Every year, the NCAA presents us with football players whose numbers aren't Combine-friendly, but whose on-field exploits pop right off the game tape. There is serious talent hidden in many of the draft prospects whose forty-yard dashes are less than spectacular, or who can't navigate the three-cone shuttle with pinpoint form, or whose physical measurables aren't "textbook".What we learn is that when the players hit the field, those hypotheticals go out the window.
The stories of the players whose intangibles beat their measurables are common enough at this point to have entered the realm of cliché. In 2005, the Seahawks drafted two linebackers, Lofa Tatupu and Leroy Hill, who were each considered big reaches. Yet they have solidified what is probably the best 4-3 linebacker corps in the NFL. Colts safety Bob Sanders is the reigning Defensive Player of the Year despite his 5'8" stature. A stellar career at Iowa and a 4.35-40 at the 2003 Combine notwithstanding, the concern over Sanders' height made him a second-round pick.
Last year, the 4.55 40-yard dash run by Marshall's Ahmad Bradshaw marked him as a seventh-round prospect. It was there that the New York Giants selected him, and it was the New York Giants who benefited from Bradshaw's productivity on the way to a Super Bowl championship.
In 2008, it seems that Boston College safety Jamie Silva is the King of the Intangibles -- only this time, the numbers-obsessed are taking notice as well. It's hard not to when you're talking about the cornerstone of the defense that allowed the meager numers it did; a safety who intercepted eight passes and was in on 115 tackles in his senior season alone, and the man who almost single-handedly stopped the West squad in their opening drive of the second half of the East-West Shrine Game. Silva put up eight tackles and a forced fumble in that game; it was the first time some people got to see why Silva has a reputation for being where the plays are and stopping them as much as possible. The questions about his 5'11", 204-pound frame and supposed lack of elite physical tools tend to go quiet when the highlights come on.
At the 2008 Scouting Combine, Silva said he knew he'd be hamstrung to a point by his lack of track speed, but he's never claimed to be a sprinter. The 4.78 he ran was somewhat disappointing to a player who had averaged mid-4.5 to mid-4.6 in campus workouts. "Through the week I knew I wasn’t going to wow people with my forty-yard dash time, but I was hoping I would do better with the drills and while I think I did alright in the drills, but then again I’m a harder critic on myself," Silva said in a recent interview with Seahawks.NET.
"While I was doing the drills I was like, ‘Oh man, I could have done that better’, but I thought I did alright. I was glad to be at the Combine, but I’m glad that’s over."
One person who thought Silva did just fine was all-time cornerback Rod Woodson, who was in the RCA Dome covering the Combine for the NFL Network. Silva told the Providence Journal in late February that Woodson "came up to me (after) and said, ‘Don’t worry about this stuff. They know you’re a football player, they know this isn’t your thing. You came out and did well in the drills."
Silva is now in Pennsylvania doing pre-draft training after spending pre-Combine time in Florida. "I’ve just been doing a lot of the things to make me stronger and a better football player. There are different things (I do) at different places. Up here, it’s a lot of specific muscle group exercises to make my legs stronger and upper body stronger."
Still, when observing Silva, one must back away from the tests and drills and focus on what he brings to the game on the field. A running back and safety in high school -- "I was a big Bo Jackson fan. As a running back, I felt like I could run guys over or make them miss" -- he flirted with Brown and UPenn before accepting a scholarship to Boston College in 2003. After redshirting as a freshman and learning more about safety play on the scout team, he grew from a gifted prospect to a pro-level, well-rounded defensive player over the next three seasons.
2005 and 2006 were fine seasons for the Rhode Island native, but it was in 2007 when he really broke out. He totaled over ten tackles in four different games, including an incredible 18 against Florida State. "In that game we lost two of our starting linebackers, so there were a lot of younger guys in," he said. "They played very well, but I think that maybe Florida State was running the ball in my area more and I was able to come forward and make stops."
He was the pointman in a dominant defense. In 2007, Boston College allowed the fewest rushing yards per game in the nation with 68.08. This was the season in which Silva was utilized as a roaming free safety, and though he didn't feel like the beneficiary of any particular scheme change, his 2007 numbers were a revelation.
According to NFLDraftScout.com, opposing receivers covered by Silva managed only 36 catches on 76 pass attempts for 172 yards. That 2.26 yards-per-attempt allowed figure was the lowest among all Division I defensive backs. Scouts and other experts who have spent sufficient time watching his game can't help but be impressed, though they seem to wonder how an undersized player by traditional standards, with supposedly average athleticism, can make all the plays he does.
Boston College free safety Jamie Silva, right, gets a hug from head coach Jeff Jagodzinski after defeating Michigan State 24-21 in the Champs Sports Bowl football game in Orlando, Fla., Friday, Dec. 28, 2007. Silva was voted MVP of the game.(AP Photo/John Raoux)
Silva knows that he's one of those "better in pads than in shorts" players, but what makes players like that? What are the qualities that create such standouts? "I think I have football knowledge and I think I have good instincts," he said. "If I can break to a ball two-tenths of a second faster and take a straighter angle, I’m going to get there faster than a guy who can run three-tenths of a second faster than me in the forty. The forty is obviously forty yards and how often are you running forty yards? It’s more like you’re running twenty yards most of the time in football.
"I think the Combine things are over-rated, but maybe I’m just biased (laughs) because I’m not going to stand out at those types of events. I think I was just as good a safety as anyone in the country this year. It wouldn’t show from the Combine results, but if you put on the game tape I’m confident I have a good argument for that statement."
What provides his argument as much as anything is that Shrine Game performance. Not only did he prove to be a standout, but he showed a relatively unheralded aspect of his game. Silva is one of the best collegiate special teams coverage players in recent memory. The aforementioned forced fumble was on a kickoff return by cornerback Dwight Lowery. When Silva popped the ball loose, it was just one more example of his ability to be where the action is.
"It was fun," he said of his Shrine Game week. "It was an honor to get out there and to play in that game with a lot of the best players in the country. I got there a day late because I was at the Walter Camp All-American Banquet -- but once I got there, I strapped it up and went out there and practiced and I earned the respect of my teammates. They named me a team captain, so I think it was a good experience. I got to not only play with those guys and to see what the rest of the country had to offer, but it was also fun being out there with all the scouts and coaches. We had meetings late at night, so it gave us a feel for what the pros are really like."
Silva also had meetings at the Combine -- by his own estimation, he talked to at least 20 NFL teams there. "I had some good conversations with quite a few teams and some, like a dozen, seemed more interested than the others, but you never know. They say that most of the time the team that ends up picking you up will be the team that doesn’t show you any interest."
He did enjoy a priceless exchange with one team -- and this, as much as anything, displays the attitude and confidence that has allowed him to make his mark. When a representative of the Pittsburgh Steelers asked him about the long hair that has become a trademark, Silva brought up stellar safety Troy Polamalu, another player who hasn't seen a buzz cut in many moons.
"The Steelers asked, ‘What’s up with the hairdo?” I asked, “Do you really have a problem with safeties with long hair?’ He said, ‘No, not at all,’ and I said, ‘I didn’t think so.’"
That is Jamie Silva in a
Doug Farrar is the Editor-in-Chief of Seahawks.NET, a staff writer for Football Outsiders, and he writes NFL previews for the New York Sun. Feel free to e-mail Doug here.
Thanks to Draft Editor Scott Eklund for his transcription assistance.
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