I was recently challenged to write an article about 2016 draft sleepers. My head was immediately churning through dozens of prospects but through this internal filtration process one name stood out that I wanted to write about. That player is Marquez North, the former WR from the University of Tennessee. When it comes to Marquez North I think how people respond breaks down into three categories. You have people that have never heard of him. People that remember him from the combine and know a little bit about his background. And people that have known about him for years that follow college football at a obsessive-compulsive level.
I first discovered Marquez North last spring when I was compiling my list of prospects to follow for the up-coming season. I had never heard of him before and I looked up his team site biography and watched some highlights to get acclimated to him. I was quite intrigued and excited after doing that background work on him. At that time most people who followed the draft knew him but were waiting for him to break out. Unfortunately that never happened.
Marquez North was born in Charlotte, North Carolina. His father Ramondo North was as a wide receiver who found his way on the end of multiple NFL rosters in the 1990’s collecting a Superbowl ring as a reserve with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Marquez was a highly recruited receiver who picked Tennessee over Clemson and North Carolina because he would likely be able to step in and play right away which turned out to be a correct assumption. He started out hot as a freshman with 38 catches, 496 yards and 1 TD playing with two different starting QB’s. He dealt with a high-ankle sprain at the end of the season and missed the last game at Kentucky. In his sophomore season he again dealt with two different starting quarterbacks as well as persistent back, foot, and shoulder ailments. To top it off North suffered a late season torn labrum which required surgery. North ending the season with just 30 catches, 320 yards, and 4 touchdowns. Many – including myself – were expecting a breakout junior season from North with fellow junior Joshua Dobbs as the full-time starter in their power-spread offense. It never materialized. North was coming off surgery and on top of that dealt with knee pain but back pain eventually derailed his season which ended with just 6 catches for 58 yards and being absent in 8 games.
The natural assumption is that a player with this resume after three seasons would come back for his senior year. North shocked many people when he decided to declare early for the NFL draft. Many people did not understand it. I was not surprised. You can completely understand his decision if you watch the Tennessee Volunteers offense. It was not geared towards the passing game. To many people’s surprise, Tennessee’s QB Joshua Dobbs who came to Tennessee 190 pounds soaking wet has developed into a 215-pound dynamic running quarterback. When you combine Dobbs’ natural running talent with their offense focusing on the running attack it does not leave much for the receivers on the roster. One wide receiver since 2013 has had over 500 yards in Tennessee’s offense. Marquez North was never going to be featured in the offense. The offense is dominated by Dobbs running the ball, screen passes, and quick-outs. Rarely does Tennessee push the ball down the field. On many third downs they dial up quarterback designed runs which leave the wide receivers watching or blocking. Dobbs rarely looks to his second read or scans the field which means if North is on the left side of the field and open Dobbs will rarely even look for him if his first read is to the right side of the field. This makes a receivers job very difficult. Marquez knew the offense would be run by the same quarterback and thus the scheme would likely not drastically change. His father with whom he is very close had to be advising him to leave early due to Tennessee’s offense not highlighting the play of his sons position. Ramondo North knows all too well how short a players window can be. You could make an argument that makes sense for both Marquez to go back for his senior year as well as declare early for the draft. He could prove he can stay healthy in the Volunteers unorthodox offense and risk further injury or prove himself in the NFL and learn from the sideline while earning a salary. For the North family I believe the decision was fairly easy.
What makes me so optimistic about Marquez North? Well, there is a lot to like. North comes off the bus at nearly 6’3″ inches tall, 225 pounds, long 33 3/8-inch arms and huge 10 1/4-inch hands. At this time he is just 20-years-old. That’s always a nice start. He put up impressive numbers in tights at the combine with a top-notch 20-yard shuttle, impressive 3-cone and a 40-yard dash that when you couple his combine and pro-day times averages out to be roughly 4.45. Nothing in testing came back to hurt him and it is believed he is fine medically at this time. On tape – which there isn’t much of available- his talents shine. He is a receiver that will make a quarterback look good. He has the ability to catch anything and at Tennessee he was forced to catch a lot of poorly thrown passes. North has extremely impressive upper-body flexibility which allows him to adjust to the ball and bring in passes most receivers can’t. His ability to high-point the ball and snag passes outside of his frame with his huge catch radius is impressive. His hands are excellent and swallow the football. Another strength of North’s game is his physicality. He is not afraid to go over the middle to secure the ball nor is he afraid to get his hands dirty blocking down field. As far as off-the-field concerns and football character there appear to be no issues. “I give Marquez a lot of credit. He tried to fight through some nagging injuries, and he’s worked really hard to get himself back. The thing I like about him right now is he’s becoming a very good student of the game. He’s always asking the question why; he’s always asking for extra help; he’s always asking for an extra set of eyes. ‘Coach, how’s this?’ Now when we talk about the maturity in conversation the level of conversation has increased and not just what’s his route, but the inner-workings of everything and the small details of getting open. That’s what I’ve really liked. He’s really, really committed himself to the football intelligence part of it.” (TFP) – Tennessee Read Coach Butch Jones
I’ve detailed the intrigue of Marquez North, but for him to be a sleeper there has to be a reason. What makes me concerned about Marquez North? Well, there are some warts. He does not possess the speed to put fear in a cornerback’s eyes like a player of Andre Johnson’s caliber who happens to share similar size. He’s often got the cornerback in his back pocket. Most of his catches are contested. One of the reasons why his timed speed doesn’t show on the field is that he’s still very much raw as a route-runner and learning his way which is understandable for a lot of 20-year-old young men playing in an offense like the one at Tennessee. The main issue with Marquez North is obviously injuries. He’s sustained an injury in every season and every season he’s progressively missed more time. What are the reasons for this? One of them could be that he’s just 20 years old and already playing at 225 pounds which is extremely uncommon at his position. His body is chiseled and very much filled out. His father has no doubt been involved in his physical development which may have caused some of these nagging injuries to come about. Not many players at Marquez’s age have his physique. His body has gone through a rapid transformation in just 2-3 years and he may be adjusting. He’s never had any serious lower-body injuries which is encouraging but you have to worry a bit about the back pain he’s been dealing with and if that is going to be a repetitive problem.
So where does Marquez North stand? Even after his impressive combine performance his standing in the draft community and NFL circles appears to still be pretty low despite interest from many clubs requesting private workouts and visits. In the amateur draft community where I spend a lot of my time entrenched he is relatively absent from all discussion at his position. Among people with league connections and many years of experience scouting players he’s not well-regarded either. Both Lance Zierlein of NFL.com and Nolan Nawrocki who works independently have given him priority free agent grades going into the draft. When it comes to evaluating players there is often a gut instinct you develop. Over eleven years I’ve been right and wrong like everyone else but my gut instinct is telling me that Marquez North will find success at the NFL level. I completely understand why most everyone has Marquez North graded where they do. I believe he has the talent to become what Jerry Porter couldn’t develop into at the next level. I expect North to exceed expectations in a big way in the near future.