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Walkthrough: Drive-By Draftnik

Walkthrough: Drive-By Draftnik
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Mike Tanier

Demaryius Thomas looks like a movie monster, stomping through the opposing secondary. He's bigger than every defender. He outjumps those he can't outrun. He catches the tunnel screen, stiff-arms some poor nickel back, and scores another Georgia Tech touchdown. On the game tape, he looks like Plaxico Burress, a king-sized big play waiting to happen.

Then I remember what I'm watching.

Jonathan Dwyer is Brandon Jacobs, or maybe Franco Harris. He's a 240-pound bowling ball with moves. He makes one cut, breaks one tackle, and it's a footrace in the secondary. Despite his size, he often wins the footrace. He averaged 6.2 yards per carry in his college career, and it's easy to see why, with all the 40-yard runs he rips off. He looks like the ultimate "Thunder" back, with enough power for short-yardage situations and enough speed to produce big plays.

Then I remember what I'm watching.

I'm watching the Georgia Tech offense. The Yellow Jackets run the flexbone, an option offense made famous by Paul Johnson and by the service academies he coached. Georgia Tech is the only major-conference school to run the scheme, which is so odd that it bears no resemblance to any other major college offense, let alone an NFL system.

In the flexbone, almost every pass is either a tunnel screen or a play-action pass, usually off a rollout. Thomas' long receptions usually began with a play fake (often to Dwyer), with one or another wing backs drifting toward the sideline for an option pitch. All of this run action sucks up the secondary, sending safeties and corners toward the quarterback, Dwyer, and the pitch men. Thomas usually starts his route by pretending to block a corner or safety, then runs a fly pattern. If the quarterback rolls to his side, Thomas twists into a corner route. The cornerback, worried about the option first, doesn't have a chance.

It's exciting, but the scheme does much more work than Thomas does.

Dwyer is a single setback in the flexbone, standing about where an NFL fullback stands. He often gets the ball on simple dive plays, but he's never running against a stacked interior line. Those wingbacks are always threatening to take an option pitch, and quarterback Josh Nesbitt ran for 1,037 yards and 18 touchdowns himself. Inside linebackers must mind their keys, and they often follow Nesbitt to the outside while Dwyer rumbles past them with the ball. Safeties are nowhere to be found on Dwyer's longest runs because they are aligned close to the line of scrimmage, occupying option pitch lanes.

Again, the scheme does much of the work, and Dwyer gets the production.

Georgia Tech is the most extreme example of a system so unique that it makes scouting difficult. Even veteran scouts have a hard time separating the player from the system when watching such an unusual scheme. For drive-by draftniks like me, the flexbone offense makes precise scouting impossible. We can absorb the basics -- Thomas is tall and can adjust to passes in the air -- but it's hard to appraise a receiver's route running ability when he only runs three routes, or a back's vision when the hole opens right up for him.

Chris Brown of Smart Football watches more college football than I do. His focus is more on schemes than scouting, but he says that a keen-eyed observer can adjust to any system once he recognizes the change of emphasis. "If you play in Georgia Tech's offense you don't really do anything 'different' -- it's still football -- though your emphasis is different," he says. "If you're a lineman, you run block over and over again, and you do not get a lot of practice pass blocking. NFL teams don't run the triple option, but that's something the quarterback has to worry about. If you're a runner, your goal is still to find daylight, break tackles, and hit the hole."

That's all true, and Dwyer proved he could do all those things, to a degree. But a guy who runs for 1,395 yards in two straight years for, say, Auburn would typically be considered better than a third-round pick. Would Dwyer have gained 2,800 yards in two seasons at Auburn? "It is simply difficult to know whether a Paul Johnson running back got all those yards because he's the next Emmitt Smith or because he played in the Paul Johnson system," Brown said.

It's important to remember that full-time scouts aren't watching what we watch: highlight reels, television tape of last year's games. They are watching film, and they are keeping track of not just the player, but the opponent he is facing. When watching Georgia Tech play Duke, most of us instinctively take Georgia Tech's production with a grain of salt. Professional scouts are more precise: Duke's cornerback might be a real prospect, making Thomas' performance against him more interesting. If Dwyer puts a move on a Georgia linebacker, scouts know which linebacker it was and how good he is at open-field tackling.

