Scouts call it the eyeball test. When performance belies statistics, the only way to gauge a player’s true value (or potential value), they say, is to watch him in person.
It’s used most often with rookies and young players. For instance, prior to the 2007 season, Houston had seen enough of Matt Schaub to invest two draft picks and $48 million in him, despite the fact that he’d thrown for just over 1,000 yards and completed only 52 percent of his 161 passes. Houston’s scouting department was correct on Schaub, as the University of Virginia product is now a perennial 4,000-yard passer who has posted quarterback ratings above 87 in each of his five seasons in “Space City.”
Other times, the eyeball test is employed to explain statistical aberrations. Tim Tebow (I know, I know – I’ll keep it short) hits the mark on less than half of his forward passes but watch him play and you’ll observe an innate ability to rally teammates that has helped the Broncos to a 7-1 record in Tebow’s eight starts.
Aaron Rodgers owns a career rating of 103.7, the best in NFL history. His Green Bay Packers are thundering toward an undefeated 2011, and he has a shot at the quarterbacking equivalent of the Triple Crown (yards, touchdowns, rating).
Still, by taking one look at the ease that Rodgers fires balls 50 yards downfield, the manner in which he involves his entire offensive repertoire (six players have caught at least 26 passes) or even his understated penchant to pick up first downs with his legs, it’s evident that Rodgers may be even better than his otherworldly stats show.
It’s time to face it – last year’s Super Bowl run was no fluke. Barring injury, Rodgers is destined to be remembered as one of the best quarterbacks of this generation, perhaps ever.
Since hindsight is of course 20/20, now seems an appropriate time – with Rodgers in the midst of this transcendent season – to review the 23 selections that were made before Green Bay stole the future Hall of Famer in the 2005 NFL Draft.
1. Alex Smith, 49ers, Grade: D+ (with potential)
New coach Jim Harbaugh has Smith’s career arc trending upward but it’s going to take more than San Francisco’s first division title in seven years to lessen the sting of passing over Rodgers. Plus, the 49ers have had too much talent the past couple of seasons to make this year’s success erase those failures.
2. Ronnie Brown, Dolphins, Grade: C+
Brown has had success but not nearly enough to warrant the second overall selection. He surpassed 1,000 yards rushing in 2006 (with 1,008) and scored 10 touchdowns only once. The detractors who suggested he wouldn’t be able to carry a full-time workload after splitting carries with Cadillac Williams at Auburn might have been right. Brown now plays for the Eagles after six seasons with the Dolphins, although Philly’s attempt to trade him this fall was nixed when the player he was being swapped for failed a team physical.
3. Braylon Edwards, Browns, Grade: D
An enigma his first two pro seasons, Edwards was a monster in 2007, hauling in 80 passes and scoring a career-high 16 receiving touchdowns. In the four-and-a-half seasons since, Edwards has 14 total touchdowns with three different teams.
4. Cedric Benson, Bears, Grade: B-
After finishing second in UT history in rushing yards (5,540), Benson brought his bruising running style, dreadlocks and bad off-the-field habits to Chicago. A long holdout before his rookie season immediately put him behind Thomas Jones on the Bears’ depth chart. He gained only 272 yards in his first pro season and, after a pair of alcohol-related arrests in 2008, was released. Benson has experienced a rebirth in Cincinnati, where he is on pace for his third straight 1,000-yard campaign.
5. Carnell Williams, Bucs, Grade: C-
“Cadillac” cruised onto the NFL scene with 1,178 yards and six touchdowns, enough to earn AP Rookie of the Year honors. However, Williams’ wheels began failing him quickly thereafter – a combination of serious and nagging injuries have derailed a once-promising career. The current backup to Steven Jackson in St. Louis, Williams has only 68 rushing attempts this year.
