Point No. 1: Out of the top four quarterbacks in the draft, Sam Bradford and Colt McCoy are the most likely to succeed.
Most people have Oklahoma's Sam Bradford, Notre Dame's Jimmy Clausen, Texas' Colt McCoy and Florida's Tim Tebow in the top tier of this year's crop of quarterbacks. Out of the four, I see the most potential for success in Bradford and McCoy, but since I'm not an NFL quarterbacks coach or pro scout, I checked in this past weekend with a former NFL quarterbacks coach who's worked with some of the league's top quarterbacks. I asked him to share his analysis based on his personal observations and on what he's been hearing from other NFL coaches and scouts. Here's what he had to say about each of the high-profile prospects:
- On Sam Bradford: "He's fundamentally strong and sees the field really well. He makes all the throws and throws a very catchable ball. According to what I've heard, his shoulder is still a little loose and there's been some talk about whether his knees will be an issue. But he's the most NFL-ready of the four and the lowest gamble. When you look at guys like Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Drew Brees, they're balanced in the pocket. And even though Bradford worked out of the spread, he comes to balance very well in his drop, he's very smooth with his release and he's a good decision-maker."
- On Jimmy Clausen: "Jimmy had a great year, but even though he was schooled at Notre Dame by Charlie Weiss, I'm just not sure how smart Jimmy really is. His [Wonderlic] test score wasn't super high, and his brothers, Casey and Rick both appeared to struggle mentally at the position. Sometimes he comes off as though he believes he's got it all figured out, and I don't know if that's a good quality. He's got a big-time arm, but I think that with Jimmy, what you see right now is all you're going to get. I think he can be good, but I don't think he's going to be great."
- On Colt McCoy: "With time, I think he's going to be better than Jimmy--I think he's got a bigger upside. He's got the good body type and he's athletic. Over the past year, he's gotten better balance in the pocket, a better feel for staying in the pocket and feeling the rush, sliding and climbing when he needs to. He understands where to go with the ball based on coverage. Out of the four, he made the most improvement when you compare the last two seasons. He's a great kid and is very humble even though he's coming out of a big-time program--and he's eager to learn."
- On Tim Tebow: "As I've watched him, I haven't seen a pure-enough passer to feel real good about the guy. I love all the intangibles, but he doesn't throw great balls. The ball flutters on him a lot, he sails it, kind of sprays it at times. The NFL is a passing league, and you have to be able to convert on third down by throwing the football. And if you're not accurate from Point A to Point B, it's going to be difficult to succeed. As good of a guy and athlete that he is, as good as his intangibles are, he still has to be able to throw the ball to move the chains, and I don't know if he can do it consistently enough to be a full-time quarterback in the NFL. Maybe he can develop his consistency over time, but he's a project."
Point No. 2: The 49ers made a great move this week, trading a fifth-round draft pick for Ted Ginn.
Disgruntled Dolphins fans may question whether I was drinking when I wrote this portion of my column this week, but while I fully acknowledge that the former Ohio State star was a bust as a featured receiver in Miami, that doesn't mean that he won't shine as a No. 3 pass-catcher on the 49ers depth chart. Ginn isn't going to be much of a threat to starters Michael Crabtree and Josh Morgan in San Francisco, but he could develop into a dangerous, catch-and-run player out of the slot.
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"He's a bundle of potential and his upside is off the charts," head coach Mike Singletary said this week after the trade was announced.
Ginn was clearly overrated when he was selected with the ninth overall pick in the 2007 NFL Draft, but that was Miami's blunder, not his. During his three years as a Dolphin, he averaged 13.0 yards per catch, pulling in 128 balls for 1,664 yards and five touchdowns. But he didn't develop into the highly-anticipated deep-ball threat that everyone expected. He caught just eleven passes for 25-plus yards during his career.
But look deeper into Ginn's performance as an NFL receiver and it becomes obvious that the slot is a better match for his skill set. When he ran routes up either of the sidelines, he caught less than 50 percent of the balls. When balls were thrown to him 11-20 yards downfield, he caught just 50 percent of the throws. On passes thrown 21 yards or more through the air, only 23 percent resulted in a completion. But while working the middle of the field, Ginn caught 63 percent of the passes thrown to him. And when a Dolphins quarterback tossed him the ball within ten yards of the line of scrimmage, he grabbed 65 percent of those opportunities.
