Watching rookies and sophomores dominate the NFL this past season, I noticed an intriguing trend developing in the league.
Coming into the draft, teams in dire situations are too concerned with making the "safe" pick and trying to commit to a long-term plan by not committing to anything at all.
On the other hand, the teams that take the biggest risks are often rewarded the best.
In this past draft alone, Blaine Gabbert and Prince Amukamara's names became synonymous with safety, reliability and NFL-readiness. On the same note, Cam Newton and Aldon Smith were too "risky," "not built for NFL success" or just too "raw."
They are monikers heard all too often come draft time. NFL readiness and riskiness are confused with lack of talent or raw ability.
Back in 2010, in fact, Derrick Morgan and Jason Pierre-Paul were two top defensive end prospects and no one knew which was better. Morgan was the safer pick, the guy you'd build a good defensive line around, while Pierre-Paul wouldn't succeed because of his lack of experience or strength.
When the Tennessee Titans chose Morgan, they banked on Morgan to be a top-flight player and live up to his status as a high first-rounder. The New York Giants took Pierre-Paul, hoping that their risk would pay off.
Looking back, the Titans were too safe. Afraid to take a risk, the team ended up with a worse player, and Morgan is now an at-par contributor to the team while Pierre Paul is one of the best pass-rushers in the NFL.
Is it better to take a risk on a player or play it safe in the draft?
In not taking a risk, teams lock themselves into a player who is not actually safer; rather, the player is just worse.
Back to the example of the 2011 draft, Gabbert and Amukamara were highly ranked because, if anything, they wouldn't completely fail out. After watching a year of Gabbert, it's safe to say he's failed out.
On the subject of Gabbert, teams were enamored with how he'd be able to command a huddle and make all the throws he needs to.
While Gabbert was busy fitting in, Cam Newton was standing out. The 6'5", the Auburn powerhouse was one of the most dynamic quarterbacks in recent memory, and his immense raw talent got draft evaluators to panic. He wasn't "safe" because he didn't fit in with other quarterbacks.
Blaine Gabbert, the "safe" quarterback, ended up being the biggest bust in the draft, as I had predicted numerous times would happen. Newton, a talented athlete, set rookie records for quarterbacks and is primed to lead the Panthers into the 2012 season with a winning attitude and new mindset.
In the upcoming 2012 draft, I urge you to drop the "risky" label with players and replace it with "talented." Vontaze Burfict, despite his drawbacks, is a very talented linebacker who will make an impact from Day One wherever he goes.
Would you pick Vontaze Burfict in the Top 10?
Burfict has his personality issues, but I'd rather take a chance and get a Patrick Willis-esque talent than throw away my pick on a safe, average linebacker like Luke Kuechly (you heard that one here first).
The Arizona State linebacker will be a top-level player and his instincts are those of a 15-year NFL veteran, even if he has the temper of a five-year-old.
I would give Burfict a chance to come in and compete for a job. The worst case scenario is that you get a situational, iso-type mike backer, while the best case scenario is that you have the top middle linebacker in the league.
Whoever needs a middle linebacker right now should investigate this player and find out what makes Burfict tick. Put him in an NFL locker room and I bet those personality issues are gone within a week.
Tagging players as a huge risk is unfair. Unless it's a JaMarcus Russell-type situation, the NFL tends to heal many players' issues.
Every year, a team plays it safe and ends up losing because of its inability to adjust to an ever-changing NFL that is defined more by dynamics than statics.
The Broncos gambled on Tim Tebow and garnered a playoff spot. Likewise, in the same draft, they didn't take a risk on Dez Bryant (choosing Demariyus Thomas instead), and the jury is still out on that decision.
Back to my central point: Please don't become infatuated with words like "safe," "reliable" and "NFL ready," because they typically mask the fact that the player has no more room to grow.
Instead of taking a chance on the growth a player has left, teams cop out by picking weaker players like Gabbert and Derrick Morgan, and they end up getting an average player for their efforts.
The biggest risk is not taking a risk at all.