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Game Tape 101: What Traits, on Film, Define an Elite NFL WR?

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Game Tape 101: What Traits, on Film, Define an Elite NFL WR?
Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Other than quarterback, it could be argued that the wide receiver position is the most difficult to transition to from the college game. It's why the bust rate is significant, and why there are very few that are elite. Despite this, people are quick to put receivers into the upper echelon of the position, and it just doesn't work that way.

Why's that, you ask?

Because there's not many receivers in the NFL that command attention from defenses every down due to their immense talent, which is what an elite receiver does and has.

An elite receiver is one that is a sleek route-runner that can also blow the lid off of deep coverage with his quickness or sheer speed. He has to display strong wrists that enable him bring in the ball with his hands despite contact consistently. Last but not least, he must be able to do damage after the catch.

 

Route Running

If there's one word to describe route running, it's "intricate."

Running routes is a difficult task for wide receivers because there's more to it than counting steps and changing directions. They have to win at the line of scrimmage first in many cases and then finally develop into their route. 

Once they start to develop their route, the receiver has to be able to read the leverage of the cornerback in order to determine his route. But it doesn't stop there; he also has to read the safety to determine what coverage it is in order to convert his route.

A "Go" or "9" route may be installed on the play, but there could be several built-in route conversions based off of the coverage. The Go route may turn into a stop-fade pattern or a deep comeback route if the cornerback is over-aggressive downhill. 

It's not just vertical routes that have route conversions, however; the short routes also have detailed aspects that require reