Taco Charlton and Frank Clark were teammates in Ann Arbor. Clark is a little more than a year older than Charlton and playing for Michigan in 2014, the two looked an awful lot alike on tape. The footage I was able to attain was a bit grainy and given that jersey numbers were not always visible pre-snap, I had to take some notes on how to distinguish the two in order to take some notes on how to distinguish the two. That is, to distinguish why Clark was more talented or a better NFL prospect—which wasn’t always evident from their respective performances. I remember feeling a bit uneasy with just how similar the two played. Charlton was not supposed to be a particularly great player and he was more or less duplicating Clark’s ability as a defensive end.
In 2016, Charlton was selected in the first round by the Dallas Cowboys. That was gratifying. I felt less a fool than I usually feel. (What time I had to worry this week I worried whether I had conflated Randy Gregory and David Irving or if I was making a wry joke about the interchangeable nature of post-hype presumed-busted free agents. I still don’t know.) Over the next few years, Clark continued to grow, becoming one of the best defensive ends in the NFL, while Charlton in two seasons has become a presumed bust. I have a bit of a hypothesis about what happened, why it happened, and what it tells us about talent evaluation and developing that talent into NFL performance. Let us consider the diverging pathways of two once very similar players.
Here is young Frank Clark.
Charlton was considered the better prospect. He was bigger, taller and had the better war face. But Clark was younger. And he was a lot faster. Clark was a star of track and field and was either recorded or projected to run a 4.54 40. Charlton by contrast split time between basketball and football, and even in his youth, was either recorded or projected to run a 4.89 40. Neither was the kind of prospect who excels from high school through college and into the pros, and that’s not terribly uncommon. Nick Bosa, for instance, is in part the presumed first overall pick because he was such a highly rated prospect.
Clark for reasons we all know by now entered the NFL draft early, a full two seasons earlier than Charlton. It was a widely criticized pick. For our purposes, it was a widely criticized pick even from the strict perspective of talent evaluation. Clark was an “[e]ffort rusher who relies on motor and power over talent,” that “[l]acks fluidity and natural transition from move to move as pass rusher,” and has “mid-round talent.” I tend to pick on Lance Zierlein a lot but really only because NFL.com’s Combine profiles are comprehensive and accessible. Zierlein is a stand-in for a wider community of scouts and analysts.
Which is the first lesson we can learn from Charlton and Clark: Scouts probably anchor their evaluation of a prospect too much to that prospect’s high school evaluation. Here for instance are the players projected to go top ten according to Pete Schrager and how each was evaluated by Rivals.
Kyler Murray: Four Stars
Nick Bosa: Five Stars
Josh Allen: Three Stars
Quinnen Williams: Four Stars
Jawaan Taylor: Three Stars
Dwayne Haskins: Four Stars
Rashan Gary: Five Stars
Montez Sweat: Three Stars
Ed Oliver: Five Stars
Dexter Lawrence: Five Stars
A player may overcome that initial evaluation if they were especially good in the season prior to entering the draft. Allen ranked second in FBS 1-A football in sacks. Sweat, well we’ll see if Sweat is actually drafted so highly. A player may likewise overcome a stinker of a prior season by being a five-star recruit. Bosa, Gary, Oliver and Lawrence all to varying degrees disappointed last season but not in a way that has affected their perceived future value. Clark was said to lack talent by Zierlein in part because he was not a particularly well-regarded prospect and in part because he wasn’t particularly good in the season prior to entering the draft. He had just four sacks in ten games. The draft seems to be ruled by such simple heuristics.
Which is part of why the NFL Combine matters. It’s a chance to objectively measure certain components of a player’s athletic performance and thus re-rate them. Young, scrawny-ish Clark was a three-star prospect. But prior to entering the NFL, Clark was clearly the superior athlete to Charlton.
Combine Invite: Yes
40 Yrd Dash: 4.79
20 Yrd Dash: 2.81
10 Yrd Dash: 1.69 225 Lb. Bench Reps: 19
Vertical Jump: 38 1/2
Broad Jump: 09’10”
20 Yrd Shuttle: 4.05
3-Cone Drill: 7.08
Combine Invite: Yes
40 Yrd Dash: 4.91
20 Yrd Dash: 2.85
10 Yrd Dash: 1.69 225 Lb. Bench Reps: 25
Vertical Jump: 33
Broad Jump: 09’07”
20 Yrd Shuttle:
Scouting often very inaccurately rates qualities such as quickness, strength and agility. Charlton was supposedly “freaky athletic.” In fact he was too lean and dangerously slow. The NFL Combine allows teams to reset these presumptions and some do, but hostility toward the so-called Underwear Olympics often wins out. While objective measures of size and acceleration do not perfectly measure a player’s potential, they do much more accurately measure a player’s talent.
