The two most prolific wide receivers in Washington State’s history’s paths have diverged since their college careers ended months ago, and they will continue to find their own ways to the NFL after this week’s draft.
But the final weekend before the most important days of their lives were spent together, one last time in Joe Albi Stadium, watching their old team scrimmage.
River Cracraft and Gabe Marks took turns standing in the center of Spokane media scrums one last time to update everyone on what they have been up to since WSU’s Pro Day in early March.
Marks seems ready to find a place to call home after four months of living in hotels and being poked and picked at by various teams. Whether he ends up in Miami or Minnesota, Marks knows what his first purchase as a rich man will be.
“I’ve got to get a dog, man. I feel like it’s time,” Marks said. “I was on the fence about it while I was in school, but I didn’t have enough time. I probably won’t have much time, now, but at some point you’ve got to just make the sacrifice.”’
Neither player is projected to be selected early in the upcoming NFL draft, which runs from Thursday through Saturday, and it is possible either or both will end up signing with a team as an undrafted free agent.
Despite whatever perceived flaws make Cracraft and Marks less desirable to NFL teams than their less productive peers, whatever teams they end up with will be buying low on the players who rank No. 1 and No. 2 all-time in receptions at WSU.
Cracraft’s comparisons to other hardworking receivers of similar complexion who played for Mike Leach are almost too easy, but just like Danny Amendola and Wes Welker before him, he is likely to be overlooked by NFL general managers who may soon wonder why they did not take a flier on a precise player who made plays in the Pac-12 for four years because of all the traits they profess to value.
The reason NFL executives use clichés like “works hard every practice” and “loves the game” is because players who do not are the superb athletes who every year get selected early and never amount to much.
Amendola, Welker and perhaps Cracraft are the other sort, the ones who are the reasons for those clichés’ existence, yet never seem to benefit from it. Cracraft, like Marks, started as a true freshman at WSU, and caught 218 passes for 2,701 yards and 20 touchdowns in his career because of his willingness to run into the teeth of a defense and ability to find a sliver of space in which to make a catch.
He approached WSU special teams coach Eric Mele before the season, asking to play on special teams so he could show teams his willingness to chip in with the less glamorous, most dangerous parts of the game.
Marks is more likely to have his name flash across the screen at some point during the three days of the NFL Draft, though he probably will not see it. He tells reporters that he will keep it low key during the draft, and probably watch a Yankees game, though he is wearing a Cleveland Indians hat while he says it.
He too has many challenges ahead, even though he spent four years torching the Pac-12 to the tune 3,426 yards while at WSU.
Free thinking is not a virtue in the NFL, and the outspoken Marks has been tested these last few months by league officials who want to see if he can be a company man.
While he performed well at the NFL Combine, organizations that try to track players’ stock, such as CBS and ESPN, have recently downgraded his status, likely to a reaction to concerns about Marks’ ability to become less interesting and discerning as a pro than he was in college.
Scouts loudly noted during WSU’s pro day that Marks bristled when asked to submit himself to the same height and weight measurements he had undergone just days before at the NFL Combine, and no doubt the biggest concern on their pre-draft reports are about his abilities to be bland.
Marks is not going to lie or sanitize his speech too much when asked for an opinion on a subject he feels strongly about. But he did acknowledge the benefits of tact, at least until he’s made himself invaluable as a player.
“There’s a way to do things. You can’t just go in there and act like you own the place,” Marks said. “You’ve got to respect guys who’ve been there. These guys are grown men, they’ve got families and stuff, so there’s a different way to go about it.”
But the league also has a history of brash wide receivers, and there will always be a place for Marks if he can make catches and score touchdowns for his team, as he did 316 and 37 times for the Cougars.
The odds may be stacked against Cracraft and Marks in the short term as they begin their professional careers. But it would be silly to bet against players who were so successful in college, and who excel in so many ways that GMs and scouts profess to value most.
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