Buyer Beware: Offense, Part 1

Longtime personnel analyst Dave-Te Thomas brings Part 1 of a four-part series on boom-or-bust talents who have major flaws in their game or disconcerting character concerns. We lead off with the quarterback, wide receiver and tight end.

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, and coaches, scouting directors and general managers are out in full force with stopwatches in hand. The four-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, Arkansas

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 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 to 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.

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, Pittsburgh

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.

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, South Carolina

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.


Weslye Saunders
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images
The 2010 season was supposed to be a time when Saunders (6-5, 272) established himself as one of the elite tight end in the collegiate game. Mounting off-field issues led to a suspension by coach Steve Spurrier in early January, after the player failed to appear at the team's initial offseason meeting.

The 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 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 Gamecocks. "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.

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.

Spurrier said the tight end told him he didn't do anything wrong in a trip to an agent's party in Miami. 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. Saunders was reportedly the final player to remain at the Whitney Hotel and owed thousands of dollars in back rent.

With the NCAA investigating, Saunders was dismissed from the football team on Sept. 15.

All of this brings back memories of "Lil' Abner." You have to wonder if Saunders is this year's version of Weakeyes Yokum. Before Mister Magoo there was Dogpatch's own Cousin Weakeyes, who would tragically mistake grizzly bears for romantically inclined "rich gals" in fur coats, and end a sequence by characteristically walking off a cliff. Saunders did just that when he lied to school officials and had more off-field issues than Toyota had recalls.

Talking to him bemoan his troubles, you have to wonder if he is really Joe Btfsplk, the world's worst jinx. Btfsplk had a perpetually dark rain cloud over his head; instantaneous bad luck befell anyone unfortunate enough to be in his vicinity. Though well-meaning and friendly, his reputation inevitably precedes him — so Joe is a very lonely little man. Joe's personal black cloud became one of the most iconic images in the strip. Saunders' dark cloud was missing the 2010 season due to his mounting troubles away from the game.

Compares To…Jerramy Stevens, ex-Seattle/Tampa Bay …Like Stevans, 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 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-and-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.


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