NFL Draft 2012: Identifying the Draft's 10 Biggest Projects
Philadelphia Eagles scout Daniel Jeremiah was, for an all-too-brief moment, one of us. He analyzed the draft, authored blogs about players, recorded podcasts and populated the Twittersphere.
Before being called back to the majors (he had previously worked for the Browns and Ravens), Jeremiah shared a lot of insight with the public. One such morsel was how he graded Utah defensive tackle Paul Soliai coming out of the 2007 NFL Draft.
According to Jeremiah, he was one of the rawest players he had ever seen.
Former Dolphins General Manager Randy Mueller took on Soliai in the fourth round of that draft, and there was a rumor at the time that the war room was so happy that he had fallen to their pick that they broke out in a small measure of applause.
When Soliai failed to log much playing time as a rookie on a dismal 1-15 football team, that applause started to look silly. But when Soliai capped off an excellent 2010 season that saw the team so desperate to keep him that they placed a $12.5 million franchise tag on him, that applause started to look understated.
There is a trick to being a "raw" player. Technically speaking, I am quite positive Daniel Jeremiah had seen a wide assortment of football players who showed less grasp of the nuances of the sport than Soliai had as a converted offensive tackle turned nose guard in the Utah Utes' defense. That dangerous "p" word, potential, goes hand-in-hand with being a player who is characterized as "raw."
In Soliai's case, he was 6'4" and 344 lbs., yet ran a 5.02-second 40-yard dash at his pro day (5.10 at the combine), had a 30.5" vertical, 8'7" broad jump, ran his shuttle drill in 4.53 seconds and had a best cone drill time of 7.66 seconds. Those numbers are off the charts for a 350-lbs player. He added to those numbers by taking part in timed pass rush drills at the combine and timing amongst the best defensive line players in the measure. All of the handful of players who timed faster were around 100 lbs. lighter that Soliai.
That's the reason he was such a big "project" player coming out of that draft. As an offensive tackle convert, he was raw in technique (and in work ethic), but he had athletic ability coming out of his ears.
Today, he's a Pro Bowler.
Let's take a look at some players from this year's draft who are similarly raw but talented project players.
1. QB Brock Osweiler, Arizona State
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There are all kinds of reasons a player can come out of college as a raw project player.
In the case of Brock Osweiler, he just has not played much, and it shows.
The biggest problems I saw in his game were an inconsistency to operate an offense, an inability to keep his emotions in check and an occasional breakdown of his throwing technique to where the ball comes off his hand inconsistently depending on the nature of the pass.
I cannot tell you if these issues are "correctable." I can only tell you that there is a pretty nice pot of gold at the end of the rainbow on this player.
As a project, he does not just need to be molded as a quarterback, he needs to be molded as a person. The person I saw interviewing with Jon Gruden on his now-infamous "Camp Gruden" segments on ESPN was not a mature leader. His shtick came off scripted, inappropriate and a little arrogant, all things that Cam Newton was accused of prior to the 2011 draft. He looked like a professional athlete with no acting experience asked to play a guest role on a soap opera.
The problem is, the emotions he showed during that interview show up on tape, and not in a good way. He rides his highs too high, and his lows too low. If you want evidence, just look back at the Sun Devils' bowl appearance against Boise State.
He reminds me of Ryan Mallett prior to the 2009 season when he spent an offseason reading books given to him by coaches and learning how to be a leader on the football field. I felt those efforts to become a more mature, even-keeled leader paid off for Mallett personally as well as his program. Osweiler should be capable of maturing the same way.
2. TE Derek Carrier, Beloit
Staff photo by Jim Franz of the Beloit Daily News
This is not a player you are likely to have heard of, but he fits strongly in the mold of high-potential, raw project players.
Meet Derek Carrier. He measures about a half inch taller than 6'3", with 238 lbs. on his frame. He ran the 40-yard dash in 4.50 seconds, with a 38-inch vertical leap, 10'2" broad jump, 4.08 second shuttle run and an astounding 6.65 second cone drill.
He caught 189 passes for 3,111 yards and 29 TDs at Beloit.
Why hasn't the world heard of Derek Carrier? According to Jim Franz of the Beloit Daily News, he was on the radar of big schools like Wisconsin, Iowa and Michigan State, all of whom sent him recruiting letters while he was a junior at Edgerton High School.
However, Carrier had a love of basketball that would not quit, and he began to pursue that more seriously than football, which turned several teams off. He aimed to play basketball and football at Division III University of Wisconsin-Whitewater but was told to pick one or the other. Beloit College allowed him to do both.
