The Joey Bosa problem

If you are an NCAA football player and college ball commentators talk about you before the season as a “lock for the first overall pick in next year’s draft,” start freaking out. Your stock will drop soon.

Look it up; for every Andrew Luck or Jadaveon Clowney, there are several “mortal locks” like Matt Leinart, Jake Locker, Brady Quinn or Ricky Williams. All of them were crowned “next year’s first overall pick,” and subsequently tumbled down in the first round to varying degrees (Locker, Williams, and Leinart were still Top 10 picks, but only Williams went in the Top 5); Quinn dropped much further, though not far enough). This year’s draft figures to add another name to this unenviable list: Ohio State defensive end Joey Bosa.

As a sophomore on OSU’s 2014-15 National Championship team, Bosa forced the entire college football fanbase to notice him: he won the Big 10’s Defensive Player of the Year award with his 21 tackles for loss and 13.5 sacks. Therefore, it was clear to college football analysts that there was no better player for this year’s draft.

That said, we’ve heard the song before, and the CFB gang often gets it wrong, mostly because they look at these players from a college football perspective. They don’t pick players apart the way NFL scouts and coaches do, they seldom engage in trying to look for ways in which these players can transcend a completely different system from what they’ll see in the pros, and they certainly don’t analyse them in terms of NFL team fits (how could they?). This explains why, on the topic of predicting draft spots a year early, you shouldn’t trust them.

Now, sometimes a player is so clearly superior to the rest of the draft class that everybody agrees on it. The only reason why, for example, Julius Peppers wasn’t the first overall pick in 2002 was because the NFL was welcoming the expansion Texans. Houston, being the bright sparks that they were, decided that they absolutely HAD to throw a rookie quarterback behind a bad offensive line instead of going for the best college pass rusher of the last decade.

Players like Peppers are the exception, however, and most of the time, the attentive viewer can start to see signs that their favourite college ball analysts might be off the mark with the first overall pick predictions. For some people who looked at Bosa, the first sign was the drop in sack production: Bosa went from 13.5 sacks in 2014 to five in 2015. His defenders will argue that the lesser sack numbers were the result of double and triple-teams, and that his numbers against the run (16 tackles for loss) were again excellent. Bosa’s doubters, meanwhile, will argue that a sign of a true future NFL star is the ability to keep posting great numbers despite the extra attention.

As luck would have it, both sides have a point. When a player has a ridiculous freshman or sophomore season rushing the passer, one has to expect his sack numbers to drop somewhat the next year. If we stick with the Peppers example, it was unrealistic to expect him to match the 15 sacks he had as a sophomore at North Carolina, but the 9.5 he notched as a junior despite constantly dealing with multiple blockers was considered, for good reason, to be an acceptable drop in production. Bosa’s dip to five sacks is more worrisome, but it doesn’t prove he lacks what it takes to be a productive pass rusher in the NFL.

Recently, however, another issue has come up: Bosa lack of prototypical initial quickness. In other words, the ability to beat blockers off the snap with his first step doesn’t show up on tape. This is a potential issue that has struck me all year long. Even when facing tackles alone (an admittedly rare occurrence), Bosa appears to have neither the elite first step of the usual top-level NFL pass rushers nor the burst to turn the corner on NFL offensive tackles using speed. Scouts and coaches are now much smarter in how they interpret testing results, so Bosa’s 4.86 40-time at the Combine didn’t result in the catastrophic draft plunge that would have been a certainty 12-15 years ago. It did, however, lend credence to the idea that Bosa doesn’t have the explosion to be a classic speed rusher in the NFL. And while he did post a better 40-time at his pro day (4.77), the improvement doesn’t seem like enough to change many people’s minds on the topic.

ESPN’s Todd McShay has suggested that this doesn’t really matter; that being a top pass rusher in the NFL is more about hands and technique than about raw speed or athleticism. He’s both right and wrong. It’s true one doesn’t have to be uber-athletic to be a solid-to-good NFL edge rusher. That said, if you’re looking for a bona-fide franchise pass rusher, statistics suggest Bosa won’t be that player.

Indeed, if we recall that we are looking for either a killer first step or great speed turning the corner, the NFL’s active-sack-leaders list contradicts McShay’s assertion. The first eight players possess at least one, if not both those qualities, and there is a speed rush element to each one’s game. (The list from one to eight: Julius Peppers, Jared Allen, DeMarcus Ware, Dwight Freeney, Robert Mathis, Terrell Suggs, Elvis Dumervil, and Mario Williams.)

