By Russ Lande
Every year during and after the coverage of the NFL sraft, media draft coverage declares certain selections to be great picks, terrible choices, sleepers and reaches. Obviously, anyone who understands the NFL knows that we will not be able to determine the true answers to which players will end up being good (or not) choices until at least two or three seasons from now. However, based on thorough film evaluation, we can offer educated guesses as to which players that were labeled as "reaches" really were -- and what the fans of those respective teams should expect from them.
John Brown, WR, Cardinals
While it definitely surprised me that the Cardinals selected receiver/returner John Brown from Pittsburg State (Kansas) in the third round, it was not because I did not feel he was worthy of being selected that high. It was because players from schools below the Division 1A level usually fall a round or two below their graded value on draft day. Brown is a player that I was told about during the fall as one of the best small school players in the country, and once I saw him dominate the week of practice at the East-West Shrine Game, I became convinced that the game-changing play he showed at Pittsburg State would translate to the NFL. Although he is not a big receiver at 5-foot-10 and 179 pounds, he is wiry and defined, so strength is not an issue. His foot quickness helps him to burst off the ball and accelerate to full speed quickly, which enables him to close the cushion on the cornerback easily.
Unlike many small school receivers who rely solely on their athleticism to gain separation, Brown shocked me with his sharp, precise routes and explosion out of his cuts to easily get away from man coverage. The same quickness, burst and speed Brown displayed running routes also helped him to easily make big plays running after the catch and as a returner. After seeing it on film, I was pleased to see Brown display the same strong, quiet hands throughout the week of practice in Tampa, as this raises my confidence that catching the ball consistently will not be an issue in the NFL. At the end of the day, any player from a lower level of football is a risky pick, but in my eyes Brown does not qualify as a "reach" because he has all the skills to be successful in the NFL. Besides level of competition, there is nothing else in his path to success.
Dexter McDougle, CB, Jets
As the 2013 college football season kicked off, Maryland cornerback Dexter McDougle was a strong final season away from potentially being a first-round pick. Unfortunately for both the Terrapins and McDougle, he was injured early in the season and had to have season-ending shoulder surgery in September, so to fairly evaluate him for the draft, I needed to not only watch the games he was healthy for in 2013, but go back and watch film from the 2012 season. Light on his feet with the agility and balance NFL teams look for, McDougle is able to backpedal quickly and efficiently. Moving backwards in his pedal, he is able to read and react quickly to transition and close fast on passes in front of him. Perhaps most impressive athletically is McDougle's ability to adjust to a fake by a receiver, maintain proper positioning and stay with him stride for stride. His display of this ability making an interception against Connecticut in 2013 was particularly impressive.
There are many cornerbacks who possess the athleticism to cover NFL receivers, but few of those also show a willingness to support the run and play physically with the receiver using their strength and technique. I will never claim to be a medical expert, so no doubt there is risk taking a player who is coming off season-ending surgery, but if he is going to be back to pre-injury form -- as NFL personnel have indicated to me he will -- then I not only do not view the selection of McDougle as a "reach," but rather an excellent value pick of a player who would have been selected significantly higher had he not gotten hurt in 2013.
Jerick McKinnon, RB, Vikings
As analytics have become an integral part of the scouting process, 5-foot-9 running backs do not get classified as small any longer, and his small stature should not hurt Jerick McKinnon's chances of NFL stardom. However, on the other side of analytics/statistics is the reality that there is a long list of former college quarterbacks (Matt Jones, Armanti Edwards, Eric Crouch and many more) who tried to switch to another position in the NFL and failed, compared to the shorter list of success stories (Antwan Randle-El). As McKinnon proved running Georgia Southern's option offense at such a high level, he is a dynamic athlete who is capable of making big plays because of his combination of explosiveness through the hole, elusiveness to make tacklers miss, strength to run through contact and the speed to out-run angles. However, while all those physical traits are great and necessary to be a successful ball carrier in the NFL, he faces one small and two huge adjustments to make it in the NFL. As I stated with Brown above, McKinnon will have to adjust to the huge jump in level of competition, but I believe he has proven he has the athleticism to handle that.
Unfortunately, the two areas are much harder to predict, and have led to the failure of other players. Those would be his having to adjust to lining up and carrying the ball from a traditional running back alignment, and proving he can catch the ball and pass block well enough to be a part of his team's passing attack. Running backs who cannot play on third down have a hard time carving out long NFL careers, unless they become dominant runners who gain enough yards carrying the ball that their inability to contribute in the passing game is overlooked. To many outsiders, it seems crazy that where a player is given the ball matters in terms of a running back's success, but the truth is that the view of the line is different, following blockers becomes even more vital and being patient waiting for holes to develop instead of just attacking the edge and deciding whether to run and where to do so being predicated on some pre-determined keys.
At the end of the day, I believe McKinnon has the athleticism to make plays in the NFL, but to develop into anything more than a kickoff returner in the NFL is not going to be easy and in my opinion makes his selection in the third round of the draft too risky and therefore a real "reach."
Michael Schofield, OL, Broncos
As Michigan left tackle Taylor Lewan received national attention throughout the 2013 season, his linemate Michael Schofield went largely unnoticed amongst the media, although NFL scouts were paying close attention. After a strong final season in Ann Arbor, Schofield was invited to participate in the Senior Bowl because he displayed better technique and consistency during his final year, and he played both guard and tackle during the week in Mobile. Throughout his career at Michigan, he was viewed as a better athlete than football player because he has good feet, quickness and all-around athleticism, but struggled with consistency as a blocker, especially in pass protection. At nearly 6-foot-7 and 300 pounds, he has the measureables of an offensive tackle and, combined with his athleticism, he has the complete physical package that NFL teams look for.
However, the issue is that Schofield still has some bad habits that lead to missed blocks. Instead of bending his knees and blocking with base/leverage, he usually bends at the waist to make contact on run blocks, leaving him ending up leaning and reaching to maintain contact. In pass protection he does not consistently punch, leaves his chest wide open and stops his feet when he makes contact, which leaves him vulnerable to power rushers and secondary pass rush moves. While I am confident that Schofield has the athleticism to be a starting tackle in the NFL, I think he is a long way from being there and has a high chance of failure, which is why I view his selection as a major "reach."
Russ Lande writes about college scouting and the NFL draft for Sports on Earth. He is GM jr. scouting and college scouting director for the CFL's Montreal Alouettes and the Big Ten Network. He is a former scout for the Cleveland Browns and former scouting administrator for the St. Louis Rams. You can follow him @RUSSLANDE.