Of the expected top 10 selections in the NFL Draft tonight, Justin Blackmon is the one most often labeled a potential bust.
Analysts are convinced he is not an elite talent, not comparable to A.J. Green or Julio Jones, the best at the position last year. Jones was the target of the Atlanta Falcons in a draft day trade with the Browns.
Blackmon, an Oklahoma State wide receiver, is criticized for his lack of top-end speed and of quickness off the line, for the fact that he’s only 6 feet tall and that he played in a pass-happy spread offense that inflated his numbers.
But Blackmon has faced similar concerns before.
Going into 2011, Oklahoma State receivers coach Kasey Dunn conceded that the staff wasn’t sure what they would get out of Blackmon. He had won the Biletnikoff Award (given to the nation’s top receiver) in 2010, but Dunn said it took half the season for opponents to start paying attention to him.
As Blackmon tried to repeat his gaudy numbers of 111 receptions for 1,782 yards and 20 touchdowns, Cowboys coach Mike Gundy and his assistants knew Blackmon would be double-covered from Day One.
“He had such a great year his sophomore year. It worried us, to be able to come back and repeat that his junior year with all eyes on him,” Dunn said in a recent telephone interview.
“It was a lot of work. It was fun, though, because he always rose to the challenge. ‘We need to do this with you. We need to change a little bit here. We need to add a route here.’ He always adapted and made the most of the situation and had another great year.”
Blackmon caught 121 passes for 1,522 yards and 18 touchdowns and became the second two-time winner of the Biletnikoff Award, joining Texas Tech’s Michael Crabtree.
And even when he was double-covered, the Cowboys found a way to capitalize. Dunn said the best example came in October in a 59-24 victory over Baylor and Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Robert Griffin III. Griffin threw for 425 yards, and Blackmon caught 13 passes for 172 yards and two touchdowns. But Dunn said the difference was that Joseph Randle rushed for 152 yards and four touchdowns, mainly because of Blackmon.
“Several times the safety went running way out of position to go cover Blackmon and our running back went right through where the safety should be filling on his gap,” Dunn said.
Randle scored on runs of 62, 7, 7 and 2 yards.
Blackmon could be among the two players Browns General Manager Tom Heckert said last week that he is considering with the fourth overall pick. The consensus is that Heckert will go with Alabama running back Trent Richardson, but LSU cornerback Morris Claiborne could also be in the mix.
Sports Illustrated’s Peter King reported on April 16 that Heckert “loves Blackmon and that would be his pick.” Heckert scoffed at that a week ago, saying, “I haven’t spoken to Peter King in years, so I have no idea where that came from.”
Gary Horton, a former Cleveland scout now with Scouts Inc., also suggested the Browns as one of the best fits for Blackmon.
“With Brad Childress as the new offensive coordinator, this will likely still be a West Coast scheme with precise routes designed to get yards after the catch, something Blackmon does well,” Horton wrote on ESPN.com.
Blackmon is most often compared to Baltimore Ravens receiver Anquan Boldin, but Oklahoma State offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Todd Monken coached Dwayne Bowe at LSU. Bowe was selected 23rd overall in 2007 and has played five seasons for the Kansas City Chiefs.
Asked if he believes Blackmon is a top-five pick, Monken said he would answer the same way he had the previous 50 times.
“I said, ‘Would you take Dwayne Bowe with the 10th pick right now? If you would, then you’d take Justin Blackmon,’?” Monken said in a recent telephone interview. “They’re both really good players. I rated Dwayne as a first-round pick, and I would rate Justin as that. Now whether that’s the fourth, the 15th or the 27th, [heck] Dwayne went somewhere around 25, I don’t know what to tell you. [Heck], he just got franchised; he’s a multi-millionaire.”
Monken praised Blackmon and said, “He does all the hard things easy.”
“He’s got run-after-catch ability,” Monken said. “He plays strong to the ball. He’s got excellent body control. He’s tough physically and mentally. He can judge it down the field. He has the ability to block on the perimeter. Everybody always says when you watch him play, ‘God, I thought he was bigger.’ That’s what you want everybody to say because he just plays so big. Now whether that lends itself to what his future [becomes], I don’t know.
“You can polish route running. You can polish some other things. It’s hard to polish run after catch. It’s hard to polish playing strong to the ball. It’s hard to polish judge it down the field. It’s hard to coach all those things. It’s hard to coach that toughness, bouncing off the ground and staying healthy and being a good person and all those things. He has all those.”
The critics also say Blackmon drops too many passes.
“The ones he drops are the routine balls, the ones he stops thinking about or stops focusing on,” Dunn said. “The difficult ones are the ones he has the itch to make.”
Dunn said Blackmon’s body control is a strength often overlooked.
“He’s a very technical receiver,” Dunn said. “He doesn’t go over the top and snatch it away. He can, he chooses not to do it. He chooses to use his body, which is the mark of a great receiver.
“When you can body a guy, you can play against a 6-4 corner, you can make a play against a 6-4 safety. When you rely on jumping over the top of somebody all the time, at some point you’ll meet your maker.”
Nolan Nawrocki of Pro Football Weekly also expressed doubts about Blackmon off the field.
“Blackmon has raised more concerns recently about his off-the-field habits,” Nawrocki said in an April 11 conference call. “He did not take the team charter from the bowl game, he decided to go to Las Vegas. There are concerns about how well he’s going to be able to manage himself away from the field, how much you’re going to be able to control him.
“The work ethic when he’s in the facility is strong. The football character and passion when he’s playing the games is strong. The competitiveness is there. But when you’re taking about a top five, top 10 pick, you want to make sure you’re not going to miss.”
Dunn didn’t seem concerned about what Blackmon did after a 41-38 overtime victory over Stanford and quarterback Andrew Luck in the Fiesta Bowl.
“At that point, it’s a wrap. That guy’s going to NFL,” Dunn said. “I was baby-sitting until that final horn. I’m sure he was 21 and plenty legal to go do a lot of things.” Monken told Cleveland.com that half the team flew elsewhere after the game.
Dunn does not question Blackmon’s competitiveness or work ethic. He saw both in spring practice a year ago, when the Cowboys were divided into 10-man teams and participated in a contest that included an obstacle course, sled push and tire push. Blackmon made sure his group won.
“He has that natural body type of being fast, strong and explosive, so he would win the majority of the drills,” Dunn said. “He was always trying to get in line and go again. You’ve got to say, ‘Hey, wait a second, we’ve got to get somebody else up there.’ Most of the time it’s the other way around. Most of the time you’re trying to get the player to go again.
“If we would have let him he would have been up there every dang time.”
Marla Ridenour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at https://ohio.com/marla. Follow her on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.