Friday, December 12, 2014

Why Sammie and Duke Should Return for 2015

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Let me preface this by saying....


I mean, who wouldn't want to see them come back?  

I guess that's the problem with being a fan of a team. Though we want to see our guys succeed in life, we want to win more. And, if having a certain player gives you a better chance at winning, then you want him on the field...even if it means millions to him. We are selfish, by nature.

While both of these guys are going to get to the NFL in some capacity, it is important for them to really consider what one year really means. It's a complicated pros/cons deal. But it seems that many players make complete blunders of this. They are blinded by money, many times. Now, I am sure that all the coaches are trying their very best to do what's right by the player, but I am really having a hard time with justifying their bolt to the NFL this year.

Consider this:  In 2014, a record number of underclassmen declared for the NFL. 107 kids from the college ranks thought that their draft stock wasn't going to rise with the addition of a last year. Of those 107, 45 went undrafted. Now, going undrafted isn't a bad thing. In a lot of cases, being able to hit the free agent market is a better path. Being drafted makes you subject to the pay scale. And, those late draft positions don't pay well. Yet, most of those 45 still didn't make an NFL roster. 

Let's consider what that means for a second. The average football fan doesn't pay attention to the hierarchy of the NFL draft. The money is in the first 2 rounds. Clowney, the overall #1, signed for 5 Mil a year for 4 years and a 14 Mil signing bonus. Bridgewater, the last pick of the 1st round, made roughly 1.5 Mil a year with a 3.3 Mil signing bonus. After that, well, it isn't as rosy as you would think. As I mentioned, by the time the 3rd day of the draft roles around, most players DON'T want to hear their name called, because free agent pay is much better in some cases. And, you have the freedom to play where you want. 

Let's compare the 1st and last picks for the Texans. Clowney makes the aforementioned 5 Mil a year. Lonnie Ballentine, the Texan's 7th rounder comes out for under $700,000 a year.That's a HUGE drop-off.

Consider the receiver position in the 2014 draft. This group of receivers was deemed to be particular deep and talented, featuring 5 first round picks. Sammy Watkins was the first receiver taken as the 4th overall, followed by Mike Evans at 7, Odell Beckam at 12, Brandon Cooks at 20, and Kelvin Benjamin at 28th. 

Where will this year's class stack up against last years? Would Sammie and Duke stack up against these players? 

First, let's think about a similar situation that we might be familiar with. In 2010, Darvin Adams emerged as one, if not the best, deep threat in the country. The fear of the Newton/Dyer express frequently set up some big plays through the air, benefiting Adams. Adams had 963 yards and 7 TDs on 52 catches.  That's a 18.5 yard average. He also benefited from being on some big time stages. Adams declared early from the draft and went undrafted, though he did get scooped up by the Panthers for a bit (no doubt in thanks to his good buddy, Cam) before being cut. He never made an NFL roster. Who did make it? Randall Cobb, A.J. Green, Julio Jones, and Torrey Smith, just to name a few. How was he compared to these guys? Cobb is a dynamic play maker who does everything well. Green and Jones can and will catch the ball across the middle, both are as physical specimens as you will find, and they are unbeatable in the vertical passing game. Torrey Smith is somewhere in between these guys and has become a legend in Baltimore. Adams had flash and speed. He did some amazing things, but all of these guys were polished, NFL receivers. Jones and Green in particular absolutely DOMINATED in the SEC against the nation's best defenses. Did Adams do that? Could he? No. Was he polished as a route runner? Did he physically dominate defenders? Laughably, no. 

Sound familiar? 

Sammie Coates is widely know for his deep threat ability, having been near the top in both of the last 2 years. He averages almost 24 yards a catch on his 30 touches for 717 yards and 4 TDs. His physical attributes are off the charts in almost every category. But, is he a first rounder? 

