Below the Radar Long Shots
The “Gut Feeling” is often synonymous with a sense
of desperation resulting from a lack of preparation. The Gut Check
is a huge proponent of studying the numbers, but there’s
a point where one can place too much emphasis on the wrong information.
This can result in the undervaluing or overlooking a player’s
potential. Therefore, The Weekly Gut Check is devoted to examining
the frame of reference behind certain number-driven guidelines
that fantasy football owners use to make decisions.
Although The Weekly Gut Check doesn’t claim to be psychic,
he does believe that he can dispel certain numbers biases and
help you make the best choices for your team. We’ll keep
a running tally of The Weekly Gut Check’s insights. This
way you can gauge his views as something to seriously consider,
or at least seriously consider running the opposite way as fast
as you can!
I enjoy spotting players who I believe have the skills to excel
at the NFL level, but for various reasons selected late in the draft.
Last year one of my long shots
was Giants RB Ahmad Bradshaw, the Marshall product who had a strong
showing in the playoffs. There are several players drafted in the
later rounds who caught my eye this year. One of them, Bills RB
Xavier Omon, I have mentioned frequently on the FFToday forum
thread and for my publication, The
Rookie Scouting Portfolio.
The player I’m profiling today is a wide receiver. The book on
the top receivers in the 2008 draft class is mixed. This crew
has big redzone threats with questionable speed, speedy small
school prospects with questionable hands, and a few players with
one good year at a big-time school, but lack a solid portfolio.
If you’re looking for the next blue chipper in the vein of Andre
Johnson, Braylon Edwards, and Calvin Johnson, you won’t find anyone
with that reputation in 2008.
The receiver who stood out as a potential surprise is former
Wisconsin playmaker Paul Hubbard, the sixth round pick of the
Cleveland Browns. Most sixth round picks are 50/50 propositions
to make a final roster. I believe Hubbard will have a strong opportunity
to challenge for significant playing time in 2009, but even his
2008 prospects have a chance to be better than expected. The reasons
for my optimism have to do with his situation, his talents, and
the specific nature of his flaws.
Life in Cleveland
The Browns were a prolific fantasy offense in ’07. Cleveland
and Indianapolis were the only two NFL teams to have one player
in the top six of fantasy scorers (standard scoring) at each offensive
skill position. Cleveland’s defense was 21st in the league
with 382 points allowed, which was a contributing factor. Since
they did little in the draft or free agency that will have a short-term
impact, anticipate the Browns to have the same offensive M.O.
as last year.
The QB situation in Cleveland has potential for its own discussion,
but as long as Derek Anderson continues to improve and overcome
the Scott Mitchell Syndrome (where teams figure out your game
after a great debut season), he’ll start. There’s no question
that Braylon Edwards took his game to the next level. He and Kellen
Winslow provide a strong inside-out/deep-short matchup problem.
But Cleveland’s offense is more like the Cincinnati Bengals than
the New England Patriots, Dallas Cowboys, or Indianapolis Colts:
they lack that third pass-catching threat that will force defenses
to play honest more consistently. Interestingly enough the Pats,
Cowboys, and Colts were missing their third threat much of the
year with injuries to Ben Watson, Terry Glenn, and Marvin Harrison,
respectively. Yet, they had enough depth to compensate. The Bengals
could get shut down if teams with strong run defenses double covered
the receivers and dared Carson Palmer to hit their non-existent
TE or run the ball.
The Browns can run the ball, but that third receiver is a problem.
They brought in free agent Joe
Jurevicius two years ago and this off-season the are hoping
will be more his first half of 2006 in Philly than is 2007 in
New England. Travis
Wilson is a third-year receiver out of Oklahoma who garners
praise in minicamp but hasn’t shown much else. Joshua
Cribbs is a former quarterback who has done a great job of
becoming one of the best return specialists in the league, but
is not a natural at receiver.
With Jurevicius nearing the end of his career and Stallworth
a predictable mid-season hamstring injury waiting to happen, a
rookie like Hubbard could see time if he proves he’s ready.
Is it a long shot? Yes, but if you watch enough pro football no
one would feel confident making a wager that Jurevicius and Stallworth
can make it through a season based on past history.
When considering Hubbard the first thing that stands out is his
size and athleticism. Hubbard is 6-3 and 221-lbs timed at 4.38
in the forty. How many receivers have that kind of size/speed
combo in the NFL?
Moss, Owens, Edwards, and the Johnsons are it. And at the combine
Owens ran a 4.6 in the forty. So from the standpoint of these
three measurements there are only five players in the league who
match or exceed Hubbard with this combo.
