Some NFL players make the most of what they've been given. Others, frankly, do less with more.
In sports culture, we're taught to elevate the "Rudys" among us—those young men and women against whom chips seem unalterably stacked. We adore the smallish players with never-give-up attitudes. We laud the underdogs. We cherish "Hoosiers" and "Rockys." We all love it when players reach their God-given potential, scoff, and then ascend to even greater heights.
The correlate, then, is that we despise those who never seem to try. Everyone had that high school teammate who barely knew where the weight room was let alone put in the time his teammates did. Yet, when the time came to take the court, field, track, etc., this lazy, slack-jawed, cheetos-encrusted whelp managed to outclass all those who had outworked him.
Sometimes, that's just how life goes.
The NFL isn't that much different than any other group of athletes. Yes, it's higher stakes, but it's roughly the same dynamics with some TV cameras and millions of dollars thrown in. Even in the NFL, there are athletes for whom fortune has smiled and are just that much more talented than their peers.
Yet, talent is both what one is given and what that person makes of it. This list is dedicated to those NFL superstars who could do more with what they already have.
Matthew Stafford (QB Detroit Lions)
Stafford was the first person to come to mind upon getting this assignment. It isn't just that Stafford is the quarterback of the team I grew up being consistently disappointed in.
No, it also had a lot to do with a line from my original scouting report on Stafford back in his sophomore year at Georgia: "Seems to have a good grasp of fundamentals at times, but falls apart mechanically far too often." The next year, I would write: "Trusts his arm way too much," and "Maddening talent but he doesn't put it all together."
Yeah, that's about the full story when it comes to Stafford.
Of course, not everyone thinks Stafford's mechanics are the problem. Longtime NFL coach and supposed quarterback guru Jon Gruden had this to say:
"I think first of all, Stafford is able to throw the ball from different body angles unlike most quarterbacks. He's comfortable doing it. He did it at Georgia. I'm sure he did it in high school when he was in Texas. It's not conventional all the time."
Yet, for a quarterback who has yet to win his second game in 24 chances against teams with winning records, maybe he could tighten things up a bit. Stafford isn't the sole issue with the Lions in close games, but he certainly has room for improvement.
In the above image, Stafford is doing what he does best—throwing the living daylights out of the football. He's falling backward and just wills the ball out of his hands. He has no business attempting this throw and even less business getting it anywhere near its intended destination.
This is Stafford at his physical best and his mental worst.
For Lions fans, the downside is that he almost completed the pass—meaning there's little he'll learn from this mistake. On the outside, it looks gutsy, but it's part of an entire story that equates to a lot of bigger mistakes that usually bite Stafford (and his teammates) on the rhetorical behind.
This throw isn't much better, and anyone can tell the recurring theme is that pressure often brings out the worst in Stafford. It's easy, then, to blame the pressure, but for a young quarterback aspiring to be the next Tom Brady or Peyton Manning, it's time he starts handling pressure like they do.
Stafford is on the run here and simply wings the ball to its intended target. He doesn't reset—though he has time—and he doesn't take the safe yardage and slide. No, he wings the ball with reckless abandon. Again, this is the sort of play that, when completed, can reinforce the "gamer" and "gunslinger" mentality Stafford struggles with.
Speaking of being a gunslinger, here Stafford overthrows his double-covered receiver, Calvin Johnson. This is two big mistakes on the same play that derive from a similar source. Stafford trusts two things more than anything else—his arm and his robotically nicknamed wideout.
Physically, Stafford does everything right. Above the shoulders, however, this was a terrible breakdown of everything Stafford has supposedly been taught since high school. This is a bush-league throw that belongs back at Highland Park High School.
Finally, the coup de grâce of the Stafford film set. This was supposed to be a short throw to the outside. What happened, comically, was a gigantic-sized heave directly into the ground—no where near its intended target.
This throw, without any reservation or exaggeration, is far more laughable than anything New England Patriots quarterback Tim Tebow has showcased in his NFL career. It is even more so when one considers the fantastic physical skill Stafford commands.
Ryan Mathews (RB San Diego Chargers)
While it may run the risk of hubris, Mathews is on this list for much the same reason as Stafford—I was right about him, and he seems to delight in proving that to be so.
Back before the 2010 draft, a lot of draftniks fell in love with the physically talented back out of Fresno State. As a matter of fact, I had a lot to be impressed about while watching his tape as well. However, as others dreamed of big things for Mathews, I saw him as a limited-role back who could contribute because of this athleticism, but would ultimately fail because he didn't run well.