NFLDraftScout.com's Rob Rang reminded me of those points when I asked him about another school I struggle to scout: USC. "I scout USC hard and focus on the individual matchups with good players from other teams -- not just scouting all Trojans from one or two games." Rang said.

USC's problem isn't a tricky scheme, it's the combined force of sheer talent on their roster, which allows them to pick which matchup they want to exploit. I had to re-watch tape to notice how often Everson Griffen recorded sacks just by running around some unprepared tight end. Scouts spent a lot more time focused on his matchups with good tackles, giving them a deeper understanding of what he can do in the NFL.

Ultimately, those of us who don't devote our careers to player evaluation must supplement our own opinions with those of experts like Rang or Russ Lande of Sporting News. I can tell Thomas can jump and block, and I know he didn't run a lot of routes. NFLDraftScout.com corroborates my route-running concerns and questions his acceleration, as well as his health after a foot injury. I can see Dwyer's power and cutback ability. The site also notes that he's a good receiver despite 15 catches, that he grades well as a blocker, and that he was productive as a rookie in a conventional system. Both are rated in the late 50s, making them late second-round picks.

It sounds right. The system made very good prospects look even better, but it didn't turn straw into gold. And just because a system inflates a player's numbers, that doesn't mean he's purely "a product of the system."

We'll wrap this segment up with my top five Toughest Programs to Evaluate:

1. Georgia Tech: As a fan, I love watching the flexbone. In fact, I'm often too distracted by all the motion to scout the players.

2. USC: Dozens of Trojans have fooled me over the past decade. Now, I watch the tape looking for examples of "too easy" plays made possible by the team's overall talent.

3. Iowa: Rang reminded me of what a pain it is to evaluate Iowa offensive linemen. "It's because of Kirk Ferentz's brilliance" he said. Their line is so fundamentally sound and perfectly coached that each player makes life easier for the others, making everybody look a little too good. Bryan Bulaga looks great on tape, but I remember saying some wonderful things about Robert Gallery a few years ago. Rang cites similar problems with the Alabama defense. "Nick Saban does such a spectacular job of coaching up defensive players that he is often able to mask their individual weaknesses. Rolando McClain certainly looks like an exception this year, but if you look historically at his linebackers and defensive backs, many of them earned lofty pre-draft billing and then either slipped on draft day or haven't fared as well in the pros."

4. Texas: The Longhorns feature a spread offense with a thousand tunnel screens and a coach that touts his players to high heaven, which can hamper objectivity. All of those spread-heavy Big 12 programs can be hard to evaluate. Rumor has it that Texas is switching to more of a Colts-style offense, with the quarterback under center. Maybe they'll take the other seven with them.

5. Florida: Between the end-arounds, option passes, and quarterback bellies, it's hard to find any old-fashioned NFL offense to latch onto. Plus, they have the USC "level of talent" problem.


I'll be covering the draft for The New York Times again this year, breaking down Thursday night's picks on the Fifth Down blog. I may provide some later-round coverage there as well. If not, I plan to stop by here and help with whatever shenanigans we have going on.

I have joined the Twitter nation. Look for me @FO_MTanier. I hope to start tweeting during the draft, then start using Twitter regularly during the 2010 season. I will still use Facebook (mostly for personal stuff) and maintain the Walkthrough Readers group, but apparently if I don't have a presence in at least 12 different social networking realms, I will cease to exist.

There's one more big announcement to come, but I am not at liberty to leak it just yet. If you liked the recent Milestone of McNabb Timeline in the Times, and you enjoy my ramblings about Philadelphia sports culture, you'll be excited by my next announcement, whenever I make it.

More details to come. In the meantime, enjoy the draft coverage, as well as the next segment, a strange an unexpected trip to Romania:


Reader Pallos Levente of Hungary sent me this message via Facebook:

My main interest in the draft is Meskó Zoltán, the best Hungarian kicker in the league since Gogolak. I guess you won't be breaking down picks when he comes around.