I have read a lot of reports where the NFL experts have gauged him anywhere between a very late 1st rounder to a mid round guy. I respectfully disagree with their evaluation. Receivers in the NFL have to be complete packages. Sure, some turn out to be one thing or the other, but when they come into the league, they have to be able to do it all. To me, Sammie struggles with the very essence of being an NFL receiver. Can you consistently run a good route to beat an NFL corner? Can you catch the ball in traffic? Coates has been unable to do either of these. His average per catch is ballooned because he struggled in the short and intermediate passing game, to put it politely. Even against SEC corners, he was unable to shake them with good route running, leading to knockdowns. And, in many cases, he had outright drops. In several key matchups in 2014, he had multiple drops in single games. Against Texas A&M, in particular, he had at least 2 critical drops. In the NFL, if you have multiple drops in a game, they find someone to replace you. Eli Manning struggled mightily in the first half of 2014, namely because of the inconsistency of some of his veteran players. It led to an increased role for Beckam Jr, who has become the leading receiver for the giants. Why? He runs polished routes and he catches the underneath passes, in traffic ON TOP of his ability to make great plays in the vertical passing game. 

And, let's be real. When it comes to vertical passing attacks, there are some guys that are almost solely that. Is Sammie a beater deep threat than Mike Evans or Kelvin Benjamin, two guys he has shared the field with? No. 

Additionally, Sammie was hurt for much of the 2014 campaign. Instead of getting healthy, it was obvious that he pushed the limits, and it showed. He was a shell of himself in his first 3 games back. Only against the Tide in the Iron Bowl did he look like the receiver we know him to be. If there is one thing that scares NFL scouts, it's injuries. Andre Williams lead the college ranks in rushing while at Boston College. He was absolutely unstoppable and was a Heisman finalist. But, he sustained a knee injury late in the season. He was drafted in the 4th round as the 10th running back taken after seeming to be a late first rounder or early second rounder like Bishop Sankey. 

Duke Williams entered Auburn under the auspices that he was a 1-and-done player. I didn't disagree with that before the year or during it. He possess all of the skills that NFL scouts drool after. He is big. He has ability. He catches everything. In a world where we let recruiting sites sell us championships, he is one of the very few that I have seen be 100% as-advertised.  I was sold on him at A-Day and remained so throughout the remainder of the 2014 season. The only tough game he had was against Bama where he couldn't secure some tough throws in the endzone. But, he looks every bit the 1st-Round pick that he will eventually be. But I don't think he will get that this year. Why? Production. The Auburn passing attack never materialized as expected in 2014. Other than Marshall's stellar Iron Bowl, he didn't light up the scoreboards. Sadly, he never met the goals outlined by the coaches entering the season. Instead, the Tigers remained a run first team and Marshall was fairly unstoppable when he needed to be. It's a sad fact that Duke Williams draft stock was hurt by nothing he did. The inability for him to have a 1,000 yard season, as many predicted, sets him behind many other receivers will similar skillsets. Amari Cooper, Justin Hardy, Rashaad Green and Nelson Agholor all posted at least 500 more yards and double (aside from Green) TDs. Duke isn't in the Top 50 of any statistics in receiving. On that list of 50, I can point to several other players who aren't quite the player Duke is, but would be higher picks (on my board) because of their production AND health. I see Jalen Strong from Arizona State, Josh Harper from Fresno and Leonte Carroo from Rutgers. 

Though he wasn't quite as limited as Sammie in his injury, Duke did miss significant time with his injuries. Against Alabama, he wasn't anything more than a checkdown or back of the endzone target. In the latter, his health kept him from making plays that I felt he would have made a month before. 

On the subject of injuries, one can't deny that the prospect of becoming injured during a return campaign is a nightmare. Just look at Marcus Lattimore from South Carolina. In his junior year he broke his leg. He went from a first round lock to a 4th rounder, and he was lucky to get that. So, it is imperative for these players to weigh the risk and reward in regards to injury. But, it doesn't always work in the negative. With Coates and Duke nagging injuries, a year to become healthy could pay drastic dividends in proving that they are 100% instead of an injury liability. In addition, the coaching staff have made them a fiscal priority by getting multi-million dollar insurance plans in the event that they drop in draft status as seniors. 