By his junior year at Beloit, he had gotten the basketball bug out of his system. From that point on. he focused on football and track & field, all the while maintaining a 3.8 grade point average.
Constantly double-teamed and even triple-teamed at Beloit, coaches found a way to get the ball in his hands anyway, and he rewarded them with fantastic production.
In the NFL, his size will make him a tight end or H-Back, neither of which he is familiar with from his time playing wide receiver at Beloit.
3. WR Stephen Hill, Georgia Tech
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You do not have to come from a small school in order to have a proper excuse for being a raw football player with a bright future.
In the case of Stephen Hill, his lack of polish is due to a triple option offense run by his coaches at Georgia Tech. Throwing the ball was such a rarity in the team's offense that when they did throw the football, they usually victimized the defense's tendency to bite hard on run fakes, throwing the ball to Hill on simple fly patterns.
Not unlike Demaryius Thomas of the Denver Broncos, who came out of the same program, Hill has not been taught to run the route tree.
While this scares many scouts, I am less scared for the fact that he has been under-taught. I am more concerned about whether he has the raw tools to learn and become consistent from a fundamental standpoint.
To use an analogy, if I am hiring you for a position that requires learning the French language, and you have not been previously taught French, I am going to be a lot less nervous about your ability to learn it if you happen to already speak three different languages.
What I look for in the Georgia Tech games are intrinsic traits that are on display when Hill runs the routes that he is asked to run, not all of which are fly patterns. He showed more of this at the NFL combine when he ran through receiver drills. Hill runs with urgency, which is not always the case on long-legged, 6'4" and 215 lbs. players.
All of the raw, natural tools are there for Stephen Hill to be a great receiver. What I do not know is whether he has the intangibles, intelligence and work ethic to learn all of the things that he does not yet know.
4. WR Dale Moss, South Dakota State
Photo by Jeremy Hoeck of the Press & Dakotan
Dale Moss of South Dakota State is a basketball convert much like Derek Carrier of Beloit. Unlike Carrier, Moss will be able to stay at the receiver position he played in his final year at SDSU.
At his pro day, he measured 6'3" and 213 lbs., ran a 4.51-second 40-yard dash and showed off a 41.5" vertical, 10'10" broad jump, 4.13 second shuttle drill and an absolutely amazing 6.35 second cone drill.
There has been discussion among scouts whether that cone drill time is officially the best ever recorded. No player has ever registered such a low time at the NFL combine.
When I saw Dale up close at East-West Shrine Game practices, he did not really stand out. It wasn't until I was informed of his background that my eyebrows really started to raise.
Dale only played one year of college football. Prior to that, he was a basketball player at South Dakota State. What impressed me was that prior to having familiarized myself with his story, what I saw at Shrine practice was a smooth and savvy player with refined movement skills that should be quarterback-friendly at the next level.
As I continued to watch him throughout the week, I could not help but think how impressive it was that someone with his background could look like he belonged out there, more so than some guys who had been playing wide receiver for a very long time.
5. OG Amini Silatolu, Midwestern State
It's not every year that draftniks are left scrambling to try to get their hands on tape from Midwestern State in order to evaluate a potential second rounder. Hailing from such a small school, the buzz on this player was incredible heading into the combine.
It very well could be Amini Silotulu's fate to be taken in the second round of the draft. However, I cannot help but see him as a big-time project coming out of such a small program.
I took a close look at his work during combine offensive line field drills. He is a well put-together, compact player with great size and muscle mass, and he moves in a very coordinated fashion.
Unfortunately, I do not know much more than that, as I was not among the few draftniks lucky enough to have actually found Midwestern State game tape.
6. OT Jeff Adams, Columbia
Jeff Adams of Columbia was yet another player I had the pleasure of watching in person during the week of East-West Shrine Game practices.
He is a project player because at 6'6" and 305 lbs., he clearly still needs to add some more weight and strength to his frame. He also needs a lot of coaching on his technique, particularly in blocking ferocious bull rushes from players much more talented than he faced at Columbia.
However, this is a guy with a world of potential. He ran the 40-yard dash in 5.13 seconds, with a 34.5" vertical, 9'5" broad jump, 4.65 second shuttle drill and 7.27 second cone drill, which for his size is remarkable.
That being said, getting him into a professional strength and conditioning program is a must, as he only put up the 225-lbs bench press 19 times.
The best part about Adams is that I did not know any of these measurements when he first caught my eye. I was just watching football players on a practice field and picking out the guys who looked the best, and Jeff Adams was among them. Early in the week he had marked problems with bull rushes in pass protection, but as the week went on he fixed his technique to where he was seldom beaten in pass protection.
