What makes a great player? Is it a natural gift that they were born with thanks to bloodlines that could be traced back to Ancient Roman warriors? Is it the fact that they're the first person to show up and the last person to leave? Is it an abusive coach or trainer that they've had since they were six that pushes them every day and says "Mush! You get up now and give me 500 push-ups!"? Is it steroids?
There is no right answer to this. If there were, then the draft (and in many ways, sports) would be meaningless. What makes the draft exciting is the mystery that shrouds the future of these players. No matter how many times Mel Kiper claims on ESPN that one player will be good and another is an over-drafted linebacker from USC that's too small to start in the NFL, people will be wrong. And if they were always right, then what would be the point of drafting at all?
If we knew exactly how a player would turn out, then we might as well just hand them over to each team rather than let them select.
It's a guessing game and the best we can do is educate ourselves. We educate ourselves about players in many different ways and almost each one of those ways has it's host of critics: Is the Combine pointless? Why do we have the Wonderlic? Should it matter if a player never went to a Bowl Game or played at a small school? At what point are injuries a major cause for concern?
The end result is that you're just trying to find a balance. If you're doing your due diligence, then you don't ignore any quality in a player and you also don't make any quality overblown. A quarterback might be able to throw a football 100 yards for all you care, but that's only one of dozens of things he has to be good at if he wants to be great.
Where's the balance and how do we find something that's just right? Let's take a look at one of the most interesting cases of prospect evaluation in recent memory: Arian Foster.
To begin with, let's point out five qualities, characteristics, or areas that could apply to evaluating any prospect:
1. Game Tape
3. Work Ethic
4. Character/Off-Field Behavior
5. Statistics/Level of Competition
Somewhere in there I want to just say "Talent" as a way to describe the God-given abilities that a player has but A.) How do you define that? and B) It's sort of woven into all of the qualities.
At some point, you have to give weighted-values to each of the five categories because not all qualities are equal. Of course, how you weigh them is probably going to be different as to how someone else weighs them. John Schneider is going to have a different opinion on Character than the Bengals might. Everyone is going to have a different opinion than what Al Davis would have said about Character and the Combine. There are more successful GMs than others and if it was easy as copying them, then we would have figured it out by now, but even the GMs have to have their own set of qualities that's going to make them successful or Matt Millen.
In my opinion, nothing compares to Work Ethic. It's true that athleticism can't be taught but having an excellent work ethic is something that can't necessarily be taught either and even when a player does mature, sometimes his God-given abilities have faded (Mike Williams.)
You want a player that's going to work his ass off from Day One because the honest truth is that players will physically peak early and most of their best years will be in the earlier stages of their career, generally speaking. Long-term, the most successful players were the ones that had that "First In,
First Last Out" mentality: Do you think that Ray Lewis would still be one of the best players in the NFL if he only relied on his God-given talent? Or that Jerry Rice would have lasted as long as he did?
While Russell Wilson might not have been born with the genes necessary to make him 6'5", a good work ethic is the type of quality that will keep him in the NFL for a long time, even if he'll always be hampered by the fact that he's not as tall as Peyton Manning. It's also what will keep him out of the first round, and is that fair?
Well, yes, because we can't ignore the measurables. History has shown us that it is important.
Then you start to balance the Game Tape and the Level of Competition against each other to come up with a conclusion based on how real the Statistics were, whether that's bad or good. Some players won't put up good numbers but then you have to ask yourself some questions: Was he a DT that drew constant double-teams? Was he playing against inferior competition or was he playing in the SEC?
In 2002, Ryan Sims and Julius Peppers were both top six picks and both defensive lineman for North Carolina. Peppers is one of the greatest defensive ends to ever play the game and Sims had a rather forgettable career. One must wonder how much playing alongside Peppers at UNC helped Sims become a top pick.
Tony Romo dominated at a small school and it caused him to drop out of the draft. He could have measured up well in all of the other four categories, but it didn't matter enough because nobody could trust the results because he didn't play division I football. On the other hand, Tony Romo is one of thousands of players to put up great numbers against lower competition and one of only a handful to be successful in the NFL.
