Overrated/underrated: Predicting pro success based on college years
Fellow college football scribe Stewart Mandel enjoys bequeathing thankless tasks to me. Four years ago, he gave me the college football power rankings. If I printed out all the hatemail, it probably would stretch from here to the moon. I'm expecting even more now that I've taken over the annual task of explaining to draftniks why college performance trumps running around in one's underwear.
The truth is predicting the success of NFL draftees is far more complicated than evaluating game video and measureables. That's why people who do it for a living on the payrolls of NFL teams are often wrong. Still, those of us who watch college football obsessively can't help but scratch our heads when we see players who barely made a dent drafted ahead of other players who performed better against the same competition -- or, as I like to call it, the Nicks/Heyward-Bey Conundrum.
The last time Mandel dropped this thing in my lap was 2009. That year, former Maryland receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey had rocketed up mock drafts, while former North Carolina receiver Hakeem Nicks remained stuck in the bottom half of the first round. Both guys had played in the ACC, meaning they played against roughly the same defenses. Neither played in a gadget offense that would have had a severe positive or negative effect on his numbers. Nicks produced twice as many receiving yards his final year in college.
The Raiders took Heyward-Bey with the seventh overall pick. Nicks went No. 29 to the Giants. Four years later, Nicks has two 1,000-yard receiving years in the NFL, while Heyward-Bey has yet to crack 1,000 and got cut by the Raiders last month before signing with the Colts.
This obviously isn't a perfect system, and rarely do we get such a perfect head-to-head comparison. But when other factors are equal, I'm still taking the guy who produced more. Which explains why I would skip Dion Jordan, save my money and draft Chase Thomas. Anyone who watched the Pac-12 the past few years knows exactly what Thomas can do. The draftniks who only read first-round mocks probably have no idea who Thomas is. Read on and find out ...
Dion Jordan, DE/OLB, Oregon
Jordan, who keeps showing up as a top-five pick in every mock draft I see, finished third in tackles for loss in 2012. Third in the nation? No. There wasn't a No. 3 because South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney (the likely No. 1 pick in the 2014 draft) and Arizona State defensive tackle Will Sutton tied for second with 23.5. Third in the Pac-12? Nope. That was UCLA linebacker Anthony Barr. Jordan finished No. 3 in tackles for loss on his own team with 10.5 (five sacks). And he might go second or third overall?
I get that Jordan's size (6-foot-6, 248 pounds) means he can play defensive end in a 4-3 or outside linebacker in a 3-4, but the idea that a 3-4 team needing a disruptive rusher would take Jordan over Georgia outside linebacker Jarvis Jones -- No. 1 in the nation with 24.5 tackles for loss even though he missed one game with an injury -- is absolutely dumbfounding. At least Jones will go elsewhere in the first round. Stanford's Thomas (6-4, 248) will go three to four rounds after Jordan, and all Thomas did -- playing against the same offensive lines as Jordan -- was get in the backfield more often (14.5 TFL, 7.5 sacks).
Manti Te'o, LB, Notre Dame
Te'o is a tackling machine who has a knack for being in the right place. That's great. But that describes several other inside linebackers in this draft, several of whom can be had much later than Te'o. Though Brian Kelly disagrees, Te'o's performance in the national title game against Alabama should give NFL teams pause. For most of 2012, Te'o roamed relatively free because teams couldn't handle nose guard Louis Nix III and defensive end Stephon Tuitt up front. It's much easier to play linebacker when guards and centers can't get a clean shot because they're either still trying to double-team Nix at the point of attack or getting popped by Tuitt on their way to the second level. Alabama's line was so good that the Crimson Tide blockers could get a free run at Te'o, and he got erased.
Because the talent gaps are so much smaller in the NFL, it's unlikely Te'o will have a nose guard playing in front of him who is as dominant as Nix is against most of Notre Dame's opponents. (There's a reason Nix will be a top-10 pick in 2014.) If you're picking in the late first round and absolutely want an inside linebacker, consider LSU's Kevin Minter instead.
Mike Glennon, QB, NC State
In 2011, NC State coach Tom O'Brien faced a choice. Glennon and Russell Wilson were both proud holders of bachelor's degrees, meaning each could transfer and play immediately for his new team. Wilson had one year of eligibility remaining and continued to play pro baseball in the offseason. Glennon had two. O'Brien chose Glennon. Wilson went to Wisconsin, had a huge year and then led the Seahawks to the playoffs as a rookie. This would be a good time to note that O'Brien doesn't coach NC State anymore, and leaving wasn't his choice.
Glennon probably will get drafted higher this year than Wilson did last year (75th overall) because teams will love his size (6-7, 225) and the howitzer that hangs from his right shoulder. But Glennon will not be a better NFL quarterback than Wilson for the same reason that Glennon wasn't a better quarterback than Wilson at NC State. No matter what the measurables say, Wilson is simply a more capable quarterback than Glennon.
Glennon has all the tools, which is why he might be the next quarterback taken after West Virginia's Geno Smith. But unless that's a long time after Smith is taken, the pick would be a reach. Glennon's ceiling is probably higher than any other quarterback in this draft. But until he proves in games that he won't throw the ball to the other team, he's going to have problems. Glennon led the ACC in interceptions last season with 17, and he threw five fewer touchdown passes than Clemson's Tajh Boyd despite attempting 143 more passes. But don't worry. Glennon will almost certainly be taken higher in this year's draft than the slightly vertically challenged Boyd will in next year's.
Margus Hunt, DE, SMU
Hunt has a great story. An Estonian who came to the United States to train as a weight thrower joins the football team and turns into a disruptive force at defensive end and an excellent blocker of kicks. His freakish size (6-8, 277 pounds) and speed (4.6-second 40-yard dash) suggest total domination as Hunt learns the game more thoroughly. That's why teams are looking at Hunt as a potential first-rounder.
But a guy with that combination of size, strength and speed should have been able to dominate Conference USA in spite of his lack of football experience. Hunt didn't. He finished fifth in the league in sacks and didn't even crack the top 10 in tackles for loss. In the SEC or the Pac-12, you probably let that slide because of Hunt's lack of experience against top-end players. In Conference USA, it means he got blocked a lot.
Chance Warmack, OG, Alabama
I realize Warmack could be a top-10 pick. He's still underrated. Unless a staff believes the offensive tackle or defensive end it's taking in the top five is a likely 12-year starter and Pro Bowl mainstay, they're making a mistake leaving Warmack on the board. He's the best guard to come out of college in years, a 320-pounder who can drive block like a steamroller and dance like a ballerina in the trenches. Woe unto the defender who encounters a pulling Warmack.
We all know guard is not considered a premium position in the draft. Those positions are quarterback, left tackle, defensive end, defensive tackle and cornerback. This is because the separation between good and great isn't usually as wide among guards as it is among, say, left tackles. But when you can take a potential all-time great at any position, you take him. As a freshman at Florida, I had to play the part of LSU guard Alan Faneca for a week. The defense got a terrible look, because few humans could do what Faneca could do. I was an especially pitiful substitute. At one point, defensive coordinator Bob Stoops had me line up behind the line of scrimmage in a sprinter's stance to pull because it was the only way to simulate how quickly Faneca pulled. LSU had Faneca doing things none of the other teams on the schedule dared ask their guards to do. Plenty of other teams in the SEC had NFL-bound guards, but none could do what Faneca could. The film made that obvious, just as it does with Warmack.
So what happened come draft day? Faneca went No. 26. When he becomes eligible, Faneca stands a good chance of being enshrined in the Hall of Fame. Of the 25 teams who passed on Faneca, only Indianapolis (Peyton Manning), Oakland (Charles Woodson), Jacksonville (Fred Taylor) and Minnesota (Randy Moss) can argue they made a worthy selection instead. The other 21 teams blew it. Don't blow it with Warmack.
Alex Okafor, DE, Texas
SMU's Hunt probably will be selected before Okafor, even though the following things are true.
• At Texas, Okafor faced better competition than Hunt did at SMU.
• Even with offenses loading up to stop him following fellow end Jackson Jeffcoat's pectoral muscle rupture in game six, Okafor racked up 17.5 tackles for loss (12.5 sacks) and four forced fumbles.
• Hunt had 11.5 tackles for loss (eight sacks) and zero forced fumbles.
This will be a clear case of potential over production. In this case, production is the cheaper bet.
Markus Wheaton, WR, Oregon State
Looking for some reliable value in the late second or early third round? Look no further than Wheaton, who caught 91 passes for 1,244 yards and 11 touchdowns as a senior. Wheaton is a burner with great hands who runs crisp routes. He can play in the slot or outside. If he were 6-foot-2 instead of 5-11, he'd probably be a lock in the first round.
Matt Scott, QB, Arizona
Every organization except the 49ers is looking for the next Colin Kaepernick. The closest thing to him is Scott, who spent his senior season piloting Rich Rodriguez's zone-read heavy spread. Scott (6-2, 213 pounds) is smaller than Kaepernick (6-4, 230), but like the 49ers starter, he combines good footspeed with a strong arm and an uncanny savvy for knowing when to hand off and when to keep on the zone read. Can he impact the NFL like Kaepernick has? That remains to be seen, but the risk won't be great. He'll be available in the middle rounds to any team willing to experiment with the concepts that swept the league last season.
Scott redshirted in 2011 to get out from behind Nick Foles. In 2012, he threw for 3,620 yards and 27 touchdowns and ran for 506 yards and six touchdowns. Scott probably would have run for more yards, but the Wildcats already had a dominant back in Ka'Deem Carey to shoulder most of the rushing load.