One of my least favorite aspects of analyzing young NFL players is when portions of the media act as if it was clear pre-draft a player was going to be amazing in the league, AFTER he's already been amazing in the league. Sure, it's easy to look at the player now and see an obvious talent, but that doesn't mean it was always that way. We want to be able to have a process that hits on each pick every year, but it isn't that simple. It will never be that simple.
The reality is that every year the pre-draft projection around many players is unclear, with strong arguments for and against most prospects. There are so many variables to every player's success that we as analysts, and even team officials, never get a chance to see until they are in the NFL. Athletic testing can be deceptive based on a player's pre-draft training, body weight can fluctuate, work ethic can fizzle out when a player gets paid, the pressure of being a pro athlete can weigh on players, mismanaging money can be an issue, managing suddenly ramped up social calendars and public desirability can be distracting, scheme fit can be tricky to project, personality compatibility with coaches and teammates has derailed success, confidence can be lost, and the list goes on and on and on.
The point is, we need to stop acting like evaluations are easy when a player we like does well or a player we dislike does poorly. Projecting college football talent to the NFL is very difficult in many cases, and sometimes your decision to bet on certain players pays off. Sometimes it doesn't.
That isn't to say the draft is a crapshoot and every pick is 50/50 to win or succeed. On the contrary, there is a way to improve your process to ensure you're betting on the right type of player to succeed in the NFL, especially when it comes to unfinished products with great tools. Lots of prospects fall into this category every year, and we as analysts have to decide who will put it all together in the NFL, and who will remain a bundle of untapped potential.
That's where Marlon Humphrey comes in. If you built a cornerback, it would look pretty much like him. 6-foot, almost 200 pounds, over 32-inch arms, runs a 4.41 40 and destroyed the 3-cone with a 6.75 result. Athletically and physically he was exactly what an elite cornerback should look like, but on tape there were still concerns.
As a two-year starter at Alabama, Humphrey had issues with his press technique at the line of scrimmage, occasionally opening early or jamming with the wrong hand. He was incredibly smooth to recover, but it was fair to wonder if the lapses in proper form would be detrimental to his success in the NFL.
The other thing Humphrey struggled to do well was find the football vertically. There were glimpses of it for sure, but Humphrey had some issues staying in phase with a receiver while finding the football to make a play on it. That can be a concern for heavy press-man teams where the cornerbacks consistently has his back to the ball on downfield patterns.
So there are two legitimate concerns with Humphrey's game that are enough to fully understand why someone would have doubted how he was going to fare at the NFL level. So why was I a believer from early in Humphrey's college career all the way up until the draft?
Every single draft I take a chance on a couple of prospects with legit skill set concerns, but that I see every reason to bet on reaching their peak in the NFL. Those key traits? Athleticism, size, character, football IQ, physicality and a love for the game. Regardless of whether you liked Humphrey as a prospect or not, everyone agreed he possessed each of those traits in droves.
We referenced the athleticism and size as big selling points already, but if I'm going to bet on a player who still needs some development in the NFL, they better have great character and be committed to their craft. I heard a lot of unfortunate information that draft year about so many other Alabama prospects, from Ardarius Stewart to Tim Williams to Reuben Foster and even Cam Robinson, but the reviews on three Alabama players, Humphrey, Jon Allen and O.J. Howard, came back positive every time.
As for his football IQ, coaches there raved about it, but the evidence was also extremely obvious. You don't start every game in Nick Saban's pattern-matching, complex mix of coverages as a redshirt freshman without knowing what you're doing. Humphrey was smart, communicative and interviewed extremely well, presenting a clear knowledge of the game.
My favorite thing about Humphrey was his physicality. It's undersold for certain positions, but being physical and exhibiting competitive toughness is very important to success in the NFL. Players that are less physical have a tendency to be more up-and-down in their play depending on certain matchups, but Humphrey never had that issue.
Then, of course the player has to impress on tape too, which Humphrey did. Yes, there were negative moments that docked his score in some areas, but I kept coming back to all of Humphrey's issues being fixable. He wasn't limited physically, athletically, mentally or in his mentality, and all the components of a successful developmental player in the NFL were in place.
Sometimes, those types of evaluations (Patrick Mahomes, Danielle Hunter, T.J. Watt) work out. Sometimes they don't. Take Solomon Thomas for example. Unbelievable traits, physical stature to play edge, incredible motor, high character, smart, pro-ready body, extremely physical...still hasn't worked out for him, although admittedly a position switch adds to that projection a little bit.
With Humphrey, I was willing to get burned by his inconsistent technique and struggles to find the ball vertically because I felt good about my process for projecting him to success in the NFL. All the traits and tools were there for him to become the best version of himself as a player, and based on the information I could gather, I believed he was willing to put in the work to get there.
Of course, landing spot and coaching are huge as well, and have undoubtedly played a role in Humphrey developing. His ability to play man and zone without any drop-off in performance is so important for Baltimore, and that ability is a reflection of both the coaching he received at Alabama and with the Ravens.
It's been a perfect marriage for Humphrey and Baltimore, but there was certainly a path toward less success had all the outside factors not been in place. The full scope of Humphrey as a player made him more likely to succeed than fail in my assessment, and since I thought his peak was elite cornerback status, I hit him with a first round grade as the 18th overall player on my board.
On a defense loaded with studs, Humphrey has arguably been the team's best player this season after a strong rookie campaign a year ago. On his current trajectory, Humphrey looks like he'll be one of the top cornerbacks in the NFL for years to come, outplaying many of the players chosen ahead of him in the draft. Some risky draft selection are smarter than others, and Humphrey has made Baltimore look brilliant for believing he could reach his lofty peak.