Friday, March 20, 2009

Prospect Evaluation – On-Field Producer vs. Workout Warrior

It’s a question that seems to come up every year, and it’s one that I’ve asked myself consistently since the Ravens took Kyle Boller in the first round of the 2003 draft.

When evaluating a draft prospect, how important is one aspect in determining success, when the other is lacking?

I’m not asking what happens when a guy has both down pat. If a guy crushes on the field and blows away their workouts, you’ve got a clearly solid prospect on your hands. I’m talking about the Calvin Johnsons and Joe Thomas’ of the world. Doesn’t mean they’ll certainly succeed, but they’ve got a good chance of doing so.

No, what I’m asking about here is, when a guy has mediocre to poor college performance, but a terrific workout, how likely is he to be successful in the NFL? And how does he compare to a guy that has terrific college performance, but has a mediocre to poor workout.

This question becomes particularly important to me – a Ravens fan – this year as two prospects that are likely to be at least considered by the Ravens fall into each category. So here I’ll use them as the centerpiece for this discussion.

The first, the workout warrior, is Darrius Heyward-Bey (DHB).
The second, the on-field performer, is Hakeem Nicks.

DHB’s production on the field can best be described as erratic and mediocre. In three years he compiled 2,089 rec yards and 13 TDs. His senior season (actually red-shirt junior) he had 42 rec, 609 yards and 5 TDs, not as good as the prior season where he had 9 more rec and 180 more yards, though he did have 2 more TDs. Still it was a disappointing year for him after showing in his red-shirt sophomore year a great deal of promise, I think expectations for him were to catch 60+ passes, 800+ yards, and 5+ TDs on the low end. In reality, all his receiving numbers in 2008 couldn’t crack the top 100 NCAA D1 receivers lists in any category.

However, DHB also qualifies as a “workout warrior,” not having the production on the field, but having truly stellar production in his workouts. He ran the fastest 40 time of anyone at the combine at 4.30 seconds, and stories both from the combine and his pro day are that his route running was much more crisp and his hands much better than expected. He’s ranked in the top 10 of WRs in all of the critical WR combine workouts.

His great workouts have led to his being projected as a mid-to-late first round pick. Typically I see him in mock drafts being taken as the #3 or #4 WR, interchanged between Percy Harvin, and occasionally with Nicks.

On the flip side, you have Hakeem Nicks, who’s production on the field has been unmistakably terrific. A true Junior, he followed up a very strong sophomore performance of 74 rec, 958 yds and 5 TDs with an outstanding 68 rec, 1,222 yard, 12 TD performance. He is known for having terrific hands on the field and running terrific routes. And his on-field performance is even more outstanding when you realize that he was in the #74 D1 passing offense. In fact, he accounted for almost 50% of North Carolina’s receiving yards, more than half their receiving TDs, and had over 3x the receiving yards and 4x the TDs of the next most productive receiver on the team.

Where he’s been dinged is his 40 time. Running a 4.49, he didn’t come close to breaking into the top 10 in the category, and is thought to lack the deep speed to challenge over the top. He is the same size as DHB, but his “measurables” seemingly do not stack up.

The knock on him has always been his speed, and it’s caused his draft stock to seemingly plummet into the late first or even potentially early second round in most projections. Typically I’ve seen him in mock drafts as the #5 overall receiver, occasionally #4 or #6, rarely as the #3 WR taken off the board.

So as a Ravens fan, I’m left to ask myself, “If I have the choice between these two guys, which one would I want?” I think a lot of fans have to ask this question of themselves between two guys that fall into the same category.

I think most people would prefer the on-field production. But by how much does this make a difference? To look at this, I’ll use a comparison that seems to me to be somewhat similar. And it works out quite nicely, as both went to the same team.

We take the case of Anquan Boldin vs. Bryant Johnson in the 2003 draft. Bryant Johnson was a Penn State alumn (I am as well, which should tell you all you need to know of where my loyalties lie) that was a shining light on an offensive unit that wasn’t very good. He had decent receiving yards (Mills specialized in the “chuck ball in air, hope PSU player comes down with it" play), but overall his production was mediocre. 48 catches, 917 yds, 4 TDs.

He was an early to mid rounds projected player until he started performing quite impressively in his workouts, and ran a 4.37 40 yard dash. This turned out to be a good bit faster than most thought he could run, and subsequently he began moving up draft boards. Arizona wound up taking him #17 overall to be their go-to guy, the year before they drafted Larry Fitzgerald.

Boldin on the other hand was coming out of school off an incredibly productive year. In ’00 he had over 600 yards and 6 TDs before sitting out the ’01 season. In ’02, his final year at Florida State , he had 65 rec for 1,011 yards and 13 TDs. This, with Mcpherson and Rix throwing him the ball…those two combined were a bit more productive than Mills, but it’s not like we’re talking about Carson Palmer here.

But then Boldin wound up running a 4.71 40 yard dash, and suddenly his draft stock fell apart completely. He was labeled too slow to likely make a huge impact in the NFL, and fell to become the 5th receiver taken at #45 overall.

Anquan Boldin's stats.
Bryant Johnson's stats.
I shouldn’t have to do much to convince you that Boldin has been the better player of the two. His first game, he set a rookie receiving record with 217 yards and 2 TDs. In their careers, Boldin has more than double Johnson’s rec yds, and more than triple his TDs. Boldin is currently considered one of the best in the game, Johnson a role player.

