Remember back when this year's draft prospects were cool?
It was only a matter of weeks ago that this year's draft class was something to get excited about. Bowl victories and collegiate glory were still fresh in our minds. Jaw-dropping combine results had fans around the NFL dreaming of blazing wide receivers, unstoppable pass-rushers, fast and powerful running backs and quarterbacks who…well, the quarterbacks were OK.
Then came the long month of March, when there was nothing to do but scrutinize pro days, go over film and scouting reports with fine-toothed combs and update our lists and mock drafts hourly. If you follow a draft expert on Twitter these days, he probably sounds less like a personnel evaluator than a blogger about indie music. Leonard Williams isn't quick enough. Trae Waynes cannot tackle. Jameis Winston? You might as well be asking me to review a Coldplay album.
Flaws become magnified when there is no new information to discuss, and—let's be blunt—six weeks of fawning over top prospects won't generate page views or retweets. The flaws are usually real: There are no perfect prospects. But are they major, minor or just freckles on a nearly spotless profile?
I went back and re-watched lots of tape and re-surveyed the statistical spreadsheets for several top prospects. The goal: Find out which of their problems are real problems and which have been blown out of proportion.
Here's what I found.
Jameis Winston, Quarterback, Florida State
To clarify, we are talking about on-field decision-making, not off-field stuff, despite the comments by Winston's lawyer on Friday that he is "not ready to be an NFL player off the field." I was sitting about 30 feet from David Cornwell when he made that statement. He was trying to make a larger point, that many NFL prospects are unready for the NFL, but Winston possesses what Cornwell called "self-awareness" and a desire to improve. Cornwell also ripped the media numerous times during his presentation at the Villanova School of Law. Tearing his words out of context was the least we could do in return!
Winston could spend his free time shuttling back and forth between soup kitchens and research laboratories, and there would still be questions about his game film. He threw 18 interceptions last year and has the off-the-back-foot, hurl-it-into-traffic gunslinger mentality that looks charming on Brett Favre or Tony Romo but can get an entire front office fired if the early rewards do not outweigh the early risks.
Assessment: Assuming Winston is one of the top 10 players selected on April 30 (a safe bet, barring the heist of a Long John Silver's truck), he will have the second-highest interception total in his final college season of any quarterback drafted in the top 10 since Peyton Manning entered the NFL in 1998:
|Highest interception totals of top QB prospects, 1998-2015|
Winston's touchdown-to-interception ratio in his final college season was lower than every top-10 pick of the last 17 years except Michael Vick, who threw eight touchdowns and six interceptions as a banged-up option quarterback in 2000.
|Lowest TD/INT ratio of top QB prospects, 1998-2015|
Some evaluators ignore collegiate stats so vehemently that it almost becomes a fetish. Yes, we can get carried away drooling over numbers and conclude that Shane Carden is Joe Montana. But ignoring 18 interceptions is just silly, particularly once you dig into the tape and look at them.
Winston's interceptions come in bunches, like the three he threw in the first quarter against Florida.
They come from a variety of fundamental mistakes: back-foot throws, late throws, throws into the teeth of the coverage, throws where he seems to deny the existence of underneath defenders. Watch a game in which Winston threw two or three interceptions, and you quickly discover that he could have thrown four or five. Passes bounce out of defenders' hands or thread ridiculous needles that will not be in the NFL sewing kit.
Winston heaves the ball downfield when falling backward against heavy pressure frequently. I think of this as a decision-making error, not a mechanical passing problem. (If your brother-in-law drives 50,000 miles without changing his oil, it's because he makes bad decisions, not because he needs to take an auto repair class.) Winston's 18 interceptions would have tied Jay Cutler and Philip Rivers for the NFL lead last year, and he played two fewer games than Cutler and three fewer than Rivers. This cannot be shrugged off as "meaningless college stats."
Matt Ryan's presence atop that collegiate interception chart offers hope. Tim Couch's presence gives us a unique comparison for Winston. Winston could achieve stardom or bring shame upon us all, but he could also simply bury himself under a heap of 18-to-21-interception seasons if he doesn't change his approach.