Despite needing a little more meat on his bones, I liked his base and his back while blocking. Plus, you just can't coach the kind of athleticism he showed to kick out and mirror pass rushers.
7. DE Cam Johnson, Virginia
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Cam Johnson of Virginia is not a player you would probably be accustomed to seeing on a list of "project" players, but I cannot help but see him as such.
Johnson is a high potential player because of his exceptional lateral cutting ability, first step explosion and set of strong hands, but he is also a raw player because of horrendous hand technique and below-average instincts for taking aggressive angles to the ball. These shortcomings led to a relative lack of production in 2011.
Johnson's background puts some of his raw technique in perspective. He was a star receiver and defensive back in high school that ranked highly as a safety and outside linebacker recruiting prospect. In college, he played linebacker his first two years before moving to defensive end for 2010 and 2011.
To put it simply, Johnson has not logged enough hours at the position. To improve, he needs better concentration and further coaching on proper angles, hand use and ways to attack blockers.
8. DT Dontari Poe, Memphis
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It was not just the speed that Dontari Poe ran at the combine when he performed in the 40-yard dash ("officially" 4.98 seconds, but much faster in truth). There was more to it than that. I was just as impressed by his form and the fact that he was lifting his feet as I was the ridiculous hand times at 6'4" and 346 lbs.
Poe went on to do the most bench reps of anyone at the combine with 44. He jumped an astounding 8'9" broad jump, along with a 29.5" vertical, 4.56 second shuttle drill and 7.90 second cone drill.
Obviously, Poe is a highly impressive athlete. But was he a highly impressive college football player? The answer is no. You could see the core skill set in place, but his technique and play-to-play consistency spoke of a guy who was still raw.
Poe will be an excellent project player for some team down the road. The burst he showed in getting off the football at Memphis should be against the rules for a man that physically imposing.
9. FS Neiko Thorpe, Auburn
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It would be easy to point at Neiko Thorpe's many coverage gaffes this past season and label him as a player who does not "get it" and probably never will.
In truth, it's really not that simple.
Neiko played cornerback until this past season and moved to safety because coaches felt they could not trust him in man coverage deep down the field. They felt he would be a better safety than corner.
The unfortunate thing is, when you make a move like that, offenses will throw out exotic offensive looks and run plays designed to take advantage of your lack of familiarity with the position.
That is what happened to Neiko in 2011.
But a player who does not have a clue would not consistently approach the football in support as well as Neiko did. A player who will never "get it" would not have the feel Neiko did for relating to what he believed to be his coverage assignments.
The problem was, when push came to shove, Neiko could not anticipate certain developments in the play design and what he had to do as a safety to protect against those developments.
This is a guy who measured over 6'1" and 198 lbs, ran a 4.39-second 40-yard dash, had a 38" vertical, an unbelievable 11'5" broad jump, along with a respectable 4.22 shuttle drill. In his first year as a safety, he led his team with three interceptions.
I'm not sure the story on him is as simple as many irate Auburn fans would like to make it out to be, and that is why he appears on this list of project players. He should continue his role as a free safety in the pros and eventually he might just "get it."
10. LB Vontaze Burfict, Arizona State
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Bear with me on this one.
I list Vontaze Burfict here even though the rest of the media world, myself included, have professed their willingness to totally give up on him.
However, there's a certain part of me that regards Burfict as injured and in need of medical attention and rehabilitation. I fully believe, based on his history going all the way back to high school, that there are issues going up on upstairs with him that need to be addressed by a professional.
I am not a psychologist, but it doesn't take an expert to see that in his current form, Burfict is a threat to himself and others.
Whatever is wrong with Burfict from a pure attitude standpoint, it has infected every facet of his football skill set. In my experience, sometimes when a guy lays an egg in his combine and pro day measurements, it can be a sign that he did not take his training very seriously or perhaps made other bad decisions which got in the way. That is what I sense from his awful outings. The player I saw on film early in Burfict's career is not that bad of an athlete.
His attitude also clearly affects his value to a football team on the field. His tendency to pick up personal foul flags inspires serious concern that he can cut it in a league where things are much faster and the pressure is far greater. In many games, if something caused Burfict to go postal, he became useless as a linebacker from that moment forward.
I can't say that Burfict is a bad person, because I don't know. What I do know is that he has problems in his head that prevent him from living the way he should. Whoever drafts him needs to figure out a way to give him an attitude adjustment.