The first round seems littered with examples like these; guys that have not produced well in college, had dominating workouts, were drafted significantly higher than they would have been had the draft been done on Feb 15 and subsequently dramatically underperformed. Tony Mandarich is the most famous of these workout warriors. Kyle Boller is a classic example. Troy Williamson had an extremely mediocre final season at South Carolina before becoming the #7 overall pick to a Minnesota team wide-eyed from his measurables and hoping to replace Randy Moss.

On the flip side of that you have guys that have played very well after great college careers that slipped because of poor workouts or questions that came up in the combine. Guys like Terrell Suggs who’s slow 40 time took him from a sure-fire top 5, probable top 3 pick to the Ravens at #10. Freeny, who was a beast at Syracuse before size questions dropped him to Indi at #11.

This isn’t meant to say that automatically workout warriors are never going to be great, and on-field producers will never be busts. We’ve certainly seen otherwise, and the draft is always a gamble.

But I do believe that the on-field producer is classically more likely to become a solid to great player in the NFL than the workout warrior. The only piece of the puzzle I haven’t figured out is, why aren’t NFL scouts weighting this as such? Obviously mock drafts aren’t perfect and don’t represent what NFL personnel are thinking, but typically they’re a decent measure. And what I can’t figure out is, given how clear it seems that on-field production is the better measure of how a player will fair in the NFL, why is DHB considered by most to be a better prospect than Hakeem Nicks?

One thing I know for sure… I’m glad he is. I hope he gets taken before the Ravens pick. And then, I hope the Ravens get a shot at Nicks. Chalk me up, I’m on the Nicks bandwagon.


  1. It seems like you are cherry-picking your examples a bit. There is a significant distinction between guys like Boller and Williamson who were unproductive players, and Heyward-Bey who was productive in adverse circumstances.

    Heyward-Bey caught about 20% of Maryland's receptions, a number similar to Michael Crabtree. Nicks caught a higher percentage (as did Maclin and Cosby) but the point is that Heyward-Bey's production was good enough to be in the conversation.

    I really think your perspective is backward. College production is nice, but beyond a certain minimum it isn't that meaningful. A quarterback who peaks at 53% passing probably isn't draftable (*cough*) but there is virtually no difference between a 60% passer and a 65% passer. Once players reach certain thresholds their tools become more important than their production.

    This isn't to say that scouts don't make mistake measuring tools. They do it all the time. All the tape does is filter out the too small/slow/weak. It doesn't inform the NFL of the quality of player inside the uniform, and this latter tool is likely the most important.

    So while we see exceptions like Boldin or Spielman who overcome their limitations with skill and heart, all this does it point to flawed scouting of their tools where an overemphasis was placed on the measurables.

    I have no idea what kind of pros Heyward-Bey or Nicks will make. I do know that there is no reason to disqualify either based on the measurables, and there is also no reason to discount Heyward-Bey's amazing combine either. That is a type of production that projects to the NFL too.

    At this point it is up to the teams to dig into the tape and into the heads of these players to determine what kind of pros they will make. And while internet warriors may argue back and forth about their relative merits, at this point the wall of knowledge is closed to casual fans like us. We really have no way of determining which is the better prospect.

  2. I agree about the tools measurement. Actually I think it's the other way around. There has to be some measure of tools prior to considering production. A guy like Ken Dorsey - who was a terrific college player - simply doesn't have the size or strength to ever be a solid NFL player. There are exception, but they are extremely rare, and universally never considered first day draft prospects.

    So in some senses, "tools" or workout production has to be considered more than on-field production. There is some minimum that's required to adequately perform in the NFL. It explains why Chris Williams with his 1,271 yards and 9 TDs, but is 5'8 and 157 will not be considered as highly as a DHB who is 6'2 and 210 (reportedly now 220) and half as productive.

    However, I completely disagree with the Williamson/Boller comparison with DHB. Boller's accuracy sucked of course, but he had 28 TDs to 10 INTs and 2,800 yards his senior season. Somewhat productive, and one of the arguments made about him was that he had terrible receivers (many - myself probably included - argued that this accounted for his poor comp %). Nowhere near good enough to be a first round candidate, except for the fact that he had a rocket arm of course.

    Williamson is a better comparison though. South Carolina in '04 didn't have as bad a passing game as UMD did this past season, but it wasn't exactly stellar. But he caught 15% of his team's passes, had over 800 yards and 7 TDs. IMO that's plenty more productive than DHB.

    But an even better argument would be Nicks vs. DHB. Nicks was FAR more productive in what I would consider to be a more adverse environment than DHB was in. Nicks was on the #73 passing offense, vs. DHB on #64. NC had fewer passes and more rush attempts than UMD, and their running game was actually less productive than the Terps' running game. Nicks had 3x more yards and 4x more TDs (may have those numbers reversed) than the next most productive receiver on his team. He was unquestionably the top offensive threat on the team once Tate went down (early in the year), much like DHB. His situation was certainly no better than DHB's, arguably worse, and yet he was twice as productive.

    I think the overall point is that IMO, when prospects pass a certain threshold for physical requirements to play at the pro level, on field production has to be the number one consideration. Yes, workouts should be in the mix as well. But what I don't understand is how/why anyone would consider DHB a better prospect than Nicks. It's that sort of thing that confuses me, and I feel like we see it a decent amount of the time...


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