Hubbard also sports 39-1/2-inch, vertical leap, not as impressive
as the reported 51-inch, verticals from Owens and Moss or the
44-inch from Calvin Johnson, but it still beats his teammate Braylon
Edwards (38), and many others, including Plaxico Burress (38)
and Andre Johnson (35).
It would seem easy to write off Hubbard as merely a track athlete.
He came to Wisconsin as such, participating in the 100 meters,
triple jump, and long jump. Yet, I think he’s really a football
player with track skills. Other evaluators say he looks the opposite,
but I believe they are discounting the most important factor:
how a player handles contact. Hubbard does not shy away from contact.
San Diego’s 2007 first round pick Craig Davis shied away from
contact more than Hubbard and he wasn’t seen as a track athlete.
The same goes for Robert Meachem. Hubbard may have to work on
finer points of the game, but he handles the physical aspects
of the game and that is what is most important.
I watched Hubbard have an excellent game versus Michigan where
he exhibited the skills one seeks from a quality pro receiver:
- Receptions In Traffic:
Hubbard caught balls where the defensive back had the opportunity
to contest the pass and be physical with the receiver. There
are so many guys who lack this ability. I thought the Giants
Steve Smith was the best of the bunch last year at this skill.
Craig Davis and Robert Meachem had difficulty with contact and
lost their concentration easily. In the NFL you are going to
get nailed at some point in a game if you go across the middle.
At best, a receiver will have a DB in close coverage which is
often a distraction for less polished players.
- Adjusts To The Football On The
Run: The rookie demonstrated that his athleticism translates
well to the field. He caught balls over the middle (with the
threat of contact) or over his shoulder where he had to adjust
his body to the ball. He snatched a pass on the run that was
thrown over his head and behind him on an in-route that was
indicative of what he’ll need to do as an NFL player.
- Power After The Catch:
Hubbard isn’t the second-coming of Terrell Owens in this respect,
but he regularly gained yardage after the catch with a display
of second effort and power to keep fighting for yards after
the initial wrap-up.
- Good Route Runner For College
Football: Hubbard wasn’t a one-dimensional route
runner like so many other highly-touted prospects who have underwhelming
starts in the NFL. Most athletic receivers in big-time programs
run hitches, screens, crosses, slants, and go routes. The better
route runners show proficiency with the dig-route, deep out,
and skinny post. I find that if an offense has a receiver run
an in-route of 15 yards or deeper (dig), he’s generally
a solid route runner. Hubbard is that guy. He was also smart
enough to play all three receiver positions at Wisconsin.
- Hubbard Catches The Ball With
His Hands: I can’t emphasize enough how important this
is. There are several players rated higher than Hubbard who
labeled as having inconsistent hands, but they cradle catch
the football. One of these players is Arizona rookie Early Doucet.
The LSU star made some very tough catches in traffic during
his college career, but what concerned me was his technique.
I believe we will see far more disconcerting drops from Doucet
as a pro, because he is going to be hit frequently upon making
contact with the ball. Good hands technique makes it more difficult
for a defender to jar the ball loose with a hit than a cradle
catch. One of the knocks on Hubbard is his inconsistency catching
the ball, but the fact he has good fundamental technique means
it will be far less difficult for him to improve than a player
like Doucet. Think about Troy Wiliamson. Athletically speaking,
the newest addition to the Jaguars receiving corps was a first
round quality athlete. The problem is he relied far too much
on cradle catching the football. On the opposite end of the
spectrum is Terrell Owens and Jerry Rice, who often displayed
good hands technique but suffered through slews of dropped passes
early in their careers. Both improved enough to become superstars
because their technique was already fundamentally sound.
Why He Dropped
I have seen analysis from other sources such as NFLDraftScout.com
that says Hubbard “has to have some of the worst hands in this
draft class…” and “…he will body catch or trap the ball often….”
While it’s possible I just happened to see Hubbard on his best
day, here’s a YouTube
film clip with different game highlights that shows additional
evidence to support my view. He cradled two balls in this montage
that has at least a dozen throws—most with solid to tight coverage
and Hubbard had to make a physical adjustment to catch the ball
away from his body. Maybe the Michigan game and these 10 throws
are the only ones where he caught the ball with this hands, but
maybe Tom Brady’s success is the product of smoke and mirrors
– somehow I doubt both theories.
