Colorado wide receiver Nelson Spruce was among the most productive wide receivers in college, racking up 195 receptions, 2,251 receiving yards and 16 touchdowns in his final two seasons, despite playing in a below-average offense.
Spruce finished as the school's all-time leader in every major receiving category and set the Pac-12 record for career receptions (294), previously held by former Jacksonville Jaguars wide receiver Mike Thomas while at Arizona.
But the NFL Draft doesn't reward college production as much as it attempts to project a player's ability to produce against NFL talent. Statistics become secondary figures next to measurables like height, weight and speed. And at 6'1, 206 pounds with a 4.69 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine, Spruce doesn't particularly stand out in any category, even after he cut his 40 time by a tenth of a second at Colorado's pro day.
"I feel like nowadays there's so much emphasis put on 40 [yard dash] times," Spruce said. "I like receivers that really take pride in their craft and are really detailed in their route-running, have good hands, stuff like that. I don't think that straight-line speed is really as important if you can do other things like that."
Many of the greatest NFL receivers have managed to find success despite subpar marks at the Combine. No player has tallied more receptions, receiving yards and touchdowns in the NFL than Jerry Rice, who ran his 40-yard dash in 4.59 seconds, according to Hall of Fame coach Bill Walsh.
At the 2016 NFL Combine, Spruce singled out another receiver who has put together a Hall of Fame résumé despite underwhelming times.
"I like watching Larry Fitzgerald," Spruce told reporters. "He's a great receiver, runs great routes. He's not the fastest guy, but you see what type of career he has."
What Rice and Fitzgerald both managed to do, though, was find separation from defensive backs with crisp routes and explosiveness out of their breaks. Many experts have doubts that Spruce will be able to be that player.
"His production had our area scout over-grading him," one AFC general manager told Lance Zierlein of NFL.com. "But once you get past what he can't do and focus on what he can do you feel better about him as a late round guy who can help your team."
Spruce knows that to be an asset in the NFL, he'll likely have to contribute in more ways than one and show off versatility that was rarely on display in college.
"I played outside a lot at Colorado, but given my skill set I think that to start, I might be better in the slot," Spruce said. "Going into Colorado, when I first started out, I was just in the slot, but the final three years I was mostly outside. That's one thing I wish I got to do more, work on the inside, so it's something I'm looking forward to doing at the next level.
"And I know I'm going to have to do special teams as well, which I'm also looking forward to because it's something I never really got a chance to do at Colorado because of my role on the offense. I'll feel comfortable no matter what I have to do."
Either way, Spruce will almost definitely have to wait until the third day of the 2016 NFL Draft to hear his name called. But five years ago he was an unheralded three-star receiver from Westlake (Thousand Oaks, Calif.) High School, who ranked as the No. 1,016 recruit for the Class of 2011, according to 247 Sports. Attempting to prove doubters wrong is a feeling he's used to.
"Ever since I started football I've been a guy under the radar," Spruce said. "For whatever reason going into this draft, it feels like a similar situation than when I was coming out of high school. I've always been able to work hard enough and find ways to be successful no matter what level I'm at.
"In my game, the way that I play, you know obviously you want to be as fast as you can, but I don't think it's as vital for me. I think my route-running, I think my knowledge of the game is kind of how I find my success."