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Lessons I’ve learned from my NFL Draft “misses”

...and what I’ve taken from those lessons to give “better” scouting analysis.

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We all miss on NFL draft prospects, but unless you’re a GM, it’s not the worst thing to make mistakes while scouting, because mistakes provide lessons.

It’s always admirable when those who take the time to scout admit to their mistakes a few years later.

In this article, instead of solely pointing out my misses, I’ll explain why I whiffed on specific prospects and what I learned from my mistakes that have (hopefully) improved my “scouting” ability.

These are the players who taught me the most important lessons over the past four years scouting NFL draft prospects.

EJ Manuel

Although I had Manuel as the No. 5 QB in the 2013 class, he embodies the greatest lesson I’ve learned since I started scouting prospects for the NFL draft in 2013.

Here’s what I wrote about Manuel in my 2013 positional rankings:

“Has the size and athleticism to be a poor man's Cam Newton as a scrambler, although he's much more timid running the football than Newton. Big-time arm. Close to nine out of 10. Questionable decision-making. Often misses easy throws. Most upside of any quarterback in the class.”

If you remember back to 2013, to the public, Manuel was a “late riser” in the pre-draft process. A myriad of questions were raised about Geno Smith’s persona at the same time many raved about Manuel’s leadership qualities, and the Florida State product became a part of the conservation with the other “top” quarterbacks in that class, Ryan Nassib and Matt Barkley.

I thought “upside” was the key word for Manuel.

That idea was the main reason I believed he needed plenty of time to develop in the NFL before he’d reach his maximum potential. Ironically, Manuel didn’t ever play more than four-consecutive games for the Bills, but his “upside” never materialized into consistent, high-level production.

While an assortment of factors were at play with Manuel, he simply didn’t have “it.” The decision-making and accuracy issues that were clear as day in college were plain to see in the NFL. His timidness running the football wasn’t erased after being taught by pro coaches. Frequently panicking under pressure didn’t cease on Sundays.

In essence, Manuel was the same quarterback in the NFL as he was at Florida State.

Rare flashes of brilliance far outweighed by misfires, bad reads, and frantic play inside the pocket that stopped him from fully tapping into the “upside” suggested by his size, arm strength, and personality.

This isn’t to insinuate (quarterback) prospects can’t improve once they hit the professional ranks.

It’s to provide a cautionary tale regarding signal-callers with decision-making, accuracy, or pocket-movement problems. If a quarterback had those issues in high school and college, they’re almost assuredly going to be there against the greatest competition on the planet in the NFL.

After Manuel, I took a much harder stance on supposed “upside” in any prospect, especially a quarterback.

In almost every case, “development” has to be something off the field, like getting a tick faster with speed training or adding strength in the weight room. For quarterbacks, my fundamental rule is “draft the guy who needs to develop the least.”

Todd Gurley

This seems to be one I actually got right. In the 2015 draft class, I had Gurley as my No. 4 running back behind Jay Ajayi, Ameer Abdullah, and Melvin Gordon.

While watching Gurley, who was well put together at Georgia at slightly taller than 6’0” and 220-plus pounds, it was obvious he had special speed and power for his size.

He hit a variety of long runs against quality competition for the Bulldogs, which is not something most 6’0”, 225-pound backs can do.

However, I wasn’t nearly as high on Gurley as most were because he did one thing I really didn’t like and failed to routinely do something else.

Gurley would seemingly seek out contact, whether it be a linebacker at the second level or a cornerback down the field. That tendency made for plenty of DAMN! GIF from Friday moments, yet it was worrisome due to the physical beating he was voluntarily putting on his own body.

Related to that, Gurley didn’t make defenders miss nearly as often as I thought he should have if he were to be a first-round pick. Sure, he was a locomotive in the open field, but was he juking a strongside linebacker in space? Rarely.

Ajayi on the other hand, actually stockier than Gurley at 5’11” and 221 pounds, displayed balanced elusiveness and quick-twitch athleticism on his way to shaking defenders plenty of times every game. He was amazing at evading contact instead of looking for it and delivering it.

About 95% of NFL running backs are tremendous athletes capable of picking up large chunks of yardage when blocking is (nearly) perfect.

What separates the bad from the good and the good from the great is the ability to create when the blocking isn’t perfect or a defender is in an ideal spot to make the tackle.

Gurley vs. Ajayi (and Abdullah and Gordon) that year provided a clear-cut example of that.

Jake Matthews

Matthews doesn’t represent as deep of a philosophical ideology created by the lessons learned from Manuel or Gurley, yet what he taught me is still important.

At Texas A&M, Matthews had the most boring film I’ve ever watched for an offensive linemen, particularly relative to the chaos around him with Johnny Manziel as the Aggies quarterback.

