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The Barwinian Theory of Football Evolution

Discussion in 'Patriots Draft Talk' started by mayoclinic, Dec 2, 2012.

  1. mayoclinic

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    When Connor Barwin emerged in 2008/2009 he seemed like a relatively rarity. An uber-athletic kid with a basketball as well as a football background who had been switched positions in college and suddenly exploded on defense, leading the Big East in sacks.

    It seems like this kind of story is becoming more and more commonplace. Guys with cross-sports backgrounds and insane athleticism who move to football and develop quite rapidly. Guys who change positions in college (sometimes more than once), sometimes switching from offense to defense, finding the position that best suits both their frame and their personality. There are clearly guys who seem better mentality suited to playing on one side of the ball than the other, and who thrive once they change positions.

    Consider some recent examples:

    - Jason Pierre-Paul (2010): a 4 year letterman in basketball who only took up football after a leg injury. Thrived because of his exceptional length and athleticism, but was considered technically raw when drafted. Exploded as a pro, and is now the standard for pass rushing DEs.
    - Jimmy Graham (2010): basketball player with great size, athleticism and footwork who took up football. Very raw initially. Mike Mayock predicted it would take at least 2 years for him to start to make an impact. It obviously didn't.
    - Nate Solder (2011): former TE, outgrew the position and was moved to offensive tackle. Great footwork and agility for the position, insane athleticism. Is emerging as a top OT in his second year.
    - JJ Watt (2011): former TE, terrific athleticism. Switched to defense, was quite raw at first. Now is all world.
    - Richard Sherman (2011): former high school track and field star (hurdles, triple jump) as well as football. WR in college, was converted to CB as a junior, so was technically raw when he came out. Exploded as a pro. His athleticism, aggressiveness and background as a WR have all combined to make him one of the best coverage CBs in the NFL today, in only his second year.

    Consider some of the current college crop:

    - Dion Jordan, DE, Oregon:high school basketball player and WR, switched to TE and then to defense, where he has emerged as an explosive pass rusher who is fluid enough in space to play CB at times. Possible 1st round pick in 2013.
    - Ziggy Ansah, DE, BYU: Ghanese track athlete who had never played football until 3 years ago. Reportedly ran a 10.9 100 meter dash and 21.9 200 meter at 260 lbs. Has exploded this year, and is getting consideration as a possible 1st round pick. Plays OLB, DE and DT and 270+ lbs.
    - Ra'Shede Hageman, DT, Minnesota: highly recruited TE and basketball player out of high school, was switched to DE and then DT. Has emerged as a starter this year and has dominanted inside with 6.5 TFL and 5 sacks, now regularly requires double teams. Getting serious pro interest, considering declaring.
    - Nick Kasa, TE, Colorado: basketball player and 4 star recruit as a DE. Stagnated a bit, and got moved to as a junior TE, where he is thriving. Supposedly has 4.55 speed at 6'6" 260#. Was also a multiple track letterman in highschool where he was a sprinter despite playing DE, and reportedly ran a 11.1 100 meter dash and 23.7 200 meter.
    - Travis Kelce, TE, Cincinnati: former quarterback before being converted to TE. Also a basketball and track standout in high school, had trouble picking football over basketball. Now considered a fast rising draft prospect.
    - Reid Fragel, OT, Ohio St.: recruited to Ohio St. as a TE, also played basketball and participated in track in high school. How 6'8" and 305-310#, in his first year of playing RT for the undefeated Buckeyes. Michigan and Michigant St. both recruited Fragel, but wanted to convert him immediately to OT, and he was unwilling, otherwise he might be a much higher rated prospect by this time.
    - Kyle Long, OT, Oregon: former baseball pitcher who only converted to football last year. Still technically raw, combines massive size and athleticism.

