Days 2 and 3 of the NFL draft are an exercise in waiting for the players you’ve heard of to be drafted. Much respect to you if you’ve broken down tape on the small-school prospects who are coming off the board in the fifth round, but I think the majority of fans are spending those hours waiting to see when that big-school quarterback gets selected or where that injured halfback is going. That’s why today’s column is a look at three prospects who were drafted far later than their name recognition might have suggested. I’ll start in Arizona, where the new regime is counting on Patrick Peterson to help counsel one of the most tantalizing playmakers in recent college history
Badge of Honor
The book on Tyrann Mathieu appears to suggest that the Honey Badger is capable of being a successful NFL pro if he’s able to get his head on right, something that seemed unlikely for most of the past year. I’m inclined to think that the opposite is true. Nobody knows how Mathieu will handle professional life, but the track record of players with marijuana issues in college — most recently Aaron Hernandez — suggests that they don’t frequently see their problems recur at the NFL level. The presence of former teammate Peterson and veterans like Larry Fitzgerald elsewhere on the team should only help make it easier for Mathieu to settle in as a Cardinal. Although it’s also worth noting that those two guys were both on the roster at the end of this season, when star linebacker Daryl Washington was suspended for four games for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy, so the presence of veterans is not a foolproof solution to stopping illicit substance use.
Instead, I’m more skeptical about the other side of the coin. Mathieu has the skills to be a useful slot cornerback in the NFL, but I wonder how likely his “special” characteristics are to translate to the highest level of football. Mathieu has a well-earned reputation as a playmaker and turnover machine from his time with LSU. In two years on campus, Mathieu picked off four passes, forced 11 fumbles, recovered eight loose balls, and scored four touchdowns, with two each coming on punt and fumble returns. It’s tough to top that résumé, but how predictive is it of Mathieu’s professional performance?
Start with the ability to force fumbles. You only need to see Peanut Tillman play to know that forcing fumbles is a skill, but when you look at Mathieu’s college career, several of his forced fumbles came on plays where he ripped the ball out of an opposing ball carrier’s hands. There are some big guys in the SEC, but players in the NFL are even bigger and — more important — are far better at holding onto the football. SEC teams fumbled just over 1.5 times per game last season; NFL teams fumbled about 15 percent less frequently than that last year. Furthermore, players of Mathieu’s size simply don’t force very many fumbles at the NFL level. Honey Badger forced an average of 5.5 fumbles per year in school despite his 5-foot-9 frame; since 1985, players 5-foot-9 or under (the point at which the indispensable Pro-Football-Reference.com begins to have reliable height and forced fumble data) have forced five fumbles or more in a season just three times. There have been 134 instances of a taller player forcing five fumbles or more over that time frame. In addition, no player at Mathieu’s height or shorter has ever recovered three or more fumbles in a season more than twice. Mathieu’s college skill in that category seems very likely to be limited or neutralized by the step up in competition.
Mathieu also exhibited devastating ability as a punt returner in college, but it’s fair to question how that will affect the Cardinals. For one, Mathieu returned only 25 punts during his college career, returning two for touchdowns. He certainly looked great on those returns, but that’s not a very large sample. For example, had Mathieu played at LSU last season, chances are that we would’ve seen a steady diet of teams punting away from him and a year without impressive numbers, which wouldn’t affect his actual skill level as a return man, but would change the way we view Mathieu’s possible impact as a return guy.
In any case, even if you suspect that Mathieu’s an excellent punt returner (and I do), how much better can he really be than Patrick Peterson, who returned four touchdowns during his rookie season? Coincidentally, after that incredible rookie season as a return man, teams spent 2012 punting away from Peterson and limiting his impact on returns, and Mathieu’s impact here won’t be to improve Arizona’s punt-return units, but instead to get the wildly valuable Peterson off the field and keep him healthy for his more important duties as the team’s top cornerback while keeping things as close to Peterson’s level as possible.
