Spread offense adds new wrinkle to draft
Projecting which college players will make a successful transition to the NFL is hard enough.
A recent trend has added another trap door to next month's draft. It's the spread offense and, well, the spread of it in college football.
"It changes the whole evaluation process," Steelers director of football operations Kevin Colbert said. "It makes it more difficult, but the colleges have to worry about what they need to do to win games, and we have to worry about making correct decisions."
Penn State is an example of how entrenched the spread offense has become in college football. The Nittany Lions have long been associated with an offensive philosophy that is as conservative as coach Joe Paterno's political leanings, but they rode a wide-open attack to a Big Ten title last season, and quarterbacks coach Jay Paterno dubbed their offense the "Spread HD."
Florida and Oklahoma, who met in the BCS title game in January, also used the spread, and the Sooners added a twist.
"My first three years, we huddled up a lot," said Oklahoma wide receiver Juaquin Iglesias, who is expected to be an early- to mid-round selection in this year's draft. "But last year, we didn't huddle at all."
The no-huddle approach is a distinguishing characteristic of the spread. That is not to say it is exclusive to the spread — some NFL offensive coordinators use no-huddle as a change of pace.
There are other aspects of the spread that also have become a part of the NFL, most notably the "Wildcat" package.
But the spread, several coaches and general managers said, never will take hold in the NFL the way it has in college. NFL defenses are too fast, and quarterbacks would be too vulnerable to use the spread on a regular basis.
"It's difficult to run a true spread with five receivers eligible all the time against the Steelers," Colts president Bill Polian said. "You'd better have a lot of quarterbacks if you want to do that."
Added 49ers general manager Scot McCloughan: "You open up your quarterback to too many hits."
The differences between spread and pro-style offenses make it all the more challenging to project how college players will do at the next level.
Colbert said evaluating offensive linemen has become more difficult since techniques they use in college may be different than in the pros. In addition, offensive tackles do not line up in three-point stances as frequently in the spread as they do in traditional NFL offenses.
The good news for Colbert: Quarterback is not a Steelers' draft priority.
Quarterback is considered the hardest position at which to project success at the next level — and that was before the spread.
The added degree of difficulty can be attributed to quarterbacks taking shorter drops in college than in the NFL as well as the frequency with which they use shotgun formation.
The spread also affects defensive evaluation.
"If you flip it over," Colbert said, "the defense isn't doing things that they're going to be doing against conventional offenses."
The popularity of the spread in college has produced some benefits for the NFL. With teams throwing more, the draft pool at wide receiver and cornerback has gotten deeper and more ready to play.
"It used to be impossible to find a defensive back who had enough exposure to top passing attacks in college," Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau said. "You had to teach them everything, and that was usually a one- or two-year development process.
"(Now), you're getting a bunch of defensive backs that all they do is defend the pass against fast people spread out and talented quarterbacks. That's a plus for us."
While the spread has made scouts adjust, it has not altered their fundamental task of identifying players whose skills transcend schemes.
As Buccaneers general manager Mark Dominik said: "I look for athleticism, I look for intelligence, and I look for play-making ability."