Coming of Age: Young Vets to Watch


Randall Cobb? I love this guy. I want to see the Packers use him like Percy Harvin and Wes Welker wrapped up in an electric package. Photo by Elvis Kennedy

Something I emphasize when it comes to fan expectations of young players transitioning from college to the NFL is to account for the Great Emotional Divide. College football is an insulated world where university athletic programs fill its players’ time with a full slate of activities so there is little idle time. Moreover, these programs often employ staff to monitor participation in each of these activities.

The NFL is not as tightly managed because the players are too old to be treated as anything less than men. Colleges and universities exist in that gray area where 95 percent of its students are still socially young men, or even boys, transitioning into manhood. College football programs can use this gray area to its advantage by protecting its investment with rules that minimize the potential for law-breaking behavior.

That’s a topic for another time. Another consequence of these “live your life by the numbers” schedules imposed on college football players is that they are not use to the freedom that comes when they leave NCAA programs and enter the real world. Despite the fact that football players make unreal money as professionals, the looser schedules and expectation for players to train and study on their own is as real as it gets.

These new freedoms combined with significantly tougher competition, more complex mental components of the game, and vastly higher expectations can lead to something that these young athletes aren’t use to doing on the football field that can hold them back: thinking. When an athlete starts thinking on the field of play he hesitates. When he hesitates, he’s a step slower. And when he’s a step slower, he’s behind. And when he’s behind, he makes mistakes or misses opportunities he should have exploited.

Remember this last paragraph as you spend this summer reading reports from beat reporters and football analysts that cite specific rookies and young veterans who have underwhelmed in training camp and the preseason. Sometimes these players simply aren’t good enough athletically to get the job done like they did in college football, but more often than not the real issue behind their supposed physical inferiority is that their heads are swimming.

Fans and media are quick to write off young players who don’t flash enough initial productivity . This is understandable but only sometimes wise. It’s good to leave the door open for the possibility that these players that initially struggled will adjust the following year. Ray Rice struggled during his first season and even Greg Cosell, one of the best film analysts I have met, began to hedge on what he first thought about the former Rutgers star.

Who are the players in their second and third years that we should monitor in training camp? Here’s a partial list of skill players who I gave strong grades as collegians entering the NFL and why I believe they are worth investigating.

RB Bilal Powell, New York Jets: Shonn Greene has failed to live up to expectations and it was most apparent in his second year when the job was his to lose and a step-slower Ladainian Tomlinson was easily the better player. Greene is now in his fourth season and he still doesn’t show the decisiveness, burst, or consistent finishing power that the Jets expected from him. I expected better, too.

Powell is one of my top-20 running backs that I have studied during my seven years of publishing the Rookie Scouting PortfolioThere was barely a whisper about the Jets fourth-round pick during his rookie training camp and when he saw the field during the regular season he averaged 1.6 yards per carry. But with 14 total touches, there’s not much that 1.6 ypc really says.

Unfortunately, there’s so much anecdotal history that suggests that quality NFL running backs at least flash decent stats in limited touches that even intelligent people are quick to write off a back like Powell. Making a judgment call on 14 touches is like picking up 14 pine needles and claiming to know everything about a forest. There’s nothing about this pervading analysis that specifically discussed decision-making, handling assignments, or what specifically the other backs offer that make them better.

I’ve seen enough of Powell to know that when his head isn’t swimming, he has burst, speed, balance, and a physicality that is more powerful than Joe McKnight and more explosive and versatile than Shonn Greene or Terrance Ganaway.  Rex Ryan commented Sunday that Powell “showed up” to training camp after the second-year runner impressed several onlookers, including a former NFL scout in attendance. If Powell has made the mental transition, he’s easily the best running back on the Jets squad.

