A Kid Named Teez and the Great Carnival of the American Midwest

Embed from Getty Images

The Detroit Lions Drafted Teez Tabor In The Second Round Of The NFL Draft.

If I had told you three months ago that Detroit was going to get a cornerback some considered a top 10 talent – all because of a poor combine showing – would you have been upset? What if I had told you that they would get said player not with their first pick, but with their second? Would you have even believed me? I wouldn’t have.

Alas, truth is stranger than fiction, and that’s exactly what happened last Friday evening. Florida CB Teez Tabor, who prior to the combine had been mocked as highly as ninth overall to Cincinnati, saw his draft stock plummet after running a 4.62s 40-yard dash in Indy. Matters worsened for Tabor when he followed it up with a 4.72s at his pro day in Gainesville. Nevertheless, Bob Quinn stopped his freefall when he took him with the 53rd overall pick. But Tabor’s reunion with Gator teammate Jarrad Davis received mixed reviews from the Lions faithful, who were concerned with his 40 times.

Now more than ever, speed is at a premium in the NFL. The evolution of the modern NFL offense has spawned an arms race, with teams stockpiling speed on the defensive side of the ball in an effort to combat the pass. As a result, the league has begun discarding older, traditional notions of defensive positions. Smaller, faster defenders once shunned as ‘tweeners’ are now en vogue; coveted as hybrids that can be deployed in a variety of roles. This phenomenon has coincided with the commercialization of the combine.

The NFL’s annual event is now less a job fair than it is a nationally televised carnival of sorts. Players who measure well are paraded around as freaks, while those that test poorly are scorned as lepers. The only thing it’s missing is a bearded lady and a Gronkowski version of Siamese twins. But the combine’s meteoric rise in popularity can be attributed to the times we live in. People enjoy the athletic spectacle, but what they really love is easily digestible information.

Most fans don’t have the time, or desire, to watch hours of tape on 300 prospects. I know I don’t. So for many people, the combine is a convenient, albeit inaccurate way to pass judgment on the next crop of NFL players. And today, a slow 40 time can be a death sentence in the court of public opinion.

But like many of the aforementioned traditional defensive positions, the 40-yard dash is a relic of a bygone era. At the time of its conception, it was designed to determine how quickly a player could race downfield to cover a punt. Today, it’s a legacy piece used to quantify speed. It still has its merits, but its importance has outgrown its original purpose. In fact, the NFL has quietly considering doing away with it altogether. Just last February, the league considered drastically overhauling the combine at the convening of its annual meeting.

I digress. The demand for speed on defense isn’t for the sake of speed itself (sorry, Al Davis). It was a natural adaptation necessitated by the emergence of beastly tight ends and the increased incorporation of running backs into the passing game. This is a case study of Darwin’s theory of evolution. In order to survive, NFL teams had to stop looking at what players weren’t and what they couldn’t do. So, they began looking at what they could do.

That’s something Bill Belichick has preached for years in the New England organization, and they’ve won five championships in the new millennium. ‘Tell me what they can do, not what they can’t.’ Tabor may not be able to run a dead sprint in spandex very well, but he can play cornerback, and he’s damn good at it.

This is not to say that athleticism is not important in the NFL. The better athlete one is, the better use they can make of their technique and instincts. There is certainly a correlation between athletic ability and NFL success, as Pride of Detroit’s Kent Lee Platte has widely documented with his RAS (relative athletic score) system. But as Kent would likely acknowledge, athletic ability (or lack thereof) is not a prerequisite for success, and we’ve seen plenty of combine warriors and speed demons flame out in the NFL. Seahawks All-Pro corner Richard Sherman ran a 4.56. Super Bowl 49 hero Malcolm Butler ran a 4.6. There are plenty of precedents.

Not to mention that Ian Rapoport reported that Tabor was bothered by a tweaked hamstring all offseason. In his introductory conference call, Tabor himself declined to blame his poor 40 times on any undisclosed injury. His explanation? He was training to play football, not run the 40. And that’s what the Lions got: a football player, not a track and field star.

Embed from Getty Images

“Press play, watch the tape.” Those were the words pressed on the shirts of the friends and family members that surrounded him as he got the fortuitous phone call from Bob Quinn. His mother, fed up with her son’s detractors and those that ridiculed his 40-yard dash, made those shirts.

LaVar Ball has recently demonstrated, very loudly, how oblivious and obnoxious the parents of athletes – who are blinded by their love for their children – can be. But, not Mama Tabor. Her coinage of that catchphrase succinctly captured why Quinn made her son the eighth cornerback off the board. In a draft that set the record for most defensive backs taken in the Common Draft Era, that’s not insignificant.

And Quinn liked what he saw. At the conclusion of Day two, this is what he had to say about it:

“The 40 time at the Combine and at the pro day is what it is. I think in Jalen’s case, me personally, I probably watched more film on him than any prospect that I could ever remember watching film on because everyone said, ‘Well, he ran real slow.’ I said, ‘OK, well the games that I watched, I didn’t see him get run by.’…I take playing speed as a more important gauge than timed speed.”

Quinn’s explanation is consistent with the Tabor matriarch’s message. And it’s also consistent with the analytics of Pro Football Focus. Quinn said he didn’t see him get run by, and he didn’t. According to the analytics firm, Tabor allowed just two touchdowns on throws into his coverage at three years in Florida. PFF also noted that, during that time, he recorded a pass breakup or an interception on 26.5% of his targets.

In what’s been hailed as the best defensive back crop of all time, that mark was best in class. They also noted that his allowed passer rating of 41.2% was similar to what the passer rating for “throwing the ball into the dirty every play” would be (39.6%). That mark was better than the respective ratings of all five cornerbacks (Lattimore, Humphrey, Jackson, Conley, White) who went in the first round. His touchdown percentage of 1.4% also bested theirs, and only Tre’davious White (0.72) had a lower yards per route in coverage than Tabor (0.78).

But Pro Football Focus wasn’t the only outlet high on him. Tabor was regarded by some as the crown jewel of the class before his dismal 40 times motivated many to renounce what they saw on film. As I mentioned previously, some analysts mocked him as highly as ninth overall to Cincinnati, back in February. NFL.com draft analyst Lance Zierlein wrote in his prospect profile that he had ‘prototypical size and athleticism,’ a report he penned before Tabor ran poorly.

Interestingly enough, Zierlein also compared him to Darius Slay. And perhaps even more interesting is the fact that Tabor and Slay shared the same defensive coordinator in college, current Temple head coach Geoff Collins.

All that considered, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Tabor projects to fit very well in Detroit’s defensive scheme. He excels in off and zone coverage, which is what Teryl Austin asks his cornerbacks to play. He’s very aware of zone and is highly adept at pattern recognition and closing on the ball to challenge throws.

During his career in Gainesville, he had eight picks (three of which went for TDs) and 28 pass breakups. For a Lions defense that ranked third-to-last in takeaways in 2016, he should provide a much-needed infusion of playmaking ability.

If you still aren’t convinced that Tabor will make a great addition to the team, I’m not sure there’s much else I could tell you to make you reconsider your position. I’m just a lively idiot with a smartphone and a deadline to meet. All that’s left for you to do, is to do what Bob Quinn did.

Press play. Watch the tape.

More From The Detroit Lions Podcast