NFL Draft: Buyer Beware

Every year, questions abound concerning several top NFL picks and Dave-Te' Thomas takes a look at a few of the issues surrounding some players near the top of the draft board.

It happens every year. The team scouts spend every waking minute evaluating talent, attending games, watching film and checking their lists twice, sort of like a football Santa Claus. Then, the Combines roll around, coaches, scouting directors and general managers are out in full force with stopwatches in hand. The three-day "underwear workout" commences, those out of the scouting loop (coaches and GMs) become enamored with agility figures and march off en mass to pro days. There, they continue their little "love fest" with a player's athletic ability, but along the way seem to forget that victories are generated by production, by consistent performance and NOT how good a kid looks running 40 yards on the track.

What all of this leads up to is a totally different draft board than the ones the scouts have prepared. The general manager is the decision maker and all others are there to offer input. Coaches have their "guy" they want the GM to take, despite claims from their scouting department that have spent the better part of the year finding the "warts" not shown on the player's professional resume. With that in mind, here is a look at that one player at each position who will either make a general manager look like a genius, or have that guy on the unemployment line a year later.

QUARTERBACK
Ryan Mallett, University of Arkansas Razorbacks, #15, 6:06.2-238

Perhaps no player in the 2011 draft has been open to as much of a debate as Mallett. There is no questioning his arm strength, but leadership, maturity and play recognition issues make him the riskiest draft pick in this class. He seems very defensive and "beats around the bush" when talking to teams about off-field issues and you have to wonder if he might be a Ryan Leaf-type of player who will fail to take command in the huddle or gain proper respect in the locker room.

Mallett has good academic intelligence, but he is prone for showing too much confidence in his arm strength, making throws into a crowd that should never occur (see 2010 Alabama and LSU and 2009 Mississippi State games). Even with his tall stature and over-the-top release, he will sidearm at times, resulting in 83 of his throws getting deflected the last two seasons. He is a classic drop-back quarterback in the Carson Palmer mold, but must realize he has to make quicker decisions uncorking the ball, thanks to his marginal quickness.

He can find and locate his secondary targets and is the type that will put in the extra hours in the film room and practices to improve. He does well in the classroom and his test score indicates he is capable of taking the plays from the board to the field. Still, in 2010, he regressed quite a bit in recognizing defensive schemes (see 2010 Alabama and LSU games).

Possibly due to poor blocking up front, but he spent a considerable amount of his time avoiding the pass rush and the result was a lot of forced passes, causing his interception total to rise from seven in 2009 to 12 in 2010. He does not do a good job of sensing pressure and will get too impatient waiting for his targets to get free when flushed out of the pocket. He locks on to his primary receivers too often and shows marginal awareness to adjust when on the move. He is especially prone to having major "meltdowns" under constant pressure. He has the ideal size to tower over defenders and scan the field, but he has to recognize his outlet receivers better.

When he utilizes the shotgun, he is much more effective at delivering on the hot route. The problems occur when he gets flushed out of the pocket, as he has no athleticism or foot speed to avoid defenders on the move. He has good overhead mechanics, but when he carries the ball low, it greatly slows down his delivery.

Compares To: CARSON PALMER-Cincinnati. There is no question that Mallett's arm strength is on par with that of Baltimore's Joe Flacco. He towers over defenders and has great size, but he's slow footed and with that long stride of his, he's never going to be able to escape pressure with any consistency. Whoever drafts him will need to make sure they have an outstanding offensive line to protect him, as he will never be a threat throwing on the move. While his passing ability is likened to Palmer's, some of his poor decisions and inability to keep his cool under pressure have other evaluators seeing a bit of Derek Anderson (Arizona) in his game.

WIDE RECEIVER
JONATHAN BALDWIN, University of Pittsburgh Panthers, #82, 6:04.6-230

Baldwin has the size and reach that would make even the football gods envious, but he plays much smaller than his size indicates. Often, he is tied up by the smaller cornerbacks and fails to use his hands efficiently to escape the jam, preventing him from getting into his routes quickly. He has large hands and catches away from his framework, but lacks great field awareness and must do a better job of looking the ball in before trying to turn and run with it.

Despite his verified 42-inch vertical jump, more often than not, Baldwin will not high-point the throw and prefers to catch the ball in stride. His drops come when he tries to let the ball into his chest rather than catch it with his fingers. He is a big body-type that can go up and bring the ball down, but the problem comes when he does not time his leaps. For some reason, he will try to jump for the short tosses, rather than extend for the ball (mostly body catches when he does that).

When he extends for the ball outside the frame, he will catch everything in sight. When he tries to body catch, he will juggle and fight for the ball. The coaches say he has good hands, but if you watch film, you do not see those hands as being soft. Yet, he will come up with the big play. Go figure! Evidence of his inconsistency is the fact that out of 90 passes thrown to him last year that should have been caught, he managed to grab just 51, converting only 8 of 19 third-down throws in the process.

