NFL scouts fall in love with a Stephen Hill every year, and every year they are burned. Hill, on the surface, appears to warrant the attention. At the NFL Combine, Hill bested receivers in the 40-yard dash (4.36) and the broad jump (11’1″). Hill was declared “The Man” of the combine by SI’s Peter King, after making what King called “the most impressive catch “ of the combine. Hill did so well at the combine that Mike Mayock thought he had “pushed himself right up in the forefront of this wide receivers class.”
There is one gaping hole in Hill’s resume, however. He rarely caught the ball in college.
It was this production that led the NFL draft advisory board to deem Hill a 4th round pick, at best. Mel Kiper too thought Hill would be selected on day three, noting that another season at Georgia Tech would put him “in the first-round discussion.”
History bares no examples of receivers who transformed their mediocre college career into NFL stardom. History does reveal two things, however: combine results do not translate to NFL success and Hill only compares to the bad, the worse, and the worst.
The Bad: Demaryius Thomas
This is the most obvious of comparisons. Though, statistically speaking, Hill and Thomas are polar opposites. In the same amount of time, Thomas accumulated over 70 more catches and over 1,000 more yards than Hill. Of course it was not the offensive limitations of Georgia Tech that explain discrepancy, as the offenses that Thomas played in averaged only 17.5 pass attempts per game. In fact, in Thomas’s best season (2009), the Georgia Tech offense averaged a paltry 12 pass attempts (.8 less than Hill’s 2011 squad).
Production aside, Thomas and Hill have much in common. Thomas, again, might the bigger of the two, but both are “physical specimens” and both share a number of attributes:
Release: Scouts noted that Thomas had “adequate lateral quickness and good upper-body strength” to beat press coverage. Likewise, Hill’s “exceptional length, reach, and power in hands” allow for him to “easily” beat the press.
Hands: Scouts were concerned that Thomas allowed “the ball into his pads,” though they conceded that his hands are generally secure. Hill too is thought of as having “generally good hands,” despite his drop tendency.
Route Running: This is a big area of concern for both Hill and Thomas. Common fears for both are a lack of “suddenness in changing directions to generate separation,” a need to “gear down a bit to make sharp cuts,” “Average route runner and really does not show sharpness into breaks,” and “Limited repertoire on the route tree.”
After the Catch: Arguably Hill and Thomas’s best attribute. Thomas and Hill possess a “strong stiff-arm” and are “tough” to bring down.
Run-Blocking: Both receive high marks.
Thomas too enjoyed the same meteoric rise prior to the 2010 draft. Prior to the draft, Thomas was left out of SI.com’s top 32 prospect list, as well as Mel Kiper’s initial 1st round mock draft. Thomas was hurt for many of the pre-draft workouts, which allowed rumors of his 4.38 second 40-time to swirl. He would eventually hold a closed workout just days before the draft. Ultimately, it was the pre-draft buzz that vaulted Thomas into the first round, not his limited body of work.
Thomas hasn’t exactly been a success as a pro. Sure, he’s been hampered by injury and Tim Tebow, but were it not for his Wild-Card game winning reception against the Steelers, Thomas might would be a virtual nobody. This is not to say that Thomas won’t transform under the tutelage of Peyton Manning, but to say that he hasn’t lived up to his draft slot.
The Worse: Troy Williamson
Williamson played in an offense that threw the ball twice as much as the offenses that Hill found himself in. As such, his lack of production should be even more troubling.
Williamson is also shorter than Hill by a few inches, but like Hill, Williamson had blazing speed, completing the 40-yard dash in only 4.32 seconds. With this speed, Williamson ran up draft boards, changing his draft stock from a projected third rounder to a guaranteed first. Ultimately, Minnesota would draft Williamson with the 7th overall pick in 2006.
Aside from physicality (scouts called him a “marginal” blocker), Williamson shares many of Hill’s best attributes. SI.com called Williamson an “explosive wideout” with the ability to adjust to errant throws, track balls, and to extend his hands to secure the ball away from his body. Of course, this very similar to Hill, who, as National Football Post points out, shows “good body control when asked to track the football” while locating the “throw well, [extending] his arms and [making] acrobatic plays on the football.”
The Worst: Matt Jones
Sure, Jones might not have been a college receiver, but he and Hill share something in common: hype. Scouts’ assessment of Jones relied solely on his physical prowess, not on his collegiate production.
Jones showed well at Senior Bowl and the combine. During the Senior Bowl, Jones burned cornerback Corey Webster in practice, and apparently caught all but one pass. While at the combine, Jones put up gaudy numbers, running the 40-yard dash in only 4.37 seconds. From this information, pundits extrapolated. Chris Mortenson declared that Jones had the “best hands in the draft.” Why did he think this, you ask. “He’s a basketball player,” Mortenson asserted.
Mortenson wasn’t crazy (at least he wasn’t alone in his craziness), as Yahoo’s Charles Robinson came to the same conclusion, citing Jones’s same “two years as a role player on Arkansas’ basketball team” as evidence.
Mortenson ultimately guaranteed Jones NFL success, declaring that Jones was a surefire perennial Pro Bowler.
“I will laugh,” Mortenson wrote, “knowing I told you so.”
Mortenson would prove two things: he doesn’t know football and we should not infer too much from pre-draft workouts. And yet, this exact Clouseau-esque deductive work is ensuing with Hill.
D. Orlando Ledbetter of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution noticed that scouts were apt to compare Hill to Demaryius Thomas because they shared the same offense and physical skill set. Ledbetter cites Matt Mayock as one who is changing his tune about Hill. Mayock notes that Hill “had five or six drops, two of were in critical situations.” Despite this, Mayock still believes Hill has “great hands.”
NFL Film’s Guru Greg Cosell saw a player who ran “no routes,” just “straight line running,” when watching Hill’s game film. And yet, Hill’s pre-draft workouts have convinced scouts that he is a “better route-runner than was Thomas coming out of college.” Either Thomas was a deplorable route-runner, or Cosell is missing something.
If Cosell missed it, then perhaps the 49ers did as well, given that they were the only team not present at Hill’s pro day. Still, despite this absence, Niner Nation’s “Mock Draft Database” shows that most believe the 49ers will draft a receiver. That receiver, if he is still available, will be Stephen Hill. Were this to happen, Hill would undoubtedly go the way of Williamson, Jones, and every other receiver whose physical skillset shrouded perception. When this happens, I will do my best Chris Mortenson: I will laugh, knowing I told you so.