I became a draftaholic back in the mid 90's, just when the draft's popularity was starting to rise. When in 1993, the draft went from 12 rounds to 7, it became much easier for the media and fans to follow. Over the last few years, I have noticed some serious trends that I am afraid will continue to thin out the talent pool in the NFL.
Since January, I compiled my own War Room chart and I originally was impressed by the volume of talent in this year's draft. I wasn't blown away with the volume of 1st round talent, but more so with the "potential" talent. And then, just as the 2009 draft drew nearer my high expectations all came crumbling down.
The dilemma I find the NFL faced with centers around successful college players who are not necessarily "Pro-ready", because of their collegiate systems and schemes. Not only are they not "Pro-ready" but their achievements may be unfairly over-rated. It becomes difficult trying to put a draft value on some of these players especially when comparing them to other prospects in their draft class. NFL teams are now finding themselves doing more work than ever, pre and post draft, analyzing and developing these players. We hear "development" quite a bit these days because that is the reaction to the problem. NFL teams must break down many of their young players and actually re-educate, re-train, and re-program them.
Here are some of the issues:
1) UNDERMINING THE SPREAD OFFENSE: We hear that term today much like we hear the term West Coast Offense back in the late 80's. Basically, the spread is an offensive reaction to put an end to package strategies. Like the West Coast, there are tons of derivations. Certain offensive packages, require defenses to respond with their own "package". Offenses were begining to "tell" their tendencies and the implementation of new packages and counter-stratagies each and every week is cumbersome for coaching staffs and young men, still learning the game. A spread offensive is essentially a no-huddle with 4-5 receivers causing the defense to stay on the field and cover every eligible man. Missouri, Texas Tech, Tulsa, New Mexico are just a few teams with recent success allowing them to compete with the Big Boys.
So what's the issue?: Guys like Michael Crabtree for one... Sure he is talented, but whichever team drafts him will have their hands full. He has great stats but they are mostly a product of quick slants. Granted he caught just about everything, these are not difficult receptions. An NFL "pro-ready" receiver must understand and execute the full ROUTE TREE. Crabtree only runs a few routes really well. In the NFL, a receiver must begin every route the same. Every play must look the same because any "tell sign" will be caught by the DB. And to make matters worse, Crabtree admitted that he does not have skills to defend a jam. He couldn't even elaborate on one technique when asked.
Considering Crabtree is regarded as the TOP WR prospect, whichever team drafts him will be investing more than an astronomical (and unproven) contract. Guys like Robiskie are more "pro-ready" but Crabtree has more potential. And we all know potential is dangerous. A spread offensise not only masks the abilities of every offensive player but also changes the defense's assigments and the more you play against "spreads" the less skills you develop in man coverage, run defense, etc etc..
2) INFLATION SAVES JOBS: We debate pro-football all day- everyday and constantly forget that the NFL is a business and the athletes we scrutenize are employees before entertainers. Just as NFL coaches must protect their jobs so do collegiate coaches. Many implement certain systems, like the spread offense, to make their programs more competitive, while others implement such systems to make their programs more attractive. Big stats and big prospects help coaches stay connected with the NFL and help boast their national exposure. I'm not saying this is the norm, but it is prevalent as the NCAA is the undoubtedly the NFL's #1 talent pool.
Some teams like Hawaii and BYU have churned out awesome collegiate QBs under their passing systems, whose success never really translated into the NFL. (same for the option QBs of Nebraksa, etc) After time, the NFL learned to label guys like these as "products of the system". As I look at the NFL combine, I see more of these, high -stat, short, athletic, shotgun type QBs than I do the prototypical 6-4 under-center, drop-back QBs that can make all the NFL throws. The pool has been thinned and NFL teams are struggling to evalute the "real potential" of some of these candidates and how they will translate into the NFL game.
3) DIMINISHING SKILLS: Like Crabtree, who has been getting by with superior athletiscm and great hands, so many young men are being scrutinized for their lack of essential skills to compete against the best of the best. Many OTs in this draft have spend most of their carriers in a two point stance pass blocking... Though they have shown signs of dominating in the run game, can they line up in a 3point stance against a 5 technique DT and get him moved?
Even more concerning then players without essential skills are players making the move to new positions. I have always felt strongly that football players are "football" players and can learn how to play other positions, however the NFL has been changing and this is no longer as true. I always use the Tony Siragusa example of a good player, who had to become a 0-Technique wide body, whose only job was to take up space.. Surprisingly to most, he had to develop many skills to perfect his craft. The same holds true for most positions as players develop into their specific "specialty" roles. With the increase in "packages" we see more and more specialization and less all-around skilled football players.
As such, I cringe each time I hear a player who excelled at DE in college moving to OLB in the pros, etc etc... There is a huge investment once again in training and re-programming.
4) DRAFT CHARTS POLARIZING: Once heavy in QBs and RBs in round one, teams have seen that there is plenty of talent later in the draft. With a recent emphasis on LTs and passrushers, teams are tired of getting burned by inflated workout warriors and unpassionate performers. With teams concerning themselves with sure things and becoming very aware of the inflated appearance of players ,not quite "pro-ready", we are seeing more consideration being paid to other positions like interior lineman and athletic defenders who can place in space.
Smart draft rooms are trading away their high picks and bringing in quality guys with proper skill sets in the later rounds. In many ways, quantity is starting to outweight quality because of the low percentages of a draftee actaully becoming a productive player.
Gone are the days where rookies can truly come in and impact the system right away . In fact, for those that do, you will find that the systems are successfully changed to fit their abilities. I.e. Ryan and Flacco. But in most cases, draftees who are not "pro-ready" are better suited to "develop" with minimal playing time, rotational duties, or holding a clip board. The front office mentality has shifted to assume that the draftee's value will really been seen in years 4, 5 and 6, rather than 1, 2, and 3.
There are two sides to this coin. If you sit a player like Henne too long, you may actually restrict his growth instead of taking advantage of him being "developed". Others like Harrington and Carr may have had the opposite experience. This example is only for QBs mind you, how about the 6 DBs on your roster or 8 OLineman?
There is no denying that teams are BUILT via the draft. However, the building process has taken a serious step back in my opinion because of the additional and increasing time it is taking to get draft picks ready to play at the NFL level. Sure, the "talent" pool in the NCAA is greater than ever, but these young man are begining to play a different game.
How then does the NFL respond? Implement more changes that cater to the collegiate game? More spread offenses, more wildcat, more pass rushers and less guys in the box? The diminshed roles of FBs may hold the key to those answers. It seems that the NFL is quite content allowing basketball players, weight lifters, and track athletes, with great measurables, to become unproven millionares and come to NFL just to play Flag Football.
Can I get a little old-school smashmouth? Is that too much to ask for? Are those days behind us?