The NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis is underway, so by this time next week we'll have a whole new bag of storylines to dig into. Before that happens there are few important things to check off the Draft Bytes to-do list, like blasting away at the NFL's version of Sasquatch.
1.) There is a popular myth floating around in the football world these days. It's been rearing it's ugly head for the last few years and today I'm going to put it down. Like all good myths it is partially based in truth, but that small shred of fact allows it to continue popping up despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Much like Josh recently slayed the notion of late round developmental QB's, I am going to put an end to the fairytale notion of the "hybrid linebacker-safety".
Let me be clear, there is no such creature in the football world. Fans will swear to you that there is, but when pushed, they themselves will admit that the player they were championing as just such a beast is really not one at all. There are linebackers who can run like safeties and a few safeties who can hit like linebackers, but there are no true hybrid linebacker-safeties; at least not in the way fans picture them to exist. Fans don't want players who have a few crossover skills, they want one fully-formed player who will do the work of two. That player is fictional.
Examples of players from the last few years who have worn the hybrid "tag" (a.k.a "big nickel") are Telvin Smith of the Jaguars, Shaq Thompson of the Panthers and perhaps the most famous poster child for this misnomer, Deone Bucannon of the Cardinals. These are talented players but I'm going to burst your bubble; they aren't "hybrid" anything. They're linebackers. If you look at where they line up and what their responsibilities are once the play unfolds you can only come to one rational conclusion; you're looking at a linebacker. You might say "That's not possible, they are too small to be linebackers!". I'll counter with "You're half right... they used to be". So let's take a look at the changes that have allowed players who were previously too small to be full-time LB's to flourish at that position in the modern NFL.
Telvin Smith is 6'3" and 223 pounds. Deone Bucannon was 6'1, 211 pounds at the scouting combine. Bucannon may have put on 10 or so pounds as a pro, but he does not weigh more than 225 pounds during an NFL season. Both play linebacker in the modern NFL on a full-time basis and do it very well. If you chart their snaps, both line up in a traditional LB alignment close to (or over in the case of Smith) 90% of the time. They can both run, cover and hit, but the fact remains that they are linebackers playing at (or less than) 225 pounds. This is possible in today's NFL because the game has changed. It's simply our way of thinking as fans that has remained stagnant. In other words, we need to start thinking about the game in a functionally different way.
In the "old days" which were not that long ago, LB's needed to be at least 230 pounds to stand up against the repeated pounding of an offense's bruising rushing attack. Big-bodied RB's slammed into the line of scrimmage with the "3 yards and cloud of dust" mentality all game long. 25-30 rushing attempts per game were common and single high-profile "feature backs" ruled the landscape. Almost none of that is true any more. Backs are generally smaller. Speed, elusiveness and pass catching skills are favored over bulldozer-like power. Rushing attempts have declined substantially over the last decade. Only 1 back in the entire league averaged more than 20 carries a game last season: Adrian Peterson at 20.4 per game. The next closest RB averaged 18. The requirement of physical mass at the LB position has changed to a need for speed as the NFL has morphed into a passing-based league. This shift has created the need for new-school players at an old-school position.
As the draft process progresses you will hear over and over again that so-and-so at just over 200 pounds is "too light to be an every-down linebacker" in the NFL. This is old-school thinking that has failed to adjust to modern realities. Linebackers who can run and cover are like gold coins in the current iteration of the NFL. When someone says "every-down" it is code for "base defensive set". This used to be known as the first 2 downs in a 4-down series; where the offense was likely to run the ball. That is simply not happening in today's NFL. Teams are spending almost 70% of the time in their nickel defense to counter 3 WR sets that are commonplace on 1st and 2nd down. In those sets, lighter LB's who can run and cover RB's, TE's and spy mobile QB's are a necessity, not an oddity.
So as the Combine unfolds this week don't sleep on the smaller LB's who light up the track in the 40 dash and footwork drills. Some of the most talented players in this draft fit that description and there is real depth to the group. I watched most of them this week and came away impressed with more than a few. Keep an eye on names like Darron Lee, Su'a Cravens, Jeremy Cash, Deion Jones, Jatavis Brown, Dominique Alexander and Montese Overton. We might just have to come up a with new name for their position to reflect the valuable role they play in a modern defense. How about "Hammers"?
