Receivers, perhaps more than any other position, define the scout's conundrum when preparing for the NFL draft:
How do you analyze a prospect known best for intangibles that are difficult to project at the professional level?
Put another way: When hands aren't the No. 1 trait you see in a person you will be paying to catch the ball for a living, how can you tell if it's worth the risk?
So far this season, we've seen astronomical starts for a pair of young players who were considered boom-or-bust, speed-first prospects. Houston Texans wideout Will Fuller, a Notre Dame product selected in the first round of the 2016 NFL Draft, is leading all rookies in receiving yards with 327. Pittsburgh Steelers receiver Sammie Coates, a third-round pick in 2015 who caught just one regular-season pass last year, is ninth among all receivers in total yards (421) and tied with Fuller for seventh in receptions of 20 yards or more. Coates leads the NFL with six catches of 40 yards or more.
With jobs and reputations on the line, scouts can never just chalk it up to a 50-50 shot. In fact, the process between scouts and college coaches to properly promote, analyze and project these specific types of players is among the most complex tasks in sports. In order to find out why, NFL.com spoke with a pro scout and a college coach to learn more about what makes a truly great speed threat and why players like Fuller and Coates aren't just a dime a dozen.
"At the end of the day, we're talking about human beings evaluating human beings," Dan Hatman, a former NFL scout with the Eagles, Jets and Giants who is currently the director of development for NFL pipeline The Scouting Academy, told me this week. "There are opportunities for error throughout the entire process depending on what narrative you tell yourself and how you push on things.
"The smartest thing a scout can do sometimes is not get 100 percent of his answers from the tape. Maybe he should just generate some really excellent questions."
For the coach, most of those questions surrounded the hands.
"If you know NFL teams, when it comes to the draft process, there is nothing they like about anybody," Mike Denbrock, Notre Dame's wide receivers coach and offensive coordinator told me Thursday. "They nitpick every little detail and that is their job. There were concerns about Will's consistency catching the football."
But Denbrock, who coached Fuller throughout a collegiate career where he caught 144 passes for 2,512 yards and 30 touchdowns, did what most good college football coaches do when talking to scouts: He explained why.
"It was always more of a concentration issue than it was anything else," he said. "It wasn't him not having the ability to do it. And scouts were also concerned about him being labeled as a one-trick pony, but I told them that nothing could be farther from the truth. What we ask our receivers to do, they have to learn the entire route tree and learn how to run it the right way or they will not be allowed on the field. Will had the chance to develop those skills as a route runner while he was here."
During the scouting process, coaches are inclined to only say nice things about their prospects because draft position and volume is a résumé booster. Some scouts visiting top-tier programs simply meet with a pro liaison and get a sheet of boilerplate information based on frequently asked questions.
But in recent years, we've seen teams drafting higher volumes of players from specific schools. Hatman says that is because teams feel comfortable with the honest information they're getting from the program. There is a level of trust that transcends the program's desire to have a first-round pick. (It does not seem to be a coincidence that the Texans have selected three Notre Dame players -- including their first two picks of the 2016 draft, Fuller and OL Nick Martin -- since Bill O'Brien's arrival in 2014, though the team did not respond to a request for comment on this story.)
"Obviously, with the relationship I have with Will, it goes beyond the football field," Denbrock said. "I would do anything to help him go on and realize his hopes and goals -- one of which was to play in the NFL. So I wanted to do whatever I could do to make sure that [the Texans] knew what Will Fuller was all about. A lot of times, especially early in the process when teams come in to evaluate a player, they don't know the guy. They don't know his makeup, his personality, what makes them tick. So I tried to relay my experiences with him and what I see as far as his development."
That meant Denbrock sharing stories about the moment Fuller's "light" came on between the end of his freshman year and the beginning of his sophomore year, where he came in with a far broader understanding of the offense and ability to run the entire route tree. That also meant explaining that drops were an issue of concentration and not stone hands. His point was that Will got so much better in such a short period of time at Notre Dame that there was no way he wouldn't develop again at the next level.
And if all else fails: "You can't hit what you can't catch," Denbrock said with a laugh, referencing the speed Fuller put on full display at the NFL Scouting Combine, blazing a 4.32 40-yard dash.
For the scout, the questions surround the deep ball.
