Reader Email Bag


49ers fans beware. Manningham is a terrific talent, but his skill for working at his game hasn't been part of the package.

This email bag includes topics pertaining to Robert Turbin, Blaine Gabbert, physical skills and techniques I value from players at each skill position, and of course, Mario Manningham.

(From Alexandra): When evaluating a player entering the draft, what are the positives of his skills that make a difference once in the NFL, and what are the negatives of his skills that are correctable in the NFL?  Which negatives are not so correctable and therefore devalue the potential of the player in the NFL?

Alexandra, I could write a book about these skill specific positives and negatives - in fact, I have. I can tell you that each position has skills that are paramount to success or failure in the NFL. Some are easier to correct than others – I’ll name some below.

A quarterback’s throwing mechanics aid his timing, accuracy, and maneuverability in the pocket. I split these mechanics into what goes on below and above the waist. Below the waist mechanics like footwork with drop backs, setting of feet, moving around the pocket while maintaining a throwing position and keeping the eyes down field, and stepping through the release of the ball are all correctable. It takes some time and work to develop these skills, but quarterbacks ranging from Kerry Collins to Steve Young all became much better passers as a result.

Above the waist mechanics are more difficult. I don’t have a scientific explanation for it, but it seems human beings have an easier time developing muscle memory for footwork than mechanical arm movements – or, at least in this sport. Poor arm mechanics can impact accuracy, the height and speed of the release of the ball, and to some extent the velocity of the throw. This is one of several reasons why Tim Tebow’s ongoing development is under such scrutiny.

Vision, acceleration, and pad level are three running back skill sets that I believe make or break many runners. Vision is an over-arching term for patience, good decision-making, reading blocks effectively, and reading and reacting to the defense. Good vision is a largely intuitive process, but reading blocks and understanding the concepts of good decision-making can be learned. However, reading and reacting to situations is still intuitive and some of the great players at the position do things that just aren’t teachable.

Acceleration – or explosiveness – is more important than long speed. Jerome Bettis wasn’t fast, but he was quick and that quickness helped him excel for many years after some of his faster peers were long gone from the NFL. As I mentioned in the question about Blaine Gabbert, Ray Rice developed better acceleration between his first and second seasons in the NFL. Many NFL players get quicker after their initial transition.

We can attribute this to physical conditioning and a greater understanding of the game around them. In many cases, quick, sound decision-making aids speed as much, if not more, than physical speed. Think of some of your favorite players throughout NFL history who were not stopwatch fast but played at a high level forever. Some writers refer to what they do as the “It” factor or possessing “intangibles,” or they are “winners.”

The real answers? They were smart, they worked hard at understanding the game and opponents, and they drilled out the mistakes from their games to a point that they were more prepared than their opponents.

Wide receivers can correct route skills. It’s just a matter of work and drilling on how to execute the correct kinds of breaks and effective techniques to separate from press coverage. This is why a player like Mario Manningham is so frustrating to me. He flashes terrific physical skills and good ball skills as a pure receiver. However, his lapses with technique were frequent enough that the Giants had no problem letting him go. I will not be surprised if Manningham busts in San Francisco. I hope not, but I don’t believe in his past work ethic because he repeatedly made the same mistakes you don’t see from other top-starting receivers with his experience.

Managing contact in the act of making a reception – taking a hit – is something I don’t think is easily taught. This was why I was enamored with USC prospect Steve Smith before his knee injury. He was good at what I call the “Money Catch.” The Eagles had a wide receiver prospect several years ago with good route skills and hands. His name was Todd Pinkston. Tall and rail thin, Pinkston developed a bad case of “Alligator Arms,” during his career because he shied away from contact.

If you see a wide receiver repeatedly demonstrate this tendency, it’s highly unlikely it will be better in the NFL. All players need to have a comfort level with hitting. It doesn’t mean they have to invite it, but they need to show they won’t shy away from it if taking the hit means making a play. Notre Dame wide receiver doesn’t shy away from contact. He’s a rough and tumble player and it is one of the reasons he’ll be one of my top wide receiver prospects in this class.

