Defensive end Robert Quinn and defensive tackle Marvin Austin have become members of an interesting fraternity: projected high picks in the NFL draft despite losing their last collegiate season for whatever reason.
The two defensive prospects missed all of the 2010 campaign as punishment for accepting gifts from agents. Subsequently, the severe sanctions left the two players without the ability to improve their football talents in a team-oriented, supervised situation. While each player had to find a way to stay in shape and hope that the work put in would hit the mark when it was time for the pre-draft process, circumstances like these make evaluators' jobs a little more difficult.
"We have to spend a lot more time on those guys," Seattle Seahawks general manager John Schneider said of players with that missing block of game tape. "You do more digging, and you have to talk to more people. The psychological part of it … some of these guys have missed time for suspensions, so you're looking at the security backgrounds. Juniors in general, whether they have issues or not, they're a little nerve-wracking, because you're not … you just don't know enough about the guys."
For one reason or another, Schneider and others are getting a lot more practice in researching players coming off of a lost year. Last April alone at least four players drafted in the first round – including No. 1 pick Sam Bradford(notes) – missed most or all of the 2009 season.
Quinn and Austin spoke about their forced vacations at February's NFL scouting combine shortly before they each put up some exciting numbers in the defensive line drills in Indianapolis' Lucas Oil Stadium. Quinn, who started working out at the Athletes Performance facilities in Florida and Southern California in January, spoke about the heavy emotional burden of life without football.
"Watching the whole season, especially when UNC played LSU and I went down to support them, seeing our guys run on to the field, in the middle of the game – I was about in tears in the stands," Quinn said of the UNC home opener. "I made a selfish mistake and couldn't be out there. That's never my mindset. God gave me a talent, and [in a] second, he can take it away from me."
Austin started working out after a rest, and seemed to find the time away from the game to be beneficial. "For a while I just let my body heal, let my body rest. I've been playing football since I was 13 or 14 years old so I thought it would be important for me to just get back and feel like a regular human again. And then I got back right into it. I was down in Tampa, Fla., at the Saddlebrook Resort, training for about three months. I was going to get at it because I wanted to be in the best shape I possibly could."
What the NCAA took away, Quinn and Austin fought to bring back, and their combine times – not to mention Austin's extremely impressive performance in the 2011 East-West Shrine game – spoke to their work ethic and dedication to the sport. At 6-foot-4 and 265 pounds, Quinn ran a 4.62-second 40-yard dash, the quickest at his position, and put up respectable numbers in the other positional drills. Austin tied with Auburn's Nick Fairley for the quickest 40 among defensive tackles at 4.84 seconds; not bad for a guy standing 6-2 and weighing 309.
Yet when it was time for NFL scouts, coaches and front-office personnel to judge Quinn and Austin based on their game tape, there was no 2010 film. How much does that affect the way the NFL grades college players?
"It is more of a negative for time lost than a positive for being fresh, in my mind," an unnamed 4-3 scout for an NFL team said. "I've been in the room watching tape with our coaches about players like them [Austin, Quinn] in the past. The coaches want to see how a player does early in the year compared to later … if the player gets worn down. Then, you have to explain that this is old tape; that the player didn't play last season. Coaches don't like that. They don't want to see what a player used to do, they want to see what he can do now. And with these guys, they don't know what bad habits they may have picked up since then."
Former Carolina Panthers college director and St. Louis Rams VP of player personnel Tony Softli, who used an exhaustive lettering system to organize possible red flags, always told his evaluators to get back to the tape, and separate on-field and off-field issues as much as possible.
"While athletic skill set is a huge part of the equation, the reason for lost playtime is a key component and must be investigated," Softli said. "Every training camp and throughout a scouting season I would remind my scouts to grade the player for the player, and let the letters 'undress' him.
"The scout grade should be based off a true reflection of the prospect's DNA on film, regardless of years played, and the lettering system are alerts that a player has [off-field] when the decision-makers read a scout's report. Where teams get into trouble is when they allow their scouts to drop a player's overall grade based off outside issues, and not DNA. This gives the decision-makers a false sense of reality on the DNA of a player, and can result in adequate to poor draft decisions."
