(For the soundtrack)I really, really hate bringing another prospect down to highlight a personal favorite’s talent, but it’s really the only way I can get my point across here. Dez Bryant, pretty much the consensus first WR drafted in the upcoming draft, had his best year as a sophomore in 2008, when he put up 1480 yards on 87 receptions (17.0 avg), and caught 19 TD. He stands 6’2”, weighs 215 pounds, and despite so-so top end speed is a very difficult tackle to make for smaller cornerbacks. He has all the tools to be a Derrick Mason or Anquan Boldin caliber possession receiver, and I want to say up front that ANY team should, at worst, be happy to get that in the first round (and THRILLED with that later in the first and beyond). You knew all of this, though, because you’ve heard of him thanks to ESPN reporting his various “scandals” (his suspension this past season was officially when I turned on the NCAA as an exploitative labor organization) paired with a major college program’s offense being built around him. He’s a star, and there are many good arguments to be made that he deserves this status.
Why, then, aren’t we talking about Demaryius Thomas as an unquestionable top 10 pick? Well, the problem quite frankly, is where Thomas comes from, specifically an option offense, which limited his opportunities to prove his potential. On physical tools alone, he’s bigger (6’3”, 229 pounds) and faster than Bryant, and he comes from an equally well known program. His statistics are equally impressive by comparison. Yes, Thomas put up 1154 yards, over 300 fewer than Bryant. What that doesn’t tell you is that he did so on just 46 receptions, just slightly more than half of the number Bryant got, for an NCAA leading 25.1 yards per catch. Oh, and he had 8 TD to boot on that paltry number of attempts. Yes, it’s dangerous to extrapolate statistics outside of context, but does it really take an unreasonable stretch to say that the numbers actually point to Thomas being much, much better as a prospect than any other receiver on the board?
(For the highlights)And really, context is what is sorely missing from any analysis of Thomas as a football player. The victim of the most drastic system shifts in NCAA football, Thomas went from being the top target in a pro style offense to a nifty toy in Paul Johnson’s team building, yet individual masking option offense. Josh Nesbitt, a QB who will make an interesting project for some NFL team, is no elite passing prospect, making those throws that did go Thomas’s way often off target, making Thomas’s statistical consistency in a grounded offense (he had 8 games with a TD, never failed to catch a pass in any game, and had 10 games of 70 yards or more) all the more impressive. Looking at how often Thomas had to adjust his body to make a play on the ball, and even then was able to use his size to lose defenders, you would think that the media would be talking about what Thomas could do given enough air and opportunity. Yet it is precisely those tools that made him a success that have scouts doubting his ability at the next level. Questions about his route running, and even the fact that he hasn’t had to master a pro style offense, all show a refusal to see beyond the context, as if it was Thomas’s security blanket instead of his prison. I highly doubt Thomas begged for a system that wouldn’t teach him to be a pro caliber WR, and yet somehow the fact that he didn’t rail against change makes him too raw for success at the next level (remind me, what do position coaches do again?). Of course if he did make an issue of his system, not only would that have hindered all of us the opportunity to see undeniable talent (regardless of the context), but it would also have made him a “problem child”. That’s the thing about context; the outside observer can shape it in their mind, but those on the inside can never truly escape it.
All of this is why I’m hoping that some team with a need for real vertical athleticism that has both the coaching staff and the possession receiver support to help Thomas grow into the details of the pro game will take a chance on Thomas in the first round. Because the only way for Thomas to rise above the context of his past is to arrive at a place that needs him as much as he needs them. We’re big on “freedom” for talents in the NFL, and only the freedom of desperation mixed with hope will let Thomas prove himself as a pro (instead of a “limited” college player) and grow at a natural pace (because yes, he will need to learn the ins and outs of NFL receiving…JUST LIKE EVERY OTHER WR IN THE DRAFT). If a team doesn’t have the inclination to take Brandon Marshall (which they really should have by now), isn’t this the natural next move for the kind of vertically limited teams that are looking at Marshall. Isn’t Seattle all about creating a new image now, starting with a more threatening passing offense? Isn’t Cleveland desperate for an over the top physical deep threat to finally turn their underrated possession receiver mob from bland to devastatingly effective? Just about every first round skill position talent in the NFL draft comes from an offense built around them. Their context was tailored to their immense potential. In Demaryius Thomas we are looking at a player that maximized his potential during his time in college, and could actually view the NFL as a place to roam MORE freely. Get over the option problem, scouts; a wise man once said that it ain’t where you’re from, after all.