The big knock on Ginn has been dropped passes, and that criticism isn't unwarranted. Among NFL receivers who were targeted at least as often as Ginn, he had the second-highest drop ratio (11.5 percent) behind the Chiefs' Dwayne Bowe (12.6 percent). But if the 49ers deploy their new receiver in the slot, increasing the number of throws to him across the middle and within ten yards of the line of scrimmage, drops should become a non-issue.
Point No. 3: NFL teams should be both awestruck and a bit afraid of running back Ryan Mathews.
Mathews enters this week's NFL Draft as one of the most intriguing high-risk, high-reward prospects. The Fresno State star has deservedly earned the distinction of being among the top running backs in this draft class, but has been haunted by a single issue during his three collegiate seasons--injuries.
Mathews is a powerful runner who doesn't even waste milliseconds with jukes and stutter-steps. He's mostly a North-South runner who has both the vision and the burst of speed to exploit momentary gaps in the line. As the country's top running back in 2009 with over 150 yards rushing per game and 6.55 yards per carry, Mathews' game film speaks volumes about his potential to have an immediate impact at the next level. And the 6-foot tall, 218-pound runner drove home the point when he notched 40-yard dash times clocked as low as 4.37 seconds by hand and 4.45 seconds electronically at the NFL Combine.
But despite his rare talent, some teams may hesitate to use their first-round selection due to his injury history while playing in the Western Athletic Conference.
During his freshman year, Matthews missed two games due to ankle and collarbone injuries. Then in week five of his sophomore campaign, he sustained a knee injury against UCLA that caused him to miss five full games while seeing limited action in three other contests.
Last October, following an impressive 233-yard rushing performance against San Jose State, Matthews acknowledged that injuries had hampered his productivity at Fresno State.
"This is the first season I haven't been hurt," he said. "I'm just thankful to be playing and thank God I'm still healthy and playing."
But the Bulldogs' star running back spoke too soon. A few weeks later, during a mid-November contest against Nevada, he was sidelined in the second quarter with a concussion and then sat out the team's following game against Louisiana Tech as well. At the NFL Combine, Matthews said he didn't have any headaches as a result of the concussion.
Based on his play and his outstanding character, Matthews deserves to be a top pick among this year's running backs. But he'll be a gamble for a team who needs a rookie to step in immediately as their featured back, so don't be surprised if he lands with a team who already has a successful running back already on their roster.
Point No. 4: I won't be surprised if West Virginia's Jarrett Brown eventually becomes one of the few starting quarterbacks out of this year's draft class.
When you watch Brown play, he's got a gritty, backyard-football approach to the position that reminds me of former NFL quarterback Jim Harbaugh. He looks more comfortable making throws on the run than when he's standing tall in the pocket, and he has an uncanny knack for connecting with receivers while on the move. And so far, that style has worked out well for him. In 2009 he became the first West Virginia quarterback to throw for more than 2,000 yards in a single season since Marc Bulger back in 1998.
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At 6-foot-3, 224 pounds, Brown's the same height and just a few pounds heavier than Harbaugh was when he took the Colts into the AFC Championship game prior to the Peyton Manning era in Indianapolis. But don't let his weight full you. The former Mountaineers quarterback is a weight-room fanatic who is ripped by quarterback standards.
"I believe it shows people that I'm a hard worker and that I'm dedicated to being the best, even in the weight room," Brown told me during a phone interview. "I do it because I want to be ready whenever my opportunity to play comes."
There's little doubt that the easy-going, yet highly-competitive quarterback has the arm strength to be successful in the NFL. During a recent workout for the Cincinnati Bengals, quarterbacks coach Ken Zampesi told Brown he should throw the ball at roughly 85 percent of the velocity that he was displaying that day. And NFL teams have told the athletic signal-caller that they like the speed and mobility that helped him rush for 466 yards during his senior year. In fact, the Rams respected his speed so much that they asked him to work out for them as a wide receiver--an offer that Brown politely declined.
"I am a quarterback. Of course, if you draft me, you can do whatever you want with me," he said with a good-natured laugh.