There is a lot of the brash Keyshawn Johnson and the flippant Antonio Bryant attitude in this kid. Simply put, he is not ready for prime time, at least from the maturity level. Trying to field opinions from several former Pitt players before making his decision to come out, he was not "pleased" with their assessment that he could use more schooling and work on his route running skills.

You sometimes have to question Baldwin's competitiveness. He plays hard until the whistle, but will look lackadaisical at times and goes through the motions in practice and needs some structure there. While he will compete for the ball in a crowd, he will struggle vs. a physical press coverage and gets frustrated at times when he can't separate from the speedier cornerbacks. He is a big, strong kid, but he does have a little stiffness in some routes (mostly long).

Baldwin has had some work ethic issues, especially when it comes to training and practices. He needs structure and to be pushed to get the best out of his ability, looking eerily like Antonio Bryant in that regard. He is described as a smart, street-wise kid, but needs to grasp the intricacies of football, as he does not always give consistent effort. He will make a big play, then fail to look for the ball and is surprised at times when the pigskin is right next to his face.

Compares To: DWAYNE JARRETT-ex Carolina. Like Jarrett, Baldwin needs route polishing and lacks an explosive second gear. Yet, he manages to get underneath well, using his size to shield defenders from the ball. He is not the fastest you will find on linear routes, but shows good cutting agility to separate after the catch. He is good at taking a shallow crossing pass into big yardage when he makes a conscious effort to escape rather than try to run over the defender. When he tries to lower his shoulder to run over a defensive back, that is when he gets into trouble, as he doesn't use his natural strength to break tackles. He needs to show that he is maturing off the field and must improve his hand usage, as he will struggle vs. physical press coverage.

TIGHT END
Weslye Saunders, University of South Carolina Gamecocks, #88, 6:05.1-272

You might be too young to remember the comic strip, "Lil' Abner," so you might have to ask your father about these characters associated with Saunders in this segment. After the year that Saunders had, you have to wonder if his dealings with the NCAA, lying to school officials, failure by his agents to file his underclass declaration papers in a timely manner and foot injury will see what was once a promising pro career on the horizon come to an end before it ever begins.

The 2010 season was supposed to be a time when Saunders established himself as one of the elite tight end in the collegiate game. Mounting off-field issues first led to a suspension by head coach Steve Spurrier in early January, after the player failed to appear at the team's initial off-season meeting.

The rising senior, in and out of the coaches' doghouse the past couple of seasons, also fell behind in workouts, as he considered entering his name in the 2010 NFL draft. Spurrier told Saunders he was being suspended until he could get his attitude straightened out and catch up on what he'd missed. By the end of January, Saunders was back with the Game-cocks. "We had some issues with him," Spurrier said. "He had some responsibilities to fulfill and he achieved them all."

The tight end had a stellar 2010 spring camp, but then, the long, hot summer months got even hotter for Saunders. In mid-July, the NCAA began its investigation into the player's possible impermissible dealings with a sports agent, according to sources. An NCAA investigator was in Columbia to interview Saunders.

The investigation of Saunders was connected to the NCAA's ongoing probe of North Carolina football players and agent activity. The tight end from Durham, North Carolina has several friends on UNC's team, including defensive tackle Marvin Austin, who was at the center of the North Carolina investigation.

Saunders had little comment when reached by media. Asked if he did anything wrong, Saunders said, "I can't say anything right now." When Saunders was asked about the meeting with the NCAA, he told a reporter, "I'll have to give you a call back" – and hung up. ESPN's Joe Schad reported that Saunders confirmed the meeting with the NCAA and said he was friends with Austin, but did not know how much trouble they are in.

South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said the tight end told him he didn't do anything wrong in a trip to an agent's party in Miami. Spurrier said at the time of the investigation that he didn't know all the details but that the question is who paid for the trip for Saunders and other players, including Alabama defensive end Marcell Dareus.

The NCAA also conducted an investigation at Georgia and North Carolina connected to the same party. In mid-August, the NCAA also interviewed South Carolina football players about their residency at a Columbia hotel - an arrangement that apparently ended shortly after the investigation. At least three players were said to have been staying at Whitney Hotel in the Shandon area for several months, and NCAA investigators were trying to determine whether they received a cheaper rate than what is available to the general public. If so, that could constitute an extra benefit.

Saunders, who still remained at the center of an NCAA investigation into potentially illegal contact with an agent, was one of three known players with rooms at the Whitney. A South Carolina athletics department official told at least one of the players to move out of the hotel, according to a source close to the situation.

