Another in a periodic series examining the roles of NFC North newcomers.
In the weeks and days leading to the NFL draft, public discussion centered the Green Bay Packers' interest in an Arizona defensive end who projected as an outside linebacker in their 3-4 scheme. Brooks Reed was a 263-pound pass-rusher who displayed superior speed and initial acceleration at the scouting combine.
As it turns out, the Packers drafted an Arizona defensive end who projects as an outside linebacker. But it wasn't Reed, who went to the Houston Texans with the No. 42 overall pick. Instead, it was a player who more than doubled Reed's sack total for the Wildcats during the past two seasons. Ricky Elmore posted 21.5 sacks to Reed's 8.5 over that stretch, but Elmore was still available late in the sixth round (No. 197).
That production disparity jumped out right away to a number of you. Pat of St. Paul wanted to know: "How did Ricky Elmore get pushed to the sixth round with his fantastic production in college? Do you think this was a steal for the Packers?"
Andy of Anew Berlin, Wis., wrote: "I was wondering why everyone was so high on Reed and why have I never heard of Ricky Elmore until the Packers drafted him. I listen to a lot of sports talk radio and I haven't heard anyone bring up the comparison of Reed to Elmore and I am interested in what your opinion was for the vast differences in where they were drafted especially because of the numbers they put up at Arizona."
Actually, Pete Dougherty of the Green Bay Press-Gazette broached the subject shortly after the draft. But I think the question brings a classic draft argument into specific relief: How should college production be weighed versus athleticism and potential? When should production matter and when shouldn't it?
First, let's review a series of test results that absolutely swayed NFL scouts and their respective general managers.
Reed ran the fourth-fastest time in the 40-yard dash (4.68 seconds) among defensive linemen at the February scouting combine. He covered the first 10 yards in 1.54 seconds, tops among defensive linemen and an important tool for scouts to evaluate initial burst from pass-rushers.
Although he weighed in at eight pounds less than Reed (255 pounds versus 263), Elmore tested substantially worse in speed drills. He ran the 40-yard dash in 4.96 seconds and his 10-yard split was 1.70 seconds. Elmore subsequently improved those times during private workouts, but the die was cast: Elmore was slow for a projected 3-4 linebacker.
You might scoff at those numbers. It's true, the NFL is populated by hundreds of successful players once deemed too slow. It's also littered with the remains of those who are fast but can't play the game. But in the world of scouting, which includes equal parts evaluation and projection, speed is one of the most important attributes of a potential draft pick at most positions.
I reached out to Steve Muench of Scouts Inc., whose job is to mirror the work of NFL scouts, making his own evaluations while also trying to project what the league will think of prospects. Steve's evaluation will help you understand why Elmore was still on the board 155 spots after the Texans selected Reed:
"Elmore was the more productive player the past two years but production can be, and in this case is, misleading. Reed recorded the quickest 10-yard split out of all the defensive linemen at the combine last year. He is substantially faster than Elmore, and he is eight pounds heavier despite measuring two inches shorter. He also has longer arms and superior upper-body strength.
None of this would matter much if it didn't translate to the film. But Reed is quicker off the line and closes better than Elmore, who benefited from the attention that Reed drew from opposing teams. Reed is noticeably stouter against the run."
Elmore was one of the first to recognize how the NFL was viewing him, going to the very 2011 lengths of posting YouTube videos depicting him jumping out of a pool and later into a truck.
"I was just trying to show that I'm athletic and I'm explosive," Elmore told Wisconsin reporters. "... It's the difference between a sack and not getting a sack. If you can't be explosive off the line, an offensive tackle is going to beat you back and you're already one step behind. ... Being explosive is probably the No. 1 most important thing to being an outside linebacker."
Elmore also spent five weeks working with the father of Packers outside linebacker Clay Matthews to help make the transition to linebacker. It's been well-chronicled that the Packers don't have a starter locked in opposite Matthews, and as the chart shows, the Packers could stand to shore up their outside run defense in 2011.
But can Elmore be the answer? Did the Packers unearth a player who simply knows how to get to the quarterback and play the game? Or is Elmore too slow, and were his college production numbers too skewed to consider that outcome a realistic possibility?
From a scouts' perspective, Muench said that Elmore has the "size and toughness to be an effective run-stopper" but needs technique work. Ultimately, Muench concluded: "Elmore has enough quickness and the motor to develop into an effective role player in Green Bay's 3-4 scheme. However, I don't think he has enough speed or agility to develop into a difference-maker like Clay Matthews and he may not even develop into a quality starter."
That's a scout's take, and it clearly mirrors those in the league considering Elmore was still available late in the sixth round. Now you have a better idea of why Reed was more highly regarded. What we don't and can't know is this: Can the Packers develop Elmore into a player who could one day approach his college production? Coaching, heart and circumstances can't be judged before a draft. Check back in three years on that one.