Then, where does the Combine come into play? When should it matter that you ran a 4.4 forty compared to a 4.6 forty? The truth is that it does matter and then it doesn't. Having speed in the NFL is important for many positions because faster players will be able to get around you or get past you but there's a difference between game speed and 40 speed that's run in a controlled environment. Some of the fastest 40 times at the Combine have come from players that you never heard of and they might have possessed one or two other qualities but the full evaluation of the individual didn't end up adding up to an NFL player.
And what of Character? How do we know when a player is Ryan Leaf and when he is Ray Lewis? Both players have had run-ins with the law and both of the allegations were serious. But Ray Lewis moved on from his issues to solidify a Hall of Fame career while Leaf faces jail time once again. How do we know?
There's also a difference between Character and Work Ethic. Based on what I've read about him over the years, the things I've heard, I think I would give Terrell Owens a 10/10 on Work Ethic and a 1/10 on Character. Owens doesn't get into trouble with the law but one has always had to question where his head is at. He doesn't slack on his workouts or showing up but does he want Terrell Owens to win or does he want the team to win? The answer has always seemed obvious.
When I look at the top NFL draft prospects this year, I look at a player like Robert Griffin III and I see:
1. Game Tape: 9/10
2. Combine/Athleticism: 10/10
3. Work Ethic: ?
4. Character: 10/10
5. Statistics/Level of Competition: 10/10
I only give a ? on the Work Ethic because that's not for me to really know or decide because it's something that really only the team knows. Maybe our own Daniel Hill has good insight on something like that. My guess would be that it's not an issue. Otherwise, I see almost zero flaws in Griffin's game, having dominated and won the Heisman in a major conference while displaying character in interviews that seems like a guy that's never going to have an off-field issue.
Perhaps only a ding in Game Tape because he's not a completely finished product, needs to learn how to run an NFL offense, and work on a few aspects of his game. Otherwise, I see a guy that's going to be a star in the NFL, in my opinion.
And yet, we've said this before about players and we still fail. We fail over and over again. The NFL failed the Arian Foster test, too.
I think that right now Foster is the best running back in the NFL and yet he was passed over by every team multiple times and ended up going undrafted. This was the same guy (I repeat: This was the SAME GUY) that after his Junior season was seen as a second round pick. A year later, he was an UDFA. Why?
Foster was a dominant running back in high school in San Diego and ended up going to Tennessee. So, big school and big competition. He excelled as a Freshman starter (879 yards, 4.8 YPC) and then struggled with injuries and a ball-sharing situation as a Sophomore.
Foster bounced back as a Junior though (1,193 yards, 4.9 YPC, 39 catches) and that's when he was seen as a potential second round pick. With a good Combine and a little fortune, maybe even a first rounder. But coach Phil Fullmer pursuaded Foster to stay with the Vols and it ended up costing him a lot, almost costing him his shot in the NFL.
Here's what you see about Arian Foster after his senior season at Tennessee:
566 yards rushing, 4.4 yards per carry, 1 total touchdown.
Questions about injuries
Memorable fumbles that cost Tennessee chances to win
Questions of Work Ethic, Character, a lack of care or to take anything seriously
Questions about running style
Missing the Combine and then running a 4.7 40 at his Pro Day
All of this and more caused some teams to just drop Foster off of their draft board. This article has more perspective on the pre-draft situation:
"You could see he had talent, but durability and the fumble concerns wore him down, pushed him down the board," said Rob Rang, senior analyst at nfldraftscout.com. "I know that when a problem with ball security arises, some teams take a player completely off their board. Every team I talked to about Arian, prior to the draft, most teams gave him a middle grade on durability and ball security.
He tumbled out of the draft and the despondent Foster ended up signing with the Texans. His attitude was still negative when he "only" made the Practice Squad and Foster was upset with himself for "not making the team."
