more speed, he runs better routes, and he excels at tracking the ball and getting open in the vertical game.

Lockett is the knife.

However, the bad-ass out to get you is a cornerback who is every bit as fast as Lockett moving backwards. He also has the physicality to fling that knife out the window or wedge it deep enough into the boardroom table that you're done if you even consider pulling it out.

Montgomery has average speed and initial burst for a receiver, at best. He also has difficulty tracking the ball overhead on targets leading him downfield with his back to the quarterback. He's a liability in the vertical game.

However, Montgomery is the best runner of this receiving class. You're still wondering how this 6-foot, 221-pound "receiver" with a gait like DeMarco Murray isn't being switched to the backfield to see how good of a Murray imitation he might be able to do.

Montgomery is the pencil for a team that already has a knife. And the bad-ass, expecting the knife, doesn't see that pencil coming. Sure, he spots Montgomery motioning towards the backfield or aligned tight to the formation on the wing or split wide, but he's occupied with the presence of the knife.

Two seconds later, there's an sharp pain tearing at his neck. Just before the room goes fuzzy, he sees out of the corner of his eye a painted yellow stick protruding from his carotid artery. That was Montgomery taking a jet sweep after a pump fake to a receiver and weaving through traffic for a 40-yard touchdown. Or it was Montgomery on a tunnel screen or slant getting first down after first down until there's no choice but to stop the pencil, which of course, makes the knife that much more effective.

Talent can be measured by breadth and depth. Tyler Lockett has more breadth of talent than Devin Funchess. The Kansas State receiver can return kicks and work the perimeter or the slot. He's faster and a more dynamic route runner who gets open easily at every range of the field.

Funchess has more depth of talent as a pass catcher on targets placed over his head in tight coverage. The Michigan receiver also adjusts better to the ball and has a better grasp of setting up breaks and position in the end zone. Some football teams may need the receiver with skill to make plays in tight coverage with the target flying overhead more than they need a versatile option who can do the same thing and more, but he can't do that same thing with near the proficiency and reliability.

This is why teams draft players in the fifth round and then tell us they had him near the top of their board as a third-round value. It's also why I'll write about a player ranked outside my top 20 at the position and explain how he can produce like a top-five talent.

As for explaining the gaps between players, I'm a fan of tiers that are well-defined and based on grading depth of talent for each component of a prospect's athleticism, technical knowledge of the position, and conceptual knowledge of the position and the game. Senior Bowl Director Phil Savage gave an example of tiers that the media and public would be better off using to discuss the draft.

Savage's method provides more clarity and transcends round. It's a healthier way to discuss prospect evaluation. Now that's the makings of a beautiful relationship between rankings and talent.

Read about the wide receivers mentioned above:

Matt Waldman authors the Rookie Scouting Portfolio. available for pre-order now. The guide covers over 140 prospects at the offensive skill positions (QB, RB, WR, and TE). If you're a fantasy owner the 50-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 (2006-2014) for just $9.95 apiece.

Take a video tour of the RSP.

Posted by: Matt Waldman on 25 Mar 2015

40 comments, Last at 01 Apr 2018, 5:38pm by thalia


by Venger :: Thu, 03/26/2015 - 2:28am

This story feels like it's foreshadowing a news headline which reads "MATT WALDMAN STABS DRAFTNIK IN NECK WITH PENCIL".

by NRG :: Mon, 03/30/2015 - 10:18am

Let me start with a bunch of material you, the reader, are too uninformed and short-sighted to know is valuable. In fact, you the reader are too uninformed and short-sighted to even know what you want, so here is what I want you to want. Great lead. I didn't "stay with you", and found the repeated generalized insults to your audience less than beautiful.


by LionInAZ :: Sun, 04/05/2015 - 11:39pm

I found it informative and not insulting at all, so it must be you who is uninformed and short-sighted. Or a scout for the Browns.

by Noah Arkadia :: Thu, 04/02/2015 - 12:47pm

Sure, it's a bit of a rant, but I know I'm guilty of ignoring fit. Come draft time, I want my team to take a sexy player. Last year my team drafted a very non-sexy player in the first round and I was a bit disappointed. Said player went on to start all 16 games and play at a solid level. And yet, if they draft a non-sexy player this year, I will be disappointed again.

Loved the example of the pencil and the knife. It did help understand things better.

Who, me?

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