As any dedicated NFL fan will know, a great college prospect doesn’t always make a great NFL professional. It is also true that some of the best pros might not have been the best prospects.
ESPN recently dubbed Ezekiel Elliott (insider account required for full article) as the best running back prospect since Adrian Peterson. Do they think that Elliott will be better than runners like Le’Veon Bell, LeSean McCoy, Jamaal Charles, Marshawn Lynch, and Matt Forte?
Elliott might end up being better than those players over the course of his future NFL career, but that isn’t necessarily the claim. The claim is that he grades as the best college prospect. That’s an important distinction. Too many variables go into becoming a successful professional player to say that anyone is a surefire pick.
Back in 2012, NFL Media Analyst and former NFL Scout Bucky Brooks touted Trent Richardson as perhaps the best running back prospect since Adrian Peterson. NFL Network’s Mike Mayock reportedly thought the same thing of Richardson. Many of the things being said about Elliott were said about Richardson. He is a great runner, receiver, and blocker. He relishes contact. He is a three-down running back.
Meanwhile, we in the present know that Richardson’s pro career is, thus far, a forgettable blip on the radar compared to Peterson’s historic impact as a professional. I wouldn’t wish being drafted by the Browns on anyone, but it isn’t like Peterson was drafted by a Super Bowl contender in Minnesota.
A year after Trent Richardson went third overall in the 2012 draft, no running back was taken in the first round. Giovanni Bernard was the first one off the board, several picks before Le’Veon Bell was taken by the Steelers. Bell, taken 48th in the 2013 NFL Draft, is now widely considered the top running back in the league when healthy.
Coming into the league however, Bell was considered a back that lacked speed and needed to improve pass blocking. Bell’s NFL player profile stated that the Michigan State runner’s “[s]ub par vision prevents him from seeing cut back lines and sees him running up the back of his lead blocker too often.”
Of All Pro wide receiver Antonio Brown the NFL player profile stated that the receiver “[n]eeds to add strength to more effectively beat press coverage and battled [sic] for the ball in the air. Route running skills could use some refinement. Needs to become more consistent catching the ball in a crowd.”
So, Brown and Bell–both considered to be tops at their positions in the NFL–were not great prospects. However, that’s why a team like the Steelers can succeed. They are able to identify the players that will perform at the next level regardless of pre-draft rankings and media projections.
A late round pick can turn into Antonio Brown or Toney Clemons. A first round “can’t miss” prospect can turn into Luke Kuechly or Aaron Curry. The Steelers miss too–everyone does. The difference is that they do it less often, don’t reach for need, and take what comes to them.
The Steelers’ success stories that I’ve mentioned (Bell and Brown) have something in common: they are considered to be notoriously hard workers. Peterson is too. Attitude seems to have a lot to do with a player’s success in the league. Richardson himself recently admitted that it’s “easy to get lazy in the NFL.” Not likely something you would hear from an All Pro.
This is why teams do their homework. The tape is the biggest part of the puzzle. The tape is the body of work. However, everything that a player says and does can be an indication of how he will do in a professional football locker room and in competition with the best of the best.
Steelers fans are lucky in that they can trust the system more than other fans. Without a history of botched high round picks, or riverboat gambles the Steelers’ front office has gained the confidence of its fanbase. Even if after the draft some pundits might question picks and give a below average grade, fans typically rest easy and just get ready for Week 1.
ESPN’s claim about Elliott is a nice headline to grab some views. It might also be true that the author hasn’t seen a prospect since Peterson with better pro potential than Elliott; that doesn’t mean much. In a media stream that’s obsessed with prospect comparisons, we can’t forget that each player is…well, a different player.