Since he's projected to be picked anywhere from the late-third to early-fifth round of the NFL Draft this week, Brown's not usually mentioned in the same draft conversations with the likes of Sam Bradford, Jimmy Clausen and Colt McCoy. But quite honestly, he shouldn't be--yet. While the others were multi-year starters for their schools, Brown has just one year of starter experience under his belt, and he believes that he's going to close that gap as his NFL career progresses.
"I've always been a natural passer. All this time I've been getting by with my raw talent, and I can only imagine how effective I can be if someone works with me on the little things, improving some of my fundamentals so I can take my game up a few notches and to a whole new level," he said.
One area of coaching that is going to make a huge difference in accelerating Brown's development is already underway. During a private workout session with 49ers quarterback coach Mike Johnson, Brown learned a new way to memorize defensive formations and the pre-snap adjustments he should make in those situations. He already applied the new technique during a recent visit with the Cleveland Browns when they put him on the board and had him run through some plays.
"I was taught differently, and the way he taught me, I understood it really well," he said. "He actually taught me a better way of how to learn the information."
In addition to the interest he's drawn from the Bengals, Browns and 49ers, Brown had an official visit with the Bills and worked out for the Dolphins' at their local pro day for area athletes. He's also received consistent interest from the Carolina Panthers throughout the draft process--another team that is clearly in need of quarterback talent for their depth chart.
Point No. 5: The Dolphins are going to get one outstanding year from Brandon Marshall before they regret their decision.
The former Broncos malcontent was rewarded by Miami this week with a four-year contract extension that reportedly guarantees him $24 million dollars. And what did Marshall do over the past year to motivate Miami to shower him with that much dough? Well, I have to be honest. I'm still trying to figure that out.
Maybe it's the fact that he just passed the one-year anniversary mark since his last arrest. Or maybe he pledged not to skip the Dolphins' mandatory team workouts like he did in Denver last June. Perhaps he even gave Bill Parcells his word that he wouldn't act like a spoiled child, purposely dropping passes during a practice for at least a year or two.
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Don't get me wrong. I know Marshall is a tremendous on-the-field talent on game day, and I fully expect him to have a terrific debut season in Miami while he's enjoying his honeymoon period with the Dolphins. He's undoubtedly giddy over his new opportunity, his new surroundings and his freshly-fattened wallet. But the guy repeatedly has found new ways to get into trouble. Former Broncos quarterback Jay Cutler noticed it back in 2007 after one of Marshall's many off-the-field adventures that created distraction and drama for the club.
"It's just something about him. He's always into something," he said.
That's a fact. Marshall's been charged with disorderly conduct, simple battery and false imprisonment during relationships with two women, served a year of probation after a DUI incident, went through anger management counseling to get some charges against him dropped, and has been suspended in the past by the NFL and the Broncos. And now he can make the streets of Miami his new playground with $24 million in his bank account. Does this seem like a very bad idea to anyone else?
The fifth-year receiver's talent is undeniable. He's posted three consecutive seasons with no less than 1,100 receiving yards and he scored a career-high ten touchdowns last year. So there's no doubt that his addition to the Dolphins' passing attack will be a huge help to young, strong-armed quarterback Chad Henne--and to the team's chances of keeping pace with the Patriots and Jets.
But the trouble-magnet will likely find himself mired in controversy again within the next two years, and when he does, Parcells isn't likely to tolerate it for long. And that could make Marshall's $24 million in guaranteed money a costly investment for the Dolphins--and one that isn't likely to result in a Lombardi Trophy before he burns his bridge with them.
Point No. 6: If you only look at Carlton Mitchell's stats, you won't understand why he's going to be drafted in the early rounds of this week's NFL Draft.
Last year, Mitchell caught just 40 passes for 706 yards and four touchdowns for the University of South Florida during his junior year and his first full season as a starter. But NFL talent evaluators know that USF had a run-first offense, so Mitchell's number of catches aren't that important in assessing his NFL value. What's truly significant is his 4.46-second forty-time speed combined with his 6-foot-3, 215-pound frame--and his physical style of play both as a receiver and as a run blocker.
Oh, and they really, really like what he's able to do after he catches the football.
Mitchell averaged 17.6 yards per catch in 2009 and 15.7 yards per catch overall during his three-year career at USF. He credits his dedication in the film room as a key to his success.