Of the 27 defensive end or EDGE prospects who have earned 20 AV since the 2009 draft, not one performed poorly at the NFL Combine. Only two failed to clear 30 inches in the vertical, Malik Jackson and William Gholston, and both of those players have since converted to defensive tackle. Only three posted a 40 time of 4.9 or worse. DeForest Buckner now plays tackle. Trey Flowers has split time between end and tackle. Jared Crick is a free agent and probably does not deserve a spot on this list. He earned his AV by being a passable starter on otherwise good defenses. Crick last played in 2016 and has 8.5 career sacks.
Talent matters but reputed talent does not and most players who achieved greatness in the NFL were previously workout wonders. While we’ve been taught to discount Combine performance which differs greatly from previous evaluations, I would argue nothing could be further from the truth. One is open, strives for fairness and provides data which can be compared 1-to-1 between players. The other is scuttlebutt from a fuzzy faceless confederation of talent evaluators. One deals in cryptic phrases like “Hands are more active than strong -- could play with more pop and power” while the other tells us which defensive tackle finished with the best 40 time among all defensive tackles drafted in the last five years, and also, oh yeah, the best 3-cone and a top five ranking in bench press. If you don’t like clicking links, it’s Aaron Donald.
Charlton and Clark have an even more interesting connection though. Much in the same way Nick is so highly rated in part because his brother has succeeded in the NFL, I think Clark’s ten sacks in his second season improved perception of Charlton. The NFL loves to engage in the messy business of player comparisons. And, like I said, for a brief time in their youth, both players looked an awful lot alike.
I picked through three 2017 mock drafts posted prior to the 2016 season, what are often called “way-too-early Mock Drafts”, and one name you will not find anywhere is Taco Charlton. Charlton wasn’t yet a starter, and so that’s not crazy really. But Charlton also wasn’t particularly great in his senior season. He was good, he had been rated highly as a high school prospect, and a former teammate he had presumably been better than, Frank Clark, had just notched ten sacks in his second season. That shall we say deductive reasoning is I would guess how Charlton went from one-year starter to the next Chandler Jones. Jones’s own breakout performance surely factored in too, and neither predicted a damn thing.
Football is one of the easier sports to pick up. Most positions have no specialty skill which divides amateur from pros, such as shooting does in the NBA, or reading the spin of a pitch does in MLB. The relative simplicity of many football positions is how people like Stacy Andrews, Christian Okoye and Antonio Gates were able to excel as pros despite little or no previous experience playing football. That’s a motley group because all came readily to mind. If I researched the matter, probably I would find dozens more.
That simplicity is part of the elegance of American football. It is mostly unencumbered by silly just-so skills like dribbling a basketball, and thus is vital in an almost primeval way. Running, jumping, simple hand-to-hand combat, throwing, American football is a collection of simple individual sports combined to create a uniquely complex and strategically deep team sport. Antonio Gate’s lack of experience did not much matter. His extremely rare combination of height, heft, leaping ability (he supposedly jumped 39 inches at a college combine) and quickness (4.5 ibid.) did. What else mattered? Well ...
We can measure many of the components of athletic ability. Apart from quarterbacks, the best players in the NFL are all rare athletes. College performance does not translate into pro performance. Many of the players who chose to rest on their laurels and refused to run any or the majority of tests at the Combine disappointed. Here is a not at all exhaustive list of top ten picks who did that in the last ten years: Michael Crabtree, Andre Smith, Rolando McClain, Joe Haden, Ryan Tannehill, Mark Barron, Trent Richardson, Chance Warmack, Ereck Flowers, Eli Apple. Many cited injury as the reason for not participating but since we can’t sleuth out which were real and which were feigned, I throw them all in the same bucket.
Those measurements of athletic ability are much, much more accurate than the weasel words of scouting. They’re fairly measured, granular and applicable to the duties of playing in the NFL. We need not worry about “twitch” or “high cut” or “bubble.” They’re not susceptible to the twists of logic which often plague scouting. We need not worry about “bloodlines” or “pedigree” or “comparable players.” No one has ever quite figured out the draft—Seahawks fans know this better than most, having experienced the whiplash of watching “genius” turn sour these past few classes. But one method seems at least logically coherent: Identify the guys with demonstrable talent and draft those with the “motor” to develop it.