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.