INDIANAPOLIS — There once was a time when scouts and coaches could watch most any player live or on his film, see how he played at the collegiate level and develop a gauge on how he would plug into their system.
That’s no longer the case. With the rise in spread offenses and other exotic schemes at the college level, scouting has become a projection game and an inexact science in many ways. Teams now often have to look at traits and make their best guesses at how they’ll do the things required of their position in the NFL.
The Saints are likely going to find themselves trying to make those projections this season since two of the positions they could be looking to draft -- guard and tight end -- often have responsibilities at the college level that do not translate seamlessly to the NFL.
“It’s going to take them a little longer to develop, especially in the run game, because they’re not asked to do it as much,” San Francisco 49ers general manager Trent Baalke said. “There’s some things you have to look at differently now than you had to 10 years ago, because the college game is quite a bit different than the game we play, especially at the line of scrimmage.”
Depending on how New Orleans goes about things in free agency, two of its biggest needs in the draft could be at those two positions. The team recently released veteran guard Jahri Evans and have decisions to make at tight end with Ben Watson, Michael Hoomanawanui and Josh Hill (restricted) all scheduled to reach free agency.
If Watson and Hoomanawanui are not retained, it could prove difficult to find perfect replacements. It can be rare to find players who line up as inline tight ends or are asked to block in the college ranks.
Both traits will be needed if the Saints need to replace either player. Watson often lines up inline, and the other tight ends are asked to serve in various capacities, sometimes sitting back in pass protection or coming out of the backfield as a fullback.
Arizona Cardinals general manager Steve Keim took things a step further, saying that tight ends who excel in both the running and passing games are endangered species.
“Anymore, you don’t talk about tight ends, you’re looking at either a ‘Y’ or an ‘F’,” Keim said. “You’re either an in-line guy (Y) who usually lacks the skill set to be a pass catcher but it is usually a tougher, overachiever that is physical at the point of attack. Then you have the guy who can flex (F) who is essentially a big wide receiver.
“So the guy who can do it all, generally doesn’t exist anymore. There are a few guys who can do both but very rarely. The perception around the league is that when you see these guys who are great pass catches, people think they are functional in the run game. When you watch tape, they are really not.”
There are similar issues on the offensive line. The talent is typically there, but they don’t often show up with a lot of experience operating out of NFL blocking schemes. In some cases, they don’t even have experience lining up the same way they would as a professional.
That means there is often a learning curve taking place when those players report to their new teams. And sometimes it takes a littler longer than what was typical a decade ago.
“There are more and more of the guys playing in a two-point stance and not used to coming back to the huddle,” Raiders coach Jack Del Rio said. “There is a little bit of development once you get to the league.
“I think that’s the biggest part of it. You’re still getting big, strong, talented young men with feet to move and the ability to play. But maybe their development isn’t as far along as it was when colleges were more closely aligned with what we’re doing in the NFL.”
That has led to some hiccups when teams draft offensive linemen. Even Greg Robinson, the tackle out of Auburn, touched in some corners as the best offensive line prospects of the last decade, has struggled with the Rams. Coach Jeff Fisher called him out in November for his sagging performance and the amount of penalties he accumulated.
Similarly, Kansas City’s Eric Fisher, the first pick in the 2013 draft, started out slow but finally started coming on late last season. Players following this trajectory have become a recent trend.
Titans general manager Jon Robinson thinks several factors have contributed to some of the struggles.
“When you evaluate the players and how he fits our football team, you’re going to describe a role for him, and you want him to come in and play that role,” Robinson said. “Why certain tackles didn’t necessarily pan out -- could be a scheme related thing. It could be a coaching-related thing.”
This is one of the many reasons the draft is considered an inexact science. For the Saints, if they have to draft at these two positions, the hope will be they end up the right side of the formula.