"It helps me understand what moves to make when I see certain coverages--before I even start running my route," he explained during a recent phone interview. "So after I catch the ball, I don't have to hesitate and look around, I know exactly where I'm going to be and where the defenders will be. Then once I turn upfield, I use my size, acceleration and speed."
That dedication to detail stems out of Mitchell's commitment to perfection, which will serve him well at the next level.
"I grew up watching Jerry Rice, and he wasn't the fastest player, but he was very smart and strived to do even the little things perfectly," the hard-working receiver said. "I'm my biggest critic. I always want to help my team, and if I do anything to hurt the team, I haven't done my job."
According to an NFL source, the Buccaneers, Panthers, Browns, Broncos, Steelers, Bengals and Titans have all shown serious interest in Mitchell through workouts or visits. But whether it's one of those teams or one of the league's other 25 teams who selects him in this week's NFL Draft, they'll be adding a player who has already set some very high goals for himself so that he can help his team win.
"I want to be that complete receiver who can run the deep routes, but who can also get to the sticks underneath. I want to be that guy that the coach turns to when there's ten seconds on the clock and we need 30 yards to win the game," Mitchell said. "But I mean that in the most humble way. I don't just want to be the go-to guy, I know that to be that player for my team I have to gain the respect of my coaches, my teammates and--most importantly--my quarterback."
Point No. 7: Over the next few months, the lives of many young men and their families are going to change dramatically.
The NFL Draft marks the beginning of a new chapter in the football life of every player selected, but the transition is even more surreal for players who have lived through hardships and challenges that many of us can't fully understand or even imagine. A few of the players that I met during this year's draft process had compelling stories that evoked both respect and empathy.
Idaho offensive lineman Mike Iupati and his family moved to the United States from Samoa when he was just 14 years old because his parents wanted their children to get a better education. The five of them lived in the garage of his aunt's house in California for a year.
"Then my parents both had jobs and were able to support us financially, so we moved to a small apartment in Anaheim and lived there paycheck to paycheck. It's been hard," he told the media at the NFL Combine. "That's why I always take advantage of every little opportunity I get, just try to seize the moment so I can have a better future for myself and my family."
Georgia Tech wide receiver Demaryius Thomas told me about growing up with his aunt and uncle because his mother and grandmother were sent to prison on drug-related charges and his stepfather was in Kuwait serving in the military. He was in the fifth grade.
"My uncle took me in, he was a good guy. He got me going to church and had curfews for me. That helped out a lot and I stayed out of trouble. We went to church and worked hard," Thomas said.
After experiencing financial hardship while growing up in Florida, Mardy Gilyard headed to the University of Cincinnati on a football scholarship. But his coach revoked it due to poor grades shortly after the wide receiver had already registered for his sophomore fall semester classes. Gilyard slept in a car--and when available--on couches and dorm-room floors of friends for a six-month period while he worked four part-time jobs to pay the school the nearly $10,000 that he owed. Ironically, he even found time periodically to hand out sandwiches to other homeless people through a local church. After making good on the debt, he was brought back onto the team by the school's new head coach, Brian Kelly, for the fall semester in 2007.
"I was homeless in the city. I lost my scholarship. I got evicted from my house. With that all in mind, I had to find faith and myself, I had to grow up." he told the media at the NFL Combine. "I wouldn't change it for nothing."
UCLA defensive tackle Brian Price told me about his life growing up amidst the gang violence in South Central L.A. and becoming the man of the house for his mother and his sisters at the age of 14. One of his brothers was shot while walking down the street with a girl. The other was shot by a friend who was sitting behind him as they were riding in a car.
"Growing up like that is painful, being scared for your life because bullets don't have names, they don't have eyes," he said. "But there are also a lot people in the community there doing good things. The people at our church go out and feed the homeless and the unfortunate every other Saturday."
Price hopes to be able to do more for his community after he makes the leap to the NFL. One of his ideas is to start a program called "Dream Catcher" that would recruit mentors for kids to provide guidance and support that would encourage them to pursue their dream careers.
With all four players likely to be selected in the early rounds of this week's draft, their financial futures are certainly much brighter. And if they don't forget the life lessons they've learned as they make decisions with their new-found wealth, they'll also become rich in a way that money can't buy.
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