One of the most common questions I get from new readers is What did you think about [insert player name here] before [NFL team] drafted him? For the next month, I’m posting scouting reports and/or thoughts on some of my bigger hits, misses, and lingering questions when it comes to the past eight years of evaluating rookies for the Rookie Scouting Portfolio. I’ll also include the lessons I learned – or am still learning – from the experience of evaluating these players.
Quickness Is More Important Than Speed
But what I think gives Collie a chance to produce is his burst. He’s not a burner, but he is among the quickest receivers in this class. He may not catch 50-yard bombs with great separation on his opponent, but he’s faster than most in his class during his first 20 yards down field. As he gains experience, Collie will be able to set up his routes around his burst.
– 2009 Rookie Scouting Portfolio
Put Brown on a team with a strong play action game and he has the similar early route speed of an Austin Collie to get on top of a defender and generate big gains in addition to the between-the hash heroics of a possession receiver. Brown’s skills as a route runner, his technique against press coverage, and comfort level with physical play makes him a starter-caliber prospect regardless of a slower 40-time.
– 2011 Rookie Scouting Portfolio
To describe what I learned from watching Vincent Brown, I have to go back to what I saw with Austin Collie and Steve Smith. In a 2009 wide receiver class that included the likes of Michael Crabtree, Percy Harvin, and Hakeem Nicks, I thought Collie had the best pair of hands I’ve seen since Larry Fitzgerald. Nicks had this around-the-back catch against West Virginia and the 49ers staff raves about Crabtree’s hands, and both can make showy plays. Then there’s Fitzgerald, who makes the kind of ostentatious catches that seem impossible.
With the exception of a play at BYU where Collie dug a ball millimeters from the ground, Collie’s difficult grabs are generally understated. However, they are the type of passes that I often see more heralded prospects drop:
- Seams, crossers, and post routes where the receiver just clears the underneath defender as the ball arrives, all the while aware of a strong chance he’ll get sandwiched. I call these Money Catches.
- Low passes on comeback routes.
- Catching the corner fade with the outside hand while looking over the inside shoulder.
Inexplicably, you won’t see a lot of these plays in YouTube highlights of Collie’s work at BYU. But a discussion of hands when it comes to receivers is talking about how well a basketball player can shoot. While there are a dozens of plays every year where the ostentatious catch is necessary, it’s a small percentage overall. When it comes to evaluating receivers, there’s a point where it crosses the line from utility to eye candy.
Basketball and football players have to show they can move with and without the ball and just like great shots and catches, speed can also cross the line from utility to eye candy. I don’t care if a receiver can beat everyone on the field in a race if he can’t make the right decisions to run the correct route, he can’t handle physical play from those covering him over top, and he lacks the concentration to win the football in difficult situations, the value of his speed diminishes greatly.
Sabermetics/Analytics: Good Intentions Needing Reassessment
I think most fans and sabermetricians in football place far too much emphasis on the 40 time. I believe they don’t understand the actual cut-off point for what is a good 40-time. They place the cutoff in the 4.5 range. Based on the articles I’ve read at several sites, 4.5-speed is adequate and 4.3 is elite.
If I’m correct, it’s a misplaced notion. While a receiver with great straight line speed can be dominant, he’s only great if he can do everything else that a receiver is supposed to do: process the game in real-time, catch the ball against defenders, and run the offense with precision. It’s rare for a receiver to out-run coverage with a safety over the top without some form of manipulation from another player. While a fast receiver may command that attention and place more stress on a defense it’s getting rarer despite the fact that receivers are getting faster with all of this emphasis on 40 time and 40-time training.
Regardless of the current NFL paradigm, I believe 4.6-4.7 – speed is adequate as long as that player has refined (or the potential to refine) technical and conceptual skills and adequate quickness. This is where players like Collie, Smith, and Brown shined. Their initial quickness is better than adequate. The same could be said for Anquan Boldin, Brandon Lloyd, Hakeem Nicks, and DeAndre Hopkins, who were all slower 40 runners.
I think the intent of analytics is a good one. They want to provide takeaways that help readers, fans, and in some cases, NFL teams. However, I have my fair share of interaction with marketing research – a field that is growing and getting attention just like football analytics.
The difference is that people who do marketing analytics understand the difficulty of truly arriving at short takeaways that executive teams desire. This is why it’s still difficult for them to get a seat at the boardroom table. Football analytics is a hot area, but it executives are also demanding takeaways. If market research is struggling to deliver these simple and elegant answers and they have strong academic training in statistical modeling, I fear that some in the football analytics field are are marketing their method as “the truth” when their methods would not pass muster in a true research environment.
Until personnel staff, sabermetricians, and fans actual focus on asking the right question (What is adequate speed and burst?), then I think they will struggle to deliver any worthwhile answer and just continue to torture data under the banner of objectivity. The problem is that many of these stats-based theories lack the setting and resources to do the quality of work required to generate optimal value. Still, it’s entertaining and don’t get me wrong, there are those who have the perspective to deliver nuggets of good information without getting too ambitious – Chase Stuart and Doug Drinen are two of my faves.