All of these qualities in Foster show a player that you just want to stay as far away from as possible and it's understandable why he wasn't drafted. Surely, this was a back that had his chance and blew it and the reports about his behavior must be correct, right?
And then, with the rose-colored glasses of retrospect, you dig:
Foster was working with a new offensive coordinator (his third overall) as a senior and simply lost carries due to the scheme. What would he have done if there were no changes from his Junior to Senior year? He returned to improve his stock, and that might have worked if the offense was the same, but instead it killed his stock.
The injuries that Fulmer proposed he was suffering from that caused him to lose carries have been denied by members of Foster's family.
He missed the Combine due to an injury during the Senior Bowl and the nagging injury of a pulled hamstring may have simply made it an unwise decision to run a 40 at the Pro Day at all.
The fumbles were (and are) concerning but the overall package of Arian Foster helps make up for butterfingers. Frankly, you could teach "holding onto a football" a lot easier than you could teach a lot of other things.
And what about the idea that Foster doesn't care, that he has a bad attitude, that he isn't interested in the team or his teammates? Well, there's a lot of documentation that might help explain that too, and it might be nothing more than Foster being an eccentric, introverted, intelligent, shy guy. Where you might expect to see an NFL super ego, you just might instead have a guy that doesn't know exactly how to handle the fame of being an NFL star:
"My brother always used to say the reason people have a hard time with me is they can't pin me," Foster said outside the team's weight room at Reliant Park this past week. "They can't stereotype me. I'm not a jock who does this, this and this. I'm kind of a free spirit in the way I live my life.
"I always stray away from fitting into the football player mold."
When Foster arrived in Houston, he had little to say to his new teammates because he didn't know anyone. Some interpreted his silence to be arrogance, others aloofness or nonchalance. After lining up fifth or sixth on the depth chart throughout training camp, he found himself banished to the purgatory of the team's practice squad when the season opened.
Even head coach Gary Kubiak acknowledged that Foster was "immature" and that's not something that you would like to see out of your starters, but the funny thing about being immature is that oftentimes people end up maturing. It's sort of how life works. (Well, for many of us.)
"He was a young, immature kid coming out," Houston Coach Gary Kubiak said. "He didn't get drafted, and those guys usually have a chip on their shoulder . . . [we] had to teach him to be a professional worker, a professional in the classroom. It was a big battle for him to make the adjustments he had to make."
Houston General Manager Rick Smith summoned Foster for a private meeting early in the season.
"He's a philosophy major, a thinker," Smith said. "He marches to the beat of his own drummer. A lot of time when you have that personality type, those guys aren't very interested in what people think about them, or they don't care. He had to understand if he was going to function, succeed in this environment and be a part of a team, in some respects those things are important."
Oftentimes, Foster just seemed to be misunderstood and then even when you did understand him, you didn't like what you saw. But given the right environment, the right coaches, and the right attitude, Foster was able to turn himself from a player that reasonably fell out of the draft into one of the top players in the NFL and it didn't take very long.
All of the signs that Foster would not succeed in the NFL turned out to be either false, or coachable. The Texans have been one of the very best teams in the NFL in recent years in getting everything out of their players and it's something that you hope the Seahawks can do as well. (Doug Baldwin seems like a good example of that. Hey, should I have written about Doug Baldwin?)
So, what do we learn from the lesson of Arian Foster in terms of finding the balance?
Unfortunately, we learn that even when everything in your face tells you that a player will either be good or bad, it's still only a guess. When the Seahawks make their draft picks next week, they're going to be making their best guesses and trying to find a balance between every little aspect that makes a player a player. They'll think about Melvin Ingram's arms. They'll consider Quentin Coples Work Ethic. They'll watch Ryan Tannehill's Game Tape.
In the end, they'll hope that they were right but no matter how obvious something might seem, it's still just a guess. If we're lucky, Seattle will be 100% accurate in the first round and that everybody was 100% wrong about the players we take at the end of the draft.
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