Friday, November 21, 2008

The Good Kind of Draft

ESPN's College GameDay has unfairly declined to set up camp in Gainesville for tomorrow's game between Florida and The Citadel. And bizarrely, CBS will not televise the match-up. For my part, I've decided against driving down to the sports bar and watching the Gators put up 57 points in the first quarter with the Kansas City Gator Club. So tomorrow's "recap" will be one or two sentences and a few potshots at Florida State.

There is some sentimentality to tomorrow's turkey shoot, however. It's Senior Day at The Swamp, meaning several long-tenured Gators will be playing their last home games. This senior class isn't particularly large or overly talented; Urban Meyer's first recruiting class (and, to a much lesser extent, Ron Zook's last class) was a weak group.

There are a couple players worth mentioning. Cornelius Ingram was cruelly robbed of his senior year and a chance to improve his draft stock, so he should get a nice ovation from the faithful. Jonathan Phillips finally earned his scholarship this season after three years of errant garbage time PATs. Kestahn Moore has caught a lot of flak during his tenure with the Gators without uttering a word of complaint. Jim Tartt, Phil Trautwein and Jason Watkins have all done yeoman's work on the offensive line; Tartt has played the last three seasons with a chronically painful shoulder. Tate Casey, a fifth year senior tight end, has happily embraced the role of blocker. Javier Estopinan has battled multiple knee injuries. And Louis Murphy is UF's second-most reliable receiver.

The only players on that list with any NFL prospects are Ingram and Murphy. CI might earn a late round draft choice as a long-term developmental prospect. Murphy, for his part, could push into the middle rounds with a few great showings in the 40-yard dash.

Far more interesting than the seniors are the three talented juniors who form the core of this potential championship team: Tim Tebow, Percy Harvin and Brandon Spikes. All three have the opportunity to leave school early and enter the 2009 NFL draft.

The conventional wisdom says that Spikes has the easiest decision, but I am (slightly) less sanguine. Spikes is a wonderful college player, but I wonder how harshly the NFL scouts will treat his skillset. He's not terribly fast. He's not particularly slow, either, but speed isn't his strong suit; I can see him putting up a 4.69 in the dash and causing GMs to grimace and grumble. Nor is he so massive that you can overlook his relative lack of speed; at 6'3, 245, he's solidly built, but not a tank. And despite what Gary Danielson may think, Spikes doesn't have the size or pass rushing ability to make it as a defensive end in the college game. I think Spikes is a probable first rounder, and he'll almost certainly leave early, but I can imagine him making some of Mel Kiper's "stock falling" lists before the draft.

Most Florida fans have come to accept the idea that Harvin will leave. When a recruit as highly regarded as Percy signs a Letter of Intent, it's basically a three-year business agreement between the player and the coach. The player will lend the coach his top-flight talent, help propel him to a championship and a new contract. The coach will give the player world-class medical care and training and provide him with national exposure. Well, Harvin played a big role on the 2006 national championship team, is a big part of this team and he got Meyer that new contract. The terms of their agreement are about to expire.

Harvin has a few dynamics working against him. He doesn't have great size. He has a worryingly extensive injury history. Florida wide receivers have struggled in the NFL since Cris Collinsworth joined the league.

None of that is going to matter. Harvin has, after missing the season opener against Hawaii, played with nary a limp. Going through this season without suffering a new injury was his big test, and he has passed. Unlike Spikes, I see Percy as one of Kiper's "Stock Rising" guys. There's going to be a lot of skepticism when he initially declares. NFL execs are going to treat him as pure speed, finesse receiver. There are going to be people who think Harvin has a future as a running back.

Then he'll go to the combine. And the scouts are going to drool. He'll blow them away with some absurdly low number in the dash and impress them with his performance in agility drills. He'll bench press more than any other receiver in the draft. And once teams examine his film, they'll see a hard-nosed player who runs between the tackles and plows over defensive backs when he doesn't run past them.

This isn't complicated: Percy Harvin is pure electricity. He has world-class speed and agility. NFL teams desperately search for someone with Harvin's skillset and ability to score any time he touches the football. When he declares he'll be projected as a late first round, perhaps even early second round, choice. By the time the draft rolls around he'll be in the top 15. Don't be surprised to see the Buccaneers make a play for Harvin. They love Gators, they need someone like Harvin and they'll be in roughly the right draft position to take him or trade up for him.

