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Exploiting Inefficiencies in Draft Naivete

By Jim Johnson
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Here are some guys that probably would have gone much higher had they entered the draft a season ago, and should almost certainly go somewhere between where they would have gone and where they’ll ultimately be selected this weekend:

The draft process is always a fun time for college football fans to watch NFL scouts, analysts, and exclusive consumers of the pro game learn about guys that we’ve known about forever. Yet, their naivete also lends itself to one particular market inefficiency that I’ve been thinking about a lot this offseason.

While players who had nice but quiet careers until their final year before entering the draft can be found littered across the top of big boards from sea to shining sea, there are a number of athletes who had similar or even better seasons at one point or another, but chose or had to return to school and took a step back in 2018.

Sure, it’s a positive to see an upwards linear trajectory for a prospect, but what’s really the difference in players that had just one elite season, beyond the timing of that breakout campaign?

We let it slide with quarterbacks. Sam Darnold wasn’t drafted that highly a year ago because of his 2017 tape, but rather his 2016 performance. Why aren’t players at other positions extended that same courtesy? It’s probably some combination of the aforementioned naivete and ‘the what have you done for me lately-ification’ of the evaluation process.

So, here are some guys that probably would have gone much higher had they entered the draft a season ago, and should almost certainly go somewhere between where they would have gone and where they’ll ultimately be selected this weekend:

Jacques Patrick, RB, Florida State

Patrick managed just 378 rushing yards and one touchdown on 108 carries in 2018. That can, in large part, be chalked up to his playing behind the worst offensive line in the country. A year prior, he went for 735 yards and seven scores on 132 attempts. He actually averaged more missed tackles forced per carry last year than he did as a junior, and emerged as one of the best pass blocking backs in the draft class.

Penny Hart, WR, Georgia State

Hart caught 25 fewer passes last year for 452 fewer yards and six fewer touchdowns than he had the year before. He also had the lowest catch rate of his career. That dropoff in production can most easily be explained by the quarterback play. Dan Ellington had a significantly lower completion percentage, yards per attempt average, and higher interception rate than his predecessor, Conner Manning. Based on Hart’s Senior Bowl showing, it’s abundantly clear that 2018 was the exception, and that he can compete at the highest level.

Hjalte Froholdt, OG, Arkansas

Froholdt had his worst season, by far, in 2018. He burst onto the scene in 2016 thanks to his dominance as a run blocker, under Bret Bielema, and then showed marked improvement in pass pro in 2017, looking poised to be a potential first round pick after his senior year. In comes new head coach Chad Morris with a completely different offense, and Froholdt’s once dominant run blocking abilities were totally marginalized by the new scheme, which saw Arkansas run the ball less often than it had since 2012. Nevertheless, he adapted and had his best season as a pass blocker yet, allowing no sacks, three QB hits, and two hurries on 418 pass pro snaps. In the long run, he may be better off for his experience under Morris, continuing to develop as a pass blocker, and gaining reps and versatility in a unique offense. There’s actually a case to be made that Froholdt’s stock should have gone up, all things considered.

Ed Alexander, DL, LSU

Alexander was one of the most dominant run stoppers in the nation in 2017, serving as a rotational piece for the Tigers. Perhaps because of conditioning issues for the 330-pounder, Alexander’s productivity grew with a greater workload in 2018, but the efficiency with which he accumulated said productivity notably dropped. He won’t offer much in the way of a pass rusher in the NFL, but his 13% run stop percentage from 2017 would have ranked second in this year’s class, only behind Quinnen Williams. There’s a place for him on a lot of rosters in a similar role to the one he played for LSU two years ago.

Ricky Walker, DL, Virginia Tech

Walker probably never would have been a first round pick in this class, because it might well be the best group of interior defenders in NFL Draft history. However, entering the year, he was just on the outside looking in at the top tier, and that’s where he should still be. As the best player on what was arguably the worst defense Bud Foster has ever coached, riddled by injuries, Walker was the first thing every opposing offensive coordinator was looking to take away. As such, his pass rushing numbers took a step back in 2018, but he still managed to be similarly effective against the run. Scheme fit will be important for him in the league, but he could serve as an ideal complement to an elite pass rushing defensive lineman, and thrive in the right system.

Joe Giles-Harris, LB, Duke

Outside of Roquan Smith, Joe Giles-Harris was the best linebacker in the country a year ago. During the 2017 regular season, Giles-Harris missed a grand total of four tackles on nearly 750 snaps, making him one of the 15 most efficient tacklers in the country, among draft-eligible linebackers that played at least 250 snaps (which is a pretty low bar, relatively). Only one of the other top 20 most sure tackling linebackers played 700+ snaps, and, of the 20, Smith was the lone player to match his sheer tackle production. Since the turn of the century, only 13 other players have had as many tackles, tackles for loss, sacks, and passes defensed in a single season as he had in 2017. The short list includes the likes Sean Weatherspoon and Ryan Shazier, both of whom went on to be first round NFL Draft picks. His senior year was derailed by injuries, but there’s no reason for him to be as far behind Devin Bush and Devin White as most analysts have him.

Jamel Dean, CB, Auburn

Dean excelled as the Tigers’ #2 cornerback in 2017, opposite Carlton Davis with Javaris Davis in the slot, allowing just 38.1% of the throws into his coverage to be caught. This year, he stepped into Carlton Davis’ departed CB1 role, sometimes with Javaris Davis playing out of position on the opposite boundary, and sometimes with converted receiver Noah Igbinoghene on the other side. He wasn’t as consistently impactful with a less mutually beneficial supporting cast, but he was arguably more productive, even though opposing passers could stay away him more often. He still allowed a mere 42% catch rate, gave up half as many touchdowns, showed improved ball skills, tallying his first two career picks, and allowed a lower passer rating on throws into his coverage. All that, plus his blazing 40 at the combine and a big leap in run support, should have teams clamoring for him to be their second cornerback.

Lukas Denis, S, Boston College

Denis was historically good in 2017. Two years ago, he became the first power conference player in over a decade to record at least 80 tackles, seven interceptions, ten pass breakups, and two forced fumbles in a single season. He was as elite in run defense, posting 22 stops, as he was in coverage, with a 48.7 allowed passer rating. Last year was tough for him, as his tackling woes came to a head, and he allowed a 23% higher catch rate. I’m not campaigning for him to be a day one selection after last year, but I also don’t think it’s fair to assume that that’s who he is. Why is it more likely that Denis’ long term future is more in line with what we saw in 2018 than in 2017? Honestly, it’s probably somewhere in between the two, but, at a certain point, isn’t it worth rolling the dice and hoping that last year was the anomaly, not the other way around?

And that’s the point with all these guys. There are players who were good enough for long enough that we know what we’re going to continue to get from them -- Deandre Baker, Dexter Lawrence, and Jonah Williams, among others, come to mind.

But what about guys like Jachai Polite or Josh Allen that didn’t breakout until last year? Why is there one year so special, but the above years are not?

I’m not saying they won’t continue to be great. I’m just saying that it’s worth exploring why we don’t think Joe Giles-Harris and Lukas Denis and Penny Hart and company won’t be great again.

Jim Johnson - Editor of Southern Pigskin, Producer of "Three & Out", and host of "Explosive Recruiting" on the Southern Pigskin Radio Network. E-mail: Twitter: @JimJohnsonSP