All that doesn’t mean that Tyrann Mathieu can’t be a useful NFL player. As our Chris Brown noted when writing about the rise of hybrid defenders last year, Mathieu can be a force of nature as something only vaguely resembling a “cornerback.” In the NFC West, he can line up in the slot and match up with Percy Harvin or Tavon Austin in coverage on one play, and then use his elite football instincts to try to sniff out the intentions of Colin Kaepernick or Russell Wilson on the next one. That’s a player the Cardinals need to win football games, especially in what’s rapidly becoming the league’s toughest division. The guy who seemed to will himself into creating turnovers and scoring touchdowns like nobody else in football, though? I’m skeptical that he’ll be suiting up on a regular basis in Arizona.
Barkley: Shut Up and Sit
Matt Barkley’s steady fall from Heisman shoo-in to prospect to also-ran finally hit the floor on Saturday afternoon, when the Philadelphia Eagles took him with the first pick of Day 3. After a promising junior year that saw Barkley complete nearly 70 percent of his passes and throw 5.5 touchdowns for every interception, Barkley could’ve left school and likely been a first-round pick. Instead, he returned for his senior season and struggled with injuries, which helped drive a decrease in his completion percentage and a spike in his interception rate. Barkley threw just 2.7 touchdowns for every pick in 2012, and the USC team he was expected to keep in national title contention went just 7-6. Yuck.
In thinking about Barkley, though, another quarterback who was wildly underrated out of school comes to mind. Like Barkley, our mystery passer was a multiyear starter at a major college. He had a number of notable comeback victories under his belt, just as Barkley has his famous game-winning drive over Ohio State from his freshman year. This passer missed a full year with an injury and had to redshirt, which led to concerns from scouts about his injury history, just like today’s scouts have with Barkley. Those scouts also questioned that quarterback’s arm strength and noted that it was “average,” just like you get the idea. That passer went off the board with the final pick of the third round in his draft, while Barkley was the first pick in the fourth round this past weekend. Most notably, though, both of the quarterbacks in question were coming to the NFL to play in offensive systems under new head coaches that were designed to make a quarterback’s life easier, specifically by building an offense around spreading the field and making quick, short throws that beat the pass rush. Barkley can only hope that it works out as well for him as it does for our mystery passer, Joe Montana.
That’s not to say that Matt Barkley is about to become Joe Montana, or that the college careers of Montana and Barkley are perfect matches; Montana did win a national championship, after all. What’s important to note about Montana with regard to Barkley is just how important the developmental context is in producing a successful player. When Montana left Notre Dame, scouts buried his average arm and said he locked onto one target. Bill Walsh — an innovative mind who had just been tapped from the ranks of the Pac-10 to become an NFL head coach for the first time that offseason — happened to be a hell of a football coach, and he had built an offense around hiding the weaknesses of his quarterbacks while playing to their strengths. That brought out a much better Montana than anybody expected.
Likewise, ask Chip Kelly about his offensive scheme (expertly profiled by Mr. Brown here) and you’re bound to hear a similar story. The passing game Kelly ran at Oregon was built around short, quick throws that were designed to come out before the pass rush got home to the quarterback. His quarterbacks were Jeremiah Masoli, Darron Thomas, and Marcus Mariota, two guys who ended up in the CFL and one redshirt freshman.
Elite arm strength was not and is not a prerequisite; as Kelly said this weekend about Barkley, “We’re not trying to knock over milk cartons at a county fair. It’s ‘Can you put the ball in the right spot at the right time?'” If Barkley can do anything well, he can get through his progressions and make a quick, accurate throw. Barkley can’t run in the same way that Oregon quarterbacks have in the past, but it seems likely that Kelly wouldn’t run a mobile quarterback more than five or six times per game in the NFL, anyway.
Again, let’s be clear about this: Matt Barkley is not about to become Joe Montana just because they’ve traveled a similar path, and Chip Kelly isn’t (necessarily) the next Bill Walsh. All I’m saying is that the Montana-Walsh story should tip us off to the point of being skeptical whether we’ve heard the final word on Matt Barkley’s professional viability. From what we can infer by where they were selected, the league had a roughly similar grade on one of the best quarterbacks of all time to the one they just slapped on Barkley. What does that tell you about conventional wisdom? I don’t know what’s going to happen to Matt Barkley. The only thing I’m sure about, though, is that nobody else knows how Matt Barkley will turn out, either.