2.) The 2016 draft is a tough place to be if you need a starting QB and don't have a high pick in the 1st round. Jared Goff, Carson Wentz and Paxton Lynch will likely go off the board before the first half of the 1st round is completed. After that trio there are a lot of wildcards and maybes, but nobody else approaching possible first year starters. 2017 could be a very different year indeed. While it is still way too early to tell anything for sure, and there is a whole college season to play, injuries to be avoided etc., next year could produce a relative bumper crop of signal callers to choose from. The potential draft-eligible group includes Jeremy Johnson (Auburn), Gunner Kiel (Cincinnati) , Patrick Mahomes (Texas Tech), Baker Mayfield (Oklahoma), Brad Kaaya (Miami), Chad Kelly (Ole Miss), CJ Beathard (Iowa), Josh Dobbs (Tennessee) and Seth Russell (Baylor). As always time will tell and not all the underclassmen will declare, but many of that group have already put some very good football on tape. Even 2/3rd's of that group would represent a major upgrade in the choices from this year's near terminally-thin class of throwers.
3.) A quick word about hoping too much as we plunge headlong into the thick of the draft cycle. Observers often project their own desires on to the events they watch. In terms of the draft that means fans start talking themselves into what a player could become. Now projection and maturation are important parts of the process, but they tend to carry fans away at this time of year.
If you find yourself hoping that a prospect you like can:
- Learn a new position
- Develop his football instincts/intelligence to much different level than he consistently displayed on tape in school
- Make or finish many more of the plays he missed against college players
- Get significantly bigger or stronger than he is if he's already 22 or older
- Stop loafing consistently
- Learn very basic positional skills that he's failed to at his current level
- Completely change his tackling or throwing form
...you might be in trouble. If your draft crush needs 3 or more of the above things to change to be considered a quality player in the league, you might just want just want to take a deep breath and step back for a minute.
All players have flaws but when they have them in bunches in these areas there's a label for them: projects. Projects are fine in the very late rounds and UDFA ranks, but when teams gamble on too many things falling into place and their guy becoming a star... they are almost always disappointed. So go ahead and dig for the hidden talents. After all, that's the fun part. Just don't expect them all to be winners. You've heard of Vegas, and you know how that works out in the end.
Player's Lounge - Every week I will look at a player who is trending in the draft process
With the Combine looming we'll double up on a pair of players who both have a ton to prove in Indy this week, both on the field and off. Ironically enough, if they both survive their interviews this week they may well line up across from each other in a game next fall.
Many draft fans have heard about Rashard Robinson, a cornerback from LSU who is immensely talented but was kicked off the team for some serious off the field incidents. His main focus this week will be convincing teams that they can trust him to be a model citizen if he is drafted. The NFL is much more likely to turn a kind ear to his pitch if he performs as well in the drills as he's expected to. Robinson has great size, athleticism and ball skills: a trifecta which will always garner serious attention in a pass-first league. Expect him to show off his considerable physical gifts to try and remind teams he is worth thinking about despite his past.
Demarcus Robinson not only shares a last name with Rashard, he is almost a mirror image of him; but on the opposite side of the ball. This Florida WR is exceptionally talented but was suspended 4 times while in Gainesville. He too will try and convince decision makers that he has turned a corner off the field while lighting it up on the Lucas Oil Stadium turf to lend a little extra weight to his presentation. He will likely be among the fastest pass catchers there and have a ton of buzz surrounding him next week if his performance is as good as projected.
Reader Question of the Week - I'll pick a question from a reader each week and answer it here. If you have a question you'd like to be considered you can either leave it in the comments section below, or send it to me directly on Twitter (@thedraftsmanFB) with the hashtag #askEJ.
WCG user MidWayMonster54 posted this tidbit in the comments section last week: "You may wanna check out Mississippi State DL Chris Jones . Lots of scouts are raving about him..."
Jones made my list before last year's college season kicked off. I really liked his Mississippi State linemate Preston Smith who ended up being drafted by Washington last year. Jones is immense (6'6", 308) and scouts are really starting to talk about him now that they are getting a chance to dig into the second tier of draft prospects. While he didn't have overwhelming stats playing for the Bulldogs, Smith is one of those players whose talent is pretty obvious when you watch what he can accomplish on tape.
Jones has a ton of power and uses it well to force opposing offenses into bad spots. Despite being very tall he's tough to move and anchors well, shutting off running lanes with his very long arms in the process. What excites scouts is his emerging ability to add some pass rush to his prodigious run-stopping ability. He can move for a guy his size and has surprising straight line speed for 300-pounder. His long legs help him quickly close the gap between himself and quarterback if he gets free.
Jones had off-the-field issues in college and those have to be considered and weighed appropriately when thinking about him as a player. Every team will see those issues differently in their own evaluation. While not a complete player by any means, Chris has terrific physical skills, exciting potential and could be a very solid contributor as 5-tech defensive end on 3-4 defensive line (like Chicago's) from day one.