Evaluating talent in the NFL can be a lot like an enormous Rorschach test, each player like an ink blot open to interpretation by every scout, coach and general manager.

A few dozen of those splashes of ink, blots with names like Aaron Rodgers or Drew Brees, look roughly the same to everyone, shaped like stars that can light up any city in the country.

The rest depend on the eyes doing the evaluating. 

Ted Ginn Jr. has looked differently to a lot of different teams. The Miami Dolphins saw a first-round bust. Mike Singletary and Jim Harbaugh saw a return specialist, a man with blinding speed that didn't translate to a primary role in San Francisco's passing game. Bruce Arians saw a poor fit for his offense in Arizona.

"When you get in this league, you get labeled," Ginn said. "Guys say who you are. Sometimes it's not really true."

The Carolina Panthers saw something else. 

A bolt of lightning, a game-breaking talent whose maddening inconsistency could be overcome with momentum-shifting, secondary-crushing touchdowns, the kind of plays that can break open a game in a heartbeat.

Saints coach Sean Payton saw all of those qualities and more. 

"People say, 'Oh, that guy is just a return guy; he can just run deep,' but they’ve never really seen a guy run a slant or a comeback or a dig," Ginn said. "What I’m doing now, I had this type of talent back in the day."

Bouncing around

The first time Ginn looked hard at the Panthers, he did not see the team that might turn around his career.

Carolina already had a clear No. 1 receiver, a living, breathing legend named Steve Smith. Brandon LaFell seemed fully entrenched as a complementary option to Smith and Greg Olsen, a blossoming star at tight end.

Three established receivers seemed like more than enough in the Panthers' run-first offense, and by that point, six years into his career, the NFL had beaten down the former Ohio State superstar. 

"Just being called a bust, that's tough," said Ginn's father, Ted Ginn Sr. "Being told you can't run, you can't catch, you can't do all that, but you've been doing it since you were 8, 9 years old, that's tough."

Drafted No. 9 by Miami in 2007 and presented to a fan base that considered him a reach, Ginn spent his rookie season on a 1-15 team.

Bouncing back for a better Dolphins team in 2008, Ginn set career highs with a team-leading 56 catches for 790 yards. But things only went downhill from there.

Miami traded Ginn to San Francisco after his third season; the 49ers then spent three years using him sparingly on offense. He had just two catches in 2012 while serving as the primary return man during San Francisco's run to the Super Bowl.

"Miami, the quarterback, the coaching situation, they didn't have the quarterbacks and different things they needed in Miami, so we kind of understood Miami," Ginn Sr. said. "Didn't understand San Francisco as much, but it was tough for him. Ted is strictly a team player; he's always been that way. ... But it's tough when you don't get to show who you are."

Ginn's receiving days appeared to be all but over. He seemed doomed to a ceiling of Desmond Howard, a legendary Big Ten receiver who spent most of his NFL career as a specialist.

But Carolina wanted to see whether Ginn could be a factor in the passing game, and Panthers receivers coach Ricky Proehl connected with the former first-round pick. 

"We. ... explained to Teddy what we need, what we expected of him," Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. "We weren’t unfair with him. We didn’t tell him something that wasn’t true."

Ginn responded by piling up 556 yards and five touchdowns on 36 catches.

Arizona liked what it saw. The Cardinals signed Ginn to a three-year deal worth $9.75 million. 

The fit seemed perfect. Arians had put together an offense that likes to throw the ball downfield more than almost anybody else in the NFL, and Ginn's speed seemed like a good fit next to the big bodies of Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd. 

Nothing ever materialized in the desert. Overshadowed by the emergence of John Brown, Ginn found himself relegated to a return role again, then cut unceremoniously after just one season.

Ginn felt like the Cardinals never gave him an opportunity to show what he could do. 

"You go out there, and it was just, like, out of your control," Ginn said. "I didn’t get in any trouble, I didn’t miss any meetings — I’ve never had that type of background — so (you) go out there and the guy just doesn’t give you a chance. They don’t even tell you why. They write on a piece of paper that you don’t apply to their needs. You’re like, 'What?' That just put a little spark in me."

Carolina calling

Truth be told, Ginn knew where he could prove the Cardinals wrong.

Moments after his one season in Arizona ended with a playoff loss to the Panthers, Carolina linebacker Thomas Davis grabbed Ginn and told his former teammate to bring his stuff over to the Carolina locker room, imploring him to come back.

Ginn had made a big impression in his only season in Charlotte, North Carolina.

"His attitude, man," Davis said. "He showed up every day and did what was asked of him, he was never a guy that complained, and he loved being around his teammates."

And even at age 30, Ginn could still fly. 

While other players lose a step when they hit their 30s, Ginn has maintained his game-breaking speed, in large part by sticking to the training regimen that has always worked for him.