It is a fair argument that many underclassmen pay attention to returning teammates when making their decisions. I have to at least assume that Darvin Adams looked to who would be his new QB and who would be blocking for that QB and realize that the chances of improving his stock may depend on them.  In his case, he lost a Heisman winner and all interior linemen. I know many players do just this. A running back considers his returning line. A receiver considers the returning QB. All consider coaching changes. In this case, Auburn does lose a Rimington winner in Dismukes, a player that I felt was NFL-bound from the minute he set foot on campus. Auburn losses the unstoppable runner in Marshall and the SEC first teamer, Cameron Artis-Payne. All Auburn fans know what I am about to say: Auburn has perhaps the most NFL-ready arm in it's history waiting to start in 2015 in Jeremy Johnson. Though Auburn has plenty of on-paper talent at running back, it is short of experienced players. The graduation of the Bray, who became the chain-mover in 2014, leaves 34 catches(4 more than Coates, I might add) to be filled. What's that mean? A pass-happy attack is on the horizon for Auburn. 

As they are now to my untrained eye, Duke would be a 3rd round pick and I don't think Coates would be drafted. I do admit that I sometimes struggle with how players continue to be drafted on measurables alone, which Sammie would absolutely dominate. In the end, both of these guys need to prove that they are healthy and can stay healthy. Let's not kid ourselves, the needle can make anyone healthy for the combine. It may get you drafted, but it won't get you on a roster. Both players need to show more production in order to establish their elite abilities by coming back for 2015. They have the best arm that Auburn has had that I can remember coming under center and a game plan that will certainly favor them. Amari Cooper WILL be a 1st rounder and neither of these guys would be. Why? is it because Cooper has ability they don't have? No. It's because Lane Kiffin made him the focus of his offense. At zero point in either of these two players Auburn careers have they become the focus of their offense. That will undoubtedly change in 2015. 

Technically speaking, Coates in particular needs another year to work on his skills. He struggled catching anything that wasn't a deep ball and that will not work in the NFL, at least not for a player that isn't 6'5" or bigger (a la Benjamin and Evans). Duke needs more time working on his run blocking, as he was flagged on many occasions for holding.  You may have noticed that in run situations like 3rd and short, Duke was almost always out in favor of Ray or Davis, the preferred run blockers. 

Lastly, though this year's receiver draft class won't be as deep as the 2014 draft class, it will certainly still be very good. There are at least 5 players on on the big board that have the skillsets, size, and production that will keep Coates and Williams out of the first 2 rounds. What does that mean in terms on dollars? Sammy Watkins pulled down 20 Mil over 4 years amd almost 13 Mil in bonus. Donte Moncrief was the first receiver in the 3rd round and secured almost 3 Mil over 4 years. That's 17 MILLION dollars difference. To me, neither player can hurt their stock by returning. Duke has the lowest upside, as I think that he has proven himself aside from production, which is really want scouts want. They want the most data points possible. Sammie Coates has an amazing upside but it comes at a price of returning to work on this game. Both are hurt and that certainly could hurt this year's stock. Returning next can forgive that. The only downside to returning, other than NOT having millions THIS year is a potential injury. However, the estimated plan is around 10 million for each, just assuming they drop a few rounds.So, come out this year and get stuck making middle of the road pay, possibly at a place you don't want...or give it one more year and lock up a 20 Million dollar contract by being taken in the first round?

Do I want them to come back from selfishness? Absolutely. Losing the seniors in addition to these two would be devastating to the future of the 2015 Auburn Tiger team. That's over 6,700 yards and 46 TDs from a total of 8600 and 51 TDs. That's a 78% loss. While I expect Malzahn to have a good offense next year, without these guys, it won't be possible to be as great. 

However, I want them to achieve their dreams, which means playing ball in the NFL. However, it is almost a certainty that 80% of what they hear tells them to declare early. The pressures of friends and family, on top of being an instant millionaire, are heavier beyond anything I can imagine. But, these guys need to listen the voices of those who know. I don't claim to be one of those, but it seems to me that both would benefit from returning in 2015.