This article originally appeared in the April 20 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
Just six weeks before the NFL draft, wideout prospect Michael Crabtree is preparing for the occasion by sittin' on 22s. Literally. He's got a wheelchair—a gift from his dad—that's been tricked out with red rims. He zips around his North Dallas apartment pretty well for someone who's just had surgery to repair a stress fracture near his left pinkie toe. And his training doesn't end in his chair.
Each morning, Crabtree wakes up at 11:30, then sits in bed, simultaneously watching movies on his flat-screen and Young Jeezy videos on his laptop. At around 2 p.m. he makes a move, but he can't shower, not with his foot in a cast. So the 6'1", 215-pound former Texas Tech receiver climbs into the tub—his first baths since grade school—bum foot hanging over the edge. At 3 he leaves his place for the first time, impressively fleet on a set of crutches, for lunch at Pappadeaux. The menu: fried shrimp and mashed potatoes, with two lemonades—one with freshly squeezed straw-berries, the other with uncut berries floating in the drink like ice. Then it's back home for more movies and videos. At 10 Crabtree orders a pepperoni thick-crust from Pizza Hut, the empty box joining nine others stacked like a Jenga game on his kitchen counter. "That's my regimen," he says.
That's right. No sprinting 40s, no lifting 225 pounds, no slaloming around cones. None of the jumping through hoops that passes for talent evaluation during draft workouts. GMs have only two ways to size up Crabtree—talking to him and watching his film. And they've concluded that he's a top-10 pick, broken foot and all.
Imagine that. A good football player in November is still considered a good football player in April.
Such logic is strangely scarce during this silly season, when a college star's NFL potential is sometimes based on anything but his ability to play the game. A running back who spent four years street-cleaning linebackers is a little slow running around cones, and suddenly he lacks explosion. A major conference receiver who turned double-teams into rumors each autumn runs a 4.58 40, and his speed is red-flagged. For years we've been told by experts that these tests accurately predict NFL success. They don't, of course, at least not in any practical way. Remember Mike Mamula? "What's it really matter if a player runs a fast 40 or not?" asks one NFC GM. "Not much."
Here's the draft bubble's dirty little secret: The buzz generated from these drills and how it affects a player's status is actually based on ego—usually a coach's—not results. The combine is typically the first time coaches see prospects, on film or otherwise. Until then, they've only glanced at their team's draft boards, which are compiled by scouts. But many coaches secretly believe that scouts don't know how to find the right players for their system, while scouts think coaches can't evaluate talent. That friction, especially on teams that routinely change staffs and schemes, can cause a coach who's just witnessed a combine or pro day workout to declare that Player X is ranked too low or too high, just to prove a point. Says one AFC personnel boss: "It can ruin a draft."
In fact, most GMs will tell you they care more about the effort a player puts into these arbitrary drills than the scores. They rarely even record a player's results. Instead, they observe how a potential draftee interacts with his teammates, whether he's first in line for drills and how he reacts to pro coaching. In the end, a pro day is a forum for judging character disguised as a test of athleticism. "When we really want to know what kind of football player someone is," says Packers GM Ted Thompson, "we go back to the tape."
That's why—crazy as it sounds—it doesn't matter that the 2009 draft's top-rated receiver is wearing a cast. Not that Crabtree enjoys being laid up. He'd rather run. He even does crunches and push-ups during commercial breaks while watching TV. But his tests weren't going to improve his stock. The two-time Biletnikoff winner scored 41 touchdowns in 26 career games, and runs, at best, a 4.50 40—slower than the draft's other top wideouts, Missouri's Jeremy Maclin (4.45) and Florida's Percy Harvin (4.39). Hoping to notch a 4.4, Crabtree trained in February at a speed center—the football equivalent of an SAT prep course—operated by former Olympic sprinter Michael Johnson. He'd become obsessed with running faster, even though he knew better. "A 40 doesn't show much, except maybe that you can get off the line fast," Crabtree says. "But people said I was slow, so I was eager to prove I wasn't."
A routine bone scan at the combine, which revealed the fracture, killed that plan. Crabtree hadn't even realized his foot was broken; he thought it was merely sore after a long season.
In fact, stress fractures are a common foot injury—famously suffered by Jevon Kearse and Yao Ming—and relatively easy to get over, provided the athlete stays off his foot until it heals. Crabtree has done just that since his March 4 surgery, when a screw was inserted into his fifth metatarsal. A recovery time of eight to 10 weeks will have him healed well ahead of training camp.
That Crabtree hasn't slipped on most draft boards is a testament both to the nature of his injury and to his complete dominance in college. No other receiver shed as many double-teams and caught the ball as cleanly (231 receptions in two years). No other top pass-catching prospect is as big—GMs describe Crabtree as "thick"—and no other is as good at using his body to shield cornerbacks. Says his ex-coach, Mike Leach: "The way he can turn and put his ass on a defender really is remarkable."
As is the way he seems to have won over some NFL brass. At the combine, 16 clubs asked Crabtree about everything from dissecting defenses ("Easy," he says) to how many times a week he hits the clubs ("Maybe once"). "He's a good kid," says an NFC GM. "You can tell because his teammates loved him." And Crabtree loved them. Not because they nicknamed him Supa, but because they gave him a hard time for how he mumbled, chewed on Gatorade caps and draped himself over their shoulders like an overcoat when they shared a laugh.
But neither conversations nor tests could reveal Crabtree's most innate plus, his balance. Scouts don't measure it. They don't stand prospects on a Wii Fit and calculate which leg is dominant. But it's the most underrated aspect of a receiver's game, the reason why some break tackles and tiptoe the sideline while others don't. Crabtree learned how to keep his feet as a 4-year-old in Dallas, when he and his older brother, Keiron Stevenson, backflipped off cars, over bikes and up and down the street. "My choice was to land on my feet or on my head," he says.
To truly appreciate Crabtree's balance, scouts need only ask themselves questions and watch his film for answers. How do his shoulders look when he runs? One GM says they're always over his feet, never bobbing up and down. How does he handle contact? Very well: He broke 298 tackles last year on 97 catches. Does he stumble out of breaks? No. That's a skill honed by Leach, who would soak the practice field in Lubbock and make Crabtree cut on it. Can he adjust as he's running? Yes. One of Texas Tech's bread-and-butter plays was the tunnel screen, in which Crabtree caught a quick pass and ran along the line of scrimmage, waiting for an opening. "He's so fluid as he searches for a crease," says one AFC personnel director. "He's like a point guard." That's no coincidence. Crabtree played point so well at Carter High that Bob Knight offered him a scholarship. "He's the best receiver," says another NFC GM, "if not the best athlete."
That explains why, as he leaves lunch at Pappadeaux, Crabtree darts away on his crutches, easily gliding down wooden steps made slippery by rain, quietly whipping through the parking lot without the typical clang of metal, as if he were racing someone. In two weeks, he'll shed his cast, crutches and rimmed wheelchair for a walking boot. Two weeks after that, he'll go through rehab, probably doing pool exercises and running on an underwater treadmill. Right now, though, this first-rounder doesn't mind hobbling around a bit. As he reaches his borrowed black F-150, a little winded but smiling, he says confidently, "I could probably run a 4.4 with crutches."
Wouldn't matter anyway.