WR Andre Roberts, Cardinals: Roberts was known for his hands and skill after the catch at The Citadel. I watched him produce against quality SEC competition and play well against physical defenses. I think there’s some potential for him to develop into a player with skills sets similar to Greg Jennings, but possibly because of his NFL quarterback situation I’m having second thoughts that Roberts has the speed of Jennings to stretch he field as consistently . Here was an excerpt of my quick summary of Roberts in 2010:

Andre Roberts, The Citadel: Roberts is a small-school prospect with big-time game. He has great body control to make catches of errant throws, runs routes anywhere on the field, and has strong skills after the catch. He’s a versatile player and had one of the best punt returns I have seen in a couple of years. He can weave through traffic, set up blocks, and make strong cuts. What I really like his skill to defeat the jam on a consistent basis. I have seen projects from others that believe Roberts will be a slot receiver. I agree with those that say he will start his career there, but I would like to point out that Greg Jennings has nearly identical dimensions as Roberts. I think Roberts might be a better player than Jennings was at this stage of their careers. If Roberts joins a team with a veteran quarterback, he’ll be a candidate to make an immediate impact in 2010.

If Roberts can get consistent quarterback play we’ll see if my initial analysis was accurate. One thing is worth remembering about Roberts: his development progressed down the stretch of 2011 and Kevin Kolb has publicly stated that Roberts has great potential. The team has Roberts as its No.2 receiver despite drafting Michael Floyd, who arrived out of shape and is fighting to progress beyond the No.4 spot.

WR Randall Cobb, Packers: This is the most obvious player on my list, but the former Kentucky Wildcat still deserves a mention. Cobb was one of my top-three receivers in the 2010 Rookie Scouting Portfolio and he flashed the hands, skill after the catch, and athleticism to catch the eye of the most casual fan. Last year, Cobb impressed his teammates almost daily in training camp and was skilled enough to learn all three positions.

When the real games started, Cobb demonstrated his potential but also made enough rookie mistakes that he was not ready to overtake James Jones or Donald Driver in what might be one of the three-best receiving corps in the NFL. This year, count on Cobb to earn that No.3 job with ease. I think he’s a future No.2 receiver in this offense, perhaps a No.1 a few years after that. Both Denarius Moore and Vincent Brown also fit into this category of player with obvious flashes and greater opportunities to produce this year with a good starting NFL quarterback targeting them.

FOUND! Ignore this MISSING RB ALERT: Steelers RB Jonathan Dwyer. Last seen in the kitchen of Primanti’s in a tub of Crisco. Photo by Jon Trainor.

RB Jonathan Dwyer, Steelers: I had reservations about Dwyer as one of the top-four backs of his draft class when he was almost universally regarded as a top prospect at Georgia Tech. I still thought Dwyer had the potential to become a starter, but there was a lot that was – conceptually and physically – questionable about his game. I was proven correct by default when Dwyer prized food more than football during his first two years with the Steelers.

Dwyer’s priorities have changed this year. He has lost the weight and he’s on a mission to emerge as a contributor in the Steelers offense. If he plays to his potential, he’s every bit the talent of Rashard Mendenall. He’s not as explosive as Mendenhall, but he is more powerful and quick enough to break big plays while also carrying the load.

QB Blaine Gabbert, Jaguars: I think 95 percent of the media has written off Gabbert as a coward. I also remember when 95 percent of the media labeled David Carr and Trent Edwards tough as they got the slobber-knocked until their play deteriorated to the point that writers were slinking away from those earlier statements. You can include me there.

I’m not ready to do that with Gabbert. Last year was an odd season for some rookies. It’s convenient to make the counter argument that Andy Dalton and Cam Newton had great rookie years despite the lockout and Christian Ponder at least flashed some encouraging skills. Those situations were far different than Gabbert’s in terms of talent, coaching, and system.

There’s no denying that Gabbert looked scared to step into his throws in the face of oncoming defenders, but until I see him after a full offseason I’m not ready to reach that conclusion. If Gabbert does the same thing this year then add me to the list of folks that say he lacks the composure and toughness to become an NFL quarterback. While the odds aren’t in his favor to succeed due to young receivers and another new offense, I still have to give him due process. He’s still a great arm talent with mobility that deserves a second look even after going 1 for 12 in a practice today.

WR Marcus Easley, Bills: The Bills have a significant hole in its receiving corps when it comes to quality play beyond Steve Johnson. Easley has the potential to become that true, big-play threat as both a vertical receiver and runner after the catch. Thus far, he’s working with the first team. If healthy, Easley has the height, speed, and fluid athleticism to develop into a playmaker.

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