Entering my third year of studying film for The Rookie Scouting Portfolio, I had just finished a year of film study that included one of the bigger lessons I had encountered in Arkansas running back Darren McFadden. The highly coveted prospect had some raving fans, but I wasn’t one of them. I didn’t see what others thought even after studying a half-dozen games.
It was how I became acquainted with NFL Films senior producer Greg Cosell. I read his 2008 Sporting News piece on Darren McFadden. I was surprised to learn that we had similar takes on the runner. I sent him my analysis on McFadden and this fueled a longer conversation over the telephone. Parts I, II, and III were a recent conversation. Part IV and this conversation about what goes into evaluating certain positions on the football field are from 2008.
Waldman: Talk about your general approach to evaluating football players.
Cosell: You have to understand what attributes and traits play well in the NFL at given positions. Granted you can be successful in different ways, but there are certain attributes that you need.
Waldman: Let’s start with quarterback.
Cosell: With a QB if you can’t pass well you can’t be a really good good NFL quarterback. I know that sounds simplistically stupid and there are 10 things that go into that, but that’s why I was blown away that Vince Young was drafted third. He can’t pass well. Spread option guys have no sense of timing, rhythm, and anticipation.If you can’t do that then you can’t be a really good NFL quarterback. You can’t teach that to guys when they are 23 years old.
Waldman: One of the things I learned watching tape was how important it was to be able to maneuver the pocket. Sliding away from pressure with small movements while keeping your head down field.
Waldman: You look at McNabb or McNair, quarterbacks that could run but what they were so great at was the ability to slide in the pocket. It was why I found myself liking later-round guys like Bruce Gradkowski out of Toledo.
Cosell: Right, but he’s just probably below the level with which you can throw the ball effectively in the NFL.
Waldman: And I noticed that the first year when safeties would dare him to throw the ball behind them or a deep out.
Cosell: Yeah. It’s like Charlie Frye, he can’t throw. This is a good way to think about it. It’s simplistic and it’s funny in many ways, but it’s true. If the first thing you hear about a quarterback is “he’s tough, he’s competitive, he’s a leader,” you know what that means? He can’t throw.
Waldman: I’m a believer that to evaluate college players you have watch NFL players and understand what you should be looking for. As Chad Reuter and I discussed in this blog, you’re not looking for a fully-bloomed, All-Pro version of Tom Brady but a player exhibiting qualities and techniques that are similar.
Cosell: Right. I think you have to know the NFL and you have to understand why a Tom Brady is a great quarterback. Why is Peyton Manning a great quarterback? Why is Drew Brees a really good quarterback? Why is Carson Palmer a good quarterback? What are the attributes that produce quality play in the NFL?
Of the guys I mentioned with the exception of Brady, you would have never heard anyone say about those guys, “they have the IT factor.” That stuff is irrelevant. The simplistic answer is they can throw the ball really well. No one has been a great QB if they can’t throw the ball.
Waldman: What are some characteristics of good NFL quarterbacking that you want to see when you watch college prospects?
Cosell: When I see guys in college throw the ball before a receiver’s break that’s a trait I look at that translates in the NFL. And the willingness to make stick throws in tight windows is another trait. I would rather see a guy try to stick it in a tight window and fail with an interception on occasion than not even try.
Because in the NFL when it is the third quarter and you’re down 17-7 you can’t be throwing check downs. You have to try to make stick throws into tight windows. In the NFL there’s a lot of tight windows.
Waldman: What about wide receivers?
Cosell: It comes down to understanding what route running is in the NFL and looking at a guy and seeing him come out of his breaks well. Does it take him too long to throttle down? Is he explosive? Can he accelerate? Can he get off the bump?
Does he run in place to try to get off the bump? Because guys who run in place that can be corrected with teaching. But because they aren’t used to playing against it and meanwhile the QB is taking his five-step drop and the receiver is only a yard off the line of scrimmage. You have to look at it that way. You have to be able to see all of this stuff.
Waldman: Who is a player from this (2008) draft class that you really liked?
Cosell: My favorite linebacker in this draft was Jerod Mayo and when Belichick took him 10th – and I don’t presume to know as much as Belichick knows, believe me – but it made me feel good. Because I thought Jerod Mayo was the best linebacker I this draft. I watched about 6 games of Tennessee I watched about 6 games of USC and I thought Mayo was almost easily the best linebacker in the draft.
It made me feel good because a lot of people said he’d be a late first-rounder or a second-round pick and I’m thinking boy, this guys game really translates to the NFL. He can play inside, he can play outside, he’s physical, he’s instinctive, he runs. I didn’t see why he wasn’t thought of as really good NFL linebacker.
Waldman: I’m a running back guy. Tell me who your favorite runner was from this draft class? I also want you to share your thoughts on Jonathan Stewart and Ray Rice.
Cosell: My favorite running back was probably [Rashard] Mendenhall. But I still had questions because he ran a lot out of spread.
Stewart to me – and I don’t know if it was a function of injury – was a player I didn’t see a lot of lateral movement ability and I didn’t think he had a second gear. I thought he was very much a gaping-hole runner in a spread offense. So far I’ve been very impressed. Watching him with Carolina in preseason and week one, I think he has really done a great job of transitioning to a zone running scheme.
Ray Rice I very much liked in college and in fact I thought his running style was somewhat reminiscent of Emmitt Smith. The problem I now have with Ray Rice is that he looks slower in the NFL. That scares me. When you look at Matt Forte he runs exactly the same with the Bears as he ran at Tulane. He doesn’t look slower at all.
Waldman: That’s the thing that is hard to gauge on tape with some of these players – speed.
Cosell: I’m not talking abut pure running speed, but quickness and movement. Rice doesn’t look quite as quick as he did at Rutgers and that scares me. And I think they feel the same way because last week when the Ravens were running out the clock, LeRon McClain was their feature back. That tells me that they probably feel the same way. Teams tell you what they feel about their own players. How they use them tells you how they feel abut them.
Tomorrow: This week-long series concludes with Cosell sharing some of his football favorites past and present, coaches and players, and offensive and defensive schemes.