Breaking down talent in football is a messy business. Even the best and the brightest on draft day have a high rate of failure when it comes to predicting how a prospect’s skills will translate to the NFL.
What follows is my attempt to share with you how an average Joe like myself, who nobody expected much from at any level of the sport, was somehow able to earn a full ride to the University of California where I played two seasons. Along the way, I happened to set the school’s single-season sack record and was named a collegiate first-team All-American and first-team All Conference player.
Nobody saw this degree of success coming. In fact, heading into my senior season at Cal, I wasn’t even slated to be the starting defensive end during the first few weeks of training camp.
But this is not about my skill as a football player, nor is it about my pitiful career as a professional, which admittedly was humbled by the super-freaks of the NFL elite. This is about how I’ve used this valuable knowledge and rare education-by-fire in order to develop a unique way of analyzing talent on a football field.
In order for me to fully explain what has taken me a lifetime to learn myself, it would certainly require several hundred pages of text rather than the few thousand words dedicated to this article. Cramming every pertinent piece of information to fully articulate my point in one article is nearly impossible. But at the very least, I can offer up a brief summary of what I’ve studied, learned and devoted the better part of my life to figuring out.
I learned early on in my playing days that every athlete has an Achilles' heel. Football is a dynamic game requiring much of an individual at any given moment of participation. The violence of the sport alone breads fear, hesitation and doubt into the hearts of every man, to some degree. Where each man’s heart falls on that spectrum is what matters when fear is the unit of measure. Fatigue is another potent equalizer on a football field. The list of skills required for success, or the lack thereof, can go on forever.
The key to my success as a football player came through finding ways to hone in on and exploit the opponent’s weakness, and sometimes a player’s very strength could also be one of their biggest detriments.
For example, a player loaded with all the physical tools in the world, like that of Jadeveon Clowney, has been able to rely almost exclusively on this unparalleled dominance his entire life. Beating the guy lined up in front of him has always been relatively easy. As a result, Clowney has never truly been challenged with any regularity, which would necessitate the need for him to develop other aspects to his game.
If you pop on Clowney’s tape at South Carolina, you’ll see rather quickly that he wins with incredible size, strength and quickness. But look a little closer, and it becomes obvious that Clowney’s dominance at the college level is currently one dimensional.
Does this mean he isn’t going to be a superstar in the NFL? That’s not what I’m saying at all. After all, domination in any form of the word is still domination, and that cannot just be disregarded. Clowney is actually one of the most promising defensive prospects to come along in years, and he has limitless potential. He’ll undoubtedly figure out how to be successful—but don’t expect ultimate dominance at the pro level until he can master the proper technique and build a healthy arsenal of rush moves.
Now, let’s get back to reading an opponent’s weakness. This single aspect of the game is one of the primary reasons that a 6’1”, 250-pound defensive end who ran a 4.8 40-yard dash and barely benched 225 pounds 18 times at the scouting combine managed to break the University of California’s single-season sack record (14.5) and finish third in the nation in that category.
Most of the time, it doesn’t take long for a player to reveal at least a few ways he can be beat—if you know what to look for. It’s a funny thing how players are trained and coached to become the most efficient killing machines they can possibly be.
Offensive players are taught how to beat the defender, while defensive players are simultaneously instructed in the art of counteracting the offensive guys. Back and forth these eternal adversaries do battle, each interlocked in an evolutionary arms race, seeking to gain the slightest edge over the other. Unfortunately, the teachers of technique in football continue to echo the same moves, the same steps and the same philosophies as the men who came before them until parity and slight variations of the same physiological flowchart saturate football fields across the nation.
For this reason, the athletically superior are so highly sought after and are often so successful.
When everyone’s following the same orders, taking the same steps and simply moving the way they're instructed, predictability becomes rather easy to see. But this requires an interesting discipline—one that necessitates zigging when your opponent thinks you’re about to zag. In this same vein, knowing the movement patterns of your opponent becomes the key to unlocking their weaknesses.