You have to get to Trent Cole at number nine on the list to find a player who made his mark essentially off technique and motor, and even that’s debatable. Cole isn’t a fast runner, but his first step is excellent nonetheless. Now, Bosa’s backers might respond that he could do worse than Trent Cole’s career as a pass rusher, and that sacks aren’t the be-all and end-all of the impact of one’s pass rush. Both points are valid, but while Trent Cole has been a very good player for the bulk of his career, would you, at any point, have described him as an elite pass rusher? I cannot say I would have. And on the topic of meaningful pass rush stats, sacks aren’t everything, it’s true. Yet, they are very significant in that they, more often than not, kill offensive drives.

Before we go any further, though, we must remember not to sell Bosa short. All the TV and magazine scouts are both unanimous and right in the following respect: Bosa’s pass rush arsenal and overall technique are both uncommonly polished for a college player, and his hands are among the most violent I can recall seeing on someone entering the NFL. Bosa is also a powerful player who should quickly become one of the NFL’s best defensive ends at defending the run.

But then, the same could be said about a similar prospect who came out in 2008: Chris Long. The son of the great Howie Long hasn’t embarrassed himself by any means in the NFL, but while his technique is just about spotless, his lack of elite athleticism has prevented him from reaching the pass rushing heights of his technically inferior but athletically superior former teammate Robert Quinn. Now ask yourself the following question: if the Rams knew Long’s career numbers in advance and were then transported back to the ’08 draft, do they draft Long second overall again? I can almost guarantee they don’t. And here’s an even more intriguing inquiry: if the entire NFL knows Long’s career numbers during the draft process, where DOES he get drafted?

The thing about having a Top-5 pick is that you’re hoping to come away with a Top three, maybe four, player at his position (unless he’s a quarterback, in which case he can be average and still be a mortal lock for a $100-million contract, but I digress). And if you’re looking for a pass rusher, that’s a 12-or-more sacks-per-year guy. The odds are that Bosa will be something close to that, but not quite.

So while Bosa’s floor is so unusually high that he’s probably the draft’s unlikeliest player to become a bust, his lack of a “sky is the limit” kind of ceiling will likely make him something of a tough sell in the Top 5. You can just picture several heated conversations about him between coaches and scouts. Do you allow the multi-dimensional quality of his game to overshadow his limitations when it comes to his most important task? Do you believe his technique, hand violence, and effort can compensate for his lack of raw speed and overall athleticism? If you’re picking him in the Top 5, maybe even the Top 10, you have to answer yes to both of these questions. Would I? I’m really not certain. And while it only takes the one to pull the trigger, one has to think several teams aren’t sure, either. I’m glad it’s not my call.

 

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A word on Peyton Manning, and a question about Charles Woodson: was he better than Deion?

Into the sunset

This year’s retirement season is brutal on the NFL, and on us as fans. Peyton Manning has retired as the league’s most statistically decorated quarterback and, in my opinion, the greatest one it has ever seen. I don’t wish to go at length into the reasons why I believe this to be the case, but let’s just put it this way: what do those who disagree have to hang their hat on? The amount of Super Bowls won by Brady and Montana. Let’s not kid ourselves: both of them are top 5 quarterbacks as well. However, the rings argument for their superiority over Manning is as overstated and simplistic as it is problematic.

In fact, it’s not so much an argument as it is an unsophisticated cliché. And if we are willing to cast aside this cliché, and agree that there is more to a player’s greatness than if or how many times he was on the winning team for the last game of the season, the question becomes this: when it comes to the quarterback position, who has ever played it at a higher level than Manning? The answer: no one.

Just how great was Charles Woodson?

Still, this offseason also forces us to say goodbye to Charles Woodson, the Raiders’ star defensive back who retires after a season in which he still played at a fairly high level. The depth of his link to Manning is really quite stunning. They are the last members of the 1998 draft class to retire. They both came into the league as high first-round picks (Manning was first overall; Woodson went fourth). Before their respective pro debuts, Woodson became the first defensive player to win the Heisman Trophy. Who was the preseason pick to win it, but wound up finishing second in the voting? Manning. Both of them came into the league with the potential to revolutionize their respective positions, and they both did.

The ways in which Manning changed the quarterback position (another reason why he’s the greatest ever) are well documented. As for Woodson, the changes to defensive back play he has ushered may be more subtle, but I’m not convinced they’re any less significant. That’s why I consider him to be the greatest defensive back I’ve ever watched.

