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The Weekly Gut Check - Vol. 2
WR Brandon Lloyd, SF

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!

On a continued quest to dispel the link between certain scouting prototypes and fantasy production, The Gut Check is profiling Brandon Lloyd. He’ll also examine why the savvy fantasy owner shouldn’t limit his choices only to game-breakers with the freakish, physical prototypes at the receiver position. There are many proven, feature receivers that don’t look like the tight ends from our fathers and grandfathers’ NFL. Brandon Lloyd is one of them.

Lloyd was regarded as a top prospect heading into his senior year, but his stock dropped after running a sub-par time in the 40 at the combine. Lloyd doesn’t fit the recent, optimum physical prototypes that scouts look for in NFL receivers. Despite Lloyd’s collegiate penchant for big plays, scouts continue to write him off as strictly a complement in an NFL offense and not a true #1 receiver.

NFL scouts and personnel men seem to forget about the game film when staring at a stopwatch. This was the case with Brandon Lloyd. Lloyd claimed his 40-time was slow because he was recovering from the flu. Illness and injuries are common excuses for players that don’t perform up to par for the combine. These “the dog ate my homework,” excuses are made so often to scouts, they’re rarely worth considering. Nonetheless, Lloyd was an All-Big Ten and 2nd team All-American matched up against top athletes that are now playing in NFL defensive backfields. You don’t get deep on Big-Ten defensive backs with smoke and mirrors. Yet based on his fourth round selection, scouts must have chucked the game film after seeing the 40-time.

If that weren’t the case, Dennis Erickson wouldn’t have commented to the media at the beginning of the 2003 training camp that Brandon Lloyd was significantly faster than they thought. Looking back on it, maybe there was some credence to the 4.49, 40 time posted on the University of Illinois website as opposed to the 4.62 Lloyd ran at the combine. Sports Information Directors at big-time universities are more akin to marketing directors than purveyors of truth, but that’s why piecing together information from various sources sometimes creates the most accurate picture.

The inconsistency among the reported times is another reason why Lloyd fell to the fourth round. Personnel types came to the conclusion that Lloyd wasn’t the kind of prospect they could hang their draft on. But heading into his senior year, Lloyd was scouted in many circles as a first round pick. This is an example of a developing theory The Gut Check may someday postulate on pro football scouting: sometimes it’s better to listen to what the scout says about a player the year before he comes out for the draft

Due to the NFL placing such a premium on height, weight, and speed, recent player assessments have resulted in a significant number of budding NFL stars to slip past the first three rounds. The NFL is taking notice. The trend is beginning to swing back to production against quality opponents—not just scales, stopwatches, and tape measures. Lloyd was noticed for his production and athleticism regardless of the quarterback throwing him the ball. This is a sure sign that Lloyd ran good routes for a college receiver and understood the offense. Otherwise, Lloyd’s production would have taken a nosedive after Kurt Kittner left for the NFL. But one bad day running for the stopwatch changed others views of his potential. This is what made Lloyd a fourth round steal—as it did with the many other steals of the 4th round of the 2003 draft—the question marks linked to each player were overblown.

The Gut Check did a little informal scouting of his own in anticipation of what the stopwatch wouldn’t reveal in 2003. He watched a college all-star QB-WR challenge on FOX. I can guess what you are thinking, The Gut Check is laughing as he’s typing it, but sometimes these shows can be pretty informative—at least as much as looking at a stopwatch, scale, or tape measure. The show definitely illustrated that the QB/system didn’t make the WR in terms of Brandon Lloyd.

Assuming you had something better to do, I’ll give you a quick synopsis: FOX gathered some high-profile college quarterbacks and paired each of them with an equally well-known receiver to compete in “skill-based” challenges. Some of the challenges required the team to work together; others were based on the individual position. Regardless of what you may be thinking thus far, this show wasn’t the highlight of my winter, so forgive me if the mundane details aren’t exact. Nonetheless, what The Gut Check noticed about Lloyd vividly stood out and helped me make a steal of a pick in two dynasty league rookie drafts.

The quarterbacks were Rex Grossman, Brad Banks, Jason Gesser, and Ken Dorsey. The receivers were Charles Rogers, Taylor Jacobs, Lloyd, and I believe Bryant Johnson (here’s where I was probably taking trips to the refrigerator). One of the challenges was a timed event where the receiver runs through a pre-set course of common pass routes. The quarterback had to throw the ball to the receiver at select points of the course where the receiver should be coming out of his break. Here is what I remembered:

Charles Rogers was rough on his patterns but demonstrated amazing hands and athleticism. This was nothing we already didn’t know from his Michigan career, where Rogers’ spectacular plays overshadowed the lack of polish in other areas. It was apparent that Rogers could adjust to a poorly thrown ball, but wasn’t the smoothest receiver in terms of footwork. Taylor Jacobs was a little inconsistent with his hands and really got tied up on the patterns. It was as if he were trying to run too fast—the Gut Check was thinking if Jacobs was having this much difficulty when Rex Grossman was the QB throwing him the ball, then Jacobs might have to face a similar adjustment period to the NFL as his “Ole Ball Coach.”

