With spread offenses, difficult translations
By Scott Brown
Sunday, April 22, 2012
The staggering amount of resources NFL teams devote to evaluating college players, from dissecting game tapes to dispatching coaches and scouts to Pro Day workouts across the country, guarantees nothing when it comes to the draft.
Any draft that is older than a toddler is littered with questionable to woeful picks, making the annual rite of replenishing rosters also an exercise in educated guessing.
What has added to the degree of difficulty when drafting is the spread offense and how rooted it has become in the college game. What is becoming less prevalent in college -- a quarterback taking a snap from center and throwing after a seven-step drop -- is still required in the NFL.
The systems that the majority of the guys are coming out of now are not pro systems, said Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert, who will make 10 picks in the draft that starts Thursday night and ends Saturday.You have to make a lot of judgments based on athleticism, intelligence and toughness rather than just pure execution of techniques similar to what they are asked to do at our level.
"Receivers run different routes. Tight ends, if they have a tight end, or running backs and quarterbacks are not doing the same types of things. That's the world we live in when evaluating. We have to adapt to it.
For personnel bosses such as Colbert, that means watching film of college offensive tackles lining up regularly in two-point stances -- the crouched position is often used in passing situations -- and trying to project how those players will fare when they have a hand on the ground in a three-point stance.
Such differences may be subtle to fans. But they are critical to teams such as the Steelers that largely build their rosters through the draft.
Even the center sometimes you say, "Well, the center never snapped to a quarterback. They are in shotgun all the time," Tennessee Titans coach Mike Munchak, who made nine Pro Bowls as a guard for the Houston Oilers, said about the difficulty of evaluating linemen because of the spread.
Little things like that make it harder because a lot of teams don't run the conventional NFL offense. A lot of offensive linemen haven't been developed in certain ways, haven't been asked to do certain things.
The same can be said for positions on the other side of the ball.
Minnesota Vikings coach Leslie Frazier said college offenses probably create more misses at the linebacker spot than you would expect because those players are in pass coverage so often. Teams looking to see how a linebacker plays moving forward, how he takes on blockers and sifts through traffic, won't find nearly as much film on that as they might have 10 years ago.
"There is so much out-in-space stuff with linebackers where they're almost quasi safeties as opposed to the traditional linebacker," Frazier said.
Safety is another position that has become more difficult to evaluate.
In college, a safety does not have to provide nearly as much run support as he does in the NFL. The routes in college are more dink and dunk,Frazier said, than in the more downfield-minded NFL. That raises questions as to whether a safety's cover skills will translate to the next level.
You have a safety that has got to cover a receiver in the slot, and there's a lot of combinations that you can go with that, coverage-wise, Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. Maybe they'll load up, power up and run the ball at you downhill. Somebody has to step up and tackle bruising running backs. You kind of need guys at safety that can do a little bit of everything.
The spread offense hasn't just forced talent evaluators to adjust. It is also helping drive the NFL's pass-first mentality that resulted in three quarterbacks eclipsing 5,000 passing yards last season and seven, including the Steelers Ben Roethlisberger, throwing for more than 4,000.
The sophistication of college passing games are such that receivers and cornerbacks are more NFL-ready coming out of school than ever, Colbert said. Not surprisingly, ESPN NFL draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said as many as 30 receivers are among the top 150 players in this year's draft. More than 25 cornerbacks also could be ranked in the top 150, Kiper said.
I frankly don't like all of this passing (in the NFL), but it's going to keep going up, Kiper said. Evaluating is a lot different than it was in the 60s, 70s, 80s and even well into the 90s. I've had to completely alter the whole mode of how you evaluate players. While you're adapting, you miss on some guys.
Kiper, due to his role as an analyst and TV talking head, has the luxury of misevaluating players. NFL general managers and coaches do not. That is why they do not grouse about the spread offense as much as they shrug about its impact -- and then adapt.
That's always a challenge: Project a guy from one system to not only a higher level of play but also a different style of play. New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. And that affects both sides of the ball.
Scott Brown can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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