Sometimes I see plays that are more instructive of the position than they are revealing about a player’s NFL potential. You can read about Markeith Ambles in the 2015 Rookie Scouting Portfolio when it’s available for the April 1 download. Today’s post features Ambles on an excellent touchdown catch, but the reception from the University of Houston Cougar demonstrates a few prominent aspects of “Playing Big.”
I’m a fan of this phrase when evaluating tape. Beneath the surface meaning of the term as an attitude, “Playing Big” is really about awareness. A receiver who understands the boundaries of his physical tools knows how to maximize his assets regardless of his height, weight, vertical, or reach.
To be clear, there are reasonable baselines for physical dimensions at every position. The further a player is from meeting one particular athletic requirement, the more likely he’ll need another skill to compensate.
I’ve seen my friend Ryan Riddle on Twitter say that for quarterback Teddy Bridgewater to have lasting success in the NFL he’ll have to play with a level of intelligence above and beyond the average starting quarterback to make up for his below average physical dimensions.
But the corollary is also true: All the physical skills in the world don’t make up for a lack of on-field intelligence and work ethic long-term. Jay Cutler, Jake Locker, Jeff George, Ryan Leaf, Vince Young, and Michael Vick all possessed eye-popping athleticism for the position, but what makes an evaluator believe that a team can instill intelligence and work ethic in a player?
Why do NFL teams draft physical geniuses and then leave the seasoning, savvy, and awareness for the game to the Maturity Fairy? Truth be told, we all know it’s easier to quantify athleticism than intelligence and feel.
Personnel managers can at least generate a short-term positive reaction when they draft a top athlete. They earn the side eye (at best) when they extol intelligence, leadership, feel, and poise when the physical skills are average (or below average for an early round pick).
Stephen Hill lacked intelligence for the game despite his top-shelf athleticism and the Jets waited for Hill’s game to mature, but all they got was finger-pointing from his agent in the press when they saw Hill to the door.
Hill is tall, but played small. Ambles plays to his 6-2 frame. This 3rd and goal touchdown from the six against a corner playing off coverage is a great display of Ambles knowing how to play to his size. Ambles sets up the corner fade with a stutter at the top of his stem, implying the potential of a slant to the defender. This isn’t a particularly impressive beginning to the route. The finest part of this route come after the break, which the replays will display.
One of the ways that Ambles sets up his leap for the ball is to keep his arms over the shoulders of the opposing defender. It doesn’t matter how tall or how great the reach is of a receiver, if he doesn’t get his arms in position so he can attack the ball free of resistance his physical dominance won’t be of any use.
Ambles makes sure he’s in position to raise his arms to the ball unimpeded. As he makes the catch, note how well Ambles’ extremities come into play. He secures the ball with his fingertips–6-10 little dampers that stop the spin of the ball far better than the backboard like surface of the palms.
As he returns to earth, Ambles points his toes to the ground and keeps his legs at full extension. These are fine points, but they make all the difference on this play. The fact that Ambles knows how to make these adjustments within the blink of an eye is a sign of having “feel” for the game when it comes to this kind of route.
How fast a player adjusts to new lessons and integrates them successfully into his game is the biggest sign of a player’s mental talent for the game. Teddy Bridgewater, who was rightly criticized for his deep ball accuracy heading into the NFL, finished this season with the tenth-best vertical accuracy percentage in Pro Football Focus’ tracking of passes covering at least 20 yards in the air. Norv Turner said last spring that Bridgewater’s accuracy woes in this area were a technical issue and their private pre-draft workout illustrated to Turner that Bridgewater was a fast learner.
It’s one thing to be a fast learner in a workout, but to integrate those skills to game conditions while learning a new offense, facing a higher caliber of opposition, and working with under performing or replacement level surrounding talent is an impressive display of the mental-emotional makeup that has been much tougher for teams to assess.
If Ambles–or any other player–can integrate new concepts into game situations to a level where they display the kind of awareness, feel, and technique that the receiver displayed in the highlight above, they’re well on their way to “Playing Big.”
For analysis of skill players in this year’s draft class, download the 2014 Rookie Scouting Portfolio – available now. Better yet, if you’re a fantasy owner the 56-page Post-Draft Add-on comes with the 2012 – 2014 RSPs at no additional charge. 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.
You can begin placing orders for the 2015 RSP now–there’s an early bird discount through February 10.