    There are lots of others. I'm including kids who were either cross-sports late switches to football and/or positional switches. All were relatively late comes to their eventual positions, and all had to deal with either the technical challenges of a new sport/position and/or the challenges of a changing physical frame. Obviously, not all of these stories are the same, and not all kids develop at the same rate, or necessarily succeed. But it seems like there are scads of uber-athletic kids with cross sports backgrounds who either come to football late or who undergo positional switches and are late to pick up a position. All of these kids tend to be technically a bit behind their more experienced peers, but have superior athleticism. Those with the drive to succeed frequently seem to do so. Many of these kids are available fairly late in the draft process because their technical ability or control over their bodies hasn't yet matured.

    I'm guessing that we'll see more and more of colleges finding raw but ultra-athletic kids who don't have much football experience and/or have a cross-training experience, and will tinker more and more with moving players to different positions. TE seems to be a bit of a nexus in terms of size/athleticism. We've seen a lot of kids with TE backgrounds move to DE or to OT, and some kids with DE backgrounds move to TE. It seems like some of these kids may be good day 3 pickups for those patient enough to work on their fundamentals. JJ Watt, Jimmy Graham, Jason Pierre-Paul and Richard Sherman are good examples of how quickly these kind of athletes and can develop if they have enough drive to succeed. It might not be a bad draft strategy to target some of these kids, particularly those that are available day 2 or 3.
  2. reflexblue

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    I remember a reporter asking parcells where have all the great pass rushing D Linemen gone, and he said they play basket ball. They play basket ball because they're careers are longer, and because of that they make more money
  3. Snake Eyes

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    I love it, one of the best posts in a while. I think the true bargains are going to be found in exactly the type of players you just described, just like football is all about creating a mismatch, so is scouting, and this is it.
  4. manxman2601

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    I think the keys with trying to identify these types of players are:

    1. Personality/character. This is the most important. Are they driven to succeed? Are they intelligent enough to pick things up quickly? These are obviously the traits you are looking for. On the other hand, those athletes that rely purely on their athleticism scare me.

    2. Coaching and scheme. Ansah is a good example here. BYU are a quality defensive team and the coaches clearly emphasise this part of the game and therefore coach well and this makes Ansah a worthwhile pick. Would Ansah be the same prospect if he was at Baylor? How about if he was a TE at Stanford? You are more likely to get NFL success out of one of these players if he comes from a team/scheme that emphasises his particular position or skill-set.
  5. mayoclinic

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    I think these are good points. Guys who rely on their athleticism aren't generally going to do well. Guys with superior athleticism who are highly motivated, driven and quick learners but somewhat raw due to inexperience may do extremely well.

    Ansah is a good example because supposedly he's a very bright kid and a quick learner, and he showed the work ethic to keep on plugging away for 3 years when there wasn't much to show for it in terms of productivity and results. But it's hard to tell - Jason Pierre-Paul wasn't known for his mental acumen, but he's had no problems adjusting.

    The Pats have drafted 2 very athletic guys in the past 2 years who have progressed much more quickly than anticipated: Nate Solder and Chandler Jones. Both look like foundational players at this point - 10 year Pro Bowl caliber impact players at their respective positions. I obviously have no idea which of the guys listed in the OP will go on to greatness and which ones won't, but I think that the intangibles will be a big part of separating the wheat from the chaff.

    The Pats have always valued experience and college productivity. There was a time when BB seemed to be leery of drafting juniors. There's also a line of thinking that he favors a high floor for high draft picks over a high ceiling. Some of that may be slowly evolving. It will be interesting to see how these kind of players do over the next 3 years, and I expect to see more of them coming down the road.
  6. Off The Grid

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    I think we can safely call this an Epic MasterPiece. :eek:
  7. ctpatsfan77

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    All of this is true.

    There are two things I wonder about Barwin:
    (1) If BB had known that he'd be largely switching to a 4-3, would Barwin's value to the Pats have been high enough?
    (2) I wonder if his history of deafness (he's not completely deaf now, but his hearing's not 100%, either) mattered.
  8. ctpatsfan77

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    *cough* Ebner *cough* ;)

    Seriously, though, as I posted before, Ebner's pro day numbers were every bit as insane for a DB as Barwin's were for a DE/OLB-type.
  9. Get it shawtaay

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    Great post. Thought-provoking stuff.

    What do you folks think about a WR to FB conversion a la Marcel Reece?

