The Football Outsiders Almanac isn't just for pro football. There's a sizable portion in this year's book dedicated to college football, which is perfect for Mocking the Draft. With that in mind, I hunted down former MTD writer Dave Gardener. A rising star in journalism, Gardner is an editor for Football Outsiders, interns for Yahoo! Sports and writes for Gator Country. Overachiever.
Gardner previewed the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for the book and broke down the SEC. He talks both here at MTD. I'm in bold, he's in regular typeface.
Tampa Bay selected two wide receivers, Arrelious Benn and Mike Williams, in the first four rounds of this year's draft. Which do you think has a chance for more immediate success with the Bucs and why?
From all the reports coming out of training camp, Mike Williams is going to be the guy in Tampa. He missed some significant playing time in college (I believe his second suspension actually came right before he was about to light up your Akron boys), but he carried Syracuse's offense when he was on the field. I think he is a more physical presence than Benn and will be able to adjust to the bump coverage you more often face in the pros better than Benn. That being said, I believe that the Bucs plan is to start the two of them in a tandem and have Sammie Stroughter stay in the slot, where he was productive as a rookie last year. So I think the Bucs are setting them both up for success, I just think that Williams is gonna find it sooner.
Given that Tampa did add those two weapons, how much of an improvement should be expected of quarterback Josh Freeman in his second year?
The problem with predicting Freeman's performance is that he wasn't really consistent last season. Our study into him found that he tended to improve as games went on, which was good. He was also at his best when games were close. When he and the Bucs were behind a lot, he would be heaving the ball around and throw a lot of interceptions in a desperate attempt to get back in the game. So the real challenge for the Bucs in developing Freeman is if they can establish a strong ground game and let him get into the rhythm of the game earlier with some timing routes and easy completions. That's how he can be more successful. From talking to a couple of Bucs' sources I have, I would say that Freeman will improve greatly this season. My expectation is that he'll become something close to a 60-percent passer and even out his touchdown-to-interception ratio. The guy can make all the throws, it's just gonna be a matter of the rest of the offense jelling around him.
You broke down the SEC for this year's almanac. Without considering wide receivers A.J. Green of Georgia and Julio Jones of Alabama, what SEC player do you think has the best pro potential and why?
That's a great question. As you know, the SEC is stocked with NFL talent every year -- that's why it's my favorite conference to cover. But I think you've left me with a pretty obvious answer here -- Arkansas quarterback Ryan Mallett. Quarterbacks are obviously at a premium right now in the NFL, and Mallett is gonna be valued -- even overvalued -- by a lot of teams. He's a monster at 6-foot-7 and has the arm strength and velocity on his passes to go with it. I think you really see how good he is on his deep passes, but you also have to have concerns about his accuracy. A 55-percent passer in college isn't gonna become a 65-percent passer in the NFL. I think, outside of his injury (which shouldn't be a big deal), accuracy is his No. 1 issue. He's got some footwork problems and makes bad decisions from time to time, but I think he'll have a great season and be a top-10 pick after it.
Between Green and Jones, who do you think has the better pro potential and why?
Another really good question. I think both players are excellent, but if they're both on the board when my team is up, I'm going with A.J. Green. I think he's much more explosive than Jones. He's also got great leaping ability and body control, and he just has such soft hands. He's a stellar route runner, and I think he's gonna explode at the next level. When you talk about Jones, he's a physical presence and a real tough guy to bring down after the catch. But I didn't like his effort last season. I think he has a tendency to take some plays off. He can be good, but he needs a push every now and then.
No one knows exactly what to expect out of John Brantley at Florida. What kind of transformation do you think the Gators' offense will go through this season?
Well, I live in Gainesville and cover the Gators, so I have had a chance to watch Brantley throw the football up-close and personal. I think he's gonna be tremendous. He's got a great pocket presence and is a much better passer than Tebow ever was -- and possibly ever will be. He's got great footwork, a nice and high release and great rotation on his passes. They all come out as nice, tight spirals; something Tebow struggled with. His accuracy, in my opinion, has been a little overstated in the press, and his touch on the deep ball is a little bit lacking compared to Tim. The offense will be much more balanced. It won't be the Tim Tebow show. You'll see more receivers getting involved and more of a passing attack based on precision -- crisp route running, timing, etc. You'll also see the running backs, particularly Emmanuel Moody, who has been starved as a power back behind Tebow these past couple years, step up and take more of a role in an offense.
From a statistical perspective, how hard is it to predict the success of a college quarterback to a pro quarterback?
Short answer: really hard. Long answer: There are so many variables that go into making a successful pro quarterback. If you had given JaMarcus Russell three years as an understand to Brady and Belichick in New England and the weapons that he would have had there, don't you think he would have been more successful? What about if Matt Ryan goes to the Lions instead of the Falcons, does he still emerge so quickly as a top-tier quarterback? What we use is called the Lewin Career Forecast, which looks at number of games started in college and the quarterback's completion percentage. For quarterbacks in the top two rounds, it's been really successful. It's identified busts like Ryan Leaf and Kyle Boller and highlighted the likes of Philip Rivers and Drew Brees.