I think it’s accurate to describe Ourlads’ Dan Shonka as one of the ultimate practitioners of football evaluation. Shonka has 39 years of football experience as a player, college recruiter, college coach, and a combined 16 years as a NFL scout for National Scouting Service, the Philadelphia Eagles, the Washington Redskins, and the Kansas City Chiefs.
Last week, Shonka agreed to speak with me about scouting, players, and the NFL. The scheduled 60 minutes became two hours of football talk that flew by. Dan was afraid I got more than I bargained for, but I told him that I got exactly what I wanted – just more than I could have expected.
In this segment of the conversation, Shonka talks about pro prospects from the past and present, including two players he thought would be great who didn’t pan out, a sneaky-good runner he and Wes Bunting both like, and his take on Andrew Luck.
Waldman: I’ve talked to Chad Reuter and Wes Bunting about players in the league now that exceeded or under performed to their expectations. Reuter mentioned Marcus McNeill exceeded his expectations. Bunting said that Aaron Maybin under performed to his expectations and he learned a big lesson about evaluating defensive ends as a result.
Bunting said he gained insight that a defensive end needs to have that “off-speed pitch” in their arsenal to fool linemen. Are there any NFL players in recent years that surprised you with their performance in the college game?
Shonka: To touch on Maybin first, we gave him a third-round grade because he had only played eight games and he had everything in my mind working against him. He was the same size as KGB up at Green Bay who was a fifth-round choice. I gave him a third-round grade and that was probably too high. But you know what? We were also one of the few that liked Marcus McNeill.
But one guy that was a disappointment to me and it could be for a lot of reasons and I saw him at his very very best in bowl games and I still remember the day that I was at Arizona State and watched Oregon play. Joey Harrington could throw the frickin ball and he was smart.
When I went to the University of Oregon with the Redskins back then Oregon went into overtime and this kid could throw lasers. When I went up there to make the school call, they had A.J. Feeley there and he was picked later by the Eagles and then they got a second round pick for him from the Dolphins.
Let me tell you something, there was no comparison. A.J. Feeley looked like the ball boy. Harrington looked like a classic pro quarterback. I had him rated higher than David Carr that year and they were both in my area. Harrington was so much more athletic, he was smart, and he could throw rockets. He could stand on the far hash and throw lasers of outs on the far side and he did it in games. He was spectacular in the Bowl game he won as a senior.
I think going to Detroit completely gutted his confidence. There were times I’d watch Detroit film and think why aren’t these receivers catching the ball?
I think this is a stat that should be changed in the National Football League: If the ball is in the receiver’s hands and it’s out of the receiver’s hands and intercepted then it counts against the receiver who couldn’t catch! You know what I mean? Not against the quarterback.
I really really liked Joey Harrington. He was competitive and everything I looked for in a quarterback I thought Joey had physically and mentally. He could have been a pianist, he was a total person not just some jock out there.
He was like a lot of those great quarterbacks who was smart, had other interests, but studied to be a great quarterback. I really thought he might get new life when he went to New Orleans for a stint and got coached by Sean Payton for a while. Sean was a great detail guy for quarterbacks and I felt Harrington could maybe get a new lease on life. If he went out of college to a coach like Payton I wondered if his career would have been different.
Waldman: Well I don’t really need to ask you my next question, which was ‘who is the most talented player you saw who didn’t have a great career in the NFL and what happened?’
Shonka: Yeah that’s a two-for-one answer for you. But then there’s Tony Mandarich. I did him like everybody else and God, he was just a beast at Michigan State and I still see the tape.
It was comical. As the left tackle he blocked down the defensive tackle who got knocked back into the inside linebacker on that side who then fell into and knocked down the linebacker on the other side! It was like dominoes. He was such a dominant blocker.
Everyone said that he was on juice but nobody could prove it. He was one helluva a college offensive tackle. That was another one that I thought would be a great, great player. The Green Bay Packers got sold a bill of goods on that deal because they bought something that wasn’t really there I guess.
Waldman: Speaking of players beloved by the evaluator community, what do you think of Stanford QB Andrew Luck?
Shonka: God, I tell you what…last year when I thought he might come out I looked at seven tapes on him and I really like him. I have to think really carefully about this, but he might be the closest to Peyton that I’ve seen in regards to his total package of his intelligence and skill set. He can run better than Peyton and he probably has better foot work than Peyton coming out. He’s probably more athletic than Peyton.
The only way we’ll know if he’s going to be that guy is if he’ll continue to work at it. With his dad being a pro quarterback, you have to believe he’ll spend time studying and become a great NFL quarterback. I think he’s competitive enough and he has a lot of pride in his name to pay the price to be a great NFL quarterback.
He does some special things going through his reads. Last year with Harbaugh they had an NFL west coast offense which is just loaded with terminology. When Steve Mariucci was at Cal calling plays I would stand behind him and hear him calling the plays we had here in Philadelphia. Schaub, the coach there now, uses the same terminology we used in Philadelphia. It’s the same terminology as Gruden, Holmgren and all those west coast guys.
And Andrew Luck is so smart and makes those checks and adjustments and makes so many good decisions. He’s the real deal. I just hope he doesn’t get injured – I’ll knock on wood. He’s a good enough athlete – he’s flexible, maybe he’ll bend rather than break.
Waldman: Are there any players at the college level that you like what you see out of them but the average fan might not know about them?
Shonka: A guy I like and he didn’t put big numbers up when he played Georgia, but Doug Martin of Boise State is a real tough guy. He’ll probably go in the fourth or fifth round. He’s a real tough guy with great vision and I think he’s a good football player.
I don’t know many people will know Kelechi Osemele from Iowa State, the offensive tackle there. He is 6-5, 335 and he goes up head to head with Aldon Smith the seventh pick in the draft and he couldn’t get close. They played the spread there, but still. The scouting community has certainly heard of him but possibly fans haven’t.
Waldman: Wes Bunting gave Doug Martin as well as his first answer.
Shonka: I favor Big Ten offensive lineman because I know the guys that coach them like Jim Bowman and Ohio State who was a coach with us at Philadelphia. He’s a good position coach. Then we talked about the Wisconsins and Iowas. But there’s another guy I like at Mississippi State who is a center that played guard last year by the name of Quentin Salisbury.
Good athlete, four-year starter, and boy he keeps those feet moving all the time. Active guy. He’d be another guy I think will be a third or fourth rounder but I liked his footwork and things like that. He would be another one that I kind of like.
Waldman: I like the comment you made about people standing out. The publication I write is limited to skill position players and I’ve been doing it for six years and I find that they do pop out at you. It’s usually several elements of their game and you can’t get enough of watching them. Guys I remember liking a lot were a Steve Smith of the Giants, Ahmad Bradshaw, or Matt Forte. I grade them on technique so sometimes their stats aren’t very good but they still grade high.
Shonka: You’re exactly right. It’s like an oasis in the desert. You live for those moments. But you have to look for them. Like Malcolm Gladwell said in his book Outliers it’s 10,000 hours before you’re competent at something. You just have to keep looking at tape and working at it.
Tomorrow: Shonka talks about how he got into scouting and tells stories about some of the jobs he’s held in the field.