I shall now pause to give the Deion fanatics among my friends the chance to climb back down from their living room curtains.

Just a moment…

Almost there…

And we’re back.

Yes, I’ve seen Deion play. Yes, he’s the greatest cover corner in history. So what, then, would make him inferior to Woodson? My take on the Deion-Woodson debate is that Deion’s era-specific advantages are hard to ignore. Sure, the tape suggests his pure speed is better than Woodson’s, and that his “loose man” skills are as well. His interception numbers are also gaudier.

But my thinking goes as follows: put rookie Woodson in a time machine and send him to 1988, playing in an NFL when you could get away with corners who were relatively uninterested in tackling and assuredly awful at it (as Deion was) because the bubble screen game hadn’t yet forced corners to acquire the shed-and-tackle skills of a linebacker. In those times, could Woodson have been, say, 98% of what Deion was? No question, and some, even back then, would have taken Woodson because he was a more complete player.

Put rookie Deion in 1998 and have him face what has become the NFL of today. Is he 98% of Woodson? It’s a murky proposal. Sure, in terms of man-to-man skills, we’d speak of him the way we speak of peak Darrelle Revis. But how would his disdain of zone coverage affect the perception of him by coordinators (There was a guy who could never in a million years have played for a coach like Bill Belichick)? Would his horrendous tackling and overall aversion to it not diminish his value to coaches and GMs?

How would his value compare to what it was in the late 80s-early 90s? 85%? 90%? 95%? How would he fare in the run game or against hitches, jailbreaks and bubble screens getting off blocks from the likes of Andre or Calvin Johnson? How would he do if a modern DC matched him up against a Rob Gronkowski? Is that even feasible?

And there is more. Because of his superior technical skills and overall ability, late-career Woodson was able to become a safety who wasn’t afraid to stick his nose in the run game and whom DCs could bring on a blitz with excellent results (as Dom Capers did during Woodson’s stint as a Green Bay Packer). Meanwhile, look at what happened when Deion’s skills eroded (which just so happens to coincide with Dallas letting him go): he fell off a cliff when he arrived in Washington, and instantly became a liability. I think that means something.

It’s also worth mentioning that there has been something “Tim Duncan-esque” about Woodson’s excellence. Deion was the very definition of flash (not always to his benefit) with gem quotes such as , “I don’t love the camera; the camera loves me!” Meanwhile, Woodson has pissed excellence in silence (and on several mediocre Oakland teams) for pretty much his entire career, and you had to watch him to see just how amazing he was. It reminds me of the Duncan-Kobe discussion. Have a basketball conversation with a casual fan, and he’ll probably tell you the notion that Kobe was better than Duncan is beyond debate. And he’ll be wrong.

It’s kind of the same thing with Woodson versus Deion. Sanders has the support of legions who nostalgically remember his days as a man coverage ayatollah, and the young people know him because he’s on television. Woodson only has the connoisseurs’ support, and that of those who saw him crush it on a Super Bowl team in Green Bay. Woodson’s reputation has also “suffered” from him playing at the same time as several truly legendary corners like Champ Bailey (mortal lock as a Hall-of-Famer) and Chris McAlister (who would be discussed in similar terms had he played long enough). Aside from maybe Rod Woodson, who did Deion have to compete with? Old Ronnie Lott? Dale Carter? Aeneas Williams?

Between Woodson’s incredible athletic talents, the sheer completeness of his game, and the way he reinvented himself when his physical skills began to fade, he would have been a Top two or three player at his position for his entire career in any era. His versatility allowed for the modern use of the star defensive back who gets moved all over the field to prevent top receivers from creating mismatches. Florida State’s Jalen Ramsey is a highly-touted all-around prospect in this year’s NFL draft a DB, mostly because of his ability to line up all over the field. People describe him as another Patrick Peterson; I think he’s another Woodson, and that’s why defensive coordinators salivate at the thought of having him on their team. Whatever multitude of ways Ramsey will be used as an NFL player, he’ll owe part of it to Woodson.

As for Deion, put him in today’s NFL, and he’s essentially the Washington Post or the New York Times: still great, still a reference in many ways, but not necessarily as memorable. And that’s what sets Woodson apart from Sanders, for me, despite Woodson’s fatal flaw of not being interesting enough. Heck, by the time my friends finish this post, they’ll probably have resumed thinking about Richard Sherman. For Woodson, it’ll be another day of being overlooked. It seems even his retirement can’t save him from that.

 

 

 

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