NFL Draft: Potential vs. Production

Everyone who is not a general manager of a professional team wishes they were a GM, regardless of the sport. This is probably the most agreed upon thing in sports. That is why fantasy sports are (basically) the most popular thing in the world.

I know for sure that I have thought and will continue to think that I can assemble a team better than some GMs out there.

My favorite time to pretend I am a GM is when the NFL Draft rolls around. Most people who have a favorite team, in my case the Minnesota Vikings (sad, yes I know), have an opinion for what area said team needs to improve whether it is for talent or personal reasons.

Today’s topic, however, has nothing to do with who the Vikings should draft. As long as it is a quality pick and they don’t reach for a project pick who is then rushed along without proper development (See: Jackson, Tarvaris), I don’t mind who they pick.

Rather, let us take a look at something more general, and one the biggest yearly debates and uncertainties of the NFL Draft: the debate of production vs. potential.

Today we will look at this debate through the prism of two different receivers. Both played for teams in BCS conferences and both were in a BCS bowl game this past season. They will be referred to as WR1 and WR2 to prevent bias.

First up is WR1, who measures out at 6’3” 224 lbs. and had a 40 time in the 4.5 range during the NFL combine in February. He is projected as a late first round pick.

The following quote about WR1 is from Todd McShay on his weekly podcast ESPN First Draft.

“He can come in, run a bunch of nine routes, and run down the field. He can’t run the route tree in the NFL, inconsistent catching the ball intermediate, blocking is not there, all sorts of questions with his game and needs lots of coaching.”

His bio on NFL.com also includes the following:  (WR1) runs sloppy routes and is raw with his route-running in general. Needs to be more consistent with his concentration on the ball. Blocking must improve at the next level, which is tough to swallow given his size.

braylon-edwardsWR1 seems to lack a lot of the required skills and abilities that it takes to be a top flight receiver, something we have seen in Braylon Edwards, who claims he is a top five receiver in the league, and actually gets paid like one, even though he can’t catch the ball.

Obviously this player has some positives that make him a first round pick. Along with his outstanding size, speed, strength and potentially outstanding upside, he thrived as a receiver in a run dominated offense, which has to count for something. He also has that magical asset that everyone looks for in a receiver, “Playmaking Potential”, which is like being seven feet tall and playing basketball.

Remember: WR1 will be receiving a four year contract and will be in the top 20% of receiver salaries in all of the league.

Now let’s take a look at WR2. He is 5’11” 193 lbs. and finished this past season as the second leading receiver in catches, fifth in yards and seventh in TD catches in all of D-I football. He also ran his 40 yard dash in the 4.5 range and was a punt and kick returner for three years.

Despite the numbers, WR2 is projected as a third round pick because of his size and lack of explosiveness in the vertical game. This makes sense because WR2 is definitely a slot receiver, where as WR1 is projected and expected to be a number one receiver in the league. Number one receivers are always going to be drafted ahead of number two and three receivers. Always.

The key in this debate is time.

How much time does an organization have to sit and wait on a player to potentially become great? There aren’t a lot of teams that can allow a first round pick to be a non-factor for up to three years. Players like that make coaches, GMs, and quarterbacks lose their jobs. Teams without that timetable are more likely to draft guys like WR2.

Then there are teams like the Ravens. The Ravens have a stable, accomplished, and relatively new coaching staff. They also have a young QB who is still developing.

Would the logical pick be to take a slot receiver, one much like WR2, and allow him to step in and contribute right away? He would likely get matched up with nickel corners and linebackers most of the time, and wouldn’t have to face the Darrelle Revises of the league.

wes-welkerOr would the Ravens prefer to take a guy like WR1, let him grow, and have a dynamic one-two punch for ten years? It is no secret the NFL is more of a passing league than it has ever been, and the key to passing the ball is getting it down field. WR1-type guys can do that. WR2-type guys cannot.

We’ve seen the Darius Heyward-Beys and Troy Williamsons of the world come in with superb height and speed and that magical “Playmaking Potential” that we all dream about. And we’ve seen a lot of them fail.

While first round receivers fail, we see guys like Wes Welker thrive in a low profile slot receiver roll and make a greater contribution than anyone else at their position.

It is common knowledge that first round receivers struggle to make their way in the league within the first two or three years. Why take that risk when it is easily avoidable?

Most GMs are afraid of missing “that guy” and taking the wrong player. This happens in every sport. If a player has the potential to make multiple All-Pro teams and become the face of a franchise, it is likely that he will go as early as possible. Who wants to root for a faceless team?

So which receiver is the better pick?

  • The guy who can come in right away, catch 60-70 balls and potentially upgrade the passing offense from week one?
  • Or the one that takes up to three years to potentially have 100+ catches, lead the league in touchdowns and be in the pro bowl year after year?
About the Author

Drew Lange

Drew is a student at North Dakota State University in Fargo, ND. He is a life long Vikings fan and distracts himself from their futility by watching a lot of TV and listening to a lot of music, even though his parents don't understand the appeal. Follow on twitter (@drewlange) or send an email to d.lange9@gmail.com