Throughout the Scouting Combine, throughout the draft process, throughout the draft itself, and throughout a player’s entire career if he has one of note, we constantly make comparisons and say that Player X reminds us of Really Old Or Retired Player Y. This is not unique to football, but it’s an even more common practice with pigskin prognostication because of the varying body types that excel at different things while playing the same position. The small, shifty running back is still, well, a running back, but so is the bulldozing brute who’s summoned only in short-yardage situations.
Beyond positions then we’ve created categories players can be conveniently slotted into. Over time some have been given cringe-inducing monikers, chief among them is the “gunslinger”, a noble quarterback soul who’s never seen a fleeting passing lane he doesn’t like, and he may or may not wear Wrangler jeans. We also have the “Tweener”, a borderline insult used to describe a linebacker who isn’t quite fast enough in coverage, and isn’t quite strong enough while chasing quarterbacks.
The draft vernacular evolves in a way that aims to help us decipher the numbers produced both during a prospect’s collegiate career, and during the Combine. But how do we approach a player who has few suitable models which came before him?
How do we approach Mike Evans?
Evans just finished two years catching footballs from Johnny Football (aside: we need every great player in every sport to be nicknamed after his sport, like Tiger Golf, Sidney Hockey, and LeBron Basketball), and he did that often. In each of those two seasons he finished with over 1,000 receiving yards, highlighted by this past year when Evans hauled in 69 passes for 1,394 yards with 12 touchdowns, and a 20.2 yards per catch rate which ranked seventh in the nation.
He’s known as a bad ball catcher, and the sort of large, vacuuming wide receiver who can control the middle with his size and physicality. About that size: there’s a lot of it.
Evans checked into the Combine at 6’4″, and weighing 231 pounds. That’s how much he weighs now, and that’s how much he weighed when he caught a 95-yard touchdown pass against Alabama this year after blowing past a defensive back immediately at the line of scrimmage, and then eliminating any angle the safety had for a tackle with startling open-field speed.
You just watched a receiver who weighs more than bruising running backs like Marshawn Lynch (215) and Adrian Peterson (217) gain over 60 yards after the catch. Who does that sound like? And who does that remind you of?
With that hulking body Evans posted an official 40-yard dash time of 4.53 over the weekend at the Combine, and he ran even better on his second unofficial attempt, posting a 4.47. Sammy Watkins is almost universally listed as the first wide receiver off the board in mock drafts, and he’ll be a top-10 pick. He weighs 20 pounds less than Evans, yet considering the difference in body type (both the weight, the nearly five inches in height Evans has on Watkins), his 40 time was only slightly better at 4.43.
Depending on what particular dot com you land on and what hour of the day it is, there’s anywhere between three and five wide receivers projected to hear their names called on the draft’s opening night. The position is setting up to be deep and plentiful this year, and Evans is third on Mike Mayock’s top five positional rankings. But there’s something uniquely daunting about two of those five.
Between Evans — who’s actually closer to 6’5″ — and Florida State’s Kelvin Benjamin (6’5″, 240 pounds, and he scored 15 touchdowns in 2013) with his 4.61 time, there are potentially two first-round wide receivers that stand at least six feet and four inches tall, and weigh at least 230 pounds. There’s a category for those guys, but that drawer in our NFL draft filing cabinet is quite sparsely populated.
If we’re using those measurements as our cutoff point, the list of first-round wide receivers who meet that description and are equal parts bulk and flash is beyond brief when we look back over the past decade. You miiiight have guessed the first one.
Calvin Johnson (6’5″, 236 pounds): I don’t need to recite Johnson’s mind-bending numbers and NFL production, so I won’t. But I will remind you of how he’s attained those numbers. Despite that towering stature, Johnson ran 40 yards in just 4.35 seconds at his Combine, and he required just 18 steps to cover that distance (a mark which was incredibly tied by Dri Archer). Benjamin is fast for his size, and Evans is faster, but Johnson sits alone. That’s why he’s worth $150.5 million.
Mike Williams (6’5″, 235): Though he held on and journeyed around for a five-year career, Williams remains a symbol of Matt Millen’s utter failure in Detroit after he was the 10th overall pick in 2005. His size was the appealing commodity offered, and his 40 time of 4.53 compared favorably to Evans’. But it didn’t translate to the field, where he failed to get separation. Over two years in Detroit, Williams caught only 38 balls for 449 yards before he was jettisoned, and failure was admitted.
Jonathan Baldwin (6’4″, 230): Similar to Williams, when the Chiefs made Baldwin the 26th overall pick in 2011, they anticipated a receiver whose bulk and 4.49 speed would lead to a pass-catching presence that could be both a deep threat, and physical while winning balls in the red zone. In the end they purchased neither and Baldwin was sent off to San Francisco, where he’s continuing an effort to salvage his career after missing most of his rookie season following a locker room dust-up, and then failing to earn meaningful and consistent regular-season playing time.
And we’re done. That’s the extremely limited sample size of exceptionally large and fast first round wide receivers that we have as a reference over the past 10 years. If we sprinkle a dash of grey in with our black and white, Demaryius Thomas can be included at 6’3″ and 229 pounds, and he’s clearly much closer to Johnson, with Williams and Baldwin far in his rearview. Over the past two seasons Thomas has logged 2,864 receiving yards with 24 touchdowns. His 40 time also wasn’t human at 4.38, speed that’s easily and often surfaced on professional football fields while he outruns defensive backs for over 70 yards.
We can slide Andre Johnson in too with his height of 6’3″, and weight at 230 after he was the Texans’ third overall pick in 2003. Perhaps the most accurate Evans comparison is Vincent Jackson, who is 6’5″ and 230 pounds, and ran the his 40 in 4.46 seconds at the 2005 Combine, though he waited until nearly the third round to be selected (62nd overall). But that’s it, meaning that of the 320 players who were first-round picks over the past 10 years, only five of the 41 wide receivers matched the body type of Evans and Benjamin, or ever came close to it.
That includes the 2009 draft, when the first round featured six wide receivers. It includes Dez Bryant, who is big and plays big, but his bigness doesn’t quite match that of Evans and Benjamin (Bryant is 6’2″, 222 pounds). And it includes the likes of Percy Harvin, Jeremy Maclin, Santonio Holmes, Ted Ginn Jr. and Lee Evans, all of whom play(ed) a much different game at under 200 pounds.
Receivers in the mold of Evans and to a lesser extent Benjamin are rare and face few comparables at the top of the draft, which is why they’re highly coveted. But as recent history and lessons from Williams and Baldwin have taught us, a highly sought sports car body alone doesn’t change the simple and harsh reality of the draft: how a prospect uses the tools provided is far more important than the tools themselves.