As for Bryant Johnson, I was grabbing some leftovers at that point. Nothing against Johnson, but Penn State receivers seem to turn in to solid players, but rarely anything for a fantasy owner to take notice: Bobby Engram, Joe Jurevicius, and the best of the lot, O.J. McDuffie. It wasn’t surprising the Cardinals drafted a Fitzgerald to complement Bolden next year, thereby relegating Johnson to what we can term “the Penn State slot receiver role.” Maybe Denny Green was watching game film of Johnson and got hungry too….

As I mentioned before, Lloyd was the most impressive. He was very smooth in his patterns while running them at high speed. He adjusted his body to make a good target for Ken Dorsey (who by the way looked better than advertised, and the 49ers may have stolen themselves a QB they can develop into at least a solid backup). On one of his routes, Lloyd even made an acrobatic grab on Dorsey’s only bad throw. By far he was the most polished receiver. Same thing when the receivers ran an obstacle course: Lloyd won the event. You don’t win a timed obstacle course unless you have a decent amount of speed. What I learned was Brandon Lloyd displayed the same body control, leaping ability, and quickness that had a scout say during the college season that next to Rogers, Lloyd was the most athletic WR coming out of college. Yet Rogers, Jacobs, and Johnson were all much higher picks than Lloyd.

Everything the Gut Check has been describing, fans saw glimpses of this season. Under the lights, Lloyd displayed his playmaking flair with long grabs in tight coverage and feats of body control echoing those of Cris Carter against the Rams, and most memorably, that 3rd down, sideline contortionist act versus the Seahawks. If Lloyd were in a situation similar to fellow draft classmates Anquan Bolden and Charles Rogers, the Gut Check firmly believes he would be have made a case for rookie of the year.

There are also several differences among the 49ers, Lions, and Cardinals that tell why Lloyd didn’t get on the field earlier in the year. Dennis Erickson has a reputation for keeping rookies on the sideline. The 49ers have a proven superstar in Terrell Owens and a complementary receiver with enough deep speed to make big plays in Tai Streets. Heading into the year, the 49ers viewed themselves as a contender and didn’t want to dramatically change the offensive chemistry. As the season took a down turn, and Owens made it clear he wanted out of town, Lloyd gradually got more time.

What makes Lloyd a threat besides his underrated physical ability is what The Gut Check calls “High Football I.Q.” Certain players have it and it shows by whatever they do on the field. Hines Ward, Ed Reed, and Troy Brown are all players that not only make the big catch or tackle, but also excel on special teams. For that matter, they repeatedly turn up as players that make a key play in any situation on a football field. While result may not always change the course of the game on the scoreboard, it alters the momentum of their opponent and gives their team a lift.

In the small moments of playing time Lloyd received this season, he’s shown a high football IQ. There’s the blocked punt early in the season. Then the highlight third down catch to the goal line on the first play he lined up at receiver in the regular season. And of course, the spectacular diving grab in the end zone against the Rams. When a rookie makes plays as just described with limited opportunities, his teammates come to expect something exciting to happen when he gets on the field.

The offensive staff said Lloyd will at least be a fine #2 WR in the NFL and has a bright future. The Gut Check believes this is a conservative estimate. As the Gut Check pointed out earlier, if Lloyd were 6’2”, 220 lbs., he would likely have been a first day pick and expected to develop into a feature receiver. Despite the cautious optimism from NFL insiders and 49ers staff, there are a great number of feature receivers in the NFL with similar dimensions to Lloyd:

Not Big Enough?
 RB Height Weight*
Marvin Harrison 6'0" 181
Torry Holt 6'0" 190
Derrick Mason 5'10" 188
Isaac Bruce 6'0" 188
Laveranues Coles 5'11" 190
Hines Ward 6'1" 197
Santana Moss 5'9" 185
Brandon Lloyd 6'0" 184

There are really two types of receivers on this list. The first is the grouping of Harrison, Coles, and Moss. All three have top-drawer speed. It is a big part of their game because few corners can play tight coverage on an island against them and the defense has to make additional compensations in game planning.