Just like scouting players based on tape, football analytics is still young. Scouting may be its older brother with a lot of dysfunctional traits, but analytics is a toddler in the same family that hasn’t worked through its hangups to avoid impacting its second son.
Team Fit Is Most Important
With an accurate quarterback who possesses exquisite timing, quickness outweighs speed. This is why a player like Collie or Steve Smith were great fits for a quarterback like Peyton Manning, but not so much for passer who relies more pure arm strength over precision. Randy Moss and Cris Carter were perfect fits for Daunte Culpepper, because the Vikings passer had truth arm strength. Moss could run under anything or win any 50/50 ball. Carter could also win 50/50 balls and had an incredible catch radius.
Culpepper didn’t need as much precision with these two as he would with Keenan McCardell, Reggie Wayne, Austin Collie, or Steve Smith. At the same time, Collie and Smith could make the tough plays in traffic. Pair them with a quarterback with the confidence to allow them to win the ball, and they could still thrive. However, that quarterback has to demonstrate good decision-making when to take that type of chance.
This is a good example why team fit is a huge factor with evaluating players. One list of rankings does not fit all.
The Colts list had to value precision as well as physical and mental quickness. What you will see in any BYU highlight video of Collie is a consistent ability to get behind linebackers, corners, and safeties on vertical routes despite the fact that he was labeled as slow.
A Quick Thinker, Acts quicker.
Get the early advantage and it shows up later. This is why Collie won so many vertical routes or is running wide open through zones. His big plays at Indy often came on quick-hitting, precision plays. These are difficult passes because of the mental component. Think about how many Collie and Manning connected on and you’ll see how quickness often trumps speed.
Collie’s RSP score was an 85, which is high for a wide receiver in my system. Only Crabtree, Harvin, and Darrius Heyward-Bey (a lesson learned that it’s very important for a receiver to show he can catch the ball away from his body and not allow athleticism to gloss over technique) had higher scores that year.
Although I thought Collie could get separation in the NFL because of his precision, burst, and concentration, I wasn’t confident enough in my assessment to rank him higher than 12th in this class when he should have been no lower than seventh.
This is something I also saw with Giants receiver Steve Smith in 2007. The former USC receiver had the burst to get separation but not the long speed to have a lot of uncontested vertical targets unless his quarterback could demonstrate precision timing. Eli Manning lacked that refined skill during the Smith years and threw the ball late on several play action passes where Smith was wide open with a double move.
Lessons Don’t Come In A Linear Procession
You would think I would have learned that Collie could hang in the NFL as a starter if I saw similar qualities from Steve Smith (.PDF Sample) as a top-3 receiver in my 2007 class. However, the validation of these points came too late for Collie because I produced my evaluation of Collie about 6-8 months prior to the 2009 season – the Pro Bowl year where Smith caught 107 passes for 1220 yards and 7 touchdowns.
That’s the fascinating thing about life – it doesn’t take a linear path (no matter how much we want to torture ourselves to make it so). Where these lessons began to take an applicable shape for me was in 2011 with Vincent Brown. The San Diego State receiver scored an 89 in my evaluation process – only A.J. Green (98) and Greg Salas (90) where higher.
I thought Salas had a ruggedness that was similar to Jordy Nelson and Michael Irvin. However, he didn’t show that same skill early in St. Louis and it cost him. A theory I have with Salas – beyond his own performance – is that once a player gets to the NFL and has NFL tape, teams rely more on the NFL scouts and the college book gets less weight. While the case doesn’t look good for Salas I think there’s still an element of his NFL story where the jury is out.
It also means we’re all still deliberating on Vincent Brown. He flashed excellent skill as a rookie, missed most of the year with an ankle injury last year, and has now earned a lot of praise from Chargers’ head coach Mike McCoy for his routes. Brown’s skill to get into optimal position combined with his hands makes him a player capable of earning time on the field, but he reason he fits so well with Philip Rivers is the fact he’s physical enough to make the Steve Smith-style money plays.
Rivers is a fearless passer. He has good timing over the middle, but tends to loft the ball on deeper routes. This means we see more plays where the receiver has to win the ball rather than run under it.
Rivers had this type of player with Vincent Jackson – a huge, downfield bully of a receiver who could win in tight coverage. Danario Alexander has some of this in his game, but has to stay healthy. Brown isn’t that big, but like Derrick Mason or Henry Ellard of years past, he has the skills to win the football in the air on intermediate and deep routes where timing doesn’t have to be pitch-perfect.
Here’s my pre-draft report on Vincent Brown. It’s a culmination of lessons I’ve been learning with the likes of Collie and Smith. Regardless of his future performance, I saw enough of him as a rookie to know that he has starter skill if he plays to his ability.
For analysis of skill players in this year’s draft class, download the 2013 Rookie Scouting Portfolio available now. Better yet, if you’re a fantasy owner the 56-page Post-Draft Add-on comes with the 2013 RSP at no additional charge and available for download within a week after the NFL Draft. Best, yet, 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 for just $9.95 apiece.