    There's always receivers who go undrafted. Finding a physical receiver and developing him into a lead blocker would open up the playbook a little more when the Pats go with their 2 TE, 2 RB package.
  10. mayoclinic

    mayoclinic PatsFans.com Supporter PatsFans.com Supporter

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    Yes, and I think the Pats took Ebner in part based on the "insane athlete" theory. And in part because he was an ace STer, and the late 6th round is an area where they often pick ST aces anyway, so why not pick one with insane athleticism who might develop into something more?

    But no matter how you slice it, Ebner was much more of a developmental project at DB than the guys I listed, all of whom had starting experience and college success at their respective positions.
  11. manxman2601

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    Would the ultimate cross-sport guy be a Chess Master switching to QB? :)

    Processing power!!
  12. patsfaninpa

    patsfaninpa Rookie

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    Love your work Mayo. But, shouldn't this be the Antonio Gates thread? He didn't even play football in college. Or Tony Gonzalez? He played both at Cal. And, will be in Canton when he hangs it up.
  13. mayoclinic

    mayoclinic PatsFans.com Supporter PatsFans.com Supporter

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    Why not go back to Jim Thorpe? There were obviously examples before Barwin. Ed "Too Tall" Jones played baseball, basketball and boxed before switching to football; he never played a game before his senior year in High School. But my point in the OP is that these kind of examples were relatively rare and isolated cases before, and now they are becoming widespread. I'm not making this about Barwin per se - other than his name works nicely for the pun in the tread title - but certainly 2009 it seems like there has been an explosion of kids with cross-sports backgrounds and kids with ultra-athletic skills undergoing positional switches. It's now commonplace. And teams seem much more inclined to spend draft picks on guys with rare athleticism who are still technically raw and somewhat underdeveloped, compared with previously. Gonzales was to some extent the prototype of the two sport TE. Gates was a pure convert, and was a UDFA.

    The idea of great athletes excelling at multiple sports isn't new, of course. It's not surprising that guys with rare athleticism would play more than one sport early on, and excel. There seems to be more attention payed now to the benefits of cross-sports training, and to finding guys who from other sports and moving them to football. And there seems to be more position switching than I've seen in the past. It's an evolutionary thing, and Barwin certainly wasn't at the start of the process. He may, however, been at a nexus in it's evolution.
  14. manxman2601

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    A case study to add to your thesis:

    Larry Webster: From Bloomsburg basketball to NFL prospect - CBSSports

  15. mayoclinic

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  16. manxman2601

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  17. mayoclinic

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  18. manxman2601

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    I know. Thought of you when I found him (hence the Dion Jordan reference).

    :)
  19. mayoclinic

    mayoclinic PatsFans.com Supporter PatsFans.com Supporter

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    I featured another "Barwinian" guy on Ye Olde Mock Draft thread recently, UCLA junior OLB Anthony Barr. He's an interesting story:

    - Barr came from a family of Notre Dame football alums, and was born in South Bend, but grew up in Los Angeles where he attended Loyola High School. He played running back at 6'4" 235# and was recruited by both USC and Notre Dame. Pete Carroll reportedly wanted to move him to LB. He chose to go to UCLA, which at the time was coached by Rick Neuheisal, the father of the QB on his high school team. He was recruited to play the "F" back position in UCLA's offense, which is a compound TE/fullback/RB kind of position.
    - Barr had some success his first 2 years, but was largely a "team first" player. He was a very good blocker, and UCLA averaged something like 257 yards rushing when he was in the game last year, which dropped off to less than half of that when he missed time with an injury.
    - In spite of that, he got stuck in a depth struggle at RB. Neuheisal was fired, and former NFL coach Jim Mora was hired, and re-vamped UCLA's defense and switched Barr to OLB. He missed spring football with an injury so he couldn't practice his new position, but he used the time to study the playbook and learn the schemes, and then he used his smarts and his physical ability to get up to speed quickly. He exploded on the scene this year leading the Pac 10 in sacks with 13.5 and being voted the league's DPOY.

