April 25, 2012

NFL Draft Series: Upside

     You can't watch NFL Draft coverage without hearing the word "upside".  Every year there are prospects with amazing athleticism and mediocre skills, and the draft pundits always describe these guys as having "upside":  the possibility of being really good in the future.

     But doesn't that describe everybody in the draft?  Couldn't any prospect turn out to be a great player?  JaMarcus Russell, Darrius Heyward-Bey, and Vernon Gholston were all touted as "upside" guys, and turned out to be horrible.  Actual upside guys like Tom Brady, Jared Allen, Marques Colston, and Frank Gore never got that kind of recognition as prospects.

     So can we please just admit that "upside" is unpredictable, and more so, that it has nothing to do with freakish athleticism?  If a player is physically gifted, then why didn't he dominate in college?  Is it really that likely that he'll figure it out as a pro?  And if a slower, weaker person can figure out how to be a great collegiate player, wouldn't you expect him to find a way to be good in the pros?

     As much as I love stats and ratings, maybe the rating systems we see in Madden and similar video games are sending the wrong messages to scouts.  Real-life players don't have a 99 rating that they stop getting better at.  Just because Ryan Leaf had all the physical tools didn't mean he would be better than Peyton once they both maxed out at 99 awareness.  I'm sure Peyton hit "99" long before his prime.

     No specific type of player is going to progress at a faster rate than all the other players.  All the GM's need to stop trying to be fancy and just pick the player who looks like the best fit for the NFL right now.  I have no problem with trying to gauge a player's work ethic and personality, because those things not only affect their growth but also their early level of performance.  But imaging what all the prospects can be isn't the right way to operate in the Draft.  The only thing you can judge them on is what they already are.

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