That leaves us with Tim Tebow. Dominant, denigrated, beloved, mocked Tim Tebow. Tim Tebow, who has accomplished all there is to accomplish. Tim Tebow, who has proven all his doubters and all the skeptics wrong. Tim Tebow, who has more to prove to his doubters and the skeptics than any other player in college football. Tim Tebow, who could be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2035 and would see SEC fans standing outside Canton with their arms crossed, repeatedly muttering, "I still don't think he's a good quarterback."

No one knows if Saturday will be Tebow's final home game. He has said that he hasn't thought about the draft, and I find that believable. He has deep connections to UF: both of his parents attended school there and he grew up worshiping Danny Wuerrfel. He's a deeply religious man with no immediate need for an infusion of cash.

He has also said in the past that he dreams of playing in the NFL. And "I haven't thought about it" cuts both ways. Plus, the NCAA has hamstrung a lot of Tebow's missionary efforts, most notably in preventing him from playing in a charity golf tournament last off-season. Those restrictions are gone once Tebow has escaped from the bear hug of NCAA oversight.

"Should he leave" is the more interesting question, because whenever he jumps ship he's going to be the most polarizing player in the draft. I can already see the screaming matches between Kiper and Todd McShay.

Here's the thing about Tebow: when you sketch a large-scale portrait of him, he's a great NFL prospect. He has all the skills that league demands of its QBs. That's what people tend to ignore when they talk about the failures of past Florida quarterbacks: players like Wuerffel, Chris Leak and Shane Matthews were missing important pieces of that skillset; arm strength, size, mobility, etc.

That's not the case with Tim. He's got size. (6'3, 235 pounds, all of it muscle) He's got mobility. He's got a big arm, if one that's overshadowed by the cannon Matthew Stafford lugs around; you need only look at a highlight reel of his perfectly thrown deep balls to realize that. He's thrown eight interceptions in two years as a starter and consistently makes the right decision. He obviously has an impeccable performance record at an elite school in an elite conference. And his intangibles are untouchable.

It's only when you paint with a detail brush that you start finding flaws. For all the work UF's Biomechanics Lab has done with Tebow, his throwing motion still needs work. He hasn't taken a meaningful snap from under center since middle school. And Florida's offense doesn't require Tebow to make NFL throws. (The deep out, the deep out, that freaking deep out)

I would never argue that those things are unimportant. If the NFL draft is about nothing else it's about executives and pundits accentuating minor flaws and blowing them up into significant moral failings. ("If Tim Tebow's intangibles are so good, why didn't he influence Meyer into letting him take snaps from under center? Or did he lack the insight to understand that would be important? Either way, I have to question this young man's character.")

But all those concerns can be ameliorated. Tebow's mechanics need work, but Phillip Rivers' throwing motion was declared a federal disaster area when he was a top five draft pick.

The bigger problem is the system quarterback charge. I don't know if Tebow will be able to overcome that. But NFL coordinators are slowly evolving to a point where the shotgun spread formation is more than just an occasional gimmick. The Patriots last year used it, if not exclusively, than predominantly. And the Chiefs have become a fascinating case study in overhauling an offense in the middle of the season. Offensive coordinator Chan Gailey, never considered an innovative mastermind, has done great work in taking advantage of Tyler Thigpen's talents.

Read that again. If a team is willing to retool its offense for Tyler frigging Thigpen, there's reason to believe at least a few will explore the possibility of doing the same for Tim Tebow. All it takes is one team realizing that sometimes the mountain must come to Mohammed.

And I think that one team will be there. I can't say who it'll be. But some general manager, some scouting director, is going to fall head over heels in love with Tebow after watching him at the combine and interviewing him. Maybe 31 teams will be convinced that Tebow's a bust waiting to happen.

Still, it only takes one. And I'm convinced that Tebow has the skillset to be a successful NFL quarterback. That's no guarantee he will be, of course. Lots of failed QBs have had the necessary skillset, only to trip on some other factor. Tebow might very well fail in the NFL. The odds are against him.

But I reject the idea that he's uniquely vulnerable to failure. And I reject the idea that he's self-evidently not an NFL quarterback.

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