6. Adam Jones, Titans, Grade: D-
After chasing opposing receivers at West Virginia, “Pac-Man” has primarily gobbled up controversy throughout his pro career. Between flashes of brilliance, Jones has swallowed arrests for assault, felony vandalism, marijuana possession and obstruction of justice. The NFL suspended Jones for the entire 2007 season following an incident at a Las Vegas nightclub.
7. Troy Williamson, Vikings, Grade: F
8. Antrell Rolle, Cardinals, Grade: B
Rolle has developed into an above average safety despite a rookie season that was cut short by injury after five games. The New York Giants thought highly enough of the University of Miami product to hand him a $37 million contract last offseason.
9. Carlos Rogers, Redskins, Grade: B-
Rogers never intercepted more than two passes during his six years in Washington but has five (one returned for a touchdown) this season with San Francisco. He is one of the biggest factors in the 49ers’ rise to a top-tier defense.
10. Mike Williams, Lions, Grade: C-
Much sizzle, not so much steak, Williams peaked during his rookie season with Detroit, catching 29 passes for 350 yards. On the heels of a seven catch season with Oakland, Williams rebounded last year by hauling in 65 balls for Seattle. He has regressed again this season.
11. Demarcus Ware, Cowboys, Grade: A
Aside from Rodgers, easily the best player taken in the first round. It’s likely that the best offensive and defensive players in the league right now came from the 2005 Draft.
12. Shawne Merriman, Chargers, Grade: B-
There was a point in Merriman’s career when he was the most feared pass rusher around. A performance-enhancing drug use suspension and several subsequent knee injuries have turned Merriman into a shadow of his former self.
13. Jammal Brown, Saints, Grade: B
Brown made a pair of Pro Bowls protecting Drew Brees before suffering a torn ACL prior to the 2009 season. He lost his job as a result and was traded to the Redskins earlier this year.
14. Thomas Davis, Panthers, Grade: C+
Like many on this list, Davis has seen his career derailed by injuries. At one time a run-stopping force, Davis has suffered three torn ACLs in three seasons.
15. Derrick Johnson, Chiefs, Grade: B
A tackling machine in the middle of the Kansas City defense, Johnson registered 121 tackles in 2010 and is on pace to obliterate the team record this season.
16. Travis Johnson, Texans, Grade: C-
Johnson spent four solid-but-unspectacular seasons with the Texans before being shipped to San Diego for a conditional sixth round pick prior to last season.
17. David Pollack, Bengals, Grade: Inc.
Pollack, considered a steal at the time, played only 16 games in the NFL thanks to a scary neck injury that forced him to formally announce his retirement in April 2008.
18. Erasmus James, Vikings, Grade: F
James signed a contract this year to play with the Indoor Football League’s New Mexico Stars. Any questions?
19. Alex Barron, Rams, Grade: C-
Chosen to fill the voids left by Orlando Pace and Kyle Turley, Barron eventually became one of the most penalized players in the NFL during his career in St. Louis. New Orleans took a flyer on Barron this preseason but reached an injury settlement with the tackle and released him.
20. Marcus Spears, Cowboys, Grade: B
It was an impressive defensive draft for the Cowboys, who added Spears’ size to complement the speed of Ware. Dallas locked up the LSU alum to a five-year deal this preseason.
21. Matt Jones, Jaguars, Grade: F
The 6-foot-6, 237-pound wideout was much more impressive at the pre-draft combine (4.37 40-yard dash, 39.5-inch vertical) than he was on the field (166 career receptions). Jones was released by Jacksonville after a pair of arrests for substance abuse and has only had a few training camp sniffs since.
22. Mark Clayton, Ravens, Grade: C-
Clayton fizzled out in Baltimore but started to get his career untracked with Sam Bradford in St. Louis last season. Unfortunately, knee issues have kept him on the sidelines for almost all of 2011.
23. Fabian Washington, Raiders, Grade: D
One of the speedster-types that Al Davis coveted, Washington has experienced similar success to most of Davis’ recent first-rounders (read: not much).
24. Aaron Rodgers, Packers, Grade: A+
Best quarterback ever? We’ll see.