Heading into the 2018 NFL season, there wasn’t too much optimism throughout the Colts’ fanbase. Superstar quarterback Andrew Luck was finally throwing the football again but outside of TY Hilton, there was plenty of skepticism on who could actually catch the ball. One of the most promising players last offseason was sixth round rookie wide receiver Deon Cain out of Clemson.
Cain may have been a sixth round pick, but it certainly didn’t seem like it. Chris Ballard raved about him daily and the coaching staff was obviously excited about his potential. Unfortunately, Cain tore his ACL in the first preseason game and all that excitement and potential was sadly gone in an instant. “It was just a freak injury” Cain said recently in a documentary series recounting his road to recovery.
A few days ago, Chris Shepherd wrote an article on how small of a chance Cain has at making this Colts’ roster in 2019. In a sense, I completely agree with his argument. Chris does a great job of bringing up past examples of late round receivers who missed their rookie seasons and how little production they have had in the NFL. In this article today though, I look at how Cain is different from those past examples and why he will make this roster heading into 2019.
For some background on Deon Cain, he really should have gone higher than the sixth round in the 2018 NFL Draft. Many receivers who go in the sixth round are players who are either elite athletes for average schools with no production (basically taking a chance on a raw athlete) or productive players who just aren’t great athletes. Cain however is a bit different. He was a high recruit for a big school who has elite athleticism and fairly good production (over 2,000 yards in three seasons).
So why did he slip? He did have some off field issues early on at Clemson along with dealing with injuries throughout his career. He also struggled with some other factors in his game but overall, he looked like a player the NFL would normally take in the 3rd-4th round range.
Going to Chris’ article again, he identified nine sixth round receivers who either missed their rookie seasons due to injury or just simply didn’t register a snap in their rookie season. Here is how Cain is completely different from some of those players and why his case is a bit different from each of those players.
- Aldrick Robinson. Drafted in 2011 out of SMU, the Redskins saw Robinson as more of a gadget player/deep threat. He lacked great size and really wasn’t ready for the NFL game out of SMU. Cain does have that NFL size that you look for (6’2” 202 pounds) and came from not only a big school in Clemson but a school known for producing high end receiver prospects. Cain was just more advanced and better suited for the NFL out of college than Robinson.
- Trindon Holliday. Drafted in 2010 out of LSU, Holliday did come out of a bigger school but he was never seriously considered a WR coming out of college. He rarely played receiver as a matter of fact as he was mostly a running back/gadget player for the Tigers. Hard to compare him at all to a player with the pedigree and skillset of Cain.
- Corey Fuller. Drafted in 2013 out of Virginia Tech, Fuller had the big college name and the athleticism but he was hardly productive in college. He only played one full season for the Hokies in college and tallied just 900 yards receiving in his time with the school. He does compare favorably to Cain in many aspects but Cain just had much more experience and even more athleticism than Fuller coming out of college.
Now I could do this for every player Chris listed but I think you get the point. The overall point that Chris was trying to make was that Cain has a small chance of making the roster based in this past precedent (just a 9% chance) and that is a completely justifiable thought process. I personally think though that his situation and his upside is so different compared to this past precedent that we can overlook these other players who made little impact.
Positives on Film
Cain showed a ton of promise on film at Clemson that led to all the excitement that we’ve seen for him these past two seasons. The biggest aspect is the deep speed and athleticism. Performing while injured at the Combine, Cain still put up impressive numbers that included a 4.43 40 yard dash and 6.71 three cone time. His highlights at Clemson showed a receiver who can stretch the field and make the necessary adjustments in the air to make big plays.
Clemson WR Deon Cain— 2020 NFL Draft (@DraftRT) March 3, 2018
8 8/6” Hands
79 5/8” Wingspan
11 Bench Press Reps pic.twitter.com/d4mFDRR4uS
His run after catch ability was also intriguing for Reich and company as he consistently made things happen on his manufactured touches. Even in the championship game against the mighty Alabama defense, Cain was able to make a couple big plays. He was able to average 15.7 yards per catch in college and it could have easily been more.
The biggest factor though that led to the hype in 2018 was his strong training camp. Cain was one of the best players in the offseason for the team before tearing his ACL in that first preseason game. He was making play after play in the one on ones and in team drills, he was just as good. The hype he has been getting for two years now is based mostly on his practices from last year and his big play ability in college for a top program.
The Team That Loves Him
So I could sit here all day and talk about why I like him but what really matters at the end of the day is how the team views him. We could discuss past precedent and “what ifs” all day long but the team and how they view him is all that matters. It isn’t hard to see that the team— and the man responsible for the quick turnaround— absolutely loves him. Here is what Ballard had to say regarding Cain and his return to form in 2019.
A guy Chris Ballard singled out today: WR Deon Cain, who returns from torn ACL.— Stephen Holder (@HolderStephen) July 24, 2019
"He’s grown and matured in the past year. Sometimes setbacks can be a positive and he turned it into one. He worked his ass off. We’ll limit him early, but the last 2 days has been fun to watch."
Ballard was obviously excited about the potential of Cain last season and was pretty devastated when the rookie went down last season. He wasn’t the only one who was excited for Cain last year either. Head Coach Frank Reich was a huge fan of him last year and obviously saw big things in the sixth rounder’s future.
Frank Reich on Deon Cain: "We know we got something special in Deon Cain: A young guy who can develop into a great player. Obviously this is a big setback. That’s not uncommon. Good players find a way of overcoming those obstacles."— Zak Keefer (@zkeefer) August 10, 2018
The final evidence that the team is head over heels for Cain despite him being a sixth round pick coming off of a major injury is the amount of time and dedication they put into a documentary detailing his road to recovery. The NFL sees many day three players undergo injuries and ACL tears every year. Cain is the only one to get a two part miniseries made by the team documenting his recovery. Would they make a video like that if he was going to get cut? I highly doubt it. The Colts obviously have major plans for Cain with this team.
Now I didn’t write this article to bash Chris or his opinion on Cain making this team. Quite frankly, odds are that he could be correct and all of us are completely off on our predictions for Cain on this team. As Chris mentioned in his piece, he is highly unlikely to make this roster by almost every quantifiable factor. From his injury history to his late round status to issues that showed on his college film, Cain faces an uphill battle to make the team and my side of this argument could very well be wrong.
I ultimately think though that Cain is the exception to the rule. He is not like late round picks in years past. He reminds me more of other late round players who have found success in this league. Players like Robbie Anderson come to mind when thinking of Cain. The odds with his draft status and ACL tear may be against him but I do think he makes this team. I think that he has too much talent not to and I think that Frank Reich and Chris Ballard know this.
He may have less than a 9% chance of making this team by all historical odds but I’m 100% on the side that has him on this roster. I may be wrong by opening day but I think the Colts have a future in mind with him on this roster.