As a former running backs coach, I often look for two things in a back. Overall, the most important thing is something that can't be taught—instincts. Scouts call it "being a natural runner." Physically, that often manifests itself in agility, balance, burst, etc., but having a mastery of those skills and a knowledge of when and where to use them is what sets special runners apart.
The second trait that coaches instill into backs from a very early age also has to do with balance and agility—pad level. A back who is able to run with his pads low and still do the athletic things he needs to do can excel above his peers. This is something that can be taught. Those backs who master it can excel even without elite physical tools.
Mathews is neither a natural runner nor does he consistently keep his pads low.
Look at Mathews take the ball in the backfield. If his pad level were any higher, he'd be on trial as a witch because he'd have to be levitating. Guess what happened when he hit the line of scrimmage. If your answer was, "fell down the minute someone breathed on him," you win the prize.
This is a different play, same start and same ending. Mathews takes the ball and then manages to look like he's practicing his pointe dancing as he hits the line of scrimmage. An arm tackle trips him up because he has zero balance due to his high center of gravity.
Here we see Mathews' lack of natural running ability steamroll him as he has zero idea what to do with the ball as it's handed to him. Two quick cuts in the open backfield leave him stranded behind a pile of bodies—full of blockers that assumed their star running back had some intention of running somewhere that day.
Mathews finished that day with 65 yards on 25 carries.
Janoris Jenkins (CB St. Louis Rams)
If one believes the press clippings, Jenkins is one of the best rookie cornerbacks to ever grace us mere mortals with his presence. On the bare numbers, too, it's difficult to argue that he makes quite the impact.
Yes, Jenkins is on pace to have an absolutely absurd career in terms of returning interceptions for touchdowns, but if he doesn't fix his mechanics, he'll give up far more than he creates. Last season, Pro Football Focus had him on the hook for five touchdowns allowed in his coverage (paid link). On top of that, he allowed a catch rate of nearly 62 percent and missed 18 tackles—tied for most among all cornerbacks.
So, while SportsCenter may marvel at the big plays he made last season, it's pretty clear that he could shore up some facets to his game. In fact, to reference PFF one more time, he didn't just have an "up-and-down" season, he had a mostly down one or average one with a few glimpses of what could be ahead.
What can Jenkins fix?
This is Jenkins not just gambling, but pushing all-in on a pair of deuces. He's caught looking into the backfield as Washington Redskins receiver Leonard Hankerson (yes, Leonard Hankerson) runs right past him for a big ol' honkin' touchdown.
Hankerson isn't some small individual who can evade detection, nor does he possess some superhuman-level of speed garnered from a freak lab accident. No, he's just a long-strider whom Jenkins should've been able to press to kingdom come or at least catch up to. Neither happened...touchdown Redskins.
If the above were Jenkins at his worst in coverage, this is his worst in the open field against a ball-carrier. Just before this image, Jenkins had Redskins receiver Aldrick Robinson dead to rights. Yes, it would've been a first down anyway, but Robinson managed an extra 10 yards after Jenkins did his best "mime on an imaginary banana peal" impression.
This is, in another way, the same sort of gambling mentality that gets Jenkins in trouble in coverage. Rather than settle down, break down and make a fundamental play, Jenkins loses body control and looks silly in the process.
While the first two examples were the high-risk/high-reward ways to beat Jenkins, it's pretty simple to pick him apart with short and intermediate throws as well. The Rams play Jenkins in a lot of off-man coverage in order to minimize his mistakes.
This throw, to Miami Dolphins receiver Davone Bess, is telegraphed from the start. A discerning eye can even see Bess shift his weight inside before the snap because it's a inside route from the moment Jenkins backs off the line.
Because Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill is taking the easy play here, it's going to be a reception, but Jenkins reacts when Tannehill throws the ball, not when he sees Bess breaking inside. This gives Bess some extra yardage and loosens Jenkins up for big gains down the road on double routes.
All in all, Jenkins is a talented young corner who has plenty of time to turn these parts of his game around. However, some of these traits have followed him around since his early college days at Florida, and old habits are hard to break.
It's par for the course for a lot of athletically gifted men in the NFL, but none more so than the young men on this list. These stars could shine so much brighter if the acquired talent from the top-notch coaching they've received ever starts to keep pace with their incredible natural gifts.
Michael Schottey is the NFL national lead writer for Bleacher Report and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Find more of his stuff at The Go Route.