The other issue was the torn MCL Hubbard suffered as a senior
that caused him to miss five games last year. The only other injury
Hubbard has experienced to my knowledge is a concussion that forced
him to miss much of a game versus Northwestern as a junior. This
means there are limited opportunities to see Hubbard perform because
he didn’t start until he was a junior and missed five games
as a senior.
NFLDraftScout.com also said that Hubbard “looks more like
a track man trying to play football.” If this is the predominant
view of the rookie then it’s no wonder he dropped to round
What the Browns Think
The Browns actually traded a future pick to get Hubbard because
they felt his value was higher than where he dropped in the draft.
According to Plain-Dealer beat writer, Mary Kay Cabot, Browns
GM Phil Savage said “he wouldn’t draft a receiver unless the player
was better than the trio competing for the final spot: Syndric
Steptoe, [Travis] Wilson, and Steve Sanders.” Furthermore, Savage
has greater expectations for the rookie, “When Joe [Jurevicius]
decides to retire, after this season or next season, we’re hoping
Paul can fill that role. He’s a bigger receiver and gives us a
chance to still play that elevated passing game.”
Although minicamp is far from the real deal, Carlos “Big
C” Holmes of the Dayton Daily News said Hubbard caught the
ball well, ran routes “like Magellan,” showed good
acceleration, fought off press coverage, demonstrated good separation,
and displayed a great vertical jump. He summed up the receiver
as “a raw talent, but there are those who believe that once
he hones his skills he could be an impact player for the Browns.
Judging by the receiver’s performance in minicamp he could
be on his way.”
Plain-Dealer writer Toni Grossi said, “[Hubbard’s]
his hands may be a problem.”
Again, I’d emphasize the fact that Hubbard needs to work on his
consistency, but his basic technique is there. My bet is that
Hubbard is more of a Terrell Owens type of developmental player
in regards to his pass catching than a Troy Williamson.
If I’m right, Hubbard could be a player who far outplays
his draft day value by 2009 and if Jurevicius or Stallworth get
hurt, maybe earlier.
Quick Snaps: Other Long Shots with Promise
Johnson, Tampa Bay: When your former college head coach is
so enamored with your skills that he breaks out the game film
of you to NFL scouts who visit his current program to evaluate
players, that’s impressive. This is exactly what former Colts
QB and current Stanford head coach Jim Harbaugh did last year.
He raved about Johnson’s skills. What jumps off the film is his
ability to stay poised in the pocket, slide from pressure that’s
very close to him, maintain good form with the ball, and keep
his eyes downfield. This is what the best quarterbacks in the
NFL do and the great talents with potential who never translate
TE Kellen Davis, Chicago: One of the best tight ends on my position
rankings in the Rookie Scouting Portfolio. His senior year was
the only decent season in his college football career that was
plagued by issues [not completely known to Davis] with the John
L. Williams regime and an off the field incident. From the standpoint
of physical skill and hands, Davis is pretty close to an elite
prospect from his on-field performance. He adjusts well to the
ball in the air and tight coverage. I read the Bears GM sees Davis
as primarily a blocking TE, but I’m sure Lovie Smith and
staff will know he’s much more than a future road grader
to play the second TE in short yardage situations. If not, he
may bounce to another team and make the Bears look foolish down
RB Xavier Omon, Buffalo: A lot has already been said about Omon.
I believe he has enough skill to be a quality back up to Marshawn
Lynch and a surprise of the Bills need him to fill-in.
Boyd, Tampa Bay: The South Carolina runner has the size of
Matt Forte, similar speed in the forty, and breaks tackles. He’s
also a strong receiver. The Bucs have a crowded depth chart and
Boyd had a minor ding to his knee in minicamp, but if he can stay
healthy this summer, I see him getting a shot. Especially if Earnest
Graham is deluded by his agent into thinking he really has bargaining
RB Kregg Lumpkin, Green Bay:
The undrafted free agent from Georgia is technically as sound
of a runner as you will find in this draft class. An ACL tear,
and MCL sprain, and a broken thumb kept him from establishing
himself as the man in a crowded backfield situation during his
career. When he did play, he demonstrated why he was 1-2 with
Reggie Bush as a Parade All-American coming out of high school.
If he can regain some of that half back speed he lost while rehabbing
his ACL tear, I think he could beat both Deshawn Wynn and Brandon
Jackson for the Packers’ #2 spot. At worst, the Packers convert
this big back into a fullback. Personally, I hope he gets a true
shot at halfback because his vision, power, and hands are top
Johnson, Buffalo: Another good athlete with the “inconsistent
hands” label. Johnson has a real chance to develop in Buffalo,
especially if James Hardy can’t avoid trouble off the field.