Bray’s Lost Weekend
It was not a good weekend for University of Tennessee quarterback Tyler Bray, who went undrafted after leaving school a year early. Then again, his decision to come out was a curious one. The 2012 season was his first full healthy season with the starting job, and while he was expected to have a breakout campaign, Bray produced a stagnant season that saw him finish ninth in the SEC in completion percentage while compiling a 1-7 record in-conference. Bray got little help from his defense, but when you consider that both of his starting wideouts were off the board within the first 34 selections of this year’s draft, the “help” argument isn’t a particularly sound one.
And yet, there were probably reasons for Tyler Bray to believe that he could be selected reasonably high. Obviously, none of us can see into the draft boards and mind-sets of each NFL team, but observers certainly suggested during the process that he could be chosen before Saturday. Bucky Brooks of NFL.com noted that Bray could be the steal of the draft. ESPN’s Todd McShay raved about Bray’s arm and said he could be “ the most talented overall quarterback” in the class. ESPN Insider rated him as the 131st-best player in the class, which puts him toward the bottom of the fourth round. Despite all of that hype, his name wasn’t called on Sunday, and he was forced to catch on as an undrafted free agent with the Kansas City Chiefs.
What was the case for Bray entering the draft after a disappointing season? It’s hard to tell. You can make the case that he was wise to leave college with a new incoming coach and both starting wideouts skipping town, but Bray’s junior season wasn’t good enough to stand on its own statistically or on tape. Bray’s calling card is his arm (“arm talent” if you’re nasty), which is clearly NFL-ready, but his college performance doesn’t show off a guy who has harnessed his tools into reliable skills. His film session with Jon Gruden is revealing in that regard; it’s a little simplistic to reduce a guy’s entire body of work to one play, but it’s a snap where Bray doesn’t properly read a safety and tries to force a deep post into coverage, despite the fact that a checkdown is freely available. Gruden describes Bray as the sort of quarterback who thinks he can fit a pass into an impossible window, and he’s likely right. Those windows are tough to hit in college; they’re even tougher at the professional level. And despite his arm strength, that’s the biggest reason why Tyler Bray went unselected in this year’s draft. A report that he chucked beer bottles at parked cars from his apartment window could not have helped.
Bray probably needed better advice. Where does that advice come from? One obvious source is the NFL draft Advisory Board, a six-person committee consisting of personnel men from NFL teams and the directors of the two NFL scouting organizations, BLESTO and The National (not the band or the newspaper). Underclassmen apply in December to have their professional futures read by the committee, who return a verdict in mid-January. The committee obviously can’t be perfect, but with nearly 200 players inquiring most years and the vast majority of underclassmen going drafted, they seem to be giving reasonably sound advice.
Here’s where the process breaks down. Bray’s father said in January that his son had applied for a review from the advisory board. Before Bray heard back from the committee, though, the quarterback and his family conducted interviews with five agents and eventually decided on Don Yee, a move that doesn’t make much sense. Why not wait for the response from the committee to decide whether it makes sense to hire an agent? Agents can provide insight into a player’s likelihood of being drafted in an ideal spot (on or off the record), and Yee’s pedigree is as the agent for Tom Brady, but agents can also tell you whatever you want to hear, and it’s clear that Bray got some bad advice from somebody to leave school.
Maybe Bray got a fourth-round grade from the committee and interviewed poorly with teams, dropping him off of draft boards in the process. Maybe he was the guy who fell through the cracks, that occasional underclassman for whom the process failed. Or maybe Tyler Bray was coming out regardless of what the agents and personnel men of the league told him. In any case, the prospect of Tyler Bray earning millions of dollars in guaranteed money before he entered the league went down the drain. And maybe Tyler Bray deserved better.