Self-evaluation is a critical component of the scouting process. History informs us that we will miss on players from time to time, and no evaluators are perfect. Looking back at our previous evaluations of players and identifying the how and why of our errors is a process that is humbling, but helpful to our own growth as scouts. With that in mind, I looked back at my evaluations of the 2015 wide receiver class.
In hindsight, maybe I should have just stopped at three and called it a day.
The 2015 wide receiver class was a group of players that created some heated debates both internally at Inside the Pylon, as well as in the entire football evaluation community. A mix of blue-chip prospects, players from smaller schools, and players with different strengths and scheme-fits made for a fascinating debate as the draft returned to Chicago for the first time since 1964. Over at ITP, our writers were putting together their first published evaluations on players, myself included. In addition to ranking the quarterbacks, I covered the wide receivers that year. As you will see, the results were… mixed:
|Wide Receiver||Schofield Rank||Draft Slot||Status|
|Amari Cooper||1||4||Oakland Raiders|
|Kevin White||2||7||Chicago Bears|
|DeVante Parker||3||14||Miami Dolphins|
|Jaelen Strong||4||70||Houston Texans|
|Breshad Perriman||5||26||Baltimore Ravens|
|Nelson Agholor||6||20||Philadelphia Eagles|
|Phillip Dorsett||7||29||Indianapolis Colts|
|Dorial Green-Beckham||8||40||Philadelphia Eagles|
|Sammie Coates||9||87||Pittsburgh Steelers|
|Tre McBride||10||245||Tennessee Titans|
|Devin Funchess||11||41||Carolina Panthers|
|Tyler Lockett||12||69||Seattle Seahawks|
So, where to begin?
At the outset, you’ll notice that is only a list of 12 names. There were 35 wide receivers drafted in the 2015 NFL Draft, with Cooper coming off the board first and McBride rounding out the class as the last WR picked in the draft. More on that in a moment. But for now, some of the good news that I’ll take from this. I’m fairly proud of how I had the top three guys in this class. As the draft approached, there were some in the evaluation community who had White and/or Parker over Cooper in their rankings. There were certainly cases to be made for those players to be at or near the top of the class, but for me, there were reasons to put Cooper at the top of the mountain. Looking at WRs, sometimes the ability to run the entire route tree gets overblown. Remember, the rules are to “scout the traits not the scheme,” and “tell me what he can do,” if a player is only asked to run a few routes (go routes, slant routes, and curl routes) but runs them very well, take note of that and if he excels in that area, an NFL coach can implement that in their offensive scheme.
However, what I truly did hang my hat on with Cooper was the polish to his game, which included the fact he could run the entire route tree on Day One in the NFL. His scouting profile remains one of my favorite pieces at ITP, as I took readers through the route tree using his tape. For my money, that made Cooper a true “plug and play option” on the first day of his NFL career, making him a more valuable asset to a team early in his career. That, coupled with his footwork and fluidity on these routes, propelled him to the top of my board. So I’ll stand by that.
Now, however, it’s time to take some Ls.
Do the Work, Redux
This was an issue that arose when I revisited my quarterback rankings, but it is magnified looking at the list of receivers that were selected and how they compare to my rankings. I put together a ranking of 12 receivers, and, again, 35 were drafted over the three days in Chicago. I studied a few dozen receivers, but only felt confident enough in my evaluations to rank the top dozen. That was a mistake that I’ll take ownership of. Readers expect us to do the full workload and provide insight on all of the players at a given position, not a portion thereof. My rankings that year at the wide receiver position were, simply, a disservice to the readers of Inside the Pylon, and one I’ll apologize for today. No excuses. Part of this is why we have structured our Draft Guide differently. With multiple scouts covering each position, we can minimize the chance that we miss players or do incomplete work. So ITP is learning lessons from the past and implementing new procedures going forward, but for now, I’ll take ownership of that oversight.
Not All Receivers are Created Equally
Looking at my rankings here, you can see that there is no consideration given to the type of receiver they are, be it a Z receiver, an X receiver or even a slot guy. When ranking receivers, I now believe it is important to be cognizant of the fact that NFL teams have different needs and schemes, and as such that might adjust the order in which the receivers will be ranked by them. If you follow the work of people like Dan Hatman and Emory Hunt, they are firm believers in ranking receivers based on type, as that is more indicative of how the NFL teams view them. Overall rankings are fine in a vacuum, as some WRs are versatile and serve in different roles. But I think positional / usage rankings should at least be a component of the overall picture, so readers can gain a better understanding of how these players will be utilized at the next level.
Will What They Do Well Translate, and are the Flaws Fatal?
I’m looking specifically at the player I had ranked fourth, Jaelen Strong.