Sorry, Levente: I won't be doing pick-by-pick coverage in the late rounds, when the punters fly off the board. I rarely do any real scouting of kicking specialists anymore, so I didn't know much about Mesko, even though he spent the last four years punting for Michigan and earning tons of Big Ten accolades.

But in the interest of comprehensive international coverage, I did some research on Zoltán. For the record, Hungarians list the family name first and the given name second, like the Chinese and Bajorans.

First, Zoltán is from Timisoara, which is the second largest city in Romania and the first mainland European city to be lit by electric streetlamps. Timisoara was under Hungarian rule for many centuries, as well as Ottoman rule for a while, Soviet control, plus a brief Nazi occupation. Zoltán is ethnically Hungarian, and he speaks Hungarian, Romanian, German and English fluently, which is probably a good thing when you are born in some of Europe's most frequently seized real estate. Zoltán and his father, a professional bowler, left Romania when he was 11 and settled in Twinsburg, Ohio, which was the first mainland Ohio city to be lit by electric streetlamps, as well as the location of a failed Sherwood Anderson sequel.

(Actually, Twinsburg is home to the Twins Festival, held each August. Don't just grab an identical or fraternal sibling and head there, though: While some events are open to the public, the Friday Night Welcome Weiner Roast is only for registered twins. Unregistered twins will be shot on sight.)

Zoltán made it from Timisoara to Twinsburg to Ann Arbor, then finally to Indianapolis, where he measured 6 foot 4, 240 pounds at the Combine, officially making him somebody you wouldn't want to f--- with in any of four languages. He benched 225 pounds 16 times, because it's important for punters to lift. Combine interviewers apparently have nothing to ask Romanian punters. According to Zoltán, a group of special teams coaches asked him to tell a joke. "'I was like, 'Uhhh, I wasn't prepared for this,'" Mesko said in an NFLDraftScout.com interview. "I told this joke that was so bad and they were like, 'OK, let's just get your cell phone number and stuff for draft day.' It was two guys in a bar, one of those generic jokes."

I have a joke. Three NFL coaches travel to Timisoara, Romania, and attempt to communicate in the most basic way: read a transit map, order a meal, find a bathroom, locate the American Embassy. Then some guys offer them food and water if they can tell a joke in Romanian. That would be pretty darn funny.

Maybe the scouts were expecting too much. Doug Farrar tells me that Zoltán was among the best interviews at Indy. If he wanted to, he could have knocked 'em dead by showing the video where he gets thumped by the Go Blue banner and trampled by half the Wolverines roster before a game.

Zoltán has traveled a lot since Combine. He visited the Patriots, Jets, Eagles, and Chiefs in the last month. Pro Football Weekly ranks him second to Matt Dodge of East Carolina (who has kickoff experience), but offers a positive review: "Big, thick, long-levered lefty with all the tools to be a very effective NFL punter for a long time." He's the first kicker or punter ever to be named a Michigan team captain. He's an Academic All-American. He's big enough to truck your free safety.

He'll probably go in the sixth round. When it happens, come on back and read this profile. Szep Napot!

Connoisseurs and Draftniks

A friend threw a party a few weeks ago, asking guests to bring 12-packs of microbrews so we could mix, match, share, and compare. On the advice of my ex-students, several of whom now work in liquor stores (which may reflect upon my teaching somehow), I brought some Stone Ruination IPA. Here's an excerpt from a review of the brew from a guy named Dan at a site called The Full Pint:

Aroma: Strong citrus aromas such as orange and grapefruit, and notes of pine and spice.
Taste: Floral and citrusy hops. Flavors of grapefruit and lemon. Some sugary spicy malts that give the brew a sweetness. All-in-all a mouthful of hops.

You've probably read reviews like those before, usually by wine connoisseurs. Nowadays beer, whiskey, and probably malt liquor fans devote paragraphs of elegant prose to the nutty, peaty, or asparagusy characteristics of their favorite beverages. Well, I drank a Stone Ruination, and it was delicious. My friends had some, and they liked it. We could tell it had a lot of character, though no one mentioned pine or grapefruit.

