Why We Can Never Be Sure About NFL Prospects

The annual influx of college stars to the NFL is always full of promise on draft day, but the rigors of the pro game are often downright humbling. Indianapolis Colts wide receiver Parris Campbell learned that in 2019.
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INDIANAPOLIS — As Indianapolis Colts wide receiver Parris Campbell spoke of his painful rookie season on Wednesday, the mind raced back to other pro prospects who encountered an unexpected initiation.

The road to the NFL is littered with special college players who didn’t make the splash they envisioned as professionals.

The speed burner from Ohio State ran the fastest 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine at 4.31 seconds, which coupled with his playmaking ability for the Buckeyes convinced the Colts to select him in the second round with the 59th overall pick.

A hamstring injury, then three breakdowns that required surgery — a sports hernia, fractured hand, and fractured foot — reduced Campbell to just seven games, in which he caught just 18 passes for 127 yards and one TD.

Campbell, 22, has healed and is convinced he’s done everything humanly possible to properly prepare for his second season. But, again, you never know. It’s not like he expected to get hurt again and again and again. Nobody ever plans on that, but again, it happens every year in this league.

If looking for a recent example of how a prized NFL rookie wide receiver had to overcome a rough debut, go back to the 2017 draft, when the Cincinnati Bengals selected Washington’s John Ross with the ninth overall pick.

Ross didn’t have a single catch as a rookie and his only statistic was a 12-yard rush in which he fumbled. Injuries reduced him to just three games played.

In the past two seasons, he’s contributed 49 catches for 716 yards and 10 TDs. Except for the touchdowns, the other numbers don’t meet with the expectations for such a high pick. He also missed half of last season with a shoulder injury and didn’t play in three games in 2018.

So in other words, just like Campbell, the jury is still out on Ross.

This is where some words of reassurance could be offered for Colts fans who want to be optimistic about Campbell. Judging a young talent with the heart or the head can be perplexing.

As a college senior, Campbell shined with 90 catches for 1,063 yards and 12 TDs on a Buckeyes squad loaded with talent. His roommate was wide receiver Terry McLaurin, an Indianapolis native selected in the third round by the Washington Redskins. McLaurin had an impressive rookie year on a bad team with 58 receptions for 919 yards and seven TDs.

That’s what Campbell was expected to do. An optimist can write off Campbell’s 2019 as just bad luck. He’s got the speed and ability to make plays. He just needs to stay healthy.

But a pessimist can look deeper into his college stats and suggest Campbell had only the one standout year — he caught 40 passes for 584 yards and three TDs as a junior and just 13 passes for 121 yards as a sophomore. If he gets hurt again, the skeptic’s quick reaction will be that his body just can’t hold up.

The Colts drafted USC wide receiver Michael Pittman Jr. in the second round with the 34th overall pick to bolster a thin pass-catching group. The son of an NFL running back, Pittman has the physical polish of a pro-ready talent.

Unlike Campbell, Pittman has size at 6-4 and 223 pounds. He’s sneaky fast, not as speedy as Campbell, but impressed scouts with his ability to high-point passes and beat cornerbacks for contested catches. Pittman continually prevailed in one-on-one matchups — a Colts scout said he never saw the receiver lose one in practice, and that carried over to games.

Pittman put up better college numbers than Campbell. His breakout senior year resulted in 101 catches for 1,275 yards and 11 TDs. As a junior, his numbers were also better with 41 receptions for 758 yards and six TDs. In his first two college years, he caught 29 passes for 486 yards and two TDs.

That’s why many are projecting Pittman to be an immediate starter and steady Colts contributor as a rookie.

Time will tell on both Colts wide receivers. But Campbell is a reminder that no matter how much a prospect enters with immense professional potential, nothing is a given in the NFL.

(Phillip B. Wilson has covered the Indianapolis Colts for more than two decades and authored the 2013 book 100 Things Colts Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die. He’s on Twitter @pwilson24, on Facebook at @allcoltswithphilb and @100thingscoltsfans, and his email is phillipbwilson24@yahoo.com.)