Rob Gronkowski, Calvin Johnson, and NFL Targets Who Are Never Truly Covered
Amongst today's crop of NFL receivers there is a breed of player who brings a whole other type of frustration to the faces of the league's defensive coordinators.
Going back to the days of Green Bay's Don Hutson offenses have traditionally developed plays for athletic receiver types who couldn't be covered. Certainly today that remains the object of the game but there appears to be a whole new subset of player as well, the guy who's open, even when he's not.
It's not that this player never existed before for example just ask anyone who tried to cover Philadelphia's 6'8" Harold Carmichael during the 70s and 80s.
It's just that today the growing number of receivers with freakish athletic abilities combined with the NFL's pillow fight rules interpretations have helped expand this group of guys into their own genre.
The old saying is that a great receiver thinks of himself like the local 7-11, they're always open. That's never rang more true than for this group of elite pass catchers.
Somewhere between metaphor and hyperbole is a little idiom that discusses having success until one shoots themselves in the foot. Plaxico Burress opted for a more literal interpretation of the saying.
The physically gifted Burress was the eighth overall selection of the NFL's 2000 draft. By his second season in Pittsburgh, Burress had begun to realize his potential but it was after becoming a New York Giant that the receiver seemed to blossom into the red-zone target that his 6'5" frame had always suggested he would become.
Back to back double-digit touchdown seasons as well as a game winning touchdown catch in Super Bowl XLII seemed to solidify Burress as one of the game's elite red-zone receivers. (although in the interest of full disclosure a 5'5" receiver could have caught that ball in Super Bowl XLII).
Even after two years away from football Burress was able to return to the NFL as a dangerous end zone option, tying with Santonio Holmes as the Jets leader in TD receptions with Eight.
With 10 NFL seasons under his belt it remains to be seen how much Burress has left in the tank but as long as he's lining up in the NFL under-sized defensive backs around the league will struggle with keeping him away from the ball.
Tony Gonzalez is the Grand Daddy of the NCAA basketball player/NFL tight end family.
Gonzalez was an accomplished football player at the University of California, but it was his role on the "Sweet 16" Cal basketball team that often received the publicity from NFL writers intrigued by his unique skill set.
After 15 seasons in the NFL Gonzalez has caught more footballs than anyone in history not named Jerry Rice. Even as the NFL miles have continued to pile up Gonzalez has been able to stay one step ahead of his defenders. His ability to use his body to shield defenders from the ball, great hands and an uncanny amount of body control still make Gonzalez a difficult player to defend.
Like his predecessor Tony Gonzalez, Antonio Gates was a formidable college basketball player. In Gate's case he helped lead Kent State to an improbable, upset filled run to an Elite Eight birth. Unlike Gonzalez, Gates never played a single down of NCAA football.
After Gates originally enrolled at Michigan State to play football for then coach Nick Saban he decided that Saban's "football only" edict was a deal breaker and thus began his improbable roundabout journey to the NFL via the hard courts.
Gates and Gonzalez's respective success have helped turn March Madness into a mini-combine all its own.
Injuries over the last two seasons have hampered Gates and robbed him of much of his speed in particular, but a healthy Gates is still a formidable receiver, even if he is covered.
At "just" 6'2" Dez Bryant is the shortest players on this list, but it is his ability to consistently go get the ball at its highest point that separate him from the average defender.
Injuries and off-field issues are certainly a concern, but a healthy focused Bryant gives quarterback Tony Romo a legit big play threat on every down.
At 6'5" 240 lbs Vincent Jackson's measurable are more like those you would expect to find for a rush linebacker than a wide receiver.
Jackson's speed has made him a big play target for Phillip Rivers over the years, but it is his size that allows him to make plays on balls even while a defensive back is draped all over him.
Much of the attention focused on Jackson recently has been centered around his contemptuous contract negotiations with the Chargers but there is no denying his presence in the Chargers offense makes them a more dangerous team.
Brandon Marshall is perhaps the prototype in the NFL for the possession type receiver. He doesn't generally run by defensive backs but even when covered uses his large frame (6'4" 229) to fend off potential defenders.
If the Miami Dolphins want to compete for an AFC playoff spot they will need to do a better job of taking advantage of Marshall's abilities inside the red zone. Nine touchdowns over the last two years is not enough for a player with this type of ability.
One of the premises of this list is that it's not about players who can't be covered, it's about players who, even when covered, still have an innate ability to make a play.
More than any other player on the list so far, Fitzgerald is a bit different. He's exceptionally difficult to cover, consistently finding holes in defenses that consider him their primary threat. Yet I still believe he deserves a place on this list because in the rare event that Fitzgerald is covered he still tends to make plays, often of the spectacular version.
Great hands, fantastic body control, and terrific timing allow Fitzgerald to consistently make plays in traffic, even when the opposing defense had thought they had him covered.
It is almost sacrilege today to suggest anyone other than Detroit's Calvin Johnson could be the best WR in the NFL but I'm not sure that Fitzgerald can be discounted here. Just hope he gets the opportunity to work with another plus quarterback before his playing days are done.
Now we return to the land of the hoopster/tight end.
Unlike Gonzalez and Gates, Jimmy Graham's basketball career was a mixed bag at best with a penchant for being a bit more physical than what the NCAA likes to see on their hard courts. Grahams migration to the football field was probably the natural order of things and despite only playing one season of NCAA football Graham impressed enough to be selected in the third round by the New Orleans Saints.
His 6'6" frame combined with his basketball jumping ability give quarterback Drew Brees the luxury of having one of those receivers who you can go get any jumpball. In fact I can't think of anyone this side of Randy Moss who really encourages a quarterback to "throw it up there" anymore than Graham does.
He's obviously not as fast as Moss and he's not as tall as Harold Carmichael was back in the 70s/80s either (Carmichael of course was handicapped by playing during an era where defenders were allowed to let's just say, "robustly" defend). But as a hybrid, this guy is tough to beat.
So far Brees seems to have taken advantage of his new favorite weapon right from the start. In fact he has occasionally thrown balls up that would generally be ill-advised but with Graham on the other end of it (and with the ever present chance of a pass interference penalty anyway) seems like a good calculated risk.
This guy is going to make a lot of noise in the NFL.
Part of the Boston TE party with fellow TE Aaron Hernandez. Rob Gronkowski is another player with scary "hybrid" skills. Probably not quite as fast as Graham, Gronkowski still brings a rare combination of tools. Great (huge) hands, superb running skills after catching the ball, and a ridiculous (what the scouts like to call) catch radius.
Throw in the fact that this guy can actually do something that many TE's aren't even asked to do anymore, Block, and you have one of the most complete players at any position in the NFL.
During training camp no one could cover this guy in the red zone. Then the season started, and no one else could either.
Two seasons, 32 games, 27 receiving touchdowns. Unprecedented among TE's in NFL history.
Freakish skills that along with Gronkowski and Graham were the inspiration for this article in the first place.
Like Fitzgerald he seems nearly impossible to cover at all. Yet even when a defense seems to have his number on a particular play you find that it still may not matter.
He has the same type of presence LeBron James has on the basketball court, an almost unfair athletic advantage over other world class athletes.
Patriots Head Coach Bill Belichick perhaps said it best as he repeatedly offered "He's never covered" as he compared a Johnson touchdown catch at the end of a half against the Packers back in 2010 as looking like "Shaq rebounding against two point guards". Considering one of those "point guards" was future Hall of Famer Charles Woodson that's kind of a big deal.
Bigger, faster, Stronger. Bo Jacksonesque.