The Match Game: The How And Why Behind Coveting Draft Picks
By Matt Waldman
April 27, 2010

Every prominent NFL writer in the country is doing two things immediately after the draft:

  1. Telling its audience that it doesn't make sense to grade a team's draft before the players have even been put to the test.
  2. Ignoring point No. 1.

Fortunately, I don't have to take the pro football writer's equivalent of a forced march.

I'm a "tape-head" specializing in offensive skill players, so my draft observations will focus heavily on these positions and the frame of reference of the teams that picked them. The first part of this piece profiles three ways teams have addressed the receiver position. The second part is my takes on various aspects of the 2010 draft.

If It Ain't Broke...

Some teams have a successful track record as talent evaluators of specific positions.

Arizona Cardinals

WR Andre Roberts, The Citadel, 3rd Round: The Cardinals have a strong track record for picking productive receivers that have the physical mindset to make catches in traffic, the skill to break tackles and the versatility to make plays anywhere on the field. Roberts is a fine addition to a corps that dealt Anquan Boldin to the Ravens for all of those reasons. Roberts has the hands, speed, balance and skill after the catch to be a slot receiver and punt return specialist immediately.

What sets him apart is his refinement as a route runner. Roberts is one of the few receivers in this class who demonstrated the skill to defeat press coverage with techniques involving his feet to set up the defender and his hands to get into his routes off the line. Third-year receiver Early Doucet is as physically gifted as Roberts, but he lacks the rookie's natural hands.

Roberts reminds me a lot of Packers receiver Greg Jennings and if he were paired with a productive quarterback he would be my dark horse pick as a rookie of the year candidate, but his success depends too heavily on the play from Matt Leinart, Derek Anderson or the development of rookie John Skelton.

Blind Spots

In contrast to the teams that understand how to pick good prospects at certain positions, others repeatedly make the same mistakes.

Oakland Raiders

WR Jacoby Ford, Clemson, 4th Round: When it comes to picking wide receivers the Raiders err on the side of speed more than any team in the NFL Darrius Heyward-Bey epitomized the track star with raw technique that Al Davis has coveted as far back as James Jett and Cliff Branch. Considering that Branch was the last successful developmental project with speed that the Raiders have coached into a consistent pass catcher, one would expect the team to take a different approach.

The selection of Ford demonstrates that this tendency still remains a blind spot in the team's faulty evaluation process at the position. To the Raiders' credit, Ford can catch the ball with his hands. However, Ford needs to do better at getting his hands away from his body when making receptions or else he will have difficulty making catches in tight coverage.

Of greater concern is that Ford does not play up to his combine-best, 4.22-second, 40-yard time. His straight-line speed is impressive, but he is not fluid after the catch, he lacks a consistent first move to avoid the initial defender and he avoids contact as much as possible. Check out a YouTube highlight, and Ford has a consistent way disguising his discomfort with physical play by slipping out of bounds just before he has to face an on-coming collision and then acting frustrated as if he unintentionally stepped out of bounds.

Ford will make the occasional big play on a vertical route against a blown coverage because of his natural speed, but like Johnnie Lee Higgins and Darrius Heyward-Bey, he is more kick return specialist than wide receiver. At least this year, the Raiders waited three rounds later to get another one.

St. Louis Rams

WR Mardy Gilyard, Cincinnati, 4th Round: I actually like Mardy Gilyard's potential to develop into a solid receiver. Gilyard came to the Bearcats as a receiver that trapped the ball against his body, but he has steadily worked on his hands technique. Unlike Ford, Gilyard is far more comfortable with football being a collision sport. I think he's more likely to develop into a receiver that Cam Cameron expected when he drafted Ted Ginn, Jr.

The beef I have with this pick is that Gilyard has similar dimensions and skill set as Rams receivers Donnie Avery and Keenan Burton. Neither Avery nor Burton has demonstrated skills to make plays between the hashes and they lack size to be effective downfield blockers for the Rams ground game. Although rookie QB Sam Bradford is renown for his pinpoint accuracy, the team would benefit from adding a bigger target.

Finding A Remedy

There are some teams I believe have addressed their mistakes in their evaluation process and they are turning the corner.

Tennessee Titans

WR Damian Williams, Southern California, 2nd Round: From the Steve McNair era until last year, Tennessee had chronic difficulties acquiring receivers. Although the subject for another article, I believe the Titans has the defense and quarterback to make and win Super Bowls if they opted for Randy Moss over Kevin Dyson. Although Derrick Mason had a terrific career, he was the one selection that panned out among a list of 15 receivers since 1998.

It appears Kenny Britt is on his way to breaking this unfortunate trend. He was the first receiver the Titans picked before round three since Tyrone Calico (who also flashed potential before a knee injury cut short his career) in 2003, which indicates Tennessee's staff believed in its ability to find mid-round bargains for far too long without success.

