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NFL Draft: Why traits outweigh production in grading prospects


While being critiqued can sting, it might not sting as much as feeling like you are being overlooked. Michigan senior cornerback Jourdan Lewis felt either overlooked or disrespected recently after he failed to make my list of the top 15 seniors in college football and let it be known on Twitter.

Lewis was very respectful in our brief back and forth, and I can understand his frustration with not being included since he was a first-team All-Big Ten selection and was named to All-America teams after last season. The disconnect prevailing here might be in believing that an outstanding college career automatically puts a player into first-round conversations.

College production and postseason accolades will generate plenty of attention for a player. However, that attention is irrelevant once the process of creating a draft grade begins. Great game tape can have a team falling in love with a player and how he fits into a scheme, but the conversation regarding where the team is willing to draft him often revolves around physical traits.

While Al Davis' love for size and speed might have been mocked toward the end of his time with the Raiders, the idea of drafting bigger, faster and stronger players in the first round is still very much alive and well. In this space, we will examine why physical traits are often so important in determining if a player receives a first-round grade.

Physical traits can create round value

Believe it or not, teams will often put a middle-round grade on a prospect they covet. It's not unusual to hear a personnel man say a player is "one of my favorite players in the draft" in one sentence and then "we would love to get him in the third or fourth round" in the next. Where a player is drafted isn't always a function of where he is at that moment as a player but what his ceiling could be in the NFL based on a combination of his physical tools and NFL coaching.

Football requires positional skill, no doubt, but baseline physical traits are also necessary. If a wide receiver isn't fast or doesn't have short-area quickness, getting open might prove to be too difficult for him in the NFL. An offensive lineman can have the feet of a dancing bear, but if he lacks functional strength, he could get pushed around up front by NFL power. Linebackers who lack a baseline level of quickness could be consistently outraced to the corner by NFL running backs.

I'm not saying players with certain physical deficiencies don't have value -- they absolutely do. Think of it as if you were heading into a huge electronics store in search of the latest and greatest television. You are willing to spend on the high side of your budget if you get the giant television with the outstanding sound system and 4K technology. However, what really has your attention is that discounted "open box" item that has a history of performance and features you want, but some minor cosmetic issues. That's similar to how teams view draft prospects. The greater the cosmetic flaw (physical liabilities), the bigger the discount they want (lower rounds).

Why size matters for Jourdan Lewis

I stated in my initial summer write-up of Lewis that his smallish frame (5-foot-10, 175 pounds) could create a firm ceiling on his draft stock despite his playmaking ability.

Here's the information that informs that belief: Over the last decade, the average first-round wide receiver has been 3.5 inches taller and 32 pounds heavier than Lewis. In fact, almost half of the 22 first-round receivers taken since just 2011 have been 6-2 or taller. While college football's passing game is seemingly played on a vast expanse of space, the spatial relationship between an NFL wide receiver and cornerback is much more intimate and throwing windows are much tighter. Big receivers can post up and outmuscle smaller cornerbacks and win "combat-catch" battles underneath.

Of even greater importance has been the ability of the big wideout to go up and over cornerbacks on the deep vertical routes and win the 50-50 throws downfield. Unless a shorter cornerback has long arms or is an explosive leaper, it becomes harder for him to challenge the catch at the receiver's high point. Teams can still like a cornerback who is smaller, but they rarely pay expensive television prices for them (first round).

To counter the emergence of big receivers, NFL teams are drafting more size at cornerback in the first round. From 2007 to 2011, 6 of 11 first-round cornerbacks measured less than 5-11, but since 2011, just two of the 23 first-round cornerbacks measured less than 5-11 (Kyle Wilson and Vernon Hargreaves). Hargreaves' height (5-10) and speed (4.50-second 40-yard dash) are considered below the level that teams look for in the first round, but his outstanding ball skills, quickness and explosive leaping ability to contest the high-point throws are what made him a modern-day outlier at the position.

While I believe that Lewis' lack of desired NFL size could hurt his draft slotting, his work ethic, athleticism and ball skills are the factors that could turn him into a successful NFL starter. Ultimately, it's not where a player is drafted but how he plays that determines his legacy.

In 2006, Tramon Williams went undrafted out of Louisiana Tech and was eventually cut in camp by the Houston Texans. His long speed (4.57 40) and sub 6-0 size hurt his cause. Williams made the Texans regret their decision and earned plenty of accolades and money along the way as a starter for Green Bay and now Cleveland. I'm not saying that Lewis can't have that same success. However, I think it's unlikely that he'll go in the first round.

Follow Lance Zierlein on Twitter @LanceZierlein.

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