We each then sampled another IPA, from another fine brewery, and it was also good. Did it have sugary spice malts? Possibly, or maybe spicy sugar malts. None of my friends are beer or wine experts. Most of us can tell great from good, good from bad, IPA from stout, Belgian ale from Hungarian punter pilsner, at least until the fifth or sixth one. But we don't have to know pine notes from spice notes to enjoy what we drink, or even to evaluate and discuss what we drink.

Which brings us back to the draft.

Here's a bit of a scouting report on a defensive end taken from the 2010 Pro Football Weekly 2010 Draft Preview:

Strengths: Plays on balance and displays full body control … shows a quick first step and loose shoulders and consistency … uses his hands to play off blocks.
Weaknesses: Can play with better leverage vs. the run. Plays with inconsistent pad level and could stuggle to anchor and defend the run in the pros. Immature.

That's not Carlos Dunlap or Jason Pierre-Paul. It's Junior Galette, who was kicked off the Temple team and finished his career at Stillman College. He's a 6-foot-2, 257-pound player who dominated small college competition and did well at the Combine. He'll leave the board at about the same time Mesko Zoltan does.

You can see some similarities between the beer review and the scouting report. There's a lot of technical jargon, used by experts to explain hard-to-quantify attributes. There are things we understand: Most beer drinkers know what a mouthful of hops tastes like, and we all know about leverage. And there are concepts on the fringe of our understanding: pine notes, loose shoulders.

Beverage connoisseurs study their craft closely and give language to sensations that defy descriptions. Scouts study their craft closely and try hard to break down a player's performance and potential into its component parts. Both do something interesting, entertaining, and valuable within the field.

But both beer experts and draft experts drill far past the level at which most of us experience their area of expertise. And sometimes, in their quest for completeness and precision, they drill past the point of relevance.

Back to that fancy beer for a second. I drank one Stone Ruination from the bottle and one the next day in a wide-mouthed glass. It tasted much better in the bottle. I tried one on ice from my fridge later. The fridge beer tasted better. There are good reasons for the change in taste. The bottle's thin neck concentrated the aromas, and the optimum temperature for a high-character beer is probably closer to 50 degrees than to the ice-filled cooler temperatures that are perfect for Miller Lite.

If changes in glass, temperature, and atmosphere make such a difference to taste, what becomes of those pine notes and lemon flavors? Do they become bread and tangerine? (I found those descriptions of the same beer on another site). Dan at The Full Pint no doubt drank from the correct glass at the correct temperature for a Combine-like beer tasting. Those of us drinking the beer from the bottle in the basement during the Sweet 16 had no use for those optimal-condition observations.

And what of Junior Galette? Won't his pad level and leverage change after a year in an NFL camp? Will his loose shoulders be a factor if he is stuck in a system that uses him poorly? As a variable, Galette's hand usage will have a tiny impact on his pro potential when compared to his size and quickness, coachability, work ethic, the team that drafts him, his place on the depth chart, and other factors.

We can lose a lot of detail, in beer appreciation and scouting, without sacrificing accuracy or information. Stone Ruination Ale is a dry, hoppy India Pale Ale from a respected California brewery. It is complex and a little bitter, light in body and fairly light in alcohol. Galette is an end-linebacker' tweener from a tiny program. He had 9.5 sacks against small-school competition and had a solid Combine but was dogged by issues before leaving Temple.

Really good microbrew IPA. Got it. Late-round developmental pass rusher with baggage. Got it. Save the pine notes for the master brewers, the loose shoulders for the coaches. If I want more, give me background, not details -- the player's history, the roster hole he's filling, an interesting quote.

I am a drive-by draftnik, a guy who switches to the draft after the Super Bowl and switches back in May. I've seen a lot of Gerald McCoy, but I've never seen Galette's shoulders, or his face. I can spout jargon with the best of them -- I've written glossaries of it. For a kinds of players, like a first-round quarterback, that might be appropriate. But when writing about the draft, it's usually better to be a little more global and tangible and to leave the nano-specifics to full-time experts. It's more entertaining, And it's really no less informative.