In the scouting profile I put together on him, I noted three areas of strength for him: vertical plays, strength at the catch point, and blocking. I loved Strong’s ability to win down-the-field, and he was very strong at the catch point when watching him on tape, securing the football in contested catch situations as well as on back shoulder throws. As I wrote:
Strong excels against physical contact when working in tight spaces in the red zone or along the sidelines… On the first play against the Wildcats, Strong manages to contort his body back to the throw and stop the flight of the football with his left hand. As he twists back to the sideline he brings his right hand to the ball and secures the pass. He then maintains his balance, stays inbounds, gains additional yardage, dives and extends the football inside the pylon.
The second two plays are consecutive snaps from ASU’s game against UCLA. The WR runs a back-shoulder fade route along the left sideline on both plays. On the first play, Strong manages to secure the pass with the defender draped on his back and clutching at his neck. Strong notches a reception on the next play running the same route, this time reaching over his shoulders to snare the football while the defender climbs his body.
My takeaway from this is that playing wide receiver in the NFL is a much different beast than playing in college. The defensive backs in the NFL are bigger, stronger, and faster. So the ways in which Strong excelled in the Pac-12 were dependent in part on his pure physical ability and athleticism, and not technique as with Cooper for example. So for Strong’s game to translate well, his physical ability and athletic ability in comparison to NFL DBs would have needed to be on the same level as those traits against college DBs. Strong’s ability at the catch point, and on back shoulder plays, were pluses in college. But the ability of NFL defensive backs at that same moment in a play lessens that ability from a rookie receiver. So going forward what I’ll be trying to look for is whether the player has other traits that will allow him to excel in different ways, because relying on ability at the catch point may not translate immediately.
Now, let’s look for a second at one of the things I identified as a weakness, drops:
At times Strong looks to gain yards after the catch before securing the football and/or lets the football into his body, leading to drops…If Strong makes the catch on this play he can likely run for a first down and more. But he lets the football get into his body, and the pass bounces off him and falls to the turf.
On this next play, ASU faces a 3rd down and 4 and implements the high-low opposite. Strong is in the right slot and runs a shallow crossing route, likely the low part of this pattern but he rounds off his route and runs it short of the first-down marker. Since both of those elements might be by design I cannot knock him for those decisions. However, his quarterback hits him out of the break and Strong fails to secure the football.
Catching the football is a pretty fundamental aspect to playing the position. I noted that Strong struggled with his hands while in college, but wrote that it would be one of the things he could “fine-tune” transitioning to the NFL. But, that might have been too optimistic of a view. Hands and the ability to catch the football are a core, essential trait for the wide receiver, and going forward anytime I look at a wide receiver and notice a weakness in this area, I’ll be more cognizant of it, and be more hesitant to put them near the top of a board absent clear evidence that the player can truly improve that trait at the next level.
Divorce Yourself from Emotion
Now, I was not alone on McBride Hill, there were others alongside me. But my reasoning was perhaps much more flawed than my fellow evaluators.
In the late summer of 1999, I packed up a Volvo station wagon and made the drive down I-95 from the Boston area to Williamsburg, Virginia where I enrolled as a first-year student in law school. The school? William and Mary. Now, as I’ve highlighted on a few occasions, the practice of law was never my strength, and it has led to a second career here as a sportswriter, but the William and Mary experience was incredible. After all, the first week of law school, I met a girl. Nearly 17 years later we’re still together and have a great little family.
But when I was studying McBride, there was a part of me that just wanted to see a William and Mary guy do well. So I bought in, completely. Even convinced that girl that the family needed to take a trip to Williamsburg that spring so I could see McBride’s pro day in person. There was no talking me down from that hill. To be fair, there were others beside me, and there were traits of his game that looked like they would translate well to the NFL. Further, McBride is still in the league so the Titans must see something in him. But looking back was my ranking a factor of his traits and ability, or was it a factor (in whole or in part) because of my emotion?
Football is a business, whether you are a coach, a GM, or just a guy on his couch writing evaluations on players. Emotion should not be a factor. This happens all the time in the evaluation game, when people declare their “guys,” set up camps on hills, and at times refuse to consider any evidence to the contrary. I was guilty of it with McBride, and looking to the next two versions of this piece, I believe there might be some words dedicated to Jared Goff and perhaps even Deshaun Watson along these lines coming from me. My evaluation of McBride was, at least in part, a factor of my emotion when looking at the name on the front of his jersey. Even if it was only 1% of the factor, it was more than 0, and that is again a disservice to anyone who reads and trusts my work. Divorcing myself from the emotional aspect of the evaluation process is perhaps my biggest lesson looking back at this group.
Taking a loss is never easy. As a father to two young children who are just starting their athletic careers, I’m already cognizant of the fact that teaching them how to lose, and how to learn from losing, might be the most important lesson I can instill in them. But applying that same standard to my work, and my previous evaluations, might be the most important thing I can do for my readers. I’ll get better, I promise.