With the 2011 NFL season in the books, it's time to turn our eyes to the NFL draft, and the pre-draft evaluation process. Right up to the draft, we'll be taking a closer look at the 50 players who may be the biggest NFL difference-makers when all is said and done.
We continue this year's series with Oklahoma State wide receiver Justin Blackmon. Blackmon caught 232 passes in the last two years. That's a lot of catches: just less than ten per game. According to data provided by Bill Connelly of Football Outsiders, Blackmon was targeted 308 times in the last two seasons. When Blackmon was in the game, the gameplan called for a dozen passes in his direction, and with good reason: he caught 75% of them.
So Blackmon got targeted a lot. So did Joran White of Western Michigan (204 times!) and you aren't reading a scouting report about him. It's what Blackmon did with those passes that mattered. He caught 38 touchdowns in two seasons and became one of the most consistent down-field threats in a conference full of them. He helped elevate Brandon Weeden from down-and-out ex-baseball prospect into one of the most talked-about quarterbacks in the nation. And he pushed himself to the top of a very solid draft class at wide receiver.
Blackmon is a heck of a prospect. He just may have peaked a little too soon for some draftniks.
Pros: Blackmon has natural hands and outstanding ball skills. He can catch the football away from his body or make contested or one-handed grabs. He can catch bad balls and reach back for an off-target pass.
While many of his 232 catches were tunnel screens, Blackmon ran a variety of routes. His best route-running attribute is an explosive step after cutting on slants or posts. He gains sudden separation from defenders by bursting as soon as he commits to his route. Blackmon is also effective on shallow drags across the middle: he will weave around to find dead space in zone coverage, make the catch in traffic, and turn upfield quickly.
Once Blackmon is in the open field, he finds an extra gear to run away from defenders.
Blackmon plays bigger than his size. He measured just six feet and 7/8ths of an inch tall at the Combine, but he is well built and looks like a 6-foot-3 receiver on tape. It may be an optical illusion caused by some of the tiny cornerbacks of the Big-12, but it is also a reflection of his build and ability to use his arms to extend.
Cons: Blackmon has some baffling concentration or judgment lapses. He fumbled a sure touchdown against Kansas State when he did not bother securing the ball while reaching for the goal line. He fumbled another sure touchdown out of the end zone during the season when he appeared to start his celebration a little too soon. He will often give too much ground after catching a pass, backtracking 5-10 yards in search of a big play that is not going to happen.
Blackmon's production is inflated by tunnel screens, and he is not particularly nifty or elusive on those plays. Despite his quick burst while running routes, he needs to be more precise.
Blackmon was charged with DUI in 2010, though the incident appears to be a baffling quirk of Texas law which makes a distinction between "DWI" (actual drinking and driving, with a breathalyzer and such) and DUI (being underage and "suspected of drinking," which is more-or-less a symptom of being underage). At any rate, Blackmon was speeding, which is dangerous.
Conclusion: Blackmon is the Andrew Luck of wide receivers in many ways. He entered the 2011 season one of the top receiving prospects in the nation and was considered a top five draft selection as of January, when actual football games ceased. Then, the fine tooth combs came out, and we all noticed that Blackmon is a little short, does not have DeSean Jackson speed, and was helped more than a little by his system. Meanwhile, Michael Floyd and Kendall Wright became more fashionable prospects. "Is Floyd better than Blackmon" became a meme in the draft under-net a few weeks ago, just as "Luck versus RGIII" was a ready source of cash for many of us (including me!) in March. In some cases, constructive Blackmon criticism snowballed into something approaching Blackmon-bashing: it's okay to like Floyd or Wright better, but if you don't see a high first round pick here, then you don't know what a high first round pick looks like.
After all of the micro-scrutiny of Blackmon, you come away with tons of high-level production, lots of big plays, even more routine plays, and a prospect whose hands, ability to work the middle, and explosiveness after the catch cannot be questioned. Floyd is bigger and stronger, but he has bigger character questions, and Blackmon is faster, no matter what the stopwatches say. Both are top-15 picks, both can be go-to receivers.
NFL Comparison: Anquan Boldin, Baltimore Ravens
More Shutdown 50:
#10: David CeCastro, OG, Stanford | #11: Stephon Gilmore, OG, Stanford | #12: Kendall Wright, WR, Baylor | #13: Courtney Upshaw, OLB, Alabama | #14: Quinton Coples, DE, North Carolina| #15: Ryan Tannehill, QB, Texas A & M| #16: Luke Kuechly, LB, Boston College | #17: Michael Floyd, WR, Notre Dame | #18: Dre Kirkpatrick, CB, Alabama | #19: Mark Barron, S, Alabama | #20: Cordy Glenn, OL, Georgia | #21: Riley Reiff, OT, Iowa | #22: Coby Fleener, TE, Stanford| #23: Devon Still, DT, Penn State | #24: Janoris Jenkins, CB, North Alabama| #25: Jerel Worthy, DT, Michigan State| #26: Nick Perry, DE, USC| #27: Alfonzo Dennard, CB, Nebraska| #28: Dontari Poe, DT/DE, Memphis | #29: Whitney Mercilus, OLB/DE, Illinois | #30: Brandon Thompson, DT, Clemson| #31, Dwayne Allen, TE, Clemson| #32: Jonathan Martin, OT, Stanford| #33: Bobby Massie, OT, Mississippi| #34: Andre Branch, DE/OLB, Clemson | #35: Dont'a Hightower, ILB, Alabama | #36: Chandler Jones, DE, Syracuse| #37: Stephen Hill, WR, Georgia Tech| #38: Vinny Curry, DE, Marshall| #39: Doug Martin, RB, Boise State | #40 : Mohamed Sanu, WR, Rutgers| #41: Zach Brown, OLB, North Carolina| #42: Lavonte David, OLB, Nebraska| #43: Jared Crick, DE/DT, Nebraska| #44: Alshon Jeffrey, WR, South Carolina | #45: Kirk Cousins, QB, Michigan State| #46: Orson Charles, TE, Georgia| #47: Lamar Miller, RB, Miami| #48: Shea McClellin, OLB/DE, Boise State| #49: Rueben Randle, WR, LSU | #50: Jonathan Massaqoui, OLB/DE, Troy