Thanks for reading. Damn, I'm thirsty.


39 comments, Last at 03 May 2010, 5:48pm

4 Re: Walkthrough: Drive-By Draftnik

Love the Winesburg reference. If you do a Phily sports scene thing, awesome. Just don't make me hate the teams & city like The Sports Guy did to Boston as he adjusted from perennial loser to CHAMPS! earlier this past decade. (He's gotten MUCH better about it the past couple of seasons, though.)

5 Re: Walkthrough: Drive-By Draftnik

Mike Tanier, writer

Strengths: Obscure references that delight the informed but do not distract from message... fresh ideas... ability to communicate nuanced opinions without losing reader interest. Immature.

Weaknesses: Questionable reliance on analogies that border on tortured, has written mostly in presence of inferior competition*, has not made a full time career commitment. Eagles fan.

*I had to get at least one Barnwell dig in.

6 Re: Walkthrough: Drive-By Draftnik

Cant waiy for draft and drinking. Will Zoltar Mesko be girst Romanian in major Usa pro sporgs since G Muersan of wash bullets?

7 Re: Walkthrough: Drive-By Draftnik

There are two things that annoy me about draft coverage. The first is that to do a decent mock you need three peices of information: the quality of the players, te
he needs of the teams and the scheme of the drafting teams. So few mockers bother to account for the scheme, making their mocks pointless.

But what really pisses me off is when people compare a prospect with an established pro for the most tenous reasons, such as they play the same position as a guy from the same college. The most idiotic comparison this year is Dez Bryant/Randy Moss. They get thrown together because they are talented receivers with red flags for off field activities. However, the red flags have different causes and on the field their skill sets are not alike at all. Moss is an amazing athlete with astonishing long speed, when he hits his top gear and lengthens his stride very few defenders can vaguely keep up. Bryant can't run a 4.5.

I've thought of a third annoyance, mockers like Don Banks who decide that a player is a good fit for a certain team and then contrive their draft to send that player there when he's more likely to be drafted earlier than that. Observe his tendency to send Anthony Davis to the Cowboys this year, having other teams pick inferior prospects so he'll be there for Dallas. This particular habit is so monumentally stupid that I really can't figure out why they bother to do it but Donnie is at it every year.

Rant over.

26 Re: Walkthrough: Drive-By Draftnik

Anquan Boldin would be a far better comparison in terms of on-field strengths and weaknesses, body type and so on, right? Obviously there's no guarantee Bryant will be as successful as Boldin and no real reason to think he'll have the injury problems, and the off-field stuff doesn't match up, but if you draft Bryant then what what you're hoping for is basically a healthier version of Boldin, no?

9 Re: Walkthrough: Drive-By Draftnik

Yes, Dez Bryant is more like Rashaun Woods (same program, same body type, same set of on-the-field question marks), but no current prospects get compared to past busts, only to guys who are successful in the league. That's why a draftnik can say, "This team just added a 10-year starter" with every single pick at every single position.

16 Re: Walkthrough: Drive-By Draftnik

I think it's more an issue that the general public (excepting fans of whichever teams Busty McWashout came from and was picked by) doesn't remember much about most draft busts. Some famous busts-- mostly QBs, Millen picks, and Mike Mamula-- are remembered to some extent, but usually only by the fact that they were busts, not by their body type, style of play, background, or whatever. Comparisons are only useful to the extent that they inform the audience. Saying that Bryant is like Rashaun Woods just gets me irritated that I now have to go look up who the heck Rashaun Woods is.

11 Re: Walkthrough: Drive-By Draftnik

Nice... the triple option flexbone is my single favorite offense to watch, it's so bizarre and precise, the plays unwind like a big set of human clockwork. The only college football games I really watch are the service academies. Watching Navy is more fun than Georgia Tech because you're watching inferior athletes compete and grind out drives just with execution of the scheme.

