Thursday, July 2, 2015

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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.


Audie Cole’s first NFL start began with a sack on the very first play of the game against the Greenbay Packers in week 12 of 2013. Cole finished the game with 13 total tackles earning him three more starts before a high ankle sprain sidelined him for the season finale versus the Detroit Lions.

Cole is a difficult player to evaluate because his production can be very good, but his overall athleticism and disruptive impact or “wow factor” is often underwhelming. Nonchalant, ho-hum, vanilla, old-school, tough nosed, instinctive and fundamentally sound are just a few of the adjectives that come to mind when watching Cole’s style of play.

 Audie Cole is a 6’4” 245 pound middle linebacker that the Vikings selected in the seventh round of the 2012 draft. Cole had a productive 4 year career at North Carolina State recording 276 total career tackles, 14 sacks, 7 forced fumbles and 1 interception.

 Unfortunately for Cole, his good production on the football field will get deluted in today’s measurement hungry and workout centered talent evaluation process. Athleticism, explosive burst, and big play potential are some intangible factors that can help tip the scale favorably for certain players… Cole is not one of those players.


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As we get closer to the NFL Draft, it’s critical that fans and media alike find ways to aggregate the mountains of information they have and concisely explain what we need to know about the top prospects about to enter the NFL. In the interest of doing so, I’ve compiled one sentence scouting reports on the Top 40 players as determined by CBS’ draft rankings—among the best in the industry.


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Toby Gerhart had been somewhat of a favorite among the Minnesota Vikings fanbase before seeking his fortunes in free agency. The general consensus seems to have been that he deserved his chance to start and prove he has what it takes to be a bell-cow back.

Speaking to the Florida Times-Union, Gerhart said that he was “ready for his shot.”

“I think I’m in a unique situation. Even though it’s my fifth year in the league, I can come in and be a dominant guy,” he said to Gene Frenette of the Florida newspaper.

A month earlier, head coach Gus Bradley indicated that Toby Gerhart could be due for about 18 carries a game (that’s 288 carries for the year), and Frenette projects somewhere between 240-300 carries for the year (giving himself a little bit of leeway) despite the initial impression from Jaguars fans that Gerhart would be the lead back in a running-back-by-committee instead of the primary back supplemented with the likes of Jordan Todman and Denard Robinson. This matches a report from the same newspaper in early March, when he signed, that he would get 15-20 carries a game.

Toby Gerhart has had 276 carries in his career (functionally one season) for 1305 yards. Unlike most backup running backs, the lion’s share of those carries actually came from lead back duty instead of as a backup, so his 4.7 yards per carry average may be more indicative than most, especially as that is a decent (not great) sample to draw from.

His Pro Football Focus grade, when normalized to one season of 800 snaps, is slightly above average for a starting running back (+0.9) over the course of his career, and was great last year (+3.0 on 199 snaps). He also has had a career yards per attempt after contact of 2.8, higher than the league average of 2.6 and his predecessor Maurice Jones-Drew. He has forced 50 missed tackles on those 276 carries, which is one of the best in the NFL in that time (0.181 missed tackles per attempt beats Peterson’s extremely high .169), 10th overall among those with at least 250 attempts.

The only year that Gerhart had significant carries (2011, after Peterson went down with an ACL injury), he had 109 carries for 4.9 yards a carry and an 800-snap adjusted PFF grade of 14.0, which would have placed him third overall among RBs (he had a 7.0 grade for the year, actually ranking 16th). If the argument that he needs to have more carries a game to build up steam holds any merit, it bodes extremely well for him.

Gerhart gained weight while with the Vikings (he told me as a directive from the coaching staff), who probably wanted to convert him into a power back willing to gain short yardage in order to rest Adrian Peterson in 3rd-and-short situations. He was listed at 231 pounds on the Vikings roster in 2013, but that hasn’t changed since his initial listing in 2010 (it was also his 2010 combine weight), which means that it is probably inaccurate.

Toby was a fantastic college running back, and the fifth one drafted that year (behind the remarkable Jahvid Best) and finished 2nd in the closest Heisman race to date behind Mark Ingram of Alabama. He led the FBS that year in total rushing yards, total attempts, total touchdowns, and ranked fifth in yards per attempt among those with at least 250 carries (behind Ryan Mathews, Donald Buckam, Mark Ingram and Ryan Williams). He was a critical part of Jim Harbaugh’s success at Stanford and was a high-level back ready for the draft.

He ranked third in Matt Waldman’s pre-draft Rookie Scouting Portfolio and had this to say of him:

Gerhart is a powerful back with the speed, explosiveness, and vision to be a productive starter. Gerhart is more Michael Turner than Brandon Jacobs in terms of his skill sets, which makes him a multi-dimensional threat. He might be the best pass blocking back in this draft class, which will earn him early chances. Gerhart is a smart, gritty, do-what-it takes player that will at least be a major component in an RBBC.

He also called Gerhart the best back in the “power,” “balance,” and “blocking” categories.

SB Nation said this about him:

Despite spending four years at Stanford, Gerhart is considered an underclassman in draft standards because of a medical redshirt he used in 2007 as a result of a torn ACL in his left knee. Considering his upright running style and his disadvantage off the bat when it comes to NFL athleticism, teams will approach the All American’s draft status with caution. There is not doubt he has the ability to break tackles and gain yards after contact, two vital components to the running back position in the NFL, but his already damaged knee and lack of top tier athleticism will downgrade his stock. He will best be used in a system that allows him to carry the ball in certain situations rather then being depended upon to carry the ball every down. His intangibles are top notch and he is both a dedicated and accomplished two sport athlete that will enter the league as a guy that every coach wants on the field on way or another. He will get a shot as a tailback, but has the body and physicality to make the move to fullback in a pinch. If he works out well, Gerhart could be a top 45 selection.

The draft profile is very similar:

Gerhart is a big, powerful ball carrier that has just enough speed to be a threat. He runs with a good pad level and consistently breaks through first contact and gets a lot of his yards after initial contact. He seems to get stronger as the game wears on and defenses visibly grow weary of trying to take him on in the latter parts of the game. He knows how to follow his blockers and is patient as he waits for the hole to open up. He is an effective receiver out of the backfield and, while he is not apt to be used as a downfield threat, he can move the chains in the short to intermediate passing game.

I do think he’ll get back to a higher level of speed (which I think was underrated coming out) if he drops weight to get back to 231 and be a highly productive back, even if he doesn’t have the spectacular highlights that Adrian Peterson has.

Also, I get it: it’s a slow period for news. So instead, here’s some stuff about a guy we all liked.

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