Fatal Flaws

When discussing draft prospects, it’s typical for scouts to speak in terms of overall skill-sets. It’s a familiar way to generalize a player’s attributes to fans without having to get into the minutiae of the evaluation. The problem is that within that hiding within that minutiae is something that scouts should be looking for: a fatal flaw.

“This player is suited for a 4-3 defensive end spot because he has the size to play on the line of scrimmage, quickness out of a 3-point stance, and he lacks coverage skills and a 4-3 DE position allows him to do what he does best: rush the passer.” In some form or another, this is pretty much the same evaluation of every 4-3 DE in this draft. It’s merely the details that separate them.

Evaluations tend to go much deeper than fans realize. Every tiny aspect of a player’s performance on the field is critiqued – sometimes obsessively and unduly so. For offensive linemen, we often hear “good punch.” To a scout, that’s a vague term. “Good punch.” Is it strong? Good hand placement? Is it good initially or both on the initial hit and when he resets his hands? Does he hit even with both hands or is he late or weak with one or the other? Can he hit with his hands, stick them under the pads, and then maintain leverage or does he hit pull back and hit again? Is he a puncher or a grappler?

These questions may seem excessive to the ancillary fan but scouts and evaluators are looking for specific elements within these questions. They have to ask these questions because it may uncover something that could turn out to be a fatal flaw.

Fatal flaws are traits or lack of skills that a player has (or doesn’t have) that could indicate a high likelihood of failure in the NFL. Every position has them. Some are obvious like a linebacker or safety that can’t or won’t tackle. Others will be more concealed and harder to see, like a quarterback that lacks anticipation. Either way, an otherwise great player, can be exposed in the NFL if they possess a fatal flaw.

Fatal flaws are one of the reasons why we hear odd remarks by anonymous scouts about players leading up to the draft. “His arms are too short to play inside.” “He’s too short to play quarterback.” And my personal favorite: “His knees are too skinny.”

While these seem like asinine remarks to the general fan, scouts are paid to seek out these fatal flaws to try to avoid a “bust” pick. It’s not just about evaluating a player’s good and bad traits. There are some traits that are red flags that are alarming for scouts that scream, “This guy’s not going to make it in the NFL!”

It often feels like the NFL goes overboard when looking for fatal flaws, especially when making remarks about the girth of a guy’s knees or critiquing a forty-yard dash time for being 0.09 seconds too slow. A human can barely click off a stopwatch in 0.09 seconds. How can you evaluate a player based on that? The NFL does. And they’re smart to do it.

A scout looking for a fatal flaw is kind of like warning labels: the warning labels are there because someone did it before and got hurt. Scouts are criticizing these players based on experiences of their own or of other teams who were hurt by not seeing a fatal flaw in a previous prospect. Someone screwed up somewhere along the line in an evaluation and missed on a guy because his arms were too short to stack and shed a block on the interior or because his hands were too small to grip the ball in the weather for that city.

A recent example of a fatal flaw that I saw in a prospect was Tampa Bay’s 3rd round choice in 2014: running back Charles Sims. There were rave reviews about Sims last year. Even NFL.com’s draft profile of Sims said, “Athletic, competitive, tough, upright slasher who is an asset as a receiver — hands rate among the best on a RB in recent years.” And they were right. Sims was quick and has great feet and hands for a running back.

But there was one thing that jumped out at me on film when watching Sims: he went down too easily on the slightest bit of contact. He didn’t seem to like contact and didn’t seem to be able to stay off the ground with even the slightest bump or grab of the jersey. His skill-set was otherwise terrific. But this flaw is one of the biggest issues for running backs that flunk out of the NFL. A rusher’s entire job is to not get tackled to the ground. When he has a trait that he goes to the ground too easily, it should raise a red flag for any evaluator.

[Editors note: After the initial posting of this article, Warren Sharp (@SharpFootball) tweeted me with this chart outlining running back yards after contact per carry in 2014. It felt appropriate to include it here with credit to Warren.)

sims chart

While it’s too early to close the book on Sims, it was only his first season in the NFL, his 66 rushes for 185 yards and 1 touchdown stat line are far from validating his 3rd round draft position. Sims did have a solid final game of the season rushing for 69 yards on 18 rushes against New Orleans.

Sims is a great example of a fatal flaw because he’s a great case study. Sims is a good receiver, and not just for a running back. So even while he may not be successful as a rusher, if used correctly, a team can help to hide a fatal flaw like being tackled too easily. Against the Saints, the Bucs finally figured out they needed to get Sims to the edge on sweeps and sprints to allow him to get to space where he could use his feet and quickness to elude tacklers rather than try to fight them. They can also line him up in the slot as a receiver to isolate a linebacker in coverage and create a matchup issue for the defense.

Some fatal flaws can be fixed (unwillingness to tackle) and some can’t (short arms/small hands). Even the flaws that can be fixed, it’s advisable to avoid those players altogether because these traits are often inherent in a player’s abilities and it’s asking a player to change his football DNA. For example, asking an athletic quarterback to stay in the pocket could be detrimental to his game because it makes him uncomfortable and frenetic.

If the flaw can’t be fixed, it’s important for coaches to identify how to mitigate that flaw’s impact so it’s just a flaw and doesn’t turn fatal for the player’s career. Often times we see cornerbacks that lack the ability to mirror in man coverage. Those players may simply need more time to anticipate instead of just reacting at the line of scrimmage. These are the guys who have to be played in off-coverage or will move to safety and can still be a useful player.

The NFL is an incredibly intelligent league. Flaws are important to identify because your opponents will surely figure out what the flaw in a player or a team is and they will put their thumb on that bruise and press on it until the other team cracks and gives in. The NFL is a matchup league and games are won and lost by exploiting favorable matchups against other teams’ and players’ weaknesses.

It’s easy to laugh when an anonymous scout says that Teddy Bridgewater’s knees are too skinny. It’s harder to look a little deeper and understand that particular scout may have become keenly aware of knee size when he wrote “thin lower frame could pose an injury risk,” in a scouting report on Robert Griffin III, and then watched the quarterback go down with a busted knee in his second season.

Fatal flaws can be obvious or they can be latent. The ones that are concealed and hard to see are the ones that separate the great scouts from the pretty good. Anyone can look at a prospect like Dante Fowler and see overwhelming athleticism. It takes a real scout to go, “Yeah, he’s athletic, but why does he seem to get blocked so easily? Is there a fatal flaw there?”

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