Production vs Potential / Ability

DT Devon Still was the 53rd pick in last week’s draft.  If I had told you that 4 months ago, you would have said I was nuts.  Still was coming off a great Senior season.  He had 17 TFLs and led Penn State to a 9-4 record despite having no offense and playing in one of the most dysfunctional situations anyone could dare to dream up.

Dontari Poe was chosen 11th overall.  He only had 21.5 TFLs in his whole career and never came close to playing up to Still’s level.  Fletcher Cox was taken 12th.  He had a great year in 2011, but had done little prior to that.

How could a one-year wonder and a no-year wonder be taken 40 picks ahead of Still?  Devon had size.  He had played at PSU and faced some great competition.  He was part of a good defense.  He was productive.  What was missing?   

Pro potential.

Poe is a freak.  If he ever puts it all together, he can do special things in the NFL.  He could be Halotia Ngata, maybe even better.  Poe has a rare combination of size, speed, strength, and agility.  He is unproven.  That’s why he’s available at pick 11.  If he was a proven commodity, he might have gone 3rd overall.

Cox isn’t rare, but he is special.  He has good size at 6-4, 298.  He ran a blazing 40 at the Combine and had a very good overall workout.  He is a natural pass rusher with the ability to flourish in an attacking scheme in the NFL.  He is raw and has a lot of upside.  You watch tape and Cox shows enough athleticism that he could have been picked as a 4-3 DE or DT.

Still?  He has a good frame at 6-5, 303.  All 32 teams would like a guy with that build.  Unfortunately, the rest of his Combine workout was average.  He’s not bad in any category, but isn’t good either.  When you are trying to be a 1st round pick or Top 40 player, you need to stand out.  Still didn’t.

But what about game tape?  Surely a guy with 17 TFLs stands out on tape.  Yes and no.  Still did make plays.  Unfortunately, most of them came in the middle of the season when PSU played Eastern Michigan, Indiana, Iowa, Purdue, NW, and Illinois.  There was one interior OL in that group that will be in an NFL camp this summer – Adam Gettis from Iowa.

Late in the season PSU faced Nebraska, Ohio State, and Wisconsin.  Those teams were able to control Still.  They had NFL type blocking in the middle and it showed.

The point here isn’t to rip apart Devon Still.  He had a very good career at a big time football school.  He got better each year and is headed in the right direction.  Unfortunately the NFL can be a cruel mistress.  What you’ve done isn’t as important as what you’ll do moving forward.

Look at WR Stephen Hill.  He caught 49 passes in 3 years at Georgia Tech.  He went 20 picks ahead of Rueben Randle, who was a star at LSU.  Randle caught 97 passes in his career.  He is a big, talented WR with good experience and production.  Yet he fell behind the guy who is all potential.

The NFL sees Hill and drools.  He is big, tall, fast, and naturally gifted.  Should he be blamed for playing at GT in an offense that ran the ball 3/4 of the time?  The goal isn’t to find the most productive college players.  The goal is to find the best NFL prospects.  Randle might turn out to be better than Hill, but Hill has the potential to be an NFL star.

Part of what makes evaluating players so tricky is that there are so many variables.  Who is being coached well?  Who has access to a good weight room?  Who is being used right by the coaching staff?  Who is underachieving because he’s an immature kid?  Who is overachieving because he is a very mature kid?  And so on.

You never know how a player will react to the NFL.  Getting into an NFL weight room can have a tremendous impact on a player.  Pro coaching can take a raw piece of clay and turn it into an impressive finished product.  Physical maturity is a huge factor.  College kids are kids.  Those are boys playing football.  The NFL is a man’s game.  Guys grow up in a hurry.  Bodies change.

Be careful not to focus too much on college results or the obvious things you see when watching a player in college.  Your eyes can play tricks on you.  Results can play tricks on you.  In order to really find the best prospects, you must learn to look for the little things that separate a good college player from a good pro prospect.

Case Keenum and Kellen Moore both belong in the College Football Hall of Fame, but neither was drafted.  Matt Cassell was a backup at USC, but was taken in the 7th round.  As much as anything, that may sum up the trickiness of understanding who is a good pro prospect and who isn’t.

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