Here’s a snippet of what I wrote about him in 2014:

“Effortless blocker. Typically stymies smoothly. Really works his hands inside DLs pads the proper way. Can get swung out of the way by defenders when he extends his arms and gets off balance. Has the ability to sustain blocks in pass protection for a very long time. Well coached and super polished. Very NFL-ready. Legit plug-and-play-OT.”

Matthews hasn’t been a disaster in the NFL, but he hasn’t exactly lived up to the almost consensus pre-draft opinion of him.

I learned that, while sometimes difficult to decipher, some offensive tackles often deal with pass-rushers who aren’t flying off the edge to get to the quarterback. Instead, they’re playing contain.

Matthews (probably) did that often at A&M — thanks to Johnny Manziel’s ridiculous scrambling ability in the SEC — which made it appear as though Matthews was a brick wall at left tackle.

In reality, Matthews needed work both in pass-protection and blocking for the run. For the Falcons, with edge-rushers rarely playing contain against Matt Ryan, Matthews’ deficiencies as a blocker have been exposed. And his time blocking “contain” defensive ends didn’t prepare him for what he’d see in the NFL.

As a rookie, Matthews finished with the lowest production grade among any offensive tackle in Pro Football Focus’ system. He did rebound and was named second runner-up in the site’s “Most Improved Player” award the following year. In 2016, Matthews’ overall grade of 77.6 placed him as a No. 34 offensive tackle in football, per PFF.

Beware of collegiate offensive tackles who spend much of their time “blocking” defenders trying to set the edge instead of sacking the quarterback.

Shayne Skov

Man did I love Skov as a prospect. To me, he had it all to play the linebacker position. After a decorated career at Stanford, I had him as the No. 1 inside linebacker in the 2014 class, compared him to Brandon Spikes and thought he was worth a late first or early second-round pick.

Here’s what I wrote about him:

“Highly impactful downhill thumper. Top notch blitzer. Typically times his A-gap blitzes well, displays great acceleration and some counter moves to disrupt the pocket. Vast experience at Stanford has made him a super quick play recognizer. Not a tremendous quick-twitch athlete with great speed, but he's not super slow. Dropped into coverage often. Makes up for lack of explosion with proper depth and positioning. Breaks down near the ball carrier and is a sure tackler. Plays with reckless abandon. Scraps through traffic on a consistent basis. Extremely high motor. Fine linear speed. Always around the football. 24 in July. Hard hitter.”

While Skov wasn’t a “high-upside” flier, he simply came into the NFL in the wrong era as a big, downhill thumping ‘backer with limited speed and range.

Beyond that, being a 23 year old playing against all younger athletes likely helped him stand out physically in college.

He had knee trouble while training and wasn’t picked in 2014 draft. He’s experienced more injuries in the NFL and has shown some good signs in preseason, yet has barely been a blip on the radar during the regular season.

Skov taught me that although the Spikes-esque of linebacker isn’t extinct in the NFL, it’s close to being official. Even if that type of linebacker is capable of playing in the pros, he’s not worth an early-round selection.

Also, he’s one of many examples of why I’m not a huge fan of “old” prospects. For as refined as Skov seemed to be as a prospect, athletic limitations really held him back.

Linebackers in the modern-day NFL don’t need to be 6’0” and 220 pounds with 4.4 speed. But they can’t be stiff-hipped, they must be well-versed in coverage, and they need to be able to get sideline to sideline... at least on occasion.

Greg Robinson

Robinson’s game film at Auburn was crazy. He repeatedly punished defenders when blocking for the run and was a fleet-footed dancing bear with loads of — ready? — “upside.”

After just two years of action at left tackle, the sky seemed to be the limit for the 21-year-old Robinson.

Here’s what I wrote about him:

“Devastating, road-grading offensive tackle who will instantly be one of the best run-blocking offensive tackles in the NFL from Day One. Incredibly athletic with extremely light feet. Ideal left tackle size. Long arms. Amazing knee bend. Gains leverage by lowering his center of gravity to deliever his initial, overpowering jolt. Elite drive blocker but is refined as a directional blocker, too. Super strong once he locks on. He anchors very well. If he delivers the initial strike, it's over. Otherworldly run blocker, above-average pass-blocker who's outrageously athletic with a crazy amount of upside.”

I compared him, stylistically, to Jason freaking Peters, though I did have him as the No. 2 offensive tackle in that class behind Matthews. #DoubleWhoops.

Robinson skyrocketed up draft boards and went No. 2 overall to the St. Louis Rams in the 2014 draft.

Entering his fourth NFL season, Robinson has been a colossal yet seemingly overlooked draft bust. Despite his immense athletic gifts and tenacity as a run-blocker, Robinson has been completely lost in pass protection, which is clearly crucial in today’s NFL.

I did write this on his pass pro issues, but basically glossed over them:

“Typically finds LBs at the second level. Certainly athletic enough to beat edge-rushers to the corner but needs to show same tenacity he does as a run-blocker when he's pass blocking. Can get beat by speed rushers on occasion and sometimes is confused by stunts and zone blitzes.”

Strangely, Robinson hasn’t been very good as a run-blocker either, but the basis of his struggles as a pro stem from his inability to soundly block on a pass play.

Coming from a gadgety, read-option-heavy offense at Auburn probably didn’t help him either.

Now, when it comes to offensive linemen, I always prioritize pass-blocking proficiency over run-blocking proficiency even if the latter makes for a better highlight reel.

It’s for this reason that I had Ronnie Stanley over Laremy Tunsil in the 2016 draft class. While not anywhere near as inexperienced or incapable in pass pro as Robinson, Tunsil was slightly “below” Staley as a prospect due to what I saw as a weaker game in pass protection.

A lot of these same principals can be applied to my No. 1 offensive guard in the 2013 draft class, Jonathan Cooper. He was a remarkable run-blocker with super-light feet yet needed work as a pass-protector. Like Robinson, he’s been another (overlooked) Top 10 bust.

Barkevious Mingo, Jarvis Jones, and Jadeveon Clowney

Mingo was a terror at LSU in 2011, his second-to-last season with the Tigers. He totaled 15 tackles for loss and eight sacks as a sophomore.

In 2012, his gaudy numbers dipped, down to 8.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks. In his junior season, he played a lot of contain on the edge and appeared to be used in a different role.

During the pre-draft process, Mingo slowly but surely moved up boards and was ultimately picked by the Browns with the No. 6 overall selection.

Here’s what I wrote about him:

“Wasn't fully unleashed at LSU. Contained far too often. Blazing first step. Ideal size. Relentless off the edge. Not a ton of pass-rushing moves, but he can win with sheer athleticism. To me, an Aldon Smith clone. Decently well-versed getting off blocks. Stronger than he looks. Will help against the run.”

Yeah, so Mingo hasn’t been an Aldon Smith clone on the field. Not even close. I was entranced by Mingo’s explosiveness after the snap, and well, his sheer athleticism. Not to mention, he measured in at 6’4” and a chiseled 241 pounds with 33 3/4” arms.

Note one critical sentence from my quick scouting report on him:

Not a ton of pass-rushing moves, but he can win with sheer athleticism.”

As it turns out, Mingo’s springiness was actually his greatest hindrance once he reached the NFL. Even in the SEC, he could win with athleticism and athleticism alone. Not in the NFL.

Mingo’s 2013 draft-mate Jarvis Jones was basically the same type of player.

The speed rush can’t be your only pass-rushing weapon. Same goes for the bull rush.

Much of what I learned regarding Mingo — and Jones, my No. 3 edge-rusher in 2013 draft — influenced my decision on Jadeveon Clowney vs. Khalil Mack the following year.

Clowney, as you probably remember, was the most hyped defensive-end prospect in a long, long time following an illustrious career at South Carolina which came after being the No. 1 high-school recruit in the nation.

Many had him as the No. 1 prospect in the 2014 draft class and figured he’d be an instant All-Pro type of player due to his bonkers combination of size and athletic ability.

Clowney ran 4.53 in the 40-yard dash at 6’5” and 266 pounds, which blew the doors off Lucas Oil Stadium during the combine that year. However, his agility scores, even considering his weight, were not fantastic.

Either way, watching his film, it was clear Clowney was blessed with freakish athletic gifts which allowed him to standout in the SEC, not the easiest feat to accomplish.

I had Khalil Mack ahead of him as the No. 1 edge-rusher in the 2014 class though, mainly due to a much more polished arsenal of pass-rushing moves. No, Mack wasn’t a technician beating offensive tackles — a good portion of his “wins” came via strength and quickness — but he flashed a handful of ways to beat his man if he couldn’t win with athleticism alone. I also though Mack was “bendier” around the edge, which is another vital aspect for outside pass-rushers.

Pass-rushers must have (an array of) pass-rushing moves to become quality players at their position in the NFL. Sure, there are some porous, exploitable offensive linemen in the league, but unless your burst is as dynamic as Von Miller’s — who has plenty of pass-rushing moves too — or are as strong as Ndamukong Suh, you’ll struggle as a professional.

Those are a few of the lessons I’ve learned. What have you learned from your draft misses?