Jason Smith went from 2-Star to No. 2 Pick
INDIANAPOLIS, IND. - The college football world was tuned in to National Signing Day just three weeks ago, and the focus of pro football has honed in on the NFL Scouting Combine this week. Both events are about scouting football players, but the process involved can be very different.
Football is about being big, strong, and fast, not necessarily in that order.
There are skills to be developed to maximize production, but physical attributes
are scrutinized more heavily in football than any other sports.
College football coaches are willing to take more chances on developmental
prospects. Jason Smith, who played his college ball at Baylor, highlights the
differences between scouting for the NFL and scouting for the college ranks.
When Smith arrived at Baylor from W.T. White High School in Dallas, he was
6-foot-5, 225 pounds. Smith was a project. A project who had a frame to get
bigger and the athleticism to warrant the risk that he would.
Fast forward a few years and Smith was drafted No. 2 overall by the St. Louis Rams as an offensive tackle. He measured 6-foot-5 and 309 pounds at the Combine.
The Rams signed Smith to a six-year contract valued at $62 Million. Smith was
drafted to play left tackle and play right away for the Rams.
The margin for error on the college level is infinitely larger than it is in the
NFL in some ways. First, college teams are allowed to bring in 25 scholarship
players per year, while there are only seven rounds in the NFL draft. About
2,500 players enter the college ranks as freshmen every year, while roughly 200
rookies are lucky enough to make NFL rosters.
With so many more players needed to fill college rosters and knowing that
they'll have five years to develop those players, coaches are willing to take
more chances on developmental players like Smith. Smith was far enough removed
from being a sure bet on the college level that the traditional powers in the
Big 12 neglected to offer him a scholarship.
NFL teams are looking for players that are closer to finished products. A team
is willing to take a risk on a player who has the physical tools to compete in
the NFL but for some reason didn't produce in college like a future NFL player
Maryland's Bruce Campbell is an example of that. He had the physical
measurements of an elite offensive tackle. Standing over 6-foot-6 and weighing
314 pounds, Campbell ran the best 40 time among the offensive linemen in
attendance, had the longest arms and did more bench press repetitions of than
anyone over 6-foot-4. He was the most impressive big man at the Combine, but
when scouts put in film he wasn't among the five best offensive tackles in the
ACC. He had the physical ability of a No. 1 overall pick, but the film of an
undrafted free agent.
Campbell was taken in the fourth round by the Oakland Raiders, a spot that will
give him some time to translate his physical prowess into on the field
production, but the time to accomplish that translation is much shorter in the
NFL than college.
And that in a nutshell is the biggest difference between scouting for college
and scouting for the NFL. High school players are developmental prospects while
players being drafted by NFL teams are grown men who are expected to be
physically ready to compete right away. There's no redshirt year in the NFL.
Size and speed are at a premium at all levels of football, but strength is a
measure taken more seriously as a player gets older. Most college prospect camps
will test players in an NFL Combine format, only they won't test the bench
press. Why? Because strength is the easiest physical attribute to increase
during a college career.
If Bruce Campbell came to a college prospect camp during the summer before his
senior year and measured 6-foot-6, 314 pounds, and ran a 4.85 40-yard dash, he'd
have his pick of schools regardless if he could do a pushup. Fast forward five
years as he gets ready for the NFL, and if his strength is subpar, there will be
questions about his ability to compete not to mention his work ethic.
In college recruiting, other physical attributes are going to more heavily
scrutinized. It's understood that a high school player is not going to have the
level of coaching and time to dedicate to his skills as he will in college as
well as the fact that he's been able to dominate without having to refine his
technique. Why does a defensive tackle need to learn a swim move when no one can
stop his bull rush? The wide receiver doesn't focus on beating jams at the line
of scrimmage when every defensive back gives him a 12-yard cushion.
College coaches are looking for size and speed. The skills can be taught.
College coaches are also looking for growth potential. Seventeen-year-old kids
mature at a different rate and many players have yet to fill out their frames.
The NFL draft is full of stories like Jason Smith, under-recruited, undersized
tight ends who grow into first-round draft picks.
But the farther away a player is from being where he needs to be, the more the
risk is involved that he'll never make it. If it were as easy as finding every
6'5 and 225 pound player to turn him into a $60 Million man, there would be a
lot more of them.
USC's Tyron Smith is another example of the risk/reward involving growth
potential. Unlike Jason Smith, Tyron Smith was closer to being physically ready
to compete. He was 6-foot-5 and change, 260 pounds, a fluid athlete and was a
natural offensive linemen, but he was several years from reaching his potential.
He was rated Scout's No. 1 offensive lineman in the Class of 2008, not for what
he would be as a freshman and sophomore but for who he could become in this
third, fourth, and fifth years.
However, Smith declared for the NFL after his third year at USC, and while the
evaluation of being the No. 1 offensive lineman in his class looks to be a good
one, USC won't get the benefits of a player of that caliber because he's leaving
just as he's reaching his potential.
The growth curve is also less liberal by position. Bigger athletes are generally
given more time to develop, but skill position players, especially running backs
are expected to display the skills that will translate to the next level much
sooner. Linemen are built; skill players are born. They display the traits on
the field that have announcers claim "that can't be coached" when they
see a spin move or diving catch that is purely God-given ability.
Coaches like to see production, but they understand that production doesn't
translate to the next level without the physical attributes to come with it. The
"enough" factor. Is he fast enough? Is he big enough? The enough
factor is different from college to the pros. With spread offenses the rage in
college football, there are a disproportionate amount successful 6-foot
quarterbacks compared to the NFL level. In the NFL, Drew Brees is considered the
exception. Of course all things being equal, the bigger, faster, stronger
athletes are going to get more attention, but the enough factor will get a
player looked at if his production is good.
One characteristic that can't be measured but is being scrutinized more heavily
in this day and age is character. Players getting in trouble is big news and
it's an embarrassment for the programs and organizations involved. The tolerance
for troublemakers is a sliding scale proportional to his talent, but even the
most talented of players are finding jobs and scholarships harder to come by if
they've got a checkered past.
Coaches want to see players that make good decisions off the field, because they
know there's a much better chance that he'll make a good decision on the field.
The X factor in all of recruiting is the human element which can't be measured.
How will a player react to adversity? How will he react to success and riches
that go along with being a high round pick? How dedicated will he be to getting
better? Those questions will be answered in the future and help
differentiate between the Ryan Leafs and Tom Bradys of the world who were the
No. 2 pick and No. 199 pick respectively.
In the business of predicting the future, the only certainty is that there's no
such thing as a sure thing, but when it comes to scouting players new Denver Broncos coach John Fox summed it up quickly when asked by Scout's Erin Hartigan what he was looking for while in Indianapolis for the Scouting Combine, "Big, strong and fast
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