By Mike O’Connor, Staff Writer
When analyzing prospects for the NFL Draft, their are so many important qualities to note when scouting Wide Receivers. As most of us know, it’s not just about speed and being a game-breaker with explosiveness after the catch, these are just added bonuses that boost player’s stocks.
However, the closer we get to late April and further away we get from our first tape evaluations, these added bonuses have begun to take over, taking away from the essentials a top prospect must possess. The swooning over receivers with the ability to shock viewers with yards after catch, athleticism and size begs the question: what ever happened to the basics?
Of course, certain qualities in a receiver like their get off, ability to deal with press, route running, and physicality are huge factors of their game. Oh yea, and let’s not forget the task they’re out their to accomplish the ability to catch the football. Yet, too often I come across a note on a receiver prospect in a scouting report that simply sums up the player’s catching ability as, “has reliable hands,” or; “drops too many passes.” Since when did the issue of a receiver’s ability to catch a football come down to just his hands?
There are many other important pieces to the puzzle of a receiver making catches, and being the best player he can be when it comes down to the seconds before the actual catch is attempted. I have broken these necessary qualities into four different areas:
- Body Control: Considering that a receiver is naturally jostling for position to some extent during their route, receivers should be accustomed to having control over their own frames to make the actual catch. This is body control. You might have heard this term elsewhere in scouting, maybe applying to a superb athlete just trying to control their own movement (looking at you, Barkevious Mingo).For receivers, I’d say body control comes into play approximately 90% in the 1-2 seconds before the WR makes a play on the ball. A receiver who uses their body control to their advantage will gain leverage not by being over physical at the point of the catch (will draw flags more often than not in the NFL), but by putting themselves in the best position to make the catch. For example, a fluttering pass might result in a jump ball scenario. In this situation, the receiver would ideally either slow his steps or take the necessary amount of strides to get under the ball to the best of his abilities, while still leaving enough time to jump and highpoint the football.”High-pointing” is a term that relates to the target judging the path and speed of the pass correctly, than leaping up to catch the ball at its highest point that’s possible to catch it. This tactic is extremely useful since it separates the WR away from the defender as much as possible, but using it in any situation where the ball isn’t contested by a defender will only risk drops. Another way receivers can incorporate body control into their game is in areas with limited room due to boundaries. It is easy to tell when a receiver isn’t comfortable along the sideline or near the back of the end zone.
Each movement becomes less fluid and more fidgety, and tough catches where a foot (NCAA rules) must come down are only seldom made. By executing efficient body control wideouts are open themselves up to many more passes and make each and every pass more catchable.
- Guts: It’s the game of football, everybody has to have guts, no? Sure, but nobody more so than a wide receiver. Too many times while watching tape on this 2013 class I’ve seen a wideout turn down putting a full fledged effort into attempting a catch.The worst part about a receiver who lacks guts is that plays where wideouts make the decision to not go for a pass are the mistakes receivers make that I’m touching on that are most likely to result in turnovers. There’s nothing more deflating than a turnover to start with, but when it is caused by one of your targets not dedicating himself to catch a pass, it sucks momentum out of your team like nothing else. A receiver who lacks toughness will often take rounded cuts out of his final breaks in his route, just to avoid selling himself into a possible meeting of bodies with a defender.Predictably, doing so will only make it harder for the receiver to speed up and track down the pass. As my high school coach taught me, when enough necessary separation is gained, a receiver should treat the rest of his route and passing moments until the ball reaches him like he’s the only one on the field. Until, of course, the ball meets the target. Now, we come across another major test in measuring a WR’s toughness: hand strength. A receiver can naturally be gifted with big, strong hands, but that is only half the battle. Guts not only involves getting to the spot without any reluctance, but to also be ready to take any sort of jarring hit, yet hold on to the pigskin.
Two things a WR will do wrong in this situation are catching the football and immediately undergoing a move to avoid the incoming hit, but losing the ball in the process because the ball wasn’t fully secured yet, or; simply losing focus of firmly grasping the ball, and loosening up the grip on the ball and losing it when the hit is delivered. Over time, pass catchers will naturally gain awareness of when a hit is coming for what kinds of routes they run, and they’ll learn to brace themselves.
