“Polished” has become something of a backhanded compliment. We use the term on rookies only in relation to someone else who lacks this “finished” quality, always with the implication that somehow the fact that another player is “unpolished” means that he has greater potential. To be whole is to be beyond the potential for growth, or worse still beyond the need for coaching into one’s eventual role as an NFL player. There is, of course, an element of self-serving coach speak to this; they need “unpolished” players to make themselves feel as important as they ought to be (there is no coach in professional sports as simultaneously undervalued and self-deluded as the NFL coach). Still, this idea isn’t so foreign to a culture that constantly has an eye to the “next one” (minus one for referencing Jay-Z). We elected our president on a platform of “hope” and “change”, both goals that require we start at a place of incompleteness. We’ve made fetishes of flaws. On the field, this means that we look at players like JaMarcus Russell or Charles Rogers and daydream about what they could become. In doing so, we romanticize a journey that statistics say is likely to indeed be more satisfying than the destination.
Derrick Morgan is, without a doubt, the most polished defensive end in this draft, if not the most polished defender, and yet we’ve hardly heard anything about him. The highest he goes in any ESPN mock draft is the 12th pick (to a Dolphins 3-4 scheme that would be a bad look), and I’ve seen at least 2-3 more television spots discussing Jerry Hughes or Jared Odrick, despite their having been nowhere near as dominant on the college level. Hell, even Jason Pierre-Paul, a guy with one year’s worth of NCAA football experience, gets more buzz for his “upside” than Derrick Morgan does for three years over which he managed to grow by leaps and bounds.
Looking at the footage, however, the one thing that jumps out about Morgan is the way in which his top flight physicality (which, despite the lack of press, is very much a factor) is paired with a unique mind for his position. He’s using first moves to draw blockers out of position. He’s shifting inside to follow the ball carrier before blockers can engage. He’s relentlessly pursuing the ball without over committing to a lane that will take him out of position. At a level filled with players who physically outmatch their opponents, Morgan wins because he outplays them, a subtle difference that points toward a knowledge of the game rather than a knowledge of one’s own ability, something that, at just about every other position in the draft, coaches drool over. Compared to the tape of many of his peers, one would be hard pressed to find a game so well developed, lacking in real flaws or points at which one says “well, but for that, he could be a star.”
The problem is that we don’t discuss him as a potential star at all. We become enamored with tape of Jason Pierre-Paul leaping four feet in the air to block a throwing lane or Jerry Hughes moving in a blur past a stunned offensive tackle and think “man, those guys, they’ve got NFL gifts.” Morgan’s balance of physical talent with old soul savvy, by comparison, is less captivating to our aesthetically drawn senses. Never mind that Paul’s mid air flights of fancy are frequently timed so poorly that they take him out of a play completely, or that Jerry Hughes’s speed takes him drastically behind the ball carrier as often as it makes him a threat; THESE GUYS HAVE GIFTS THAT NEED TO BE SHAPED. We assume that there will be an inevitable growth from boyhood to manhood, ignoring that Jung built an entire theory of psychology on the idea that people frequently never move from point A to point B. We forget all too easily that aesthetic wonder, though not without merit, needs ethical grounding in order to be of any real value to society.
I say “we” on all of the above because I’m as guilty as anyone. A recurring theme around here is that completed pictures are so much more “boring” than those with room left to create. I stand by that as a general sentiment, but watching Morgan has made me realize that there needs to be some balance. “Pretty” without a foundation of right or wrong technique is as boring as anything else because of its neutrality; we all can like pretty things, regardless of their real worth. It is in balancing these aesthetic gifts with correct application, or even in “wrong” but revolutionary application, that they really have significance in the league. In this way, maybe “creation” doesn’t necessarily need to happen in the filling of gaping holes, but rather in the development of an already existing balance. To say that Derrick Morgan is “complete” is not to say that he is “finished”. In the right hands, Morgan could become an indispensable part of a defensive scheme, particularly considering he has shown the football acumen take advantage of opponents’ weaknesses. Far from being the sort of player that can’t be coached up, Morgan’s “polished” qualities could allow him to gain the most from a coach with unique tactics toward which Morgan can apply his well-honed skill set. Fans and coaches don’t get to take the credit for discovering his potential; they just get to appreciate what a fully realized player can do when veteran mindset meets rookie motor skills.
If all of this sounds like I’m turning my back on “upside,” well, maybe I am a little. I still believe in the idea that players with incredible raw gifts can and should be molded by coaching and experience into players that will alter the course of the league…but getting older makes the idea of waiting on “potential” less and less appealing. There’s something to be said for the satisfaction of not having to worry about a player ever “arriving.” Derrick Morgan doesn’t have physical tools to drastically change the way the game is played, but he does bring a mind that most rookies, particularly most rookie defenders, need years to acquire. Maybe that itself is a shift in league values, placing mind over matter at an age when the reverse is traditionally true. If the future needs freaks, it also needs new generations of field generals, and Morgan brings into sharp focus the value of understanding how the game is and isn’t played at a young age. If the draft is a young man’s circus, then Morgan’s prematurely aged game is a reminder that while nobody goes to watch the ringmaster, he’s the guy that makes everyone else understand where the should be.