ESPN analyst Matt Williamson is a former NFL scout for the Cleveland Browns. He agreed to talk about a variety of topics in a three-part interview at The Rookie Scouting Portfolio. In this post, Williamson discusses an emerging NFL offensive trend with personnel and then explains the difference between scouting for a football team and a media conglomerate.
Waldman: What is a positional trend in the NFL that you believe is really making a league-wide impact?
Williamson: One thing that I think is really becoming more prevalent and I think that we’ll continue to see much more of it is hybrid offensive players. People that come to mind are Aaron Hernandez, Dallas Clark, Reggie Bush, and Percy Harvin. Now Harvin doesn’t count as much as those others, but the rest of those guys are all in really good offenses with smart quarterbacks – which is absolutely a necessity.
The problem they present to defenses is how do you count them? If you are a defensive coordinator and Reggie Bush is on the field with a fullback, a tight end, and two wide outs are you going to call Bush a running back and just play a base defense against him? Okay, that’s cool…
Waldman: Then as the Saints quarterback, you’re going to motion Bush out…
Williamson: Right. And he’s going to run wide receiver routes against linebackers. People always bash Bush because he’s hurt a lot and everyone is so fantasy-oriented right now…
Waldman: But he’s a great weapon!
Williamson: He is a great weapon, and he makes so many things happen that you don’t realize unless you know the game.
Waldman: And then you can counter that situation with splitting Bush out wide. Does the defensive coordinator count him now as a wide receiver or…
Williamson: But you don’t even do that as he lines up. You have to make that decision before the Saints offense even gets in the huddle. If you’re the defensive coordinator up in the booth, the first thing you hear is what personnel package they are in and you immediately make the call.
For example if they see 11 or 12 personnel, they are responding quickly with something like, “Go nickel,” or “Go base.” Really, you are figuring all of this stuff out during the week. The team discusses before the game what they are going to do if they get 11 personnel (1 RB/1 TE) versus the Saints .
But there’s no right answer because you know as a defensive coordinator that if Drew Brees sees you in nickel he’s going to bring his tight ends in tight, he’s going to have that power fullback running ISO up your ass and give the ball to Bush. Having a player like him is a wonderful weapon.
Waldman: And even a player like Harvin who can run the ball between the tackles here and there…
Williamson: Here and there…and the tight end-wide receiver hybrids are that way, too. I thought everyone wanted to bash Peyton Manning last year and it was so unfair, because Manning’s best asset is pre-snap. It’s his mind. The Colts had zero running game.
Every defense knew that if they gave Manning very few men in the box that Manning was still going to be reluctant to check to the run because those guys stunk. The linemen couldn’t block it, the backs couldn’t do anything, and it would be an unproductive play.
But even more so, they made Manning play left-handed because Dallas Clark wasn’t there, either. Clark is the same guy as Aaron Hernandez, Jimmy Graham, and those type of guys who defensive coordinators are always questioning whether to count them as a tight end or a wide receiver.
Waldman: For example…
Williamson: If the Colts are going out there with Reggie Wayne, Pierre Garcon, Jacob Tamme, Clark, and Joseph Addai as their five guys, and a defense is going to go base against that 12 personnel scheme then Dallas Clark is going to split out every time and run go routes or pure wide receiver routes. If the defense does the opposite then the Colts are going to bring everyone in tight and they are going run their zones-stretch stuff.
You have to have the right coach and especially the right quarterback who is really quick mentally for it to work, but those guys are really becoming in vogue and can do so much damage. I think we’ll see more and more with Jimmy Graham. Look at the Rams, they get Lance Kendricks – maybe he’ll be that type of guy. I think everyone is looking for them now.
The Patriots are the best example. They take it to a new level. Look at their tight ends. To me Aaron Hernandez is equal part wide receiver and tight end. Rob Gronkowski is a pure tight end. Alge Crumpler is the opposite though. He’s as much offensive tackle as he is tight end.
Williamson: I think you have to count him as a sixth lineman.
Waldman: Two years ago, before they got him, you could see where the Patriots struggled with its outside running game.
Waldman: I remember watching Laurence Maroney, and we can talk about his issues all we want to, but there were a lot of plays where offensive linemen were getting into the flat and completely whiffing on blocks that they should have made.
Williamson: Right. Although Crumpler is not athletic enough anymore to stretch the seam as a tight end, if you count him as an offensive lineman he’s still a hell of an athlete. Lee Smith is the same guy. That’s exactly why they drafted him. What’s insane now is that Tom Brady can go out there with those three tight ends, Danny Woodhead, and Wes Welker and go empty!
Or, he could bring those three guys to the line of scrimmage and hand the ball to Woodhead and blow defenses off the ball. They have so many options now and Belicheck just goes team by team with how he wants to attack. If you’re big and physical, they are going to go empty with Woodhead, Welker, Julian Edelman and all these guys who teams can’t define who they are and just kill linebacker coverage.
Waldman: What is different about your evaluation process as a member of media compared to your time as an NFL scout?
Williamson: It’s a much different audience. I’m not presenting something to Butch Davis, or people who are more knowledgeable than I am. Now I’m presenting information to people who are less knowledgable than I am.
I believe that is one of my greatest strengths. I am commended for how well I relate to the fan who didn’t play, but loves the game and wants to know everything he can. I can break things down pretty well in layman’s terms.
I know that I need to explain what a three-technique is and why. Sometimes a player, coach, or scout who has been around this game for his entire life talks as if everyone knows this stuff and ends up talking over the audience’s head.
Waldman: Is your approach to grading players different at ESPN?
Williamson: It’s definitely a lot different now. With a team you know exactly what you’re looking for in a player. When I was with Butch Davis we wanted an extremely fast, athletic, “University of Miami-type,” defensive lineman.
We were playing a pure 4-3. We were an aggressive up the field team. So if I was watching Casey Hampton we weren’t interested. I didn’t want Aaron Smith. They were each great football players, but they didn’t do anything for us.
Waldman: So with a team you’ll give a guy a higher grade because he fits what your team is looking for?
Williamson: Absolutely. There’s no question about it. If you’re really short at that position and you need help then you might have to reach a round early because of your need. If you think he’s worth a third rounder then you begin to consider him in the second round.
Waldman: And now?
Williamson: Now, if I’m watching Joe Blow player from Wisconsin I have to explain what he would do best. But I can’t grade him like I used to for a team.
In the next part of this conversation, Williamson tells the story of his ascent to football’s biggest stage despite never playing the game.