13 Re: Walkthrough: Drive-By Draftnik

Thanks, Mike, especially for using the accent above the letter a in Zoltán's name.

My favourite story of him is this:
“When I moved to the United States, we lived in an apartment in Queens. I was like, is this it? I had to start all over again. I didn’t speak any English and I learned to speak the language by watching television and going to school. I remember sitting in our apartment watching this T.V. station and three days later I found out that I was watching a Spanish channel. I was learning the wrong language.” Mesko said laughing.

17 Re: Walkthrough: Drive-By Draftnik

"he measured 6 foot 4, 240"
Damn. That means Sepulveda won't be the biggest punter in the league any more (listed 6-3, 240 on wikipedia)

A good scouting report written for fans, which almost all on the net are, should list the information needed to figure out if the player fits your team's scheme. I was reading about some late round or RFA DE prospect that said something along the lines of '6-4, 260 but with room to bulk up. Good against the run when single teamed, doesn't get washed out when double teamed. No pass rush moves except bull rush' and I knew exactly how he'd fit into my team's defense (Steeler's 3-4, developmental replacement for LDE) No info on "length" or the tightness of hips needed.

21 Re: Walkthrough: Drive-By Draftnik

But a guy who runs for 1,395 yards in two straight years for, say, Auburn would typically be considered better than a third-round pick.

This is an odd sentence for two reasons. I've looked at a lot of mock drafts and rankings, and Dwyer is usually considered higher than this. Ive seen him as high as the late first, and usually in the second.

Also, Ben Tate ran for 1300 yards for Auburn last year, and he's projected around the third round in most of the drafts I've seen.

Not saying these are correct or not, but it totally contradicts that statement.

27 Re: Walkthrough: Drive-By Draftnik

Still witty and interesting. However, I don't understand the whole Georgia Tech (or any college) issue. Many college players regardless of scheme have problems when transitioning to the NFL. Some wishbone RBs played great. Others were less successful. Same with QBs in today's college spread offenses. Drew Brees has been quite successful. Alex Smith less so. Teams with dominating talent often have high profile QBs who go nowhere in the pros (Gino Torretta anyone?). The draft is an inexact science and will likely continue to be. What's the first round bust rate anyway? 50% or something like that. For every Tom Brady or Warren Moon late round or undrafted success, there's probably thrice as many or more early round QB busts. Even great GMs like Ron Wolf or Jim Finks busted on at least one-third of their top picks.

35 Re: Walkthrough: Drive-By Draftnik

Is it accruate to say that Warren Moon was an undrafted success in the context that "undrafted" means in todays NFL? It wasn't like Moon was some unknown quantity who blossmed in the NFL. IIRC he had a very successful career in the CFL and USFL before being signed by the Oilers.

33 Re: Walkthrough: Drive-By Draftnik

I live 15 minutes from the Stone brewery and can attest that it is, indeed, worth a visit. If you ever have the pleasure of visiting San Diego and enjoy good beer paired with food made from local, seasonal ingredients then a stop by their brewery/bistro is a must.

34 Re: Walkthrough: Drive-By Draftnik

Excellent commentary on the football, however, a beer with an intensity such as Ruination should really be enjoyed out of a glass. By "concentrating" the aromas in the bottleneck, you essentially keep them out of the nose, a key component of the tasting system. Jus sayin.

38 Re: Walkthrough: Drive-By Draftnik

The mere act of comparing beer to football players proves you're a genius. And Stone is a very high-quality beer. Genius x2.

39 Re: Walkthrough: Drive-By Draftnik

This is what I get for not reading Walkthrough this week. Beer talk.

Ruination isn't an IPA, it's a Double IPA. And yeah, not out of a bottle. All you're smelling is a bottle. Get a good tasting glass like a snifter of some sort. There's a reason wine geeks trumpet different shapes of glasses for different styles of wines, and those same reasons apply for beer as well. Drinking something like Ruination of a a straight-sided shaker pint glass is a lot like drinking champagne out of a coffee mug. It's just a mismatched glass.