I apologize in advance for posting about something that isn’t that original, but it’s something I think is important to rehash in the coming weeks before the draft.

The word “upside,” and it’s more familiar cousin “potential,” get thrown around a lot when talking about prospective NFL players, especially in the context of evaluation (this is not limited to the NFL of course, but I thought I’d write about something I’m a bit more comfortable with). As a rule, it’s better to get a player with “upside” than a similar player who lacks that quality, but the difficulty comes in determining what to do with potential when player quality “out-of-the-box” differ.

This talk about potential and upside is incomplete, partially because our understanding, or at least the context by which we’ve come to understand the NFL, has functionally created a separate meaning for upside: athletic ability.

Scouts are almost always actually saying that a player has upside if he has athletic ability and a prototypical body shape. Usually this player is “raw” in some way (another term that we generally understand to mean deficient in a capacity, almost always technique related). Often these players are contrasted against “pro-ready” players, who for many have reached their “ceiling” as players.

Excuse the excessive use of quotation marks, but there are a lot of terms we’ve come to accept in the NFL, particularly as it relates to scouting. In this case, a ceiling is a reference to the theoretical upper limit of players as it relates to their on-field ability. If they are at or near their ceiling, what you see of their on-field play is about what you’d get in the NFL.

Too often it seems, scouts, media, coaches and fans are enthralled by the chance of landing a player with unlimited potential and unheard-of athletic talent at the position. It becomes nearly impossible to imagine what a limitless player can do. Maybe he could earn ten sacks a game? Throw 10 40-yard+ passes with perfect accuracy in a half? Grab 5 interceptions in a quarter?

No, he can’t.

 

There is no such thing as unlimited upside, and there can only be one player who is ever the greatest at their position. That player may change, but lest we fall prey to recency bias, it should not be all that often. For most, that means players like Joe Montana, Jim Brown, Lawrence Taylor, Joe Greene or Jerry Rice (lot of “J’s” there). For me it means Peyton Manning, Barry Sanders, Lawrence Taylor, Alan Page and Jerry Rice. Whatever.

The point is, there are reasonable limits to what a player can do, and even the game’s best could not perform all the things on every play of every game.

Of course, that’s the allure: we can always imagine greater. What if Rice played three more seasons at his level, or Alan Page single-handedly beat the Chiefs with a few well-timed sacks?

It’s irrelevant. The chances any particular player at the top of the draft of any specific year reaching those heights is small. I am legitimately high on Jadeveon Clowney, but I don’t think he’ll beat Bruce Smith’s record or have Lawrence Taylor’s impact on the game. And I think the chances of doing either are tiny.

Of defensive ends selected in the top five since the late 1950s, 17 (out of a total of 39) have made a Pro Bowl, and there were about 80 Pro Bowl selections overall. They’ve had 9.5 years and 5 sacks a year (of those who were picked after 1982).

Should he exceed those averages marginally, he will be a bust. He will be expected to produce at least ten sacks a season for ten years, and even then may fall short of his expectations even though only 30 players since the NFL started counting sacks (1982) have hit 100.0 sacks total, and only three have had at least ten seasons with ten sacks (the rest of them hitting 100.0 through a combination of long careers and inconsistent season-to-season totals).

This isn’t to say that it is unfair to expect great things from a player like Jadeveon Clowney, but that infinity is sold when finitude is the only reality.

All that aside, potential is almost always meant as a means of translating real physical ability to imagined technical ability.

But why are ceilings reduced to athletic talent?

Football is not a skills competition. We do not give points for the fastest 40-yard dash or the most reps in the bench press. It’s a pedantic point made time and again between the combine and the draft, but it bears repeating if only to contrast with what football is: a complex choreography of movement that requires planning, memorization, adaptability, reactiveness, intuition, strength, speed, aggression, precision, balance, technique and creativity.

That means that football is at least as much a mental game as it is a physical one. In fact, after a certain physical threshold, it’s mental acuity that generate additional advantages in the NFL. The best quarterbacks in the game today, and of all-time, are all well-known as extremely intelligent people with improvisational capability, lightning-quick reflexes and the ability to process incredible amounts of information in a short amount of time.

So, too, are the players at other positions. Jerry Rice is one of the most technically refined players of all time, if not the most refined. Randy Moss was considered by Bill Belichick as the smartest receiver he ever coached. Reggie White and Bruce Smith had a dazzling array of techniques and a natural understanding of leverage. Joe Greene invented the tilted nose tackle and Deacon Jones invented the head slap. Deion Sanders and Darrelle Revis had a preternatural understanding of football physics and body language while Jim Brown and Barry Sanders had incredible vision.

