It's buzzword season in draft circles. Be prepared to hear anything from “oily hips” to “developmental prospect” to “quicker than fast” and, of course, “football guy.”
I'll be the first to admit: I love draft vernacular and use it liberally because the colorful language does help paint a picture when we know what it means. It describes traits that can be difficult to characterize otherwise.
However, it's important to not use these phrases in a vacuum without context. That's the danger with some of these terms. We throw them around indiscriminately, without providing the necessary context for their meaning. That's what waters them down into buzzwords.
So, what is a boom-or-bust prospect?
It isn't enough to say that a boom-or-bust prospect has a high ceiling and a low floor. A boom-or-bust prospect certainly has a high ceiling — that's the boom — and a low floor — that's the bust — but they are more likely to end up at one of those poles than any old prospect. As such, their pro projection often hinges on one particular trait translating to the league, one particular red flag proving inconsequential and one particular skill developing quickly. If they end up on the right side of that tipping point, they have everything else necessary to be a highly-successful pro player. If they fall on the other side, their ancillary traits really don't matter all that much.
That's really the defining characteristic of the boom-or-bust prospect: They are either going to hit big or struggle to stick in the league and disappoint significantly relative to the draft capital spent on them.
Let's start with a clear one, with a clear hinge, and roll from there.
Tua Tagovailoa, QB, Alabama
Tua Tagovailoa is a wicked good prospect. He checks every intangible box at least twice, has NFL-caliber traits across the board, was highly productive in college and has tremendous tape. The only concern coming into the season was going to be the injury history of his high ankle sprains. The concerns leaving the season are still the ankle sprains, but with the recovery from the hip dislocation and fracture on top of that.
A fully healthy Tagovailoa is likely to be a good pro as any quarterback in this class and in recent classes as well. Drafting a starting-caliber QB is a boom pick by default, even if a team spends its first-overall selection on such, and agovailoa’s worth the gamble for a lot of teams at the top of the order. But the gamble is a big one, because Tagovailoa may never be fully healthy; never return to the full extent of his explosiveness and never play a 16-game season. If that's the case, you don't have a starting quarterback — you just have the idea of one.
Tagovailoa is boom or bust, and most prospects with injury concerns are because if they're healthy, they're big-time value selections. But he's just important to note because of how high a cost is necessary to grab him, and how valuable he'll be if he pans out.
Yetur Gross-Matos, EDGE, Penn State
I have Yetur Gross-Matos ranked lower than a lot of people do. He's still in my top-100 at No. 93 overall, which gives him a Round 3 grade. I characterize him as a potential future starter, but a player who is unlikely to contribute in Year 1.
Accordingly, the hinge for Gross-Matos' boom-or-bust timelines is development. He's a raw player, who makes up his game as he goes. He struggles to throw rush moves with consistency, both in his hand placement and his strike timing; his angles and landmarks. He's all over the place, and at times, that lets him react naturally and effortlessly to oversets or early punches. At other times, it prevents him from winning reps against inferior players he should be able to beat.
It is not enough to say Gross-Matos is toolsy. He is, but there five toolsy EDGEs who might go Round 3 at the very earliest; more likely go in Round 4 and beyond. Toolsy players might become something. Gross-Matos is well on his way to becoming something; he's already shown that some pieces are there and put together. But the picture is still incomplete.
The problem is Gross-Matos is going to be drafted like he's got it all put together, and that's a lot earlier than the toolsy players. A team needs to have faith in your defensive line coach to help Gross-Matos settle down as a rusher and work reps with more intentionality and needs to have time to let him start, struggle through reps, implement what he's learned and grow into a player that can deliver on his early-round capital.
K.J. Hamler, WR, Penn State
I'm in on K.J. Hamler. He’s the 27th overall player on my board. It's tough for players with his athletic ability to be bad in the NFL. Hamler can make multiple players miss with the ball in his hands. He can separate downfield with long speed and across the middle of the field with route-running and he's tough as nails for his size.
If anything's going to hurt a player of this profile, it would be bad hands. See Nelson Agholor or Breshad Perriman, who were both first-round selections that struggled in the league for, in large part, inconsistent hands in their early years.
Unlike Agholor and Perriman, Hamler's lacking for length. His catch radius is already diminished, which gives him a bleaker outlook from the jump. Meanwhile, he tends to fight the football with small mitts that struggle to secure catches outside of his frame. He has the occasional spectacular catch, but on average, he doesn't have a trustworthy catch technique on routes he must consistently win in the NFL — like quick in-breakers and deep isolation routes.
If Hamler's hands are trustworthy enough early in his career to garner consistent targets as a potential home-run threat, his play-caller and quarterback will live with occasional cold stretches of drops, because they'll know what he can do with the ball in his hands. If he never earns that trust in a new locker room, however, he'll be good only for the intermittent explosive play, never becoming the consistent threat an early-round draft pick is expected to be.
Grant Delpit, S, LSU
If you talked to most people — including me — before the season, Grant Delpit was a boom prospect. Players with this range don't come through with this size and these ball skills every year, and that allows Delpit to truly play as a combo safety. He won’t just be able to play from the box to deep half, but play from the box to deep middle, truly disguising what coverages you're calling pre-snap.
This season, when Delpit was really thrown under the draft microscope, the bust potential was revealed. The hinge for Delpit has been harped on to the point where it may even be overblown as an issue, but we still have to discuss it: tackling.
Delpit will never be a great tackler. He's an upright runner and lacks great density because he's long. In turn, he struggles to settle his hips and gather his weight when closing in at high speeds and doesn't bring much thump unless he can hit in stride. Beyond the physical aspects of it, Delpit seems to be a picky tackler who doesn't like head-on contact. He takes bad angles into glancing blows and dives for ankles when he has the opportunity to lay the wood.
None of that is great, right? But, it's easily overlooked, if you make high-caliber plays from the roof. True single-high safeties are rare acquisitions in the league. Most just police centerfield without making impact plays outside of the numbers or in the intermediate hole. Delpit has the explosiveness, football intelligence and ball skills to be that player. If it comes to fruition in the NFL and he generates interceptions, pass breakups and key stops in pass coverage, teams will overlook missed tackles for the value he creates in other facets of his game.
But even with those plays considered, there has to be a floor set for the quality of his tackling for him to stay on the field -- and if he doesn't tackle, he doesn't play on special teams, either. Truly, his starting job hinges on him just not being a total liability on the back end.