As much as those of us who professionally evaluate NFL prospects hate to admit it, there are some prospects where uncertainty abounds. No matter how much we study them or how strongly we lean in one direction, there is just something there that prevents us from having a concrete opinion on a particular player.
Here are three players that cause me internal conflict as an evaluator.
Drew Lock, QB, Missouri
My standard take on Lock is a familiar one to anyone who has caught me on radio spots or podcasts over the last few weeks:
“All of the things Lions fans dislike about Matthew Stafford without quite as much of the good things or upside.”
It’s a line I’ve used repeatedly, and as someone who was watched every NFL snap Stafford has taken -- most of them several times -- it’s one I feel pretty comfortable in saying. When I watched Lock in 2017 and again early in 2018, it was an easy line to craft because it was patently obvious.
Like Stafford, Lock has good size (6-4/228) with a little baby fat visible in his cheeks. He’s got the same quick release and instant high velocity on the ball. There is real zip when the ball comes out of Lock’s right hand. He can chuck it from multiple arm angles, just like Stafford. There are inexplicable misfires and occasional issues with touch, more from Lock than Stafford and quite a bit more for the Mizzou QB for most of his collegiate career.
Something changed with Lock after a rough game in a loss to Alabama (another parallel with Stafford--Lock seldom plays great vs. good opponents), and it harkens to Stafford’s transformation into a better all-around passer once Jim Caldwell took over as Lions coach. Lock started making better decisions with his passes, more careful but still (mostly) aggressive. It was like his understanding of the offense and his receivers clicked.
Is that final half-season where he looked like “good Stafford” legit? Is that replicable as he changes to a new offense with new teammates facing better defenses? Is being “almost as good as Matthew Stafford” a high enough ceiling to take in the top 10?
I believe the answer to all three of those questions is negative. But I get why a team (Denver?) will convince themselves otherwise. The more I watched Lock, particularly the end of his Tigers career, the more I see the appeal. He’s still not getting a top-50 ranking from me but I don’t have the reflexive “hell no” reaction to Lock that a vociferous minority of Lions fans still have for Stafford 10 years into his career.
Irv Smith Jr., TE, Alabama
Yet for all I really like about Smith, I can’t help but think back a few drafts to a similar-sized player from the SEC who burned me.
I look back at my scouting report on the Arkansas TE, the Packers 5th-round pick in 2011, and I can’t help but recognize some of the cherry-picked similarities...
Good route runner but not always precise
Negligible as an in-line blocker and must be on the move at the point of impact to have any effect as a run blocker in space
Not creative after the catch other than the inside stiff-arm
Struggled vs. man coverage when not given a cushion and an outside threat to help him
Doesn’t have the size to align inline and doesn’t have the requisite speed or burst to threaten as well as desired in the slot
I’ll be damned if those aren’t all valid on Smith, too. I love Smith’s pedigree (his father was an NFL TE) and his fit as a solid contributor to a diverse, NFL-style offense. I think his lack of athleticism is overplayed by critics, and I believe in his hands and playmaking potential. His ability to line up as an H-back or even fullback in red zone packages is definitely appealing.
But I thought those things of Williams, my No. 77 overall player back in 2011. He was out of the NFL quickly because of his size and athletic limitations. I do like Smith more, but I can’t help but remember my Great White (with apologies to Ian Hunter): I’m once bitten, twice shy baby.
Rashan Gary, DE, Michigan
Gary is a complicated player to evaluate for a variety of factors. Separating the myth from the reality on a player is tough, made tougher in this case because I do tangentially cover Gary and the Wolverines as part of my radio duties here in Michigan.
The mythos of Gary as an athletic freak pass rusher is not valid. His low sack production (3.5 in 9 games in 2018) is not an aberration. Gary doesn’t have any real refined pass rush moves, and he’s tighter in the hips and ankles than most 7-9 technique edge rushers.
Playing mostly on the strongside edge at his size (280ish pounds) did Gary no favors, however. He proved to be an exceptional facilitator as an end, setting strong edges and still scaring teams enough with his blend of speed and finishing power to keep blocking help away from the likes of fellow EDGE Chase Winovich (a good Day 2 prospect in the Whitney Mercilus mold) and the exceptional blitzing ability of LB Devin Bush. Gary was a force against the run, too.
Those skills hold very real value to an NFL team. Even if he never develops more refinement or litheness as a rusher, Gary can start at the 5-6-7 technique in most defenses and be really good against the run and still athletic enough to exploit bad blocking and get some pressure on the QB. But that isn’t worth a top-50 selection. Ask the Browns with Emmanuel Ogbah or the Buccaneers with Adrian Clayborn (now with New England). That’s the type of NFL player Gary is based on his career at Michigan.
Yet there is definitely potential for so much more. He does have excellent quickness and ability to winnow his way through gaps, skills that would suit him much better playing on the defensive interior. He’s not Aaron Donald -- nobody is -- but he could be Geno Atkins as a lightweight 3T/4i type of player who can impact the game as a pass rusher by attacking guards with his quickness, power and speed. That guy is worthy of the hype and a top-20 overall pick.
Gary himself will need to embrace it, something he’s been adamantly resistant to doing at both Michigan and in team interviews at the Combine. Yet if he does, Gary should be a more impactful NFL player than he was in college and with his physical tools could be a Pro Bowler who gets 7-10 sacks a year.
What do you do with that combination of tantalizing high-end potential and high floor but fairly high possibility Gary underwhelms at what you need him to do most? That’s a vexing conundrum for both draft media like myself and NFL teams.