The Buccaneers know Winston has a turnover problem. So does any other team that drafts Winston if the Buccaneers suddenly pass. Based on his attorney's statements, Winston is aware of some of his own problems, which is the most important thing. Winston does not do enough things right to overlook the things he does wrong, but he does enough things right to make working on the flaws worthwhile, even if that becomes an all-hands-on-deck situation for Winston, his coaches, his advisers and the NFL itself.
Major, minor or mostly imagined? Major, but not crippling
Leonard Williams, Defensive Lineman, USC
Flaw: Slow first step
Williams is not a speed-rusher. He projects to the NFL as a 3-4 defensive end or possibly as a versatile lineman in a hybrid 4-3 scheme. An explosive first step to beat blockers off the line is not an absolute necessity for defenders like that.
In the likely event that the Titans draft Williams, they will use him to defend two gaps, anchor the point of attack and create opportunities for Brian Orakpo and Derrick Morgan (while winning his share of matchups). If a Seahawks-of-the-South team like the Jaguars or (it's unlikely he'll slip this far) Falcons drafts him, he will be the big end who lines up inside the tackle box, not the "Leo" who hangs off the edge and speed-rushes.
Still, a slow first step can render even the strongest defensive lineman ineffective. Blockers will beat him to a spot on the field and wall him off on running plays, while the 10th of a second lost getting off the line of scrimmage can make the difference between a sack and a completion. Williams is one of the most dominating line prospects in years, and his ability to use his hands and arms to out-leverage and defeat blockers is reminiscent of Bruce Smith. But that first step is a doozy, and Williams is often the last player off the line of scrimmage when the ball is snapped.
Assessment: Based on the first half of the Holiday Bowl against Nebraska, Williams would be a second- or third-round pick. He looks like he is waiting for a text message from a coach before releasing off the line. Watch the tape: Williams' slow release is naked-eye noticeable, even if you rarely watch defensive line cutups. Hike. Pause. Wait, what? Oh yeah…football!
The Nebraska game made such an impression that I went back and watched tape of several other USC games, specifically looking only at Williams' release. I counted the number of times Williams was clearly late leaving the line of scrimmage. I'm not a professional scout, but I have been studying defensive line tape for years and can do a pretty good job of spotting a super-slow or super-quick release.
Here are the results of three games of study:
|Leonard Williams' slow releases off the line of scrimmage|
|Game||Total Snaps||Slow Releases|
|Source: Videos from DraftBreakdown.com|
The Nebraska game was not a true representation of Williams' release. He rarely explodes off the line like a top edge-rusher or an exceptional 3-technique tackle (think of Warren Sapp or Darnell Dockett in their primes), but the guy waiting for a bus to take him to the quarterback was largely a Holiday Bowl phenomenon. Most defensive line prospects would get dinged for three or four slow releases if scrutinized for an entire game, just as most of us would get three or four tickets if a cop followed us to work every day.
There are many reasons why Williams could have been so slow in the Nebraska game. Neither team had played for a month, and Williams was hearing a new quarterback's cadence for the first time. Alignment and scheme may also have been factors. He is more likely to hesitate when lined up over a tight end than a lineman, probably because he is determining whether the tight end will block or run a route. Williams' release improved as the Nebraska bowl game progressed; whatever bothered him for most of the first quarter was no longer a problem in the fourth.
On most plays, Williams is just another guy coming out of his stance in that fraction of a second after the ball is snapped: not that quick, but not too slow. He then engages his blocker and wins battle after battle, whether through sheer power, exceptional hand-to-hand combat or a burst of quickness that kicks in once he responds to the snap. Defensive linemen can be taught to react more quickly, by keying on different cues that it's time to move (the opposing lineman's hands, perhaps) or by adjusting the stance.
If Williams were lightning-quick off the line, he would be a J.J. Watt- or Bruce Smith-caliber prospect. He's more of an improved version of Chandler Jones. He may not record a dozen sacks by himself, but he can do a lot of things that help his team record 50.
Major, minor or mostly imagined? Major, but not crippling
Trae Waynes, Cornerback, Michigan State
Waynes measured exactly 6'0" and ran a blistering 4.31-second 40-yard dash at the combine. He started for two seasons at a major program, often operating on an island. So why isn't Waynes a consensus top-five pick in mock drafts and on scouting lists?