Although they share similar physical attributes, each are in different stages of their careers: Harrison and Bruce have developed their games to the point that they will still be weapons as their speed diminishes. Coles was on pace to develop a complete game as Harrison and Bruce. If he remained with the Jets and QB Chad Pennington, his chances would have been better. At the same time, Patrick Ramsey has a chance to be a fine QB within the right system. Moss is just beginning to show the playmaking ability expected from him as a receiver, now that he’s healthy.

Lloyd’s talents, if they continue to develop, will place him more in the group of players that base their game on routes, athleticism after the catch, and getting deep with sneaky speed: Bruce, Holt, Ward, and Mason. In fact Holt, Ward, and Mason were all projected as complementary receivers earlier in their careers. Before Ward busted out a couple years ago, he was initially seen as a potential slot receiver—that is if he made the team! Based on Ward’s recent performance its hard to believe that Troy Edwards was the highly-touted draft pick and Bobby Shaw was seen as the player with promise to be the #2 WR in Pittsburgh.

A lot unseen factors can change a team’s viewpoint of a player. Shaw and Edwards with all their athletic promise couldn’t hang onto the ball or run disciplined routes. Ward on the other hand, didn’t have the same athleticism but he had the smarts, toughness, and excellent concentration and physicality at full speed. Many players can’t play to their timed speed.

The 49ers say Lloyd is may not turn out to be primary receiver material because they watch the replays of his deep receptions and do not see the separation they feel should be there on these routes. They say this lack of speed is the reason he’s had to make such acrobatic grabs. The Gut Check disagrees and though he’s as far away from an NFL coach as it gets, he bases his argument on the 49ers worst critic: Terrell Owens.

T.O. knows a thing or two about getting separation from a defensive back and he has a fair understanding of the team. So when Owens was asked to give a comparison and contract of his current and previous quarterbacks, his answer explained that separation is often dictated as much by the thrower as the receiver:

"I got a taste when the ball kind of got in on me a little faster than I'm used to. I think it's a situation where we'll have to work together. Everybody knows Donovan has a hose of an arm. I know he can get it out there.

"It's something I haven't really been accustomed to, as far as being open, beating guys and getting that chemistry where if I'm approaching a (cornerback), him knowing that I'm going to beat the guy and really just him throwing it out there and letting me go get it. Versus the last couple years with Garcia, he pretty much waited until he saw me behind the guy and then threw it. The chemistry wasn't there because he didn't have a strong enough arm."

None of the 49ers quarterbacks have a great arm. And based on what Owens said above, Garcia was the reason receivers never got a chance to retain their initial separation from a defensive back. Additionally, Garcia is a scrambler in an offense that was transitioning to a deep passing game. This means Garcia either lacked the time or timing (anticipation) to make the type of throw that allows a receiver to retain the separation the 49ers claim Lloyd wasn’t getting. This is why Gut Check has a problem with this explanation. He watched spot-shadow replays of Lloyd one-on-one with a corner where Lloyd beat the man so bad with a move that it put the receiver a solid 3-4 steps in front. Two things happened on the play: the safety was playing in the deep zone on Lloyd’s side and Garcia put so much air under the ball, Lloyd had to compensate for the throw.

Additionally, the other deep catches Lloyd had were routes along the sideline near the end zone. These routes are designed to diminish the weakness of a quarterback’s arm and favor the athleticism of the receiver because the sideline serves as a boundary to make interceptions less likely. Even so, Lloyd had a similar play where he had to make an acrobatic compensation to catch the ball and avoid the safety coming from over the top. This is why the Gut Check feels Lloyd has enough speed to get deep with the right quarterback.

With Owens in Philly, the Gut Check foresees a #1-#1A WR dynamic in the 49ers future with Woods/Lloyd—similar to Price/Moulds, Holt/Bruce, and Ward/Burress—although not as prolific due to inexperience at both the receiver and quarterback positions:

1. Cedrick Wilson—see what I said about Bobby Shaw. Just doesn’t have the football IQ to make the leap to starter status—see Rams game last year.

2. Rashaun Woods—the Gut Check’s pick as the best WR in the 2004 draft not named Larry Fitzgerald.

3. Arnaz Battle—He may outperform Wilson down the line, but his raw athleticism needs refinement.

4. Derrick Hamilton—has the ability to develop into a starter, but anyone thinking he can compete with the polished skills of Woods is fooling them selves at this point.

As for the Gut Check on Lloyd, this columnist believes Lloyd is prime keeper league material. By 2005 he will develop into a consistent 1100-1300 yard receiver with the athleticism, football smarts, and hands to score 6-8 TDs on a regular basis. As for this year, the Gut Check projects at least 850 yards and a 5 TD season with weeks where Lloyd comes up big and others where he disappears—definitely a decent fill in for your #3 WR spot on your re-draft league’s fantasy roster but valued more like a #4 or #5 WR on draft day.