It is difficult to find a top-tier talent that does not have extraordinary mental capability as a football player, even if they were not expert mathematicians or orators.

Then why do we only talk about potential as if it is purely about athletic ability?

It’s understandable to some degree. We cannot measure, at least in any well-known and agreed-upon way, a prospect’s ability to digest new information and translate it to the on-field dance of football. Mental flexibility and quick integration are just as important, if not more important, than additional physical capability.

Moreover, the fact that there’s concrete evidence—in front of you, every day if you want—of a player’s athleticism but not so much their ability to learn a playbook and implement it, makes it easier to project “what if”. We know a player’s athletic ceiling. It’s extremely difficult to improve a player’s three-cone time or 40-yard dash in a football context.

But we don’t always know a player’s football intelligence. We can’t see it. We can barely measure it (and if we can, we generally aren’t), and our sample size for these sorts of things aren’t just embarrassingly small, they’re subject to extreme bias, interpretation and suffer from the fact that professional talent evaluators, the media and fans do not have the training to interpret the flawed data we do get.

Even if NFL teams and third-party evaluators had access to a lot of the hidden data they do not have—the defensive call on every play in the film they watch, the offensive call, the progression rules (not just for quarterbacks, but receivers, defensive tackles, etc), and so forth—they still wouldn’t have a lot of the tools they may have wanted (eye-tracking data?) or the ability to use those tools.

That isn’t a knock on NFL scouts (who are, contrary to popular belief, often horrendously under-trained), but on the fact that psychological evaluation just isn’t as good as physical evaluation as a science. The reputation that the NFL has for being slow to adopt technologies is probably not relevant here (many of them hire third-party psychologists who design their own exams), but it needs to be emphasized—the idea that there was a common thread of intelligence across different subject matters wasn’t tested until 1904, and independent metrics weren’t rigorously tested until after World War II. Intelligence is frankly a new field.

So it is easy to imagine and salivate over an incredible physical specimen doing exactly what he needs to do to maximize his athletic ability, but it is difficult to covet the “average” physical specimen (you know, for an NFL player) that does exactly that—what he needs to do from a role and technique standpoint.

Moreover, it is very difficult for us to price in a player’s ability to incorporate new knowledge from a football standpoint. But that’s a greater limiting factor than athleticism, because any player with baseline (or at least average at his position) physical ability can be the top player in history at his position. When you look at lists of the best players at their position, most of them were not considered physically dominant coming out of college.

It’s only human to respond with thinking that you can coach the technique into the player—give your coach the best clay you can find, and you’ll end up with Adonis. How do you make it into the NFL without having supreme confidence in your coaching? On the other hand, how does a high-level coach not understand that some players—as well as they may take direction from an attitude standpoint—do not have what it takes mentally to play the game?

How many players meet their projected upside, or fall acceptably short—especially those in the first round? When looking at generalized success rates of players at every position, drafted in the first through thirteenth picks (I was doing positional value research), I found players to pan out around 48% of the time—and that’s to play at above a replacement level in the NFL, not even meeting expectations as a high first-round pick.

While I didn’t do a study that rigorously categorized or looked into the issue with any depth, it looked clear to me that those 52% who didn’t meet replacement-level performance at their position were largely players drafted for their athletic upside. A “real” look at that issue would compare rates of “pro-ready” players and “upside” players in both the success and failure categories, but the results are at least suggestive that our fascination with potential is misplaced.

It’s not that we shouldn’t draft players with potential—you draft for the player you want in three years, not tomorrow—but that our understanding of potential is woefully erroneous.

A player’s ceiling is more often limited by their mental ability than physical. Their floor is often determined by the quickness with which they can grasp the game.

Contemporarily, this seems to have particular applicability to quarterbacks, where athletic ability and passing prowess seem to have combined consistently for the past several years. The success of “upside” players like Cam Newton and Colin Kaepernick really hammer home the idea that gambling on potential can pay off.

But when we say that a player who is “pro-ready” like Teddy Bridgewater has reached his ceiling, what do we mean? Almost always, we mean that he does not have the physical ability to run like Michael Vick, Cam Newton or Steve Young. He won’t generally convert a first down with his legs like Andrew Luck or John Elway, and he won’t light up a defense for long gains like Colin Kaepernick did to the Packers. He can’t sling the ball as far as Carson Palmer or Rex Grossman, or get rid of the ball as quickly as Tony Romo or Dan Marino.

