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NFL trying to get a grip on Brandon Allen's big numbers

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Brandon Allen's hand size overshadows his ability (2:33)

ESPN SEC reporter Alex Scarborough talks about the issues with Brandon Allen's "measurables" and what it might mean for his draft position. (2:33)

It was supposed to be an informal meeting. Dan Enos, Arkansas' new offensive coordinator, wanted to introduce himself to a few players, say hello and chat for a bit. A sort of hey, how you doing, where you from, kind of thing. Nothing serious. There would be time to get into watching film and evaluating the roster later.

But Enos couldn't help himself. More than two decades as a college coach had jammed his recruiting switch in the on position. So when he stuck his hand out to greet Brandon Allen for the first time, it wasn't just to show that he had good manners -- that's only one of the reasons he shakes everyone's hand, he said. The other was to "get his paw in my hand and see if it wraps around a couple of times."

His reaction: Boy, he doesn't have very big hands.

Enos didn't say anything out loud, but he was disappointed. The starting quarterback he inherited didn't fit the prototype: "6-3, 220, hand size 9 or more," as he put it. Allen came in at 6-foot-1, 210 pounds. Enos didn't measure his hands at the time, but he was right about them being small. At the Senior Bowl, they would measure an unsavory 8½ inches.

"When you see Brandon -- and no offense to him -- but he's not a superimpressive, imposing-looking guy," Enos said.

His poor first impression of Allen fell by the wayside quickly, though, as he watched the two-year starter take command of the offense during spring camp, going all 15 practices without throwing an interception. The game film he had seen of Allen had been misleading: The ball came out of his hand much better in person. It didn't matter that he wasn't statuesque in the pocket. He had a strong arm, quick feet and an even quicker release.

In Allen, Enos saw a more athletic Brian Hoyer, whom he coached at Michigan State. Hoyer would go on to start 26 games in the NFL with the Cardinals, Browns and Texans.

Hoyer went undrafted back in 2009, and Allen was on track to do the same before he turned the corner last season and put up the kind of numbers the NFL couldn't ignore: 30 touchdowns, eight interceptions, a 65.9 percent completion rate. In November, he combined to throw for 848 yards, 13 touchdowns and no interceptions against Ole Miss and Mississippi State.

While some stats result in only a cursory nod from coaches, one metric stunned Enos. He had no idea that Allen led the country in QBR last season, a stat that accounts for several factors on a play-by-play basis, including down and distance, field position, the score and quality of opponent. When Enos learned that the past five QBR leaders were Andrew Luck, Russell Wilson, Johnny Manziel, Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota, he was dumbfounded.

By that measure, Allen ought to be considered an elite prospect. But what's stopping him is as simple as a handshake -- a "bad habit" Enos admits he should probably get rid of. To some evaluators, Allen's smallish hands are a red flag when it comes to ball security, even though his six career fumbles pale in comparison to the double-digit fumbles of Mariota (14) and Luck (11). Combined with his relative lack of height, the eye test has relegated him to the second tier of quarterbacks in the draft, behind the likes of Carson Wentz, Jared Goff and Paxton Lynch (average measurements: 6-foot-5, 232 pounds and 9¾-inch hands).

"Maybe if Brandon went to the combine and his hands were 9¾ inches, maybe they would be talking about him in that vein. If he was 6-2¾ instead of 6-1¼ ... I don't know," Enos said. "At the end of the day -- and I can't stress this enough -- turn the tape back on and watch him throw the football."

Enos said he has had several scouts tell him that Allen's "better than advertised." But why then wasn't that advertised better to begin with? It can't be as simple as hand size ... can it?

According to Phil Savage, a former personnel executive with the Ravens and Browns who now runs the Senior Bowl and serves as an ESPN NFL Insider, it can't be ignored. Like Enos, Savage said he notices a players' grip every time he shakes hands.

"I'm sure there are scouts out there that had a good grade on Brandon and when they announced 8½, they said, 'Oh, man, that's not going to help my cause in the draft room to advocate for him,'" Savage said.

"I don't think there's been a Super Bowl-winning quarterback with 9-inch or smaller hands; it's some very prohibitive stat like that. And you're playing the percentages with all these players. That's why people really put some work into the measurables. It is an important element."

It's tricky balancing a player's college production versus in-person evaluations. "Statistics can be very deceiving," Savage said, pointing out how teams have to factor in things like scheme and competition. But in that respect, Allen's numbers are only further bolstered. Not only did he play in a talented defensive conference such as the SEC, he started under three different offensive coordinators and thrived in Enos' pro-style system.

What's more, Allen has shown he's mentally tough, surviving a rocky start to his career in which his truck was egged by fans one year and set on fire the next. He never lashed out, even after he began his two-season run of 50 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. Instead, he called the criticism he faced a "blessing in disguise."

"A lot of guys have been doing great their whole life. What if something goes wrong?" he said. "I've been through a pretty rough patch. I think I've shown scouts I can handle pretty much anything negative that comes my way."

Arkansas coach Bret Bielema offered his take on Allen: "He's Cool Hand Luke. He's Steady Eddie."

If Allen hadn't struggled out of the gate, if Arkansas hadn't won a combined 10 games from 2013-14, Bielema believes the attitude toward his former quarterback would be different. At the very least, he wouldn't get the impression that scouts are showing up late to the party.

"I'm not shocked. I get it, I understand why there was hesitation," Bielema said. "But the No. 1 reason that I think people are seeing things now is they're realizing how good of arm strength he does have. He really does have the ability to throw a variety of different balls. He has the deep ball, the intermediate, the medium-range ball. And he has the ability to put nice touch on it, to be honest."

When asked about Allen's physical shortcomings, Bielema's answer is as straightforward as it is compelling: "When Russell was coming out, they were worried about his height, and I think he's done all right."

That's Russell, as in Russell Wilson, whom Bielema coached at Wisconsin. The 5-foot-11 quarterback threw for 33 touchdowns and led the country in QBR as a senior only to fall to the third round of the draft in 2012. Three years later, he won the Super Bowl for Seattle and signed a four-year, $87.5 million contract with the Seahawks.

"You have to have something to overcome," Bielema said.

"There's a team out there that wants to take [Allen] and is laying in the weeds," he added. "They're not going to tip anybody off; they're just going to grab him when they grab him."

Representatives of all 32 NFL teams were on hand in Fayetteville when Allen participated in Arkansas' pro day last month. Of the 58 passes he attempted, only two were off target. Members of the Lions, Titans and Steelers took the time to meet with him individually, and Allen said he experienced nothing but positive feedback.

He knows he'll be nitpicked by some because of his size, and he's fine with that. Shortly after the Senior Bowl, his quarterback coach, Ken Mastrole, suggested using a massage therapist to help stretch out the muscles between his thumb and pointer finger in hopes of improving the size of his hands. Why not give it a shot?

Allen endured twice-weekly sessions where his fingers would be contorted as the therapist dug into his ligaments. At the NFL Combine he says he added an extra three-eighths of an inch, but it still wasn't enough to get over the 9-inch threshold.

"Scouts will tell you this themselves: They look for something that could be wrong with you," he said. "It's their job."

And in the case of Allen, their job isn't clear cut.

On the one hand, he doesn't look the part. But on the other hand, his production is undeniable, putting him in the company of quarterbacks several franchises have built their teams around.

It's a battle of small measurables versus big numbers.

Where Allen falls in the draft will help answer the question of whether the NFL still is a league of gut feelings and dusty archetypes or if it has truly stepped into the modern era where analytics are worth more than an impressive handshake.