NFL talent evaluators are always facing challenges when projecting how well a college prospect's game will adapt at the pro level. Can they handle the increase in speed and power? A position change? A scheme change? All of them are questions scouts and personnel executives have to answer to the best of their ability.
When a player's college resume reveals a few years of solid production the evaluation is easier. When it's not the list of questions grows longer and having the right answers becomes more difficult.
"It's a delicate balance because you would like for him to have a long resume and a history of being productive and doing these things for three or four years, but that doesn't happen a lot in college football anymore," said Bills defensive coordinator Perry Fewell. "So it's a little bit of a crapshoot at times. A lot of juniors come out, they don't play for four years. So you have to look at some of the potential and you have to see if a guy has more room for growth. Is he just scratching the surface?"
Or is he a flash in the pan?
Two such examples in this year's draft class are highly rated, and at a position where the Bills could use some help. There are questions about these players however, based on their relatively short college resumes.
Tennessee defensive end Robert Ayers set career highs in tackles (49) and tackles for loss (17) as a senior and had a monster week at the Senior Bowl where he was named Defensive MVP. Not considered an elite pass rusher, Ayers does everything well as he also had three sacks and an interception.
The problem is prior to his senior year Ayers wasn't even a starter. He appeared in 36 games prior to the 2008 season, but started in just two and those were as a sophomore. He also had an off the field transgression as a freshman in 2005.
Was it a matter of being immature early in his college career? Was he just not good enough until his senior year? Ayers stated his case at the NFL combine early this week.
"The fact that I started only one year can lead you the wrong way," said Ayers. "You look at the stats at Tennessee as a junior I led the team in sacks and tackles for loss coming off the bench. My hard work didn't just start my senior year. The fact that I got most improved (player) going into my junior year and getting selected as a captain my senior year shows that I've been working hard. So my hard work really just paid off and I earned a starting position as a senior, but I've been working hard since day one."
Opportunity seemed to be the issue as well for Penn State's Aaron Maybin. Maybin's 2008 season was so big he chose to enter the draft as a third-year sophomore. But he only got on the field as a full-time starter two weeks into the season after teammate Maurice Evans was suspended.
Maybin was a beast with 49 tackles, 20 of which went for loss, 12 sacks and three forced fumbles. Prior to that however, Maybin had only recorded defensive stats in nine games. Nevertheless he's considered a first round pick that could find his way into the top 10.
The Nittany Lion pass rusher understands why there's a concern about his limited experience and production, but he's determined to prove he will do much of the same in the NFL.
"I'll do what I can to give them what they want," said Maybin of the NFL scouts.
One thing NFL teams wanted to see was more weight on his 6'4" frame as he played at just 230 pounds last fall. That's not going to cut it at defensive end.
"Most people wanted to see me put on some weight. I went to work and put on 20 pounds," said Maybin who is now 250 pounds. "I feel real good right now. And basically I just want to continue to do all that I can to give them what it is that they want to see with respect to performance."
Maybin ran a 4.78 40-time carrying that extra weight, which was a positive for him.
Bills Vice President of College Scouting Tom Modrak admits he'd take a lengthy career of productive play over a short one any time. But all the shorter resumes do is make Modrak and his staff dig a little deeper.
"Sure it makes you feel better about it," said Modrak. "Lee Evans did it for a number of years in college and he continues to do it. Short term it's a little bit different. You have to look at it a lot harder and if you come up with the right answers you go with it."
Maybin looks like a talented player that just needed an opportunity, while Ayers needed all four years of his college career to mature and only now may be hitting his stride as an impact player.
"I guess you could say I'm a late bloomer," said Ayers. "I look at myself as a hard worker and I just stayed patient and just kept praying and waited until my opportunity came. And when my opportunity came I just tried to take advantage of it. I feel like I have a lot of things I can get better at and I look forward to doing that in my career in the NFL."
And while Ayers future looks promising, Modrak and his scouts will gather whatever additional information they can to make the most accurate projection possible on Ayers, Maybin and any other college prospect who may fall a bit short on the experience or production meter.
"That really is our job," said Modrak. "We're always making projections about how he is on Saturday and how he's going to do on Sunday. We will investigate it and look at it and see why the history is short. If we can satisfy ourselves that there's a good reason why, then it doesn't make any difference."