Blake Bortles, Tom Savage and Logan Thomas will have to prove that they can clean up a number of technical issues and grasp a complex NFL offense, and Mettenberger will have to play much, much quicker. Those issues, of which there are many, will determine if they cash in on their upside.

Which means there is an inhibitor to what they can accomplish: their mental ability. I think there are serious concerns about processing speed for Savage and Mettenberger that limit their potential, so they are not high-ceiling players to me.

The best quarterbacks in the game all have high-level NFL cognition. All of those offenses are run in a manner that requires a high degree of sharpness, even if they do it through different ways. Peyton Manning shoulders an immense load as the lone ranger of an adaptive but simple system that sometimes enters games with fewer plays than his jersey number but requires inhuman attention to detail and control. Tom Brady has less authority over his offense, but runs perhaps the most complex one in the league, with hundreds of modular route concepts and options built in, with up to a dozen possibilities in one playcall.

The ability to incorporate and execute that type of information is not equal among college prospects.

We can’t possibly know how mentally flexible all the college quarterback prospects are, but we get a better idea with them than we do with other prospects—even if it falls short of our ability to measure their physical talents, like arm strength or foot speed.

Those that argue that Teddy’s ceiling are limited are sometimes among the same group that celebrate him for being one of the only freshman in college football to completely run an offense, and a pro-style one to boot. Every piece of information we have on Teddy Bridgewater indicates he has high level cognition in a way that befits the quarterback position.

Which means his ceiling is closer to a passer like Peyton Manning than it is a different random unathletic quarterback. Sure, he doesn’t have Cam Newton’s body, but what great quarterbacks did?

I struggle to see how Bridgewater has “maxed out” as a passer. He could get better at every part of his game, and if he does that, he could be the best quarterback we’ve seen. Will he? Probably not. But it’s more likely than Clowney becoming Reggie White.

In particular, if Bridgewater executes his decisions even faster, gets installed in a more efficient offense, fixes his deep ball and plays in a more complex option-route system, he could be an elite quarterback. These are all things Tom Brady actually did on his way to becoming one of history’s best passers, and he improved his arm strength along the way.

This doesn’t mean I think Bridgewater is on his way to becoming the greatest quarterback to ever play the game. If Vegas gave odds on that, I’d very probably bet against it. But that’s his ceiling.

If the reason people don’t think he has upside is because he’s refined, that’s backwards. Just because there are fewer things that need to be coached doesn’t mean there aren’t ways to make a player better. It’s gotten to the point where better players are worse prospects because it isn’t immediately obvious how to make them better.

How would you feel if your scout said to you, the GM, the following?

“If THIS player, who has all the physical skills we’re looking for, has all the technical skill of THAT player, who is only merely better-than-average physically, he’ll be better than that player. We should bank on it and pick THIS player despite him never showing positively or negatively whether or not he can pick up those technical skills and he has miles to go.”

Teaching Greg Robinson to kick-slide and improve lateral footwork against edge rushers is a lot easier to figure out than trying to solve Jake Matthews locking his knees against bull-rushers. But Matthews is technically refined and simply not an elite athlete. Robinson is in some ways the reverse, so he’s a better prospect. He’s only played offensive line since 2009 and was a college starting tackle for two years, so he has a lot of coaching left.

Robinson may be a better prospect than Matthews despite the fact that Matthews is currently a better player, but I haven’t seen a lot of ink on how well Robinson learns (he may in fact learn extremely well), especially compared to the space devoted in reports how good he could be if he learns.

The reason that NFL teams do not realistically offer contracts to Olympic track athletes is that playing receiver or defensive back is insanely difficult, and prospects need to show comparable ability in a similar or identical athletic event before any (modest) investment is a serious consideration (it will be interesting to see what happens to Lawrence Okoye, an Olympic track athlete with experience in rugby).

Rugby phenom Carlin Isles (touted as the fastest rugby player in the world, and a pretty good tackler to boot) has already been drummed out of the NFL despite the fact that he hasn’t even been to a minicamp yet.

This goes double for even more cerebral positions like center and quarterback. I know these things are among the most difficult to truly evaluate, and it’s difficult to comment on. But if we’re making definitive statements about a player’s “upside” without referencing the fact that all of this potential is also part-and-parcel with what’s upstairs, we’re being careless at best and dishonest at worst.

The ability to easily and cheaply measure mental flexibility and the hard-coding new physical information in a manner easy to grasp by NFL decisionmakers really limits the discussion on upside, but until the discussion is packaged with scouting, it will always be incomplete.