The NFL has a love affair with incredibly gifted athletes. Every year, players’ draft statuses are elevated based on the presence of raw athletic abilities that seem tailor-made for various football positions. While the negative examples of this practice are frequently recounted as cautionary tales, you rarely hear much about the cases of physically gifted players making good on the expectations of the team that drafted them early. It’s been over a decade and Ryan Leaf’s name is still associated with the word "bust" because of his second overall pick, but it’s hard to remember exactly when players like Donovan McNabb (2nd overall), LaDanian Tomlinson (5th overall) and Julius Peppers (2nd overall) were drafted because their NFL success keeps you from questioning the logic that teams used to select a player with such a high pick. I would be willing to bet that in ten years the casual NFL fan who doesn’t reside in Houston won’t be able to tell you that Mario Williams was drafted first overall, but if he hadn’t played to his potential all we would hear about was his draft position, no matter how Bush and Young performed.
So, even though the love affair with talent can prove to be dysfunctional, NFL teams are still willing to take chances on freakish physical talent when it’s not proven yet because the reward is so high. That’s why during the LB/DL workouts on Monday, February 23rd at the 2009 NFL Scouting Combine, all eyes were on Georgia Tech DE Michael Johnson. At 6’7” 266 pounds, Johnson has both the body and physical abilities of an elite speed rushing DE, though he was not able to consistently translate his physical talent into on the field results during his time as a Yellow Jacket. Despite the irregularity of his production in games, scouts and analysts were eager to see his physical capabilities displayed in the various speed drills. Even though Johnson didn’t disappoint, he might have been beaten at his own game by a guy named Lawrence Sidbury, Jr.
Not many people had heard much about Lawrence Sidbury, Jr. before the 2009 NFL Scouting Combine, myself included. I had heard the name but only knew him as one of many faceless mid-round draft prospects. I knew nothing about him, other than he was a DE and played his collegiate career for the D-AA Richmond Spiders. Sidbury, like any other Division II player, didn’t receive any extra scrutiny as a prospect for the draft, but that changed in late February when Sidbury turned in one of the best all around Combine performances of any player invited. Unfortunately, just like Johnson, Sidbury is an unproven entity. And that’s not where the similarities stop.
Height – Height is a requisite for elite edge rushers because it allows DEs to create separation between themselves and OTs. Johnson has the distinct advantage in this department. Or does he? Even though Johnson has a 4 inch advantage, Sidbury helps to make up for it with 35.5” long arms and 10.75” wide hands, which are usually found on people 3-4 inches taller than him.
Weight – Both Johnson and Sidbury weighed in at 266 pounds at the Combine, which is on the light side. Johnson has a larger frame to put more weight on, but Sidbury may have the advantage over Johnson in the beginning of their careers because of a lower center of gravity. Johnson’s height-to-weight proportion makes him more susceptible to OTs knocking him off balance with a punch move.
Speed – This is the category that put Sidbury on the map. While Johnson ran an impressive 4.68 40, Sidbury ran faster than all other DEs with a 4.57 (4.75 and 4.64 officially). Sidbury ran faster than even the 3-4 tweeners (like Connor Barwin, Brian Orakpo and Everette Brown) who probably won’t play 4-3 DE like Johnson and Sidbury. Frequently, NFL personnel grade defensive lineman on the initial 10 yards rather than the entirety of the 40 yard dash because it simulates the burst required to get off the ball and into the backfield, and while Johnson had an impressive 1.56, Sidbury edged him out with a 1.53.
Strength – Both Johnson and Sidbury recorded 28 reps in the bench press at the Combine, but for some reason Johnson only put up 23 at his Pro Day. Johnson’s 10’8” broad jump and 38.5” vertical did exemplify better lower body strength than Sidbury’s 10' broad jump and 35” vertical.
Collegiate Experience – Here’s where things get difficult to compare. Both Johnson and Sidbury had consistency problems throughout their careers. Sidbury has better stats, but he played against Division II schools. Still, Draft analysts commonly note that Johnson’s best play and therefore the majority of his stats came against sub-par competition. Though the talent level between the divisions in which they played is not comparable, the criticism is the same.
The similarities between Johnson and Sidbury are many, but the one difference between the two is probably the most notable feature--the price. We’d likely have to use our first round pick to get Johnson, but Sidbury could probably be had with our third round selection. Why is there such a disparity in their perceived worth? Sidbury did play against lesser competition, but he made the most of it, with 20 tackles for a loss and 11.5 sacks in 2008 alone. Besides the competition level, the only other advantage Johnson has is height. By this rationale, 4 inches and a couple of seasons in a mid-level D-IA conference (the ACC isn’t exactly premiere) is worth 2 NFL Draft rounds.
Sidbury is far from a proven commodity, but Johnson isn’t anywhere near a sure thing either. Johnson and Sidbury are both classic boom or bust picks, but where would you rather gamble--the 15th or 77th overall pick?