There is a certain maturity on vertical routes that exists with truly great deep-ball receivers -- something teams need to see before making a commitment. Judging by how the Texans, for example, utilize Fuller -- having him run a lot of straight, deep routes to accentuate his speed -- Hatman guessed that they must have looked for certain indicators before making him the No. 21 overall pick in April.
"At that stage of the game, if you get past 15 yards on a route, pretty much everything converts to man defense," Hatman told me. "Very few teams are sticking with Cover 2 in all areas of the field unless you're a team that has man corners and you run 2-man in places.
"In order for a wideout to excel in that area, it's not just a footrace. The defensive backs aren't giving up 5 yards of separation downfield. It's can you extend your route, manipulate the DB downfield and give yourself a little pocket -- maybe 2 yards by 2 yards -- for the quarterback to put the ball in? If you're to the outside and the DB is on the inside of the field, do you know how to extend your route so that you can keep the DB on the numbers and you give the quarterback a great window toward the sidelines to put the ball? Vice versa, if a DB takes outside leverage and you're forced inside, can you work the DB toward the sideline so that you can give your quarterback a window on the inside?"
When it comes to a prospect like Fuller or Coates, Hatman said scouts want to know how he will handle different types of situations while running those routes. In college, that can be difficult because receivers are sometimes so much faster than their defensive counterparts that the "little pocket" for a quarterback to throw the ball into is 5 or 10 yards wide.
"You really have to drill down on why," Hatman said. "Is it relative to the quarterback, does the ball placement differ from guy to guy? Is it based on coverage -- if he felt like the safety was over the top, did that inhibit him? When there wasn't, did he feel like he could extend his arms and make a catch?
"You can potentially dig and uncover some things. You can also let bias creep in all over the place. The college environment, it's never in a coach's best interest to paint his players in anything but a positive light. If you have a staff where you feel you can ask an honest question and get an honest answer, that allows you to feel more certain about that information."
The final piece is ball tracking. One thing we almost never consider on deep-ball receivers: They are running downfield at full speed. Their bodies are essentially bouncing up and down and the ball, which looks smaller than a Tylenol, is wobbling 40 yards in the air overhead. At Hatman's Scouting Academy, they brought in former Rams head coach and longtime offensive coordinator Mike Martz to help teach ball-tracking evaluation, which centers on the path and under-ball adjustments the wideout makes while the pass is in the air.
"You've usually got your head tilted, so you're trying to keep speed while you're looking over your shoulder tracking the ball and it looks like it's bouncing in midair, you're trying to catch it," Hatman said. "So if you're talking about a guy in that 6-foot range, maybe closer to 200 pounds, he's not going to win everywhere based on frame. He's got good speed, but not the world's best hands -- how does me make an impact? He better be able to manipulate DBs to give himself a chance and he's gotta be able to track the ball."
The reward for the extra homework is obvious. Last Sunday, the Steelers opened up the third play of their first drive in 11 personnel and motioned Coates to the far right of the formation. After the snap, he sprinted 5 yards, quickly identified the inside leverage and burst past Jets cornerback Marcus Williams for a 72-yard touchdown. He dropped a handful of other passes in the game, including a short pass in the end zone, but the benefit from an opening-drive haymaker was entirely worth the setbacks.
For Fuller, his first home run moment came in Week 2 against the Chiefs. With Pro Bowl CB Marcus Peters giving him a 12-yard cushion, Fuller blazed straight ahead before making a slight tweak to his vertical path -- a step to the right followed by a straight vertical step that altered the leverage entirely and left him with a 3-yard pocket to receive the deep ball. The 53-yard catch -- which Fuller actually bobbled before hauling it in -- set up the Texans with a first-and-goal at the 3. (Unfortunately, for Houston, Brock Osweiler threw a pick three plays later.) Fuller has had a catch of 28 yards or more in three of the Texans' five games.
But for every one of these prospects, there is a Yamon Figurs or, more recently, Marquise Goodwin, a former Olympian whose speed is more like the occasional home run power of a low-average baseball player than that of a perennial Silver Slugger.
Even after all the evaluation, Hatman says it is a bit of a "leap of faith." We all know that speed kills, but smart speed -- speed understood -- can be far more deadly.