Scan the scouting reports or search Twitter, and you can find many reasons to discount Waynes, some of them rather nitpicky. But there is one common line of criticism: He does not tackle well, and for a prospect whose size is a selling point, he is not a hard-nosed, jam-at-the-line cornerback in the (here it comes) Richard Sherman mold.
Assessment: Waynes' lack of physicality leaps off the game tape. He has a variety of tackling techniques, among them: climbing aboard the ball-carrier's shoulders for a piggyback ride, diving as hard as possible at a point in the general vicinity of the ball-carrier's feet and taking a horrible angle and completely whiffing.
Receivers often get separation on Waynes by applying a little unpenalized shove at the top of their routes. Opponents sometimes stack their top receiver behind a tight end, who knocks Waynes backward so the receiver can catch a screen and create yards after the catch (Oregon scored a short touchdown this way). Waynes' jam technique at the line of scrimmage consists of catching the receiver when he arrives and slow dancing with him for a stanza or two. Waynes rarely delivers an initial jolt and often cuddles with his receiver too long, which will draw some NFL interference penalties.
Watch Waynes hit the deck after contact and miss tackle after tackle on cutups, and you start to dwell on his shortcomings. Then you realize that the one thing you haven't seen Waynes do very often is allow a meaningful reception.
Waynes' height, speed, fluidity and skills will make him a top-15 pick and a quality NFL starter almost immediately. He's not just a lanky track star; he recognizes pass patterns and makes proper adjustments quickly in zone coverage, has tremendous recovery speed and turns so smoothly to chase receivers deep that he leaves almost no passing window for the quarterback. Combine a rare tool set with a very good understanding of how to use it, and you have a cornerback most coaches will live with while his tackling improves.
Also, Waynes does throw his body around at times; he is not a graduate of the Asante Samuel Touch Football Academy. His tackling and jamming can improve with practice, but practice won't make many other cornerbacks 6'0" with long arms and 4.31 speed.
Major, minor or mostly imagined? Minor
Shane Ray, Edge-Rusher, Missouri
Ray won this year's Teddy Bridgewater Award for having the most highly publicized "bad pro day" of any major prospect. He ran a 4.68-second 40-yard dash, which NFL.com's Chase Goodbread pointed out was "slower than the combine times for other elite edge-rushers such as Vic Beasley (4.53), Dante Fowler Jr. (4.60) and Randy Gregory (4.64)."
Ray's other workout numbers also did not stack up to the results posted by the other top pass-rushers. Ray recorded 14.5 sacks last season, but he is a one-year starter who is undersized for a defensive end and completely inexperienced at outside linebacker. Raw athleticism is supposed to be one of Ray's best assets, so bad workout numbers would seem like a big issue.
Assessment: Football Outsiders uses a metric called SackSEER to combine a pass-rusher's workout results and statistical profile into a projection of just how many sacks he will produce in his first few NFL seasons. You can read an outline of the method and this year's results here. Ray ranks below Beasley, Gregory, Alvin Dupree, Fowler and a couple of the other top pass-rushers with a projection of just 20.4 sacks through five seasons.
Ray's projection is low because of his poor workout totals, including woeful three-cone drill times (the change-of-direction quickness measured in the three-cone drill translates into the ability to turn the corner as an edge-rusher), and because of his low production before 2014. Ray was stuck behind Kony Ealy and Michael Sam at Mizzou, but lots of top pass-rush prospects get stuck in pipelines for much of their college careers. The best NFL pass-rushers are generally productive for more than one college season.
"Ray draws the most dreaded comp of all: Vernon Gholston," wrote Football Outsiders analyst Nathan Forster before walking readers back from Gholston's sackless abyss. Ray Edwards and Calvin Pace also fit Ray's analytic profile; it should be noted that both Edwards and Pace are bigger than Ray, and both were late bloomers.
If Ray were 20 pounds heavier and/or more experienced in coverage, a low sack projection might not be damning. But tape study quickly proves that Ray is not going to be an effective run-defending end. He is easily walled off or driven backward from the point of attack. He hustles and makes a lot of plays in pursuit, which can make him an effective outside linebacker. That's where inexperience and a poor three-cone drill become issues.
