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Sunday Morning Coming Down: I missed on the 2015 draft's top two receivers and I know why

In his new series at Footballguys, Sunday Morning Coming Down, Matt Harmon recalls some of the reasons why he missed on the top two receivers in the 2015 NFL Draft.

 

Being a football writer for your career is an odd journey, in many ways. To some extent, it becomes quite cyclical. You start out trying your hand at a number of different styles to try and fit in. 

When I first got going with Backyard Banter and trying to make a name for myself I attempted doing mock drafts, weekly recaps and power rankings…all the usual. With eyes wide open to the reality that I was a nobody and thus no one cared about my rankings of NFL teams or what I thought about games, I just wanted to try and find what I liked, along with where I fit.  

Eventually you need to identify something to not only stand out from the crowd, but also to gain some credibility. My work with Reception Perception was my shot at that. 

If you’re one of the lucky ones like me and that somehow works out, after a few years you almost find yourself back in the same position of wanting to try your hand in other arenas. Knowing that for some reason you have an audience that actually listens and follows you now, you can unfurl your mind a bit and let the people have a peak in the other corners beyond what you’re known for. 

Here in my new series at Footballguys, I’m going to experiment with doing just that while also going back to my starting days at Backyard Banter with a series title and concept I loved, but never really got going called Sunday Morning Coming Down. Named after the old Johnny Cash song, this Footballguys chapter will expand on the “random NFL thoughts” part of the of the original series and I’ll essentially unpack grand-view, league-wide concepts that are on my brain of late. It could be general mistakes the analysis community makes, narratives that need debunking or something I just can’t let go.

Look for it at least bi-weekly during the offseason, and weekly when the NFL returns to full action in the season. Now, let’s get to edition No. 1.

My specialty is covering the wide receiver position. I spend more time than any human reasonably ever should watching and charting wideouts for Reception Perception. I pour over their combine results, consume other evaluators’ opinions on them and constantly sort out positional biases and assumptions to better understand these players. 

Some readers or other writers assign me titles like “the wide receiver guru” or “the wide receiver expert,” despite my stance that both “guru” and “expert” are foolish titles I’d rather not own. At least I got my co-hosts on the NFL Fantasy Live podcast to sub those out for “the wide receiver prognosticator,” something that actually fits what I’m doing. 

Despite all that time spent and credit earned, I still have embarrassing misses all over my resume. The good deal with the internet, in case you hadn’t heard, is that your work lives on forever. Takes are written in pen when you publish them, and critics certainly don’t forget easy.

I whiffed not once, but twice in naming the top receiver in the 2015 NFL Draft. In my rankings, which by the way I no longer believe to be a useful tool, I named Dorial Green-Beckham the No. 1 player based on “talent alone” and thereby declaring Kevin White the de facto No. 1 when all areas were considered. Never mind the egregiously high ranking of Devante Davis or the low placement of players I’ve come to adore in the NFL like Tyler Lockett, Stefon Diggs and Jamison Crowder

Of course, there are a couple of easy excuses to make in helping explain it away. We can always default to “it’s still early” but with just 87 catches between them in two years, it sure doesn’t look the correct call. 

I could also tell you that I wasn’t doing Reception Perception in full-form on the entire class yet, that didn’t start until 2016 after arriving at NFL Network. In some ways, there is merit to that. At this point my process was just straight watching tape and taking notes to make evaluations. No criteria, no rubric—just my eyes to keep me honest. I no longer view that as a viable method of scouting, at least not for me. I’m much more in tune with the flaws of our brains in properly contextualizing observational data, and Reception Perception is a tool in combating that. Still, not a good enough reason for the answer.

Two years later, it’s apparent why this was wrong even at the time.

It starts with that damned phrase, on “talent alone” that’s become so popular in the Draft Twitter world. No proper fully fleshed out evaluation is done on talent alone, or at least, not a good one. Unless you have a long-held, and matured over time, set of criteria to layer and sort talent, it’s just not something you can rely on solely. Footballguys’ own Matt Waldman is a great example of an evaluator who has done just that and it can help him express a “talent alone” evaluation better than most of us mere mortals. 

If you don’t have a detailed system for tracking what you see, how can you measure talent and compare it from one player to another? I don’t think you can, but that’s just me. That’s how I was evaluating back then; it’s not how I do business now.

With that said, I get the sentiment of evaluating off “talent alone” and believe it comes from a place of honesty and concession. We on the outside have limited reach and access in terms of collecting information. Hell, most people don’t even have access to all22 film to do the talent measuring part of the equation. We’re left completely at the mercy of fumbling in the dark when it comes to trying to ascertain a player’s character, making sense of their medical history or predicting how they as a 21-year old might adapt to circumstances you could easily argue no young person is ready for. 

