As scouts and coaches debate the proper order of prospects at a position, the conversation often turns into a discussion regarding a player's production vs. his potential.
A player's production over the course of his collegiate career oftentimes catches the attention of evaluators, but his potential to thrive on the next level matters most.
Of course, team officials try to adhere to the Wall Street principles that state past performance is not an indicator of future success. But a documented history of outstanding production against quality competition is hard to ignore when assigning value to similarly graded prospects.
In this year's draft, the production-over-potential discussion is certainly taking place in draft rooms while sorting out the top offensive tackles on the board. The competition between Boston College's Anthony Castonzo, Colorado's Nate Solder, Southern California's Tyron Smith, and Wisconsin's Gabe Carimi is definitely forcing team officials to weigh production against potential.
When breaking those terms down, production is best described as a combination of a player's experience (number of games started in a career) and performance over the course of his career. Scouts want to see a consistent pattern of excellent play while also seeing a player's skills improve from season to season. The goal is to pick an ascending player with plenty of tape to validate his talent.
When it comes to potential, scouts use a combination of measurable traits to make the assessment. The forecast should come from tape study, but the data collected from the NFL Scouting Combine, pro days and private workouts weighs heavily in determining a player's pro potential. In this particular case, scouts will compare the height, weight, and arm lengths of offensive tackles against a standard established from watching elite players over the years. In addition, they will use other measurables, such as the 10-yard split time (as part of the 40-yard dash), three-cone drill and vertical jump to assess a prospect's athleticism.
But the biggest indicator is revealed during private workouts conducted by the position coach, which allow a coach to see how well the prospect adapts to his techniques and style of coaching. He also observes the prospect's flaws first-hand, which allows him to see if those shortcomings can be overcome with proper instruction.
As I evaluate this year's class, Castonzo and Carimi fall into the production category of the argument.
Castonzo, in particular, enters the draft touted as a "plug-and-play" prospect based on his 54 career starts at the position. His extensive experience has helped him refine his technique and makes him one of the most polished players at the position.
Castonzo shows outstanding poise and patience, and he rarely looks out of control when facing elite rushers. He shows a keen understanding for sorting out stunts, and his awareness allows him to identify the right guy against the blitz. He combines those instincts with a gritty demeanor and aggressive style that allow him to dominate defenders on the edge. Castonzo attacks blockers with his hands and has a strong initial punch that stops rushers in their tracks. He also displays the strength and body control to anchor against power. He rarely yields ground and possesses a nasty demeanor that is reflected in his willingness to finish all blocks aggressively.
Projection game: Two-round mock
Though Castonzo's aggressiveness is lauded by some, others worry about his ability to recover when beaten early. He occasionally bends at the waist, ducks his head and is unable to square up on speedy defenders. His struggles against speed are concerning given the dynamic athletes who play right defensive end.
Carimi is also lauded for extensive experience as a four-year starter at Wisconsin. He stepped in for former first-round pick Joe Thomas as the Badgers' left tackle and played at a high level throughout his career. Carimi is a dominant run blocker with the strength and power to uproot defenders off the ball. His consistent dominance has helped the Badgers field one of the top rushing units in the country.
Carimi is also impressive in pass protection. He plays with balance and body control in space, and shows a strong initial punch when he sets in the pocket. He pummels rushers and is active with his hands after contact. His accuracy and hand placement are outstanding, and he is tough to defeat when he wins early with his hands.
In citing Carimi's flaws, the biggest concern is his ability to handle speed and quickness off the edge. Quick rushers with good athleticism force him on his heels, and he has a tough time reacting to their movements. While he generally holds up well, his difficulties against some of the top rushers in the Senior Bowl has led many scouts to believe he is better suited to play right tackle as a pro. Although that opinion isn't universal, Carimi's exceptional blocking skills in the running game make him a prime candidate to be an immediate starter on the right side.
With Castonzo and Carimi serving as the poster boys for outstanding production, Solder and Smith are classic examples of prospects falling into the potential category.
Solder, a former tight end turned offensive tackle, has three years of experience at left tackle and has all of the tools to excel.
At 6-foot-8, 315 pounds, Solder has the requisite size for the position, and his phenomenal combine workout showcased his exceptional athleticism. He ranked at, or near, the top of his position in all of the athletic tests and looked like the best athlete on the field while going through the positional drills.
Solder's workout in Indy only confirmed the positives displayed on tape. He is quick and athletic out of his stance, and he has the lateral quickness to shadow elite rushers and maintain control throughout the down.
Solder's athletic ability also allows him to have success in the running game. He blocks well on the move, and is capable of being used on pulls and traps. He shows the ability to lock on defenders in space and does an effective job of finishing after contact.
Although his movement skills are intriguing, Solder's game still needs refinement. He struggles anchoring against power, and his upright positioning causes him to struggle against shorter rushers. Low-leverage players are able to turn the corner underneath his blows, and that doesn't bode well for him considering the league's top rushers (James Harrison and Dwight Freeney) are at the 6-foot mark.
Smith is regarded as the most intriguing of all the prospects because of his athleticism and immense potential. He has been a standout player at right tackle for the Trojans, and he shows the agility and movement skills of a tight end. He effortlessly changes direction in space, and his ability to shadow finesse defenders has led many to believe he can thrive on the quarterback's blind side.
If Smith's skills as a pass blocker weren't enough to earn kudos, his consistent performance in the running game is just as praiseworthy. He routinely blows defenders off the ball, and his athleticism shines when he works to the second level. He makes solid contact on defenders in space and is an effective finisher after contact.
The biggest concern for Smith is his inexperience playing on the left side. His athleticism and skills suggest that he is capable of playing on the blindside, but he must adjust. This means playing from a left-handed stance and seeing the game from a different perspective. He also must adjust to facing better athletes (right defensive ends are typically the opponent's best pass rushers) who are more polished with their moves. With limited experience facing elite rushers, he could struggle making the transition as a pro.
Smith must also demonstrate a strong football acumen after being ruled academically ineligible in 2009. While academic struggles aren't necessarily indicative of learning issues, scouts and coaches will want to know he is capable of learning the playbook.
The final ranking of the offensive tackles will consist of several factors, including fit within scheme, readiness to play and long-term potential.
With a plethora of teams needing offensive tackles, the first-round order will vary on draft boards across the league.
However, we can rest assured that each of these intriguing prospects will hear their name called on Day 1, and their respective teams will bank on them to be bedrocks along their offensive lines for years to come.