Jones among top athletes in draft
More NFL teams are looking for athletic players who have the versatility to play a number of different positions.
It is a simple, three-letter bit of shorthand, A-T-H, historically more germane to the college game than to the pros. But given the diverse skills possessed by several of the prospects in the 2005 draft, the abbreviation might soon force itself into the NFL's ever-evolving scouting vernacular.
The handle, for the college ranks, has long referred to a player unable to be pigeonholed or projected into a specific position. And, thus, the ATH appellation, short for a player recruited as an "athlete." If you have ever been to a recruiting get-together, of the ilk convened by dyed-in-the-wool school loyalists on national letter of intent day, you've doubtless seen ATH listed next to the name of some 18-year-old phenom who played eight positions at the prep level.
But now, perhaps for the first time in the NFL, scouts have actually listed a draft prospect as an ATH.
OK, so it's only one AFC franchise's draft board that actually cites Arkansas star Matt Jones as an ATH. The notation was placed next to his name by a scout who allowed that his team, even as recently as a few days ago, wasn't certain of Jones' best position in the NFL. But, hey, it's a start. And given the myriad athletic skills of the former Razorbacks quarterback who could line up at wide receiver, tight end, H-back or, yeah, maybe even quarterback at times in the NFL the unique notation is probably deserved.
But make no mistake, Jones is hardly the lone candidate for ATH status in the '05 draft, a lottery short of verve but chock-full of versatility.
"Oh, yeah, I'm an 'A-T-H' kind of player, definitely," said Shawne Merriman, the former University of Maryland defender. "I mean, you can stand me up [to play linebacker]. Or I can play [end] with my hand on the ground. And I'm betting that, if somebody wanted me to play tight end, I could do it, man. But you know what? That's the kind of draft this seems to be. There are a lot of players who can do a lot of things."
For decades, league scouts and coaches preached a gospel that espoused the virtues of versatility. There were a lot of versions of the homily that began with the words the more you can do, to remind young players they should be prepared to run through walls if that's what it took to earn a roster spot. But even as they pronounced versatility a marketable trait, many teams didn't exactly apply their words to their deeds, and the game evolved into one of specialization.
Certainly the pendulum has begun to swing away now from the Kentucky Fried Chicken ("We do one thing and we do it right") mentality. This year's draft in part because so many teams are moving to a 3-4 defense and because there is such a supply of tweener players ready to fill needs created by the switch figures to accelerate the momentum toward players with unique skill sets.
The retooling of several defenses, with at least five teams either transitioning full-time to 3-4 fronts or incorporating the scheme as a major part of their repertoire, forces teams to revisit the manner in which they evaluated some prospects. A player like Troy defensive end Demarcus Ware, projected as a 3-4 linebacker at the NFL level, would not have been ignored in any draft, because he was too productive in college. Given the circumstances of this year's lottery, though, Ware has been ignited and is burning up draft boards.
"There is definitely a group of players this year who, in the past, only teams like Houston or Pittsburgh, you know, the 3-4 teams, would have looked at hard," acknowledged New Orleans coach Jim Haslett. "Those players are viewed differently now. Instead of maybe getting the once-over, they get the full treatment."
Indeed, the term "tweener," which once carried the most negative of connotations, has become borderline chic.
Said Kansas defender David McMillan, one of many players projected as a hybrid end and linebacker: "I take the whole tweener thing as a positive now."
But it isn't just the 3-4 element that has stoked the level of versatility in the 2005 draft. Beyond that, the lottery also includes the usual assemblage of offensive linemen capable of being swing players, guys with hyphens next to their positions, such as guard-tackle or center-guard. There are defensive linemen, like Southern California's Shaun Cody, who can play tackle and end. Heck, one NFC team even has Southern Cal wide receiver Mike Williams rated as a tight end on its board.
What makes this lottery a little different, however, and a tad more compelling, is clearly the presence of prospects like Jones and Georgia defender Thomas Davis.
Of the 14 general managers and personnel chiefs surveyed by ESPN.com about Davis in the past week, eight have him on their boards as a safety and six see him as a linebacker. Such indecision about where Davis will line up won't precipitate much hesitancy from several franchises that have him targeted at around the middle of the first round. Just because the prism through which Davis was assessed has defused varying hues does not color the reality that he is a stud prospect.
"The most important thing," said one NFC coach, "is that the guy is a football player. If we took him, I'm pretty sure I know where I would put him. But the thing I know more than anything else is that the guy would be on the field somewhere."
Somewhere, anywhere and who-knows-where all apply to Jones, the true Vegematic of the '05 talent pool. Some teams just don't seem to know yet if they prefer him to slice or dice an opposition's defense. At 6-foot-6 and 242 pounds, and clocked by some teams at 4.36 in the 40-yard dash, the former Arkansas quarterback was just a curiosity item a few months ago. Now he could go off the board in the final quadrant of the first round.
The Philadelphia Eagles, with the penultimate choice in the opening stanza, and currently armed with a dozen more selections after that, are tempted enough that last Friday they worked out Jones, and brought their own quarterback, backup Mike McMahon, to throw to him. Word is that, the more Jones has worked at wide receiver over the past couple of months, the more his comfort zone at the position has expanded.
There remain a few teams, though, that simply don't know what to make of the freakishly gifted Arkansas star.
"What I know is that he is one incredible athlete," said Tampa Bay coach Jon Gruden.
And maybe, starting with this year's draft, being an incredible ATH isn't such a bad thing in the NFL anymore.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.