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Talent, Skills and the Big NFL Draft Lie

You just can't fake being a fan. I haven't watched the Huskies all season, but tuned in for tournament time. I have been a Washington fan since the Huskies split a national championship in football. Yeah, I was bandwagon, but I was eight.

The closest I have ever become to being a fan of the UW basketball team is during the Brandon Roy era. I just loved how Roy played ball. I didn't watch a dribble of Husky basketball in 2009. I knew enough to know it wasn't "Poindexter." Over the tournament I formed some global impressions of the program. They were akin to 2009 USC Trojans - the basketball team. The Huskies had equal or better talent on the floor, but were sloppy, disorganized, and wont to error. The quintessential play from my brief viewing: Isaiah Thomas driving to the hoop, having his shot contested by multiple defenders, his teammates ogling outside the key, Thomas having no outlet and either attempting a low percentage shot or passing the ball out of bounds. The quickness and coordination was there in spades, but the teamwork and team coordination was absent.

The two most basic characteristics of a prospect are their talent and their skill. Talent is perceived as innate and unlikely or impossible to change. "You can't coach speed." Etc. The very most basic talent is body composition. However skilled, the modern NFL will never start a 5'9"/255 lb left tackle. Size is a universally accepted form of talent. That does not mean bigger is better, but it usually is. Talent is shorthand for things like size, speed, jumping ability, coordination, durability, muscle distribution, muscle composition, agility and whatever else is seen as permanent. A low center of gravity might be considered a talent for a defensive tackle, whereas a long torso might be considered a talent for a swimmer.

Skill is the player's ability to perform their job. A quarterback's read or pocket awareness is considered a skill, because a human is not born innately able to sense pressure from pass rushers or read a complicated zone defense. Anything that is considered external, able to be coached, improved, that is a product of learning rather than genetics, is considered a skill. Peyton Manning, who has probably been practicing to play quarterback since he was a small child, is incredibly skilled at quarterback. His arm is no longer among the strongest, he is no threat to scramble, but is possibly the greatest quarterback to ever play football.

In reality, skills and talent are difficult to fully differentiate.

Consider the concept of "motor." Motor is thought to be a positive skill. A player with a high motor is active throughout the play and throughout the game. Motor is typically used as a proxy for a player's desire. He works hard; he trains hard; he has a high motor. Motor certainly has something to do with conditioning, but conditioning, and one's ability to improve conditioning has something to do with genetics. It is both a talent and a skill. How much a player can improve his motor is hard to know. Certainly, I can formulate a hypothetical in which a player could improve it dramatically, but also one where that deficit will haunt him his entire career.

How much anything is ever fully a "skill" and how much a "skill" can be further developed by the time a player enters the NFL is part of the art of drafting well. Al Davis is often mocked for selecting height-weight-speed players. Recently, that has not worked, but historically, the Raiders are among the most successful franchises in the history of professional football. His most recent and perhaps greatest mistake was drafting JaMarcus Russell. Russell had the size, power and arm-strength talent, but not the accuracy, read and pocket-awareness skills.

Maybe Russell was/is the right coaching staff, the right tough love, the right combination of surrounding talent away from being a great quarterback, but I doubt it. His skills are poor and he plays the most skill-intensive position in football. Year after year, teams continue to take the Russell-gambit. They think skills can be developed, talent sets the potential of a player, and good talent and good coaching wins football games. Sometimes it works. Sometimes you draft a one-year starter, community-college transfer with 4.6 speed and get Walter Jones. Sometimes you draft a four-year starter from The U and get Kelly Jennings.

Sometimes skills develop and sometimes they don't. Surely some skills develop more easily than others, but I do not know of a formalized study on that. Sometimes tools deteriorate and once talented players become less talented. Sometimes a player has pro talent and pro skills, but is mismatched within a scheme or undermined by his surrounding talent. Sometimes injury renders it all irrelevant. There is no one right way to draft. What is clear, or what should be clear is: Talent is not permanent. Some of what we perceive as skills are simply less recognized talents. Skilled players can fail because their talent is insufficient and talented players can fail because their skills are insufficient, but assuming a player will radically improve their talent or skills is always a mistake. Nick Reed will not get dramatically bigger. Seneca Wallace will not dramatically improve his pocket presence. If you want a great player, his deficiencies must be surmountable, and if they're not, and you are beguiled by fanciful notions of "upside", then you will waste resources and doom your team.