Muscle memory is a term most of us are familiar with. Well, in the context of actions on a football field, it refers to repetitive motions of the body that are so ingrained in us that they become second-nature reflexes as we ultimately turn into slaves to our very own habitual training.
As the late head coach of the Houston Oilers, Bum Phillips, famously said: “Two kinds of players ain’t worth a damn: One who never does what he’s told and one who does nothin’ but what he’s told.” Truer words have never been spoken with regards to football.
All of a sudden a guy labeled a “coachable player” takes on a whole new meaning.
Don’t get me wrong here, listening and learning from coaches is an invaluable component to player development. But to be great, to be truly exceptional, you have to be able to learn and understand everything that players are taught to do and then know the precise moment and counter-technique required to go against the grain. This is, of course, assuming the player at least meets the physical prerequisites to execute the maneuver.
I’ve always been shocked at how robotic people are with their movement patterns, especially on a football field. I see player after player either so afraid to make a mistake, or just simply lacking creativity, that they never deviate from their narrow comfort zones.
This makes for highly predictable behaviors and movements, and once you have a grasp on that, you can then utilize such knowledge to manipulate the opponent and find your way to the ball with astounding consistency.
So what should you specifically look for when doing this?
When watching film of guys who were going to block me, I loved to get a feel for their rhythms and beats. How does he like to time up his feet in conjunction with his hands when pass protecting? Does he punch in the chest or grab around the shoulder area? Can the guy bend low? Does he have quick feet?
I also went through a similar process with ball-carriers that I had to tackle, including the quarterback. One of the advantages of being a former player and using this process is that I’ve experienced those observations that one makes during film study first-hand on game days. This inherently enhanced my ability to accurately perceive what I saw on tape.
Sometimes, though, when it comes to film, our eyes can play tricks on us.
For example, I may think the offensive tackle I’m studying has incredible strength and cannot be moved around at all. It may appear as though said tackle is gifted with rare anchoring ability, as his opponent is unable to get past him all game. However, the illusion here could be that his opponent continued to run straight into him the whole game without threatening the edge with speed. This would cause the blocker to appear much stronger than he actually is.
These sorts of nuances from playing have helped me to watch out for possible optical illusions that could distort a player’s skill set on film.
I am aware that what I’m saying here flies directly in the face of the old adage that “the tape never lies.” In fact, tape can and does lie all the time if you don’t know what to look for.
Now that you understand the value of a player who can exploit the tendency of another in order to beat him, remember that this is a vastly underappreciated distinction to prospect analysis which only film study can reveal.
With that said, you likely won’t be able to identify this trait of a player just by watching any isolated play. This valuable prospect trait is only unearthed through studying a series of plays strung together over the course of a game—a chess match between two competitors, with each giving incredible effort in the hopes of dominating the other.
Keep in mind this trait is not one that you come across very often. Most forms of domination on a football field come from the combination of physical ability and meticulous scheming to put players in the optimal position to succeed. Guys who are capable of going against the grain and understand how to outsmart their opponents tend to be the same guys we like to say have “playmaking instincts”—guys like Tyrann Mathieu, for example.
Most evaluators use the word “instincts” as if it’s some sort of undiscovered magical power that players either have or they don’t. Though it’s probably true that you either have it or you don’t—as is the case with speed—the details of how those instincts are being applied is what I’ve tried to explain throughout this article. I’m also trying to help those who enjoy watching film to identify not only which players have instincts but which players are easily exploited by those who do have such instincts.
This is incredibly important when determining whether or not a college star’s abilities will translate to the next level, because the NFL is surrounded by guys endowed with a great combination of both physical and instinctual ability.
The guys who go on to become Hall of Famers tend to be those who excel in both categories.
Ryan Riddle is a former NFL player and Columnist for Bleacher Report
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