The most difficult part of evaluating prospects for the draft is forecasting their future potential based on their past production.
Scouts and coaches track a player to see if there is a consistent pattern of improvement throughout his career. If there is a steady sign of growth over a three- or four-year period, evaluators are willing to bet that a player's star is on the rise.
However, someone with dramatic spikes in production will raise red flags in war rooms and force scouts to ponder if a prospect is a "one-year wonder."
This year, Clemson's Da'Quan Bowers joins Auburn's Cam Newton and Nick Fairley as top prospects attempting to shed that perception.
Bowers works out
Although each player emerged as a dominant force at his respective position for the first time last season, scouts are unsure if they can replicate that production based on their previous track record. The trio enjoyed moderate success early in their careers, but the recent surge in production seemingly came out of nowhere.
Given the importance of identifying can't-miss prospects during the opening stages of the draft, each player has been the subject of countless debates in war rooms across the league.
Bowers is regarded as a one-year wonder after leading the nation with 15.5 sacks in 2010. That output is 11.5 more than he posted in his previous two seasons at Clemson, and makes evaluators wonder what led to the dramatic spike in performance.
As one of the most ballyhooed recruits to play for Clemson, Bowers was expected to be an instant impact player upon arrival. However, he failed to produce at a high level early, so his production this year took everyone by surprise. Bowers was nearly impossible to defend off the edge and flashed a natural ability for getting to the quarterback. His first-step quickness is superior, and he shows outstanding body control while bending the corner. His combination of strength, power and hand skills allows him to win with force or finesse. He has the look of a double-digit sack artist on the next level.
Bowers also shows solid skills against the run and is capable of stacking at the point of attack. His ability to set the edge makes him an intriguing prospect as a defensive end. While most pass rushers lack the strength to play well against the run because of their size, Bowers (6-foot-3, 280 pounds) holds up well on the closed (tight end side) or open side.
With a stellar evaluation in so many areas, Bowers would appear to be a slam dunk as a potential early pick. However, teams have questions about his medical history and his rapid improvement last season. He is currently recovering from knee surgery performed prior to the NFL Scouting Combine and his inability to perform in front of scouts has created some hesitation among teams. But if he passes his medical evaluations and has a solid pro day, he will certainly move back into the conversation as a potential top-five selection.
Although scouts and coaches would worry about Bowers' ability to sustain success, he is simply too good to pass up. Teams will ignore his inconsistent play and gamble on his potential as an impact pass rusher.
Newton, the 2010 Heisman Trophy winner, has been roundly pegged as a one-year sensation after guiding Auburn to the BCS National Championship in his only season at the school. As a dynamic dual-threat quarterback, Newton had 50 touchdowns (30 passing, 20 rushing) and tormented defenses with his athleticism and speed. He finished as the SEC's rushing leader with 1,473 yards while directing a spread-option offense.
Though Newton primarily did his damage with his legs, he also provided enough firepower in the passing game to keep defenses honest. He completed 66.1 percent of his passes for 2,854 yards and only seven interceptions. Those numbers are impressive considering he averaged only 20 pass attempts per game.
One of the biggest reasons Newton has been labeled as a potential one-year wonder is largely due to his small body of work. He left Auburn with only 14 career starts, and his lack of game repetitions is viewed as a possible hindrance on the next level. Scouts have often used career starts as a predictor for success, and Newton's inexperience worries evaluators in terms of his ability to diagnose complex defenses on the next level.
Newton has only been exposed to basic coverages in the SEC due to the nature of the Tigers' offense, leaving scouts and coaches diligently working to determine his football acumen in workouts and meetings. He has worked out with several teams over the past few weeks and is slated to make other visits over the next month, which will answer any lingering questions. Those trips will likely include a simulated game plan installation to evaluate his ability to process a script and apply it in a short period. If Newton is able to accurately articulate his responsibilities while watching film, he could alleviate any concerns about his inexperience.
Fairley is also under scrutiny after exploding onto the scene in 2010. He completely dominated the SEC as an interior defender, and a quick look at the stat sheet reveals his tremendous impact. He finished with 11.5 sacks, 24 tackles for a loss and 60 tackles last season. Those numbers are impressive for a defender at any position, but even more remarkable when considering that Fairley faced double teams on a consistent basis from his three-technique spot.
Breaking down Fairley's game on film, he is best described as a big, physical playmaker with outstanding strength and power. He simply overwhelms blockers with his brute force, routinely finding a way to be disruptive in the backfield. He has a strong nose for the ball and has a knack for making timely plays.
Fairley shows exceptional first-step quickness as a pass rusher and his combination of speed and athleticism makes him difficult to contain in one-on-one matchups. He completely took over games against LSU, Alabama, South Carolina and Oregon, leaving little doubt about who was the most dominant player on the field.
Two-round mock draft
If I had to identify a weakness in Fairley's game, I would point to his unrefined technique and inconsistent motor. He doesn't use his hands consistently to defeat blockers and will have a tougher time winning against skilled technicians on the next level without improving in that area. He also plays too high early in downs. Power blockers in the NFL will take advantage of his chest exposure by locking on and grabbing his chest plate.
Some of Fairley's technical struggles can be attributed to his status as a junior college transfer, because he didn't benefit from a high level of coaching on a consistent basis. It might have taken him a full year to understand the coaching points and expectations at Auburn, and the light didn't come on until he settled into the starting lineup last season.
While this doesn't completely absolve him from underperforming during his first season at Auburn, it could explain why he had the dramatic jump in production.
Scouts will continue to dig into Fairley's profile to see if he has any issues learning or processing due to his limited exposure at the major college level. Their research will go a long ways toward determining if he is worthy of the long-term investment as a possible top-10 pick.
The process of drafting players is an inexact science. Teams attempt to minimize the risk by relying on a composite evaluation that places a premium on measurables, production and potential. But sometimes a prospect coming off a sensational season can prompt a team to throw caution to the wind.
With a trio of potential top-10 picks categorized as one-year wonders, we will soon see how many teams are willing to bank on potential over a proven track record of production.