Most players in the NFL Draft present four seasons of work for teams to dissect. Even juniors who exit early often submit three complete seasons.
But how do teams evaluate a player who spent five years in college, yet, played in only 38 games -- only seven of those starts -- and caught his only touchdown pass in his final game? How do you know if a tight end with such sketchy output is a bold choice more than a brittle one?
This is the puzzle Brad Cottam presents.
Nothing puzzling about his size. At 6-feet-8, 270-pounds, he is a huge tight end who is as fleet as he is mobile, as stout as he is tall.
But at the University of Tennessee, Cottam underwent five surgeries and survived a car accident, all of which kept him in casts and slings as much as in shoulder pads and cleats.
"For all football players, sometimes strange things are going to happen injury-wise," Cottam said. "Mine was just bad luck."
It went this way:
» He left Germantown (outside of Memphis), Tenn., for Knoxville and UT in 2003. He was redshirted.
» In April 2004, he tore ligaments in his left thumb that required surgery. That May, he had his right shoulder scoped.
» In January 2005, he underwent reconstruction surgery on his right shoulder. Later in July, he was in car accident but did not suffer a major injury.
» In spring 2007, he had a tear in an abdomen muscle repaired. That August, he dislocated his left wrist and that required surgery that caused him to miss the first nine games of his senior season.
"I had been through a lot, but my senior year was there for me and I was really excited about finishing strong," Cottam said. "I fell on the wrist wrong in a scrimmage. That night in the hospital, the doctors told me they would have to put me to sleep. They were going to try and pop my wrist back in place. If they could not do that, they had to perform surgery. I broke down. It had been building up. I was going to be put to sleep not even knowing what was going to happen. I vaguely remember waking up. There were 15 or so people in the room, friends and coaches.
"That first week was really rough. I got sick for a few days after that and could not even go on the plane with my teammates for our first game, at Cal. I had to watch it at home on TV. Very tough."
However, Cottam rebounded in time to play the last five contests of the season, catching the first touchdown pass of his collegiate career in Tennessee's Outback Bowl victory over Wisconsin.
Still, the 23-year-old would not be going pro had the NCAA granted him a sixth season of eligibility due to medical reasons.
Instead, this tight end who earned his degree in business studies last May and entered graduate school at Tennessee focusing on sports psychology, is in this year's draft.
And, among all tight ends, he ranks highly. He is expected to last no later than the fourth round.
But his path has been thorny.
"For me, because of the adversities, because of the lost playing time, the combine, Senior Bowl and my pro day workouts were really critical," Cottam said. "I gave those everything. I've done everything I can do at this point to make up, to make it pay off. Some people are going to be scared and look at me as a risk and are not going to take that risk. But I've kept my eyes on the goal."
And NFL teams have kept their eyes on Cottam.
His analysis of his game mirrors that of scouts: Easy, fluid runner. Can stretch the field from the tight end position, an ever-popular tool in NFL offenses today. Good footwork. Knowledgeable. Needs work on keeping his head up when blocking. Picks up the game easily. Smart -- a multiple honor-roll SEC football selection.
Cottam would love to land in an offense that features the tight end as a frequent and deep pass catching threat similar to the one in Dallas where Jason Witten is a focus. Witten, in fact, is a former UT tight end.
Cottam is now looking to get his shot.
"It just takes one team," said Cottam, "to like you for you to get up there."
And he will be home in Germantown with family and friends watching the draft and enjoying a crawfish boil.
"That's where you get a big pot and boil the crawfish and you put corn and potatoes in the boil," Cottam said. "It will only be about 10 people total, I imagine. We'll sit around and watch. Actually, I don't know if I can sit through the whole thing and wait, and wait …"
Yeah, he said, he probably will.
He reminds himself. He has already waited a lot longer than most.