Yet, I’d assert that more than talent shows up on film. Items that matter like maturity, experience and pedigree all make themselves apparent on game tape alongside a player’s ability to play football. Those areas can also skew and distort your perception of a prospect’s talent. One item where I believe that some of those aspects conjoin with the expression of talent is in a receiver’s alignment data. No surprise both of my top receivers in 2015 lead a chart of prospects who stuck to one side of the field in college. 

 

As I fully fleshed out in JuJu Smith-Schuster’s recent Reception Perception evaluation, I’m beginning to wonder if a player with that sort of alignment data in college is predisposed to a slower development in the NFL, as it’s rare to see an NFL receiver even approach a 60 percent snap rate from one side of the field. That remains to be seen and we will likely never know for sure if it is the reason for a larger learning curve.

What we can say for sure is that such a limited utilization plan masks inexperience and distorts what the player puts on film to interpret as talent. If a receiver is just running routes from one position, the easier it is for them to master their assignment and dominate it. We then forget the reality that a player will immediately, no questions asked, be demanded to function with more on his plate at the NFL level. Yet, just taking in his game film without any system for the evaluator to work within causes them to fixate on just what they see, despite the fact that they’re ingesting a product that is so much more than the “talent alone” that they’ll go on to grade. 

Even if his “talent” didn’t “pop” as much to me as White or Green-Beckham, Amari Cooper’s game and his NFL-ready alignment, among other skills, should have made him the clear choice as the No. 1 receiver. When observing the three on tape to grade on “talent alone” you’re absorbing other factors, and those factors matter.

The other reason I missed on these two players as the No. 1 receivers in 2015 is a bit more simple. It’s the relentless but mostly superfluous chase of a metaphorical ceiling. 

Again, in some sense of the idea, I get it. When you’re a child you don’t just want a piece of pizza, you want the biggest slice. I can remember on multi-family pizza nights I’d rip several slices into the center of the pie just to get the biggest one, even if it disrupted the orderly process of following the first one taken.  

Here’s the deal though: we aren’t kids anymore. I would imagine most adults would find it inappropriate to rifle through a pie and touch each slice just to get to the biggest one over the other people at a function. You’re expected to have grown up a little from your selfish childhood form where the only focus is on piling in the biggest prize right down your gullet.  

In the same way, at some point, you need to grow up as an evaluator and realize you blind yourself in the pursuit of a ceiling that we really don’t even know how to define. Amari Cooper was going to come to the NFL with a sterling pedigree, run pro routes from the jump and had all the ability on tape to match White and Green-Beckham. What, did I believe that the latter two had more upside because they profiled as traditional X-receivers, were bigger and won more contested catches? It likely was a combination of all three that caused me to write, “However, [Cooper] does not have the upside of the two players listed ahead of him.” That blind pursuit of a ceiling, or pretending that one type of receiver has access to it while others don’t, is no longer part of my process in scouting players. 

There’s no doubt I’ve learned from these two specific mistakes. I have a more refined process now, one that doesn’t rely on just looking at game film and trying to sniff out talent based on the whims of my own eyes. Yet, even with Reception Perception in tow, there’s already plenty of smoke to the fire that I missed on my top receiver in last year’s class after Laquon Treadwell caught one measly pass as a rookie despite a path to opportunity presenting itself. That’s a story for another time. 

I also stopped doing rankings, unless someone that pays me money that I need to feed and clothe myself makes it mandatory, for a few reasons. Mainly, I don’t think they help convey contextualized opinions in the manner I’d like to well, or at least don’t give the reader exactly what they need to know to make decisions

The good news for me is that none of this really matters. I promise you I’m never going to get called in for a performance review at work because “your wrong takes are on the upswing lately.” Consuming sports content is supposed to be about entertainment, not measuring who the smartest writer in the digital room is. 

Even if its never going to happen. I work like someone actually is going to call me in for a performance review of my opinions and put in wild hours to deliver out the best and most respected content possible. This job is my dream and I care about being about good at it…a lot. Part of doing that is consuming an insane about of film on wide receivers. Still, I assure you I will swing and miss many more times like back in 2015. As such, let’s at least spare me the embarrassing titles like “wide receiver expert” as we go through this process together. 

I'm just another person with an opinion, no matter how long I invested into crafting it. So, yes, I missed on the top two receivers in the 2015 NFL Draft, but at least I know why.