Another thing that is important for all players is how they fit within the prototypical measurements of their position. There has to be a minimum level of strength, height, speed, flexibility, and explosiveness for every position. As much as I emphasize technique and smarts in this blog, it’s because I think the average fan exaggerates the importance of physical measurements. There has to be a balance between the two.

Lots of good questions from readers. Here's four answered extensively, including my take on Gabbert a year later.

(From Joe): In last season’s RSP, you ranked Blaine Gabbert as the #1 QB prospect (1A actually to Ponder 1B). Gabbert struggled big time in his rookie season. I still have high hopes for the guy, but do you think he can fix his issues? NFL Films analyst Greg Cosell opined several times throughout the 2011 season that Gabbert’s level of timidity in the pocket is beyond repair. He can be had for pennies right now in many dynasty leagues with the signing of Henne. I’d love to hear your opinion. Thanks,

Great question. I provided commentary after Gabbert’s Monday night game that provides a detailed perspective on the rookie quarterback’s struggles. I have had the opportunity to watch Gabbert again at Missouri and I can see some of his pocket issues are similar, but not as exaggerated as what we saw from him his rookie year.

Let me preface my take on Greg Cosell’s comments by saying that Cosell has watched game film nearly five years longer than I have been an adult. He’s as knowledgeable about the game as anyone without being a coach, a scout, or a GM. I’ve had the pleasure to talk with Cosell a few times at length and I hope that will continue and if I could have the opportunity to sit and study a game with him, I’d pay money to do so.

Yet as humble and cordial as Cosell is, he has firm opinions and from my limited observation of the man, he believes in taking hard stances on players and NFL issues. This doesn’t doesn’t make him 100 percent correct. Our first conversation centered on Darren McFadden, a player we were both wrong about from the standpoint of him becoming a productive player (the injury potential is a different story).

I was high on Ray Rice from the first game I studied of his at Rutgers. Cosell liked Rice at college, too. However, when asked about Rice during his rookie season, Cosell told me he didn’t believe Rice was going to become the runner he first thought because the explosiveness wasn’t there. And Cosell was correct about Rice as a rookie – he lacked that burst and explosiveness. However, Rice added core weight and got more explosive during the off season.

My point is that even someone as knowledgeable as Greg Cosell isn’t always going to be right about a player and how his development will fare. I believe Greg is probably more right than wrong about Gabbert, but if you’re a fantasy football owner and you can get him for pennies in a dynasty league, do it. Chad Henne has not proven he’s more than a backup in this league. If Gabbert improves enough to earn the job and keep it in Year Two then there’s promise. If you drafted Gabbert, you might has well keep him because his value isn’t going to be much lower than it is now – even if he bombs.

(From Adam): I’d love to hear more about Robert Turbin. What team is a good fit / where do you see him going? Will he be a starter right away? Will he be the feature back? Thank you for everything you put out. I’m excited to purchase my first RSP!

Adam, excited to hear that you’re giving the RSP a read for the first time as well. I hope you like it. As for Turbin, I am still probably a week away from doing my final rankings and analysis for running backs so I reserve the right to modify my opinion somewhat. At this point, I think Turbin has the strength, speed, and quickness to contribute to an NFL roster right away.

However, I don’t think he has the vision to become a team’s preferred starter this year. Turbin has a tendency – like many good college runners – to bounce runs outside. He tends to rely on his agility a little more than he should. He’s a big, strong back who needs to learn to exploit smaller spaces for gains that keep his offense on schedule.

If he can curb his tendency to bounce runs outside, I think he can fit with any team seeking a chain-moving runner. San Francisco and San Diego could use a reserve player capable of contributing sooner than later. Seattle lacks a punishing runner in its stable beyond Marshawn Lynch. Even a team like the Jets or Giants could go for a mid-round runner as competition for younger backs like Shonn Green and Bilal Powell or Da’Rell Scott, D.J. Ware if Mike Tolbert doesn’t sign with the team.

Long-term I think Turbin can become a starter, but I’m not convinced he’ll ever be the feature back for a team except by necessity rather than choice.

Question: Every year everyone has a long list of guys that have titles like “locks”, “franchise”, “sleepers”, and “upside” types.

The closest I can come to answer Shuffle's question is to answer "Steve Slaton." Find out why that is below. Photo by The Brit_2.

(Shuffle): Can we talk about players that were labeled “pure garbage,” “special teamer at best,” “role player,” “undraftable,” or “zero explosivness,” – not even “bust-type” as that would imply he had enough articles saying otherwise.

Would you compile a list of say 5 to 10 players that just defied all logic based on your breakdowns? Showed no NFL skill set based on your deep breakdowns. Whether it be their opponent, size, coaching, or maybe opportunity.  Then out of nowhere they look like 2 completely different people almost day one of their NFL career.  The key is for it to be a player that you gave enough attention to as you would a 1st round prospect.

This sounds like a good topic for a separate post, because the situations I remember where I’m frequently wrong about player is that thought they were better than they turned out. Certainly I didn’t think as highly of Demaryius Thomas or Darren McFadden as many, but I also didn’t think they even close to undraftable.

The closest player I can think of right now who I did not think highly of but produced at a high level immediately was West Virginia RB Steve Slaton. I thought he lacked good inside skills and he didn’t protect the ball well. In the long-run I think this proved to be correct, but he had an excellent rookie year. I don’t want to say he was “lucky,” but I saw a significant number of big-play runs where he found his way through the line of scrimmage where he should have been wrapped but he just kept his legs moving and spun blindly out of a mass of players. His performance was a shocker. That offseason, I joined a dynasty league and promptly traded him for Rashard Mendenhall.

(Steven): You study a ton of skill position players for the RSP every year. At each position, there is enormous diversity in body types, physical characteristics, and overall makeup of the players. From your perspective, what are the core physical or mental characteristics vital for success at each skill position? If you were a GM, what list of essential characteristics and skills would a player at each position have to possess to make Team Waldman? (I’m interested to see you list things many casual observers might guess (‘Kiperisms’ like “speed” and “explosiveness”), or if there are more subtle things you find essential). Thanks!

I listed a number of things in Alexandra’s question that probably fit this one, but I’ll emphasize a few of those and touch on a few more.

QB

  • Maneuvering the pocket while keeping the eyes down field and maintaining a throwing posture. Think Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. Or college level: Ryan Tannehill. 
  • Taking punishment and maintaining poise and execution of fundamentals. Steve McNair, Joe Montana, and Bernie Kosar were these kind of players. So was Jim McMahon despite the fact that he had a rep for being brittle.
  • Anticipation: Does the quarterback deliver the ball on-time, which often means before the receiver makes his break ?
  • Arm strength from an unbalanced throwing position. Most quarterbacks can drill a 15-yard out in a clean pocket, but Aaron Rodgers, Jay Cutler, and Matt Stafford can deliver the ball on a line from angles that leave defenders shaking their heads. This is rare, but coveted if the other skills are there.

RB

  • Low pad level. Edgerrin James was great at finishing runs with his pads lower than the opposition or delivering a blow with his pads so bounce off the defender and squirt over top for extra yardage.
  • Great feet. Runners that know how to vary their stride so they can change direction or time their burst.
  • Balance. Runners that bounce off hits, especially from indirect angles to the legs. One of the reasons I was a Ryan Mathews fan early on was his display of balance at Fresno State.
  • This might not be a bad piece to read for more on this position.
  • A strong base in terms of hip-thigh development.

WR

  • This article will tell you a lot about what I value in terms of hands and how to use them.
  • Taking a hit and maintaining contact with the football.
  • Telling a story as a route runner.
  • Great skill at adjusting to the football in the air
  • Good initial burst.
  • Some savvy against press coverage with his hands.

TE

  • Hybrid Tight Ends: The ability to make sharper cuts than the average tight end. Adjusting to the ball in the air both high and low. Catching the ball with contact imminent and maintaining possession after the hit. Clearing the line of scrimmage by beating the jam.
  • Traditional Tight Ends: All off the above with the exception of the first point and the addition of delivering a strong punch with the hands with good location. A strong base in terms of hip-thigh development.
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