In late August, Saunders' future at South Carolina started to come to an end, as he was suspended by Spurrier. At the time of the suspension, Spurrier said Saunders would be held out indefinitely for violating team rules—and not for any potential findings from this summer's continuing NCAA inquiry centered around the tight end. "I said suspended for violation of team rules. Team rules have nothing to do with the NCAA," Spurrier said.

There was more, but suffice it to say that Saunders has plenty of questions to answer.

Compares To: Jerramy Stevens-ex Seattle/Tampa Bay. Like Stevens, Saunders has a first-round body and athletic ability, but he has a history of off-field problems that leaves one questioning not only his maturity, but his character. His questionable attitude also reflects on the field, as he is known to take several plays off when he is not involved in the action. While he has the power to dominate as a blocker, he tends to "go through the motions" when asked to cut block up field. He seems a little stiff in his turn-&-go after the catch, lacking the elusiveness needed to gain extra yardage. He does not get a good push off the snap, as he prefers not to combat, but rather elude the defenders to get into his routes. Durability is also a concern, as he lingers with minor ailments.

RUNNING BACK
John Clay, University of Wisconsin Badgers, #32, 6:00.4-230

You have to wonder what is going on in the heads of Wisconsin running backs in recent years. First, it was Brian Calhoun, followed by P.J. Hill, and then Clay making the ill-advised decision to bolt college for the NFL Draft. One look at team rosters at the end of 2010 and neither Calhoun's or Hill's names will be found on any roster.

Clay's numbers took a noticeable drop in 2010, as he had 1,012 yards and 14 touchdowns, but he was coming off a 2009 campaign where he piled up 1,517 yards and found the end zone 18 times. At age 23, his time clock for toting the pigskin was a little high for a college player and with the depth that Wisconsin has at tailback, another erratic season by Clay was sure to cut into his carries (had 287 in 2009, but just 187 last year).

What really put up "red flags" in regards to Clay was his less-than-inspiring work ethic, along with his weight issues. He was "politely" listed at 258 pounds last season, but looked every bit of 280. He showed up at the Combine weighing 230, but then went out and clocked 4.92 and 4.96 in the 40-yard dash (electronic), the worst for any running back at the event. He then cited "injuries," complaining of a right shoulder sprain when declining to lift in the weight room and said he had a right ankle sprain and could not do the three-cone drill. Excuses are not what NFL teams want to hear, especially from a player that will likely end up being a free agent.

Clay is a powerfully built athlete, but tends to dance around the pile and tries to avoid rather than take on contact. He needs to give a better effort to anticipate blocks, but is effective at locating the rush lanes. He has to play with a more consistent effort, as he will throttle down when not involved in the play. He does not take well to hard coaching, but tried to improve his work ethic in 2010, hoping to improve everyone's perceived impression of him. He played through several nagging injuries as a junior, but even though he is blessed with impressive ability, he needs to prove that football is important to him.

Clay tries to dance around too much when getting into the second level, negating some of his initial burst. He does not have the sustained speed to go long distances, but has the loose hips and ability to shift gears and redirect in an instant. He gets through the holes initially with no problem, but can be run down in attempts to break past the second level.

While he likes to redirect and try to get fancy with his moves, Clay is better served just taking the ball up the gut rather than dance around so much. A smart defender will just let him dance around, smile and whack the tailback down.

Clay has the leg drive to break tackles, but his feet go dead upon contact. He likes to pick his moments when he will use his strength, but needs to do it on a consistent basis. He runs with decent forward body lean, but gets too high on occasion, especially when he needs to be stronger near the goal line. He is too inconsistent trying to break arm tackles and this causes him to struggle in attempts to run through wrap-ups. For some reason, he prefers to be a bounder or finesse back rather than a straight-ahead power runner.

As a receiver, Clay uses his body too much to absorb the ball in rather than reach and pluck away from his frame. His short arms cause him to struggle when trying to get to the pass at its high point and he looks unnatural with his hands to be relied upon as a third-down back. He is decent on swings and dump-offs, but does not have the ability to look the deep throw in over his outside shoulder. Use him on the pitch-back on the toss or option, but stay away from him otherwise if you need to move the ball through the air.

Clay doesn't seem to have a taste for blocking. With his weight room strength, he should be blowing up blitzers on a regular basis. He has the vision to recognize the bull rush, but makes only passive attempts to get in the way rather than try to face up. If someone can get him more motivated, he has the hand strength to sustain better than he has shown.

Compares To: P.J. Hill-ex New Orleans…Somebody needs to get a running backs guidance counselor to be employed in Madison, as several Badgers ball carriers have made horrible mistakes in recent years by bolting college early for a dream of playing in the NFL. Clay has had injury and consistency issues and you can time this guy with a calendar rather than a stopwatch.

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