Draft evaluation is an imperfect science. Actually, scratch that. It’s not even a science. A lot of it involves making hypotheses based on available data—projecting a college player’s potential for a successful NFL career based on his film and his measurements—but there’s a reason it’s often described as a crapshoot.
Because we’re dealing with human beings here, human beings who know that they have the autonomy to flip their own script, either positively or negatively. Players have the ability to transform their bodies, for example, to become something else that was not projected or accounted for. They may discover a new dedication that helps take their game to a next level that was not predicted. And sometimes people just get things wrong.
It’s good when we acknowledge that in this process, and Pro Football Focus recently took a stab at doing that, putting together an article in which they take a look at some of their biggest misevaluations of players through the draft process in recent years, focusing on the players they were too low on.
You’ll surely recognize at least one name on the list, as it includes the Pittsburgh Steelers’ 62nd-overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, second-round wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, a 20-year-old true junior out of USC.
“After a breakout sophomore campaign in 2015, Smith-Schuster took a massive step back in 2016, racking up only 914 yards through the air”, Michael Renner wrote of the 2018 Pro Bowler’s college campaign. “What we didn’t account for was a wholly uncreative route tree forced upon Smith-Schuster that wasn’t conducive to separation whatsoever. The 113th-ranked player on our 2017 board, Smith-Schuster has been easily the top wideout from that class”.
Notice the middle sentence in that evaluation, because that is the important, and most valuable, part of this exercise. It’s not just identifying the players that you were wrong about, but also trying to go back and identify what led you to getting the evaluation wrong. In their case, they believe they found the culprit for as to why they so undervalued Smith-Schuster.
And they weren’t the only one, let’s not forget about that. When the Steelers drafted him, plenty of people didn’t even know who he was, and many were wondering why the team even felt the need to draft a wide receiver that high. They had not taken one in the first two rounds since Limas Sweed in 2008.
Other notable players PFF cited as having gotten wrong for being too low on coming out of college included cornerback Xavien Howard, tackle Taylor Decker, quarterbacks Patrick Mahomes and Dak Prescott, and edge defender Danielle Hunter.
Who are some of your biggest underevaluations, Steelers-related or not, in recent years?