One can say the whole guts discussion is overblown when it comes to any range of NFL players, but the difference between a receiver willing to sacrifice pain for his team and a wideout who’ll turn down contact or risk is absolutely noticeable to evaluators.
- Discipline: A very simple yet forgotten tool for receivers. The tools that most ring out to me when discussing basic discipline and how it can effect pass catching are as follows: getting back to the ball, catching the ball with the hands at all costs, and simple focus issues. First, we have the retracing back to the football. Like in soccer, the player open to receiving the ball should never wait for it, or even worse, fade backwards in waiting, when not knowing what lays behind them.Routes that come into mind when speaking of getting back to the ball are any variation of comebacks, hooks, and curls. More and more in today’s NFL, we see quarterbacks confidentially throw to tight windows, where hardly any separation between the receiver is allowed by the DB. With DBs hanging tight, a receiver who lacks discipline can easily be undercut or just hassled more than they would have had they never stopped their movement from the end of the route by stepping into the pass. Body control is one thing, but if a target is unable to be the first one to the ball, he isn’t going to succeed. Next, we have “hands” catches.It’s a known fact, even as just an NFL fan, that body catching isn’t a correct form for catching a football. The momentum a football can carry through the air and into a chest constantly results in drops, just because it bounces right off. Solution? Using your hands, that’s what they’re there for, no? Hands offer three huge advantages for any receiver over body catches: the ability to secure the ball and tuck it, being able to “go back to the ball” and snag it, being the first one there, and; having the chance to make spectacular catches.
The first two are quickly understandable, and the last one is so simple, considering it’s just illogical and useless to attempt to use one’s chest to perform an amazing grab. A game-breaking receiver has to be one who knows how to properly use his hands and hands only to catch the ball, for it’s those unbelievable one handed catches or fingertip grabs that turn games around. The more accustomed a target becomes with catching passes with their hands, the more adept they’ll become in all of the areas I’ve already discussed, since actually making and securing the catch becomes second-nature.
Lastly, the most basic skills that come with receiver discipline are focusing on watching the ball into the hands, and not considering the next move until the football is locked up and secured in a tuck. Every fan has memories of a wideout dropping a pass just because his focus was already altered towards the defender in front of him, and his body was flowing with his changing focus. Such an obvious disciplinary issue shouldn’t exist in the NFL anymore, yet it’s still alive and kicking.
With those three tactics that revolve around setting themselves up as best as they can to make the actual catch, receivers have a stable starting point in their careers, and explosiveness after the catch and top end physicality are just pluses. With those explained, I’d like to point out that the theory of receivers being susceptible to drops due to “stone hands” is a myth. With that settled and debunked, let’s move on. What, you didn’t just think I’d give you a lesson, did you?
Over my re-watching of the 2013′s WR draft class, I decided to critique the catching ability of the top consensus prospects, and some of my favorites, based on the three big essentials I covered in this piece.. The best possible method of doing so was a scrappy one; I frantically noted every single time that I saw even the slightest slip-up in one of the techniques.
Each mistake that I caught, based on the it’s severity, I added points to the prospects’ scale. So, the little points the better. And believe me, I was critical. I’d take down 1/4 of a point for something as forgettable as not coming down with a highly contested pass if the receiver’s body control was the distorted in the slightest.
On the other hand, a blatant, wide open body catch attempt that was dropped could result in 3 whole point being taken down. I then took the number of catches the receiver accumulated over the games I studied (Note: I didn’t count bubble screens or quick outs) and divided that by the amount of points I took down, therefore, finding the average mistake the player was making per every catch he made.
While it’s not a perfect not by any means, I think it shows a bit how often the receiver is showing noticeable flaws in catching tactics on tape. Here are the numbers: (Remember: smaller points are the winners, here) (Listed in order I evaluated, so that there’s no bias/wear shown)
- Keenan Allen: .09 penalty per catch
- Cordarrelle Patterson: .54 penalty per catch
- Terrance Williams: .35 penalty per catch
- DeAndre Hopkins: .52 penalty per catch
- Robert Woods: .07 penalty per catch
- Justin Hunter: .26 penalty per catch
- Stedman Bailey: .05 penalty per catch
- Markus Wheaton: .06 penalty per catch
Are these rankings susceptible? Yes. But are they telling? I can confidently answer that with a yes. Going into this brief study of mine, I knew I wasn’t fond of Cordarrelle Patterson because I’d watched his film before, and could easily tell his game was based around his explosiveness and athleticism, but not his steady showing of solid catching ability.
