If nothing else, the NFL is a copycat league, as witnessed by an annual third of franchises falling over themselves in an effort to emulate the traits of the league's dynamic franchises. You say the Steelers hired a head coach nearly a decade younger than Brett Favre? Tampa Bay and Denver went even younger. How about those brilliant young personnel types developed in New England? Atlanta and Kansas City followed suit. Or, how about a hot family name? Say, like a Harbaugh or Ryan?
You get the idea. There's hardly anything that occurs in the NFL that could be characterized as completely original.
For about a decade now, several teams have been trying to channel a version of the Steelers' dominating 3-4 defense. Of course, the Blitzburgh defense is in vogue only after the Tampa 2 lost its novelty some years ago. The same could be said for the league-wide shift towards a Peyton Manning pass-happy attack and, in theory, the Wildcat offense is only a few generations removed from the old Single-Wing formation.
I'm just waiting for the return of a Mark Moseley-style straight-ahead kicker.
Anyway, when it comes to things borrowed, the draft is no different.
Of course, despite the volumes of research put into the draft, the entire process is reminiscent of clutching a betting slip at a horse track. Or, perhaps a cattle auction would be a better comparison, at least when draft prospects are poked and prodded during February's Scouting Combine.
Because the draft is nothing more than a dice game, the tendency grows to link current prospects to former players. After all, familiarity makes for comfort.
Take the examples of three current draft prospects.
Auburn defensive tackle Nick Fairley parlayed a terrific senior season into a potential top-five draft slot come April. Thanks to an impressive 24.5 tackles for loss and 11.5 sacks, and on the heels of a dominating BCS Title game performance, Fairley could even become the first overall player taken. This is quite the quantum leap for a player who had only started two college games prior to last season. But then again, the copycat effect can erase such doubts. After all, it was only a year ago that Detroit and Tampa Bay found defensive cornerstones with the likes of Ndamukong Suh and Gerald McCoy.
But what about those "red flags" that have arisen regarding Fairley? Some draft experts have labeled him as a "lazy" and "dirty" player, the kind of attributes that should alarm an NFL team ready to invest millions of dollars. Not to worry, here's where the luxury of comparisons compensates for genuine doubt.
Or, as Georgia head coach Mark Richt puts it, "Nick is the closest thing I've seen to Warren Sapp in all the years I've been coaching. He's that big of a load, and you have to have some plan for the guy."
The formula here is simple: Take talent minus character and hope for the best. In the case of a seemingly flawed defensive line draft prospect, obviously Sapp is the gold standard.
Of course, for every Sapp who enters the league, there are the names of Gerard Warren, Johnathan Sullivan and DeWayne Robertson that provide a nasty bit of doubt.
Another similar prospect is Boise State wide receiver Titus Young.
Over the past week, Young's draft stock has soared thanks to an impressive Senior Bowl performance. Throughout the week, scouts were thrilled by Young's electric blend of speed and playmaking ability. Although possessing a slight frame (5-foot-11, 175 pounds), Young proved to be a dynamic kick returner and receiver for Boise State, scoring 25 touchdowns in his college career. Yet, playing a string of games against lesser talents leaves some unanswered questions for Young to answer.
But if recent memory serves us all, then Young has one thing going for him.
"Titus Young does look to me like DeSean Jackson looked to me when he came out of Cal," NFL Draft expert Mike Mayock said. "I see a kid there that physically has helped himself. Teams are going to have to do a lot more homework on him off the field."
As long as Jackson continues to be one of the NFL's most dynamic playmakers, such comparisons will attach themselves to players like Young. Here, the idea of a scout's first impression is obvious. Size-wise, Young is almost Jackson's identical twin. However, much in the same way that some people continue to link Peyton Hillis to Mike Alstott, the comparison is not exactly a perfect one.
Speaking of Cleveland, another prospect close to Browns' fans hearts is getting some draft buzz of a different kind.
From the Plain Dealer a few weeks ago comes this:
"And then last night, watching Casey Matthews, Clay Jr.'s other son, play for Oregon, it all became clear. The Matthews pedigree, the Matthews work ethic, the Matthews durability, the Matthews loyalty would make him a pretty darn good fit for the Browns."
Isn't it funny what a national TV audience will do for a player? Before the BCS Championship, it's doubtful most fans even knew that another Matthews legacy was playing at Oregon. Despite being a three-year starter at middle linebacker for Oregon, Matthews' profile has only recently began to rise. Not coincidentally, Matthews' older brother Clay has become a household name playing in Green Bay.
And while Browns' fans are well aware of the terrific genes that the Matthews football family possesses, it's worth noting that Casey and Clay are two very different players. While Casey's family name will no doubt elevate him into at least the second round of April's draft, this latest Matthews is both undersized (6-1, 235) and a bit slower compared to his now famous brother.
Of course, if Clay registers a sack or two in next weekend's Super Bowl, all bets are off.
Anyway, I could go on and on. According to some scouts, Cal's Cameron Jordan is the next Tyson Jackson, Oregon's Jeff Maehl is the newest version of Blair White, and both the Heyward's and Pouncey's have some rich NFL roots.
But in the end, what you see is not always what you get. That is, unless an NFL team knows exactly what they are looking for.