Williams is my No. 2 receiver in this draft class because like Andre Roberts, he's a polished route runner with the toughness to make plays in tight coverage, an acrobatic athlete with excellent concentration on downfield and errant throws and the agility and vision to make plays after the catch.

During the Titans' WR drafting slump, the organization had a tendency of picking highly athletic players with good size but inconsistent hands (Justin McCareins) or smaller, lesser athletes with strong hands (Roydell Williams). Williams may not have elite speed, but he does represent an integration of the positive characteristics of both types of receivers that failed the team.

Quick Takes

I agree with my colleague Cecil Lammey that WR Blair White didn't get the love he deserved from the NFL this weekend, but the fact that Indianapolis signed him to a deal after the draft is telling that White has underrated skills. I would be surprised if he doesn't usurp Roy Hall's spot on the roster and work his way up from there.

Just like the Colts understand how to find receivers, the Steelers can spot linebacker talent. Virginia Tech's Jason Worilds is an athletic standout with a burst that compares favorably to a young Dwight Freeney or Elvis Dumervil.

The Patriots took the best run-blocking tight end in the draft with Rob Gronkowski, and the best pass receiver and runner at the position with Aaron Hernandez. Although Gronkowski is a solid receiver in his own right, he has really poor timing as a receiver on fade routes, which eliminates the size advantage he had against defensive backs on fade routes. Hernandez has no such problem, but his blocking isn't on the level of Gronkowski's. Both have Pro Bowl potential. However, I think Hernandez will be used as a Wes Welker substitute because he is the most fluid runner after the catch as a tight end that I have seen in several years. If you heard that Florida used Hernandez as their "Percy Harvin" in 2010, they weren't exaggerating as much as you'd think.

Late-Round Pairings To Watch

Dan LeFevour and Mike Martz: Just like the Cardinals and Colts have an eye for receivers or the Steelers have a knack for outside linebackers, Mike Martz knows quarterbacks. I have doubts Martz had a significant hand in picking a quarterback in drafts during his past two stints as an offensive coordinator, but I think LeFevour represents a change. The reason is that Martz values quarterbacks with excellent anticipation, which is a skill LeFevour flashes.

Anthony Dixon and LaGarrette Blount and Mike Singletary: Frank Gore is an incredible runner, but the 49ers have been searching for a complement to spell him for a few years. Glenn Coffee is not a creative runner and his physical skills are average, at best, and it showed as a rookie. Singletary now has two power runners to pair with upgrades along the line to create the ultimate smash mouth ground game.

I interviewed Dixon and Blount at the Senior Bowl and asked them to take me through their favorite plays. Blount is mainly a zone runner and his response was a short and sweet self-assessment that he simply looks for open space. In contrast, Dixon's favorite play was a counter play from the spread formation and the Mississippi State runner gave a lengthy and detailed analysis of what he's watching, thinking and reacting before the snap to the moment he hits the crease.
Both Blount and Dixon are regarded as highly talented, physical backs with various character concerns. Singletary is a no nonsense coach who turned Vernon Davis around and I expect at least one of these two runners to pan out. Blount has the raw talent, but I believe Dixon is the most refined between the tackles runner in this draft outside of Ryan Mathews and Jahvid Best. I would not be surprised if Dixon becomes the 49ers supersized version of Chester Taylor to Frank Gore's Adrian Peterson.

Potential Gems

Two players omitted from last week's blog on draft day sleepers were RB James Starks and TE Dedrick Epps. Starks, a former quarterback who Turner Gil converted to running back at Buffalo, was the eighth-ranked rusher in 2008. He missed his senior year due to shoulder surgery, which didn't give Starks a chance to solidify his draft stock. At 6'2", 218 pounds, Starks has good speed, a strong burst, natural hands and a skill for making sharp cuts. Starks' playing weight was 203 pounds as a junior and the added muscle to what looked like a rail-thin frame will help him be more NFL-ready. Green Bay lacks a promising game breaker at the position and the addition of Starks could change that.

With scouts excited about Jimmy Graham's potential, despite the fact he played one year of college football as a situational receiver at the University of Miami, Dedrick Epps got lost in the mix. A good pass receiver with athleticism after the catch, Epps average 13 yards per catch his junior year before tearing his ACL before the 2008 Emerald Bowl. He showed the toughness and dedication to return eight months later and play the entire 2009 season, averaging 13 yards per catch once again. Epps has potential to develop into a solid tight end, and he will get a golden opportunity to learn behind Antonio Gates in a Norv Turner offense that has long-valued receiving production from the tight end position.

Questions, suggestions and comments are always welcome to waldman@footballguys.com.