Ray does not look like Gholston at all in tape study. Ray has a great inside move and is very good at disengaging from blockers, making him more than just a quick-step burner to the edge. (Gholston was a one-dimensional burner around the edge.) Still, his 2014 sack total is a little bit pumped up. He recorded five of his sacks in his first three games, against South Dakota State, Toledo and an unimpressive Central Florida team. Two more came against even less impressive Kentucky, one of them on the last play of the game.
Ray certainly looks quick and fast on tape. He injured his foot in the Citrus Bowl and might still be suffering the lingering effects. He is not going to fall past the middle of the first round, and there are elements of his game that translate well to outside linebacker.
NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock made a "boom or bust" declaration about Gregory, and a prospect who flunks a drug test is more likely to wear that label than a high-character, high-energy guy like Ray. But in the wrong system, or if a conversion to a linebacker or "Leo" role doesn't stick, Ray has just as much bust potential as Gregory.
Major, minor or mostly imagined? Minor, but significant
Brett Hundley, Quarterback, UCLA
Flaw: Pocket presence
Hundley is big, strong-armed, fast, bright and started for three years at a major program. Yet he is still thought of as a consolation prize in a weak quarterback class, even as his name creeps into first-round discussions. Hundley has a reputation for tucking and running at the first sign of trouble, and he took 125 sacks in his college career.
There are questions about whether he will be able to find his second or third options, slide around the pocket to buy time or do the other "little" things—things that not only keep an NFL quarterback effective but also keep him healthy enough to stay in the lineup.
Assessment: It's college-statistic-table time again! This time, let's compare Hundley's final-season sack total and rate to those of other top prospects in this year's draft class, plus some of the most significant quarterbacks selected in the last two seasons. Sacks are not an official statistic at the college level, but both ESPN and STATS, Inc. tabulate the data:
|College Sack Rates for Major Quarterback Prospects, 2013-2015|
|ESPN and STATS, Inc.|
As you can see, Hundley's sack rate was extraordinary, and it actually improved significantly after sacktacular 2012 and 2013 seasons, when Hundley was sacked on 9.79 percent and 8.66 percent of his dropbacks, respectively. Mike Glennon entered the NFL with a sitting-duck pocket reputation two years ago and carried his pocket problems with him to the Buccaneers, but Glennon endured far fewer sacks than Hundley, as a percentage of pass attempts.
Like Jameis Winston's interception totals, Hundley's sack rates should not be shrugged off as meaningless college stats. An NFL executive once told me that he considers a high sack rate a red flag for a quarterback prospect. It signifies multiple problems, from pocket indecision to a slow delivery. The fact that the quarterback has already taken a collegiate pounding is one more reason to look away.
UCLA's loss to Utah illustrates the Hundley dilemma. Hundley endured 10 sacks in the 30-28 loss in early October. His pass protection was horrendous for most of the game, but Hundley compounded the problem by hanging in the pocket instead of either stepping up or checking down.
Watch the tape at DraftBreakdown.com, and you can see Hundley remain motionless as edge-rushers approach in his line of sight, pump-faking or just waiting for something to happen downfield instead of seeking an outlet to get rid of the ball.
Hundley took three straight sacks at one point (it's around the six-minute mark in the linked video); on 3rd-and-22, he takes a shotgun snap, sees pressure and practically curls into the fetal position near his own goal line. Hundley also responds poorly to pressure on a screen pass early in the game and floats a pick-six into a defender's hands.
Hundley also threw two touchdowns and led a near-comeback in that game, despite being under constant siege. He's obviously physically and mentally tough. Hundley stated at the combine that the UCLA offense often only gave him a single read, followed by a run option.
"In our offense, sometimes the situation dictated if I didn't see something, I'm taking off running," he said. "You can watch tape. There's times I sat in the pocket and made throws, and I feel I did that consistently in college. But there are times our offense needs, if something's not there, just take off running."
Fair enough, but many quarterbacks come from offenses with single-read options, and few get sacked on 9 percent of their drops. Hundley may be able to learn an NFL-style offense with multiple reads and checkdowns, but too often he looks on tape like a quarterback who has developed awful habits in response to pressure.
Hundley needs to expand his read progression, speed up his pocket clock and learn the virtues of "climbing" in the pocket when edge-rushers are turning the corner. It's a lot of work, and Hundley probably needs a full year on the bench before he can become anything more than a sack waiting to happen.
Major, minor or mostly imagined? Major
Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.