The 3-4 scout agreed. "I only have so much say in the final ranking of a player. Missing a year for any reason is obviously a negative, so it does impact where you put the player on the board. Medical or substance abuse issues generally are bigger concerns than a suspension like the ones they had. Most kind of expected them [Austin, Quinn, Greg Little] to work out well. They had better, considering that they had all of that time off. It was just as important for them to do well in the interviews [with NFL teams] as it was to work out well."
An unnamed former scout, who now works for a prestigious national scouting service, spoke more definitively. "I think that it is a huge strike against the player to miss his senior year, and it is very difficult to overcome in the draft process. Of course the nature of the violation is enormously important; did he do something stupid or malicious? Was it an injury? No matter what, missing all that senior tape just makes him riskier than a similar player [who played the previous season].
"But as the pre-draft process goes along – from All-Star games, to the combine, through individual workouts – these players tend to gain steam and catch up, assuming that they are physically impressive. I do think it goes a long way that these players are in very good football shape when they finally do get a chance to show their stuff – it proves that they care about the game and about their bodies."
And in the end, Quinn and Austin were placed in the same box by coaches and scouts where you'll find every prospect who did finish school, but emerged unfinished from a football perspective. That's the next divide – between the coaches who love to mold the raw clay of undeveloped athleticism, and the scouts who must identify the players best set for the here and now.
"There is a high level of intrigue too; especially with coaches who think they can coach anyone up," the former scout said. " 'Just think how good this guy would have been as a senior; we can get him on the cheap since other teams might shy away!' Which is a mistake more often than not. And of course, some teams will just take those players that did something unscrupulous off the field off their boards altogether."
The level of seriousness regarding the violations is another matter, and one that Softli said is not taken lightly, no matter how anyone may feel about the NCAA's often byzantine regulations.
"In the case of Robert Quinn and Marvin Austin, they took some form of advances from agents and outside businesses, which affected their NCAA eligibility. While it was not criminal, it fell under football character for me," Softli said. "The missed playing time for these two young men reflected a lack of maturity which affected the team. It is fortunate for them that they have enough of a body of work – it will not affect the decision to draft or not draft these prospects, but it will be noted as a blemish in their career."
Quinn and Austin should be encouraged by the stories of these five players who were out for some or all for their 2009 seasons and enjoyed great NFL success nonetheless.
Sam Bradford, QB, Rams Missed most of Oklahoma's 2009 season with two shoulder injuries after putting up historic numbers in 2008. Bradford showed up at the 2010 combine with 15 pounds of additional muscle, had one of the better pro-day workouts in recent memory, and was drafted first overall by St. Louis. He parlayed his freakish accuracy into a near-playoff run for the formerly moribund Rams and walked way as the consensus offensive rookie of the year.
Jermaine Gresham(notes), TE, Cincinnati Bengals The man who would have been Bradford's primary target in 2009 lost his final college season to a knee injury. He came back healthy enough to perform in stellar fashion at the combine and was selected 21st overall by the Bengals. He set a team record for receptions for a tight end with 52 and scored four touchdowns.
Dez Bryant(notes), WR, Dallas Cowboys Bryant was suspended for the last 10 games of Oklahoma State's campaign after lying to the NCAA about dealings with Deion Sanders. Questions about his maturity and professionalism have followed him into the NFL and remain to some degree, but Bryant also caught 45 passes for 561 yards and six touchdowns in just 12 games. Taken with the 24th overall pick last year, Bryant was a valuable cog in Dallas' transitional offense.
Rob Gronkowski(notes), TE, New England Patriots A back injury caused Gronkowski to miss Arizona's season, and had some teams questioning his viability as an NFL prospect. The Patriots, as is their wont with undervalued players, seemed to know better. New England took Gronkowski with the 10th pick in the second round, and the rookie rewarded his new team with 10 touchdown catches and early status as the point man in the Pats' new and more balanced offense.
LeGarrette Blount(notes), RB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers Much more so than the previous four athletes mentioned here, Blount's missed time in '09 had a severe impact on his draft status. Blount was first suspended for showing up out of shape to preseason workouts; he then was suspended for most of the season after punching Boise State defensive end Byron Hout and going on a tirade on the field. Blount was honest with teams when asked about his past misdeeds, but wasn't drafted and was actually cut by the Tennessee Titans. Picked off the scrap heap by the Buccaneers, Blount went on to lead all rookie backs with 1,007 yards and six touchdowns.