    Barr is still somewhat raw technically and his instincts show that he's still new at his position. But he has a long, lanky frame, has tremendous agility in space for his size, and has great quickness and explosion as a pass rusher. His experience as a blocker shows that he is very physical for his long, lean frame and able to take on blocks.

    So the kid is either going to come out this year and be a 1st round pick, or go back to school and possibly be a top 15 pick next year. It's even possible that he could go that high if he came out this year based on his upside. Mel Kiper currently has him #10 on his big board, FWIW.

    Here's some reads:

    It's Westwood, not South Bend, for Anthony Barr, UCLA's new 'F-back' - Los Angeles Times
    Anthony Barr - Los Angeles Ucla Blog - ESPN Los Angeles
    The Hit: Anthony Barr
    UCLA Football: Anthony Barr Transitions To Possible Pac 12 DPOY
    Raising the Barr on draft status - Los Angeles Ucla Blog - ESPN Los Angeles

    So here's my question:

    If Ezekiel Ansah and Anthony Barr had been eligible for and/or declared for the 2012 NFL draft, both would have probably been UDFAs. Neither was on anybody's "watch list" coming into this season. They weren't off the radar - they weren't even on the map. Yet they are undoubtedly tremendous talents with incredible upside - upside much greater than many of those players who were projected much more highly. They combine superior physical skills with patience, tenacity, willpower, persistence, the ability to adapt and learn, unselfishness, and versatility.

    So, are these the only 2 kids like this out there, or are there others like them? And who are the ones that haven't been discovered yet, and how do we find them?

    Specifically, if I'm the CEO of a major NFL team with my own league of scouts, and I have a very well developed system-specific scouting process and don't just go by the national scouting services, how do I beat the bushes to find these kids before they break out and become stars? Particularly those who have the ability but don't get the opportunity in college, and are still available dirt cheap when the draft rolls around, or are early enough in their growth curve that they are available day 2 and 3 of the draft.


    One could argue that Nate Ebner is an attempt to do just that, whether or not he develops.
    Last edited: Dec 10, 2012
  20. patfanken

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    Mayo, great job, your hypothesis is more important THIS year, because of where the Pats are drafting. If the Pats are going to draft an "impact" player its going to be done around picks #30, #60 and below. At those picks any true "impact" player is going to have to be someone who has dropped due to injury, inexperience, position change, etc. Any player the Pats get where they are going to be drafting is going to be either a solid role player type player, (someone who helps but is never an all pro) or a high risk/reward developmental player (someone who either flames out it 2 or 3 years or becomes an "impact player after a few years)

    I hope the Pats employ your theory, because I don't see this draft as being one that provides any "immediate improvement" to the team. Drafting this low and without the usual large number of picks to maneuver up and down in the draft, the players we get in THIS draft will most likely help us down the road.

    That is why I think that any "immediate improvement" to the Pats roster is more likely to come from FA. I think we should have enough room next season (after signing our own FA's) to add one ore 2 guys who can come in an be "impact starters" Connor Barwin would be a good example, but there will be many more available at positions of need like WR, DL, and DB.....and I'm not talking about grabbing one of the top 10 guys. I'm talking about grabbing guys like Waters, Carter, and Anderson, all of whom were impact players acquired from the middle class of the FA supply.

    So I'm all for taking high risk/reward players in this draft. Lets find that former basketball/track star/athletic freak who is just transitioning to football, as long as we add a few solid "pros" who we can evaluate with 4+ years of NFL tape against NFL competition.

    BTW- we already have 2 on the roster in Demps and Ebner who eventually can wind up being big impact players.....or not ;)

    Our best bet will be to find guys who have great athletic ability but aren't playing their NFL position (ie Julian Edelman), or players who might have red flags due to some off field issues (ie Alphonso Dennard). This is good draft to go all out "crap shoot" and roll the dice on high risk players and hope you hit one or two. I think between the 53 man roster, players on IR, and the PS, numbers aren't a big issue for the Pats this off season. If the Pats drafted no one in April and didn't add a single player in FA; they still would have one of the youngest teams in the league

    This might be the year to make quality the major focus.
    Last edited: Dec 10, 2012

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