Monday, June 10, 2013

Courtney Upshaw: He fell to us!

This is probably going to come off a bit worse than I would like it too, but I get extra surly when it is my home team, the Ravens, that are making potentially bad decisions.  Recently, they seem to have been making these questionable decisions more frequently, in my opinion, but people overlook them because of the team's relatively strong history of drafting well.  "In Oz we trust", the fans say.  Well, I'm not entirely comfortable with that sort of blind faith, though I will say that Ozzie Newsome does have his strong points.  His recent drafting just isn't one of them.

During the 2012 draft, I think I finally lost the last bit of my confidence in what the team was doing.  With the 29th pick in the 1st round, the Ravens agreed to trade back six spaces, exchanging picks with the Minnesota Vikings.  I was actually quite pleased with this move, since I'm always a fan of trading back, and I also felt that the talent in the draft was fairly deep.  The players who were generally expected to go around the 29th pick, that were still available, also weren't that enticing.  Mainly, I was happy because I thought this eliminated the possibility that we would draft Courtney Upshaw, whom I felt was a disaster waiting to happen, and someone many people expected that we would take if given a chance.  Ozzie had wisely passed on Upshaw, and now some other foolish team would end up taking him!  Well, that didn't exactly work out the way I had hoped.  At the 35th pick Upshaw was still available, and this time the Ravens did select him, while I wept like a little girl.

Now different people will have different views of this situation.  Fans are generally going to want to see the positive side of things (unless they live in Jacksonville where they are probably used to having scorn for their GM).  Locals talked about how Upshaw "fell to us", since he was projected to go in the early-to-mid first round.  ESPN talking heads discussed how the Ravens had done it again, and had top tier talent fall into their lap.  There was surprisingly little thought given to why Courtney Upshaw had fallen so far from where he was originally expected to be taken.

The reputation that the Ravens' organization had built from 1996 though 2006 probably earned them the right to be given the benefit of the doubt.  In that time, their first round picks had almost always turned out to be quite successful, even when picking fairly late in the first round.  From 2007 onward, the quality of the selections has been a bit more debatable.  Ben Grubbs, in 2007, was a relatively low risk, low reward type of pick.  People may want to debate this, but I feel that the Ravens' willingness to let him go while retaining Marshal Yanda (who measures up much better athletically, despite being taken two rounds later) tells you something.  In 2008, there was the Flacco pick, which I really want to avoid discussing.  I like Flacco, but I don't think the hometown hype is entirely justified.  In 2009, they selected Michael Oher, who so far appears to be serviceable at best, but not exceptional.  In 2010, the Ravens traded out of the first, and picked Sergio Kindle, who I suspect would have been a flop even if he hadn't pulled a Humpty Dumpty.  2011 saw them taking Jimmy "Purple Drank" Smith, who has failed to do anything much in his first two years, though he probably has more potential than these other selections.  Then we have Courtney Upshaw in 2012, who I will try to explain in a minute.

Now, Oher, Kindle, Smith and Upshaw do all fit the description of players that people thought were talented, but who fell in the draft for various, often unexplained reasons.  They were all discussed as players who could have easily gone at least 15 spots ahead of where they eventually landed, and have all failed to develop into anything exceptional on the field, at least so far.  I have expressed before, how I feel taking offensive guards in the first round is an easy way for a GM to make a seemingly "safe" pick, since the position doesn't draw the same sort of attention or scrutiny.  Taking players that were universally praised, long after they were expected to be taken, might also insulate a GM from some criticism when things don't work out.  If the player fails, there will always be the defense that "Hey, everybody else thought this player would be good too, so how can you blame me?"  This is certainly a safer approach to take than going out on a limb for a player that you think will be great, but whom the mainstream hasn't stamped with their seal of approval.  Even if making a more aggressive pick panned out, you might be faced with criticism for making a "reach" for the player.  There is no win-win situation for the GM, unless you think they really don't care what their peers think of what they are doing.  Personally, I don't believe they are immune to this sort of pressure, and while I may criticize them, it isn't without some measure of sympathy.

So, now we finally come to the question of Courtney Upshaw, and why I dreaded his selection so much.  As always, a large amount of my concern comes down to what I feel are significant physical shortcomings.  While a player can do quite well, while being athletically average, his chances of success are rather slim when he is well below average for his position group.  In Upshaw's case, being average would be a massive improvement. 

Player                            Kangaroo Score          Agility Score          Total Score
Courtney Upshaw               -0.754                          -0.843                     -0.743

You can click here to compare these numbers to some of his peers.  The scores above are given in terms of how many standard deviations, above or below average, that a player is when compared to players in his position group.  Basically, his Kangaroo Score suggests that he doesn't have the explosiveness or power to be an effective bull rusher.  His even worse Agility Score would mean it is unlikely that he would excel at executing more elaborate pass rushing moves, and he would also probably struggle to drop back into coverage.  Out of 568 outside linebacker/defensive end prospects, for whom we have data, Upshaw's -0.743 Total Score places him as the 515th rated prospect, in terms of athletic ability.  His one redeeming quality is his mass, weighing 272 pounds at the combine (now he has supposedly ballooned up to 285), so he can at least serve as a hefty speed bump.  I think it is clear that there is a very good, and obvious, reason why he fell so much further than he was expected to.

It's true, though, that his stats at Alabama were quite good.  In his last to years in college, he averaged 15.75 tackles for a loss, and totaled 15.5 sacks in those same years.  Still, he was playing on what might have been the best defense in college football.  Their defensive front seven probably outweighed their opponent's defense by 15 pounds per person.  The Alabama defense tends to be quite large.  Things like that probably matter a lot at the college level, where running the ball is still emphasized a bit more. 

Some would suggest that he was mainly expected to be a run stopper, in the Jarret Johnson mold.  First of all, Jarret Johnson was still probably a better pass rusher than Upshaw.  Johnson's Kangaroo Score of  -0.167 (slightly below average), suggested at least some mediocre possibility as a pass rusher, even if his Agility Score was an atrocious -1.558.  One has to consider though, that Johnson attended the combine as a 284# defensive tackle, so his Agility Score would quite likely be better at his current 260# playing weight.  Secondly, Johnson was taken in the fourth round, which is a more suitable place to select a player with his somewhat limited skills.  Comparisons to Jarret Johnson also avoid the question of whether stopping the opponent's running game should really be the emphasis of what a 3-4 OLB is doing in the first place.  Johnson was a very likeable player, but I don't think he serves as a great model for what a 3-4 OLB should ideally look like.  Personally, I think that if you are that concerned about stopping the run, you should address that issue with your defensive line and middle linebackers.

At this point the local fans still seem to think that Upshaw will develop into something special, largely because they have seen it happen in the past with the Ravens' first round picks.  They point to Upshaw's 60 tackles, and 1.5 sacks in his rookie year as signs of his potential.  Or, they can also talk about his forced fumble in the 2013 Super Bowl.  The problem with this is that a player is going to inevitably accumulate some sort of stats just by being allowed to go on the field.  What, precisely, is the most insignificant amount of production a player can be expected to have while being able to start in 11 games (including the post-season)?   What I find most interesting is that Albert McClellan accumulated almost identical stats, in the same number of starts, on the same team, yet nobody seems to care about him (though I think he could turn out to be better than Upshaw, if given the same opportunity).  Being your team's first pick certainly seems to garner you a lot of faith and goodwill, that an undrafted player like McClellan will probably never receive.

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