A state champion hurdler and sprinter in track and field at Glenville High in Cleveland, Ginn started working with Tim Robertson of Speed Strength Systems when he was a freshman in high school. 

He still trains with Robertson 17 years later. Robertson has trained dozens of NFL players, plus Ben Simmons, the 76ers phenom and former LSU star. He knows Ginn's unique frame and stride.

A lanky, wiry player who's still listed at just 180 pounds despite standing 5-foot-11, Ginn runs with an efficiency of motion that goes back to his days on the track.

"He’s got relatively longer legs, and his stride, his stride is phenomenal," Robertson said. "He’s not the strongest guy in the world; he’s not squatting 500 pounds, but his stride, his mechanics and I think his track background, working with his dad growing up, that definitely helped him. ... He's so graceful."

Ginn's stride has probably helped him avoid injury for most of his 11-year career; he's missed just nine games in the NFL.

Robertson has changed Ginn's workouts as the wide receiver gets older. When he was in high school and college, the focus was on building functional strength; flexibility, technique and durability have become the focal point now. 

"This is where the science comes into play," Robertson said. "Knowing the body, knowing the systems in the body, it’s how to manipulate things. So you’re stressing this (muscle), but not that. You can accomplish a lot of things with less work and proper work."

Carolina, built around quarterback Cam Newton's powerful throwing arm and a big-play passing attack, spent two seasons ripping open secondaries with Ginn's speed. 

Forced into the No. 1 role when Kelvin Benjamin tore his ACL in 2015, Ginn caught 44 passes for 739 yards and a career-high 10 touchdowns during Carolina's run to the Super Bowl, then followed up that with 54 catches for 752 yards and five scores a year ago. 

"All that was always in Ted; you just have to give him an opportunity to do it," Ginn Sr. said. "The head coach in Carolina, he loved Ted, and he used him the right way. We were thankful to be there. They helped save his career."


New Orleans got a good, painful look at Ginn's talents during his resurgence with the Panthers.

In those two seasons in Carolina, Ginn broke open games against the Saints with a 55-yard catch in Charlotte in 2015, two touchdowns when the Panthers returned to New Orleans later that year and a knockout blow with a 40-yard touchdown catch at the end of the first half of last season's Thursday night showdown.

When Ginn hit free agency last spring, the Saints outbid Carolina for the receiver's services, replacing the soon-to-be traded Brandin Cooks with an older, more experienced model the day before the Cooks trade was finalized.

"I hate watching that speed over there with Drew Brees," Davis said. "What he’s able to do not only from a stretching-the-field standpoint, but (also what) he’s able to do with different looks, reverses."

New Orleans had a hunch Ginn could do more than just beat teams deep with his speed.

The same skills that made him a dangerous return man — natural ability in the open field — make Ginn a perfect fit for today's NFL offenses, which are increasingly tailored to produce short, high-percentage throws and rely on receivers to pick up yards after the catch. 

"My perception, always, was an extremely explosive player, obviously a great vertical threat everywhere he had been," Brees said. "That seemed to be the way that teams used him, but it seemed to be as the only way teams used him. Whereas I feel like he’s come in to this offense and really flourished, and I feel like we’ve given him the opportunity to showcase a lot of the other things that he can do."

Deemed to be one-dimensional by so many teams, Ginn is an all-around weapon for the Saints, killing teams on screens, intermediate crossing routes and on the deep ball. 

He might have been capable of playing like this all along.

"I tell him he's like wine," Payton said. "I don’t know that anything's changed. I think he found himself in offenses that have had a vision more correctly, as opposed to certain offenses that haven’t had the same. I think he’s a pretty savvy player, and he understands coverages, and he understands leverage."

Ginn, who has caught 42 passes for 641 yards and three touchdowns so far, is on pace for the best season of his 11-year career.

Ginn is on track to catch 61 passes for 932 yards, numbers that would beat the career-bests of 56 catches and 790 yards he posted in Miami in his second season in the NFL. If things fall right down the stretch, Ginn could break the 1,000-yard mark for the first time. 

The 32-year-old has effectively replaced Cooks in the Saints' receiving corps. Cooks finished last season with 78 catches for 1,173 yards and eight touchdowns, but he had more chances than Ginn; Brees is throwing the ball roughly eight times fewer per game in 2017, taking away some of the tosses that went to Cooks a year ago.

"I'm having one of the best years that I could ever think about," Ginn said.

Ginn has always believed in himself. Even when he was undervalued or forgotten in Miami, San Francisco or Arizona, Ginn Sr. and Robertson said Ginn's belief in himself never wavered.

All he needed was somebody to see him for what he really was.

Follow Joel A. Erickson on Twitter, @JoelAErickson.