The same can be said for Terrance Williams; he’s a raw pass catcher who needs to clean up his tendency to body catch and other disciplinary issues we discussed. However, I was blown away by how flawed my analysis showed DeAndre Hopkins to be. I think his ratio is somewhat exaggerated, since he’s such a downfield focal point for Tahj Boyd. Still though, he shows some serious growing issues and inconsistencies in his guts, as his hands diminish significantly when he’s hit or “hears footsteps.”
As for a quick blurb on Hunter, he didn’t get as many looks as I would have liked to see playing opposite of Patterson and while he posted a fairly low rate, I still haven’t seen enough consistency to convince me he’s even as impressive as his teammate. His points given weren’t often, but they were big ones, all resulting from very troublesome drops, and not just slight flaws shown.
The second point to come away with is how undervalued both Woods and Allen are coming off their knee surgeries, Allen’s this year, and Woods’ in 2011. Both of these targets have really cleaned up their tactics. One thing the stats above won’t show you is what you’ll see on tape, which is that both might rely on a body catch sometimes, or even poor body control (mostly Woods) but their raw talent and athleticism saves them from being hurt by these fallbacks. Allen, in particular, is a smart enough receiver that he knows when he needs to come back to the ball and use his hands, since he still has a habit of body catching when possible. Not to mention, Allen’s QB, his half-brother, Zach Maynard, had a god-awful year and Allen saved him with his play on multiple occasions. The signs of great growth by both of these receivers are promising, and they should only improve in the future.
Finally, I can talk about what most excites me about the study I did: Markus Wheaton and Stedman Bailey. These two players are easily the most underrated value you’ll find in this year’s class, even though they’re getting early 2nd round talk. The study shows how impressive they’re catching abilities truly are, as Bailey put up such a ratio at 5’10 and being West Virginia’s main downfield threat.
His body control, especially near boundaries, is the best I’ve ever witnessed from a collegiate receiver.
Bailey single-handily proved that proper catching techniques can make up for insane athleticism or explosiveness from the position. Alongside of him, with a nearly identical ratio is Wheaton. Wheaton has the height that Bailey lacks (6’1), but his QB tandem of Cody Vaz and Sean Mannion this year was lacking.
Yet, Wheaton consistently showed off his discipline and body control while aiding his quarterbacks. On a side note, he also has top speed, making him an all around threat. These two passed the catching ability test I threw at them with flying colors, and they could easily be deemed the most NFL-ready receivers in this class because of it.
The underlying theme in this piece is that those who succeed in these categories of catching ability and basics thrive in helping out their quarterbacks. And after going over the test and essentials, it’s no surprise why.
Calvin Johnson is without a doubt the best receiver the NFL has to offer. Like one would imagine, he excels in each of the three essentials I touched on. When you combine that with his unreal combination of size, speed, and physicality, you have a robot at WR.
When you look down the dark alleyway of free agent receivers, you find Mike Wallace. I can guarantee the Steelers won’t resign Wallace, and that any team who pays for him is overpaying, and you know why? Because he doesn’t offer any additional help to his quarterback than going downfield and trying to get open. Wallace showed how bad his techniques were this entire year, and it should be no surprise when he finds himself at the bottom of a depth chart within three to five years, despite his elite deep speed (assuming he doesn’t clean up his essentials).
That is precisely why the Wallace-Wheaton comparison that some scouts have grown fond with this draft season makes me sick to my stomach. Wheaton and Bailey are two guys who will always find themselves quarterback favorites, and guys a coach simply hates not having their own version of.
While they’re certainly not Calvin Johnson, I believe that receivers who excel in the necessary essentials for an NFL wide receiver will always find their place in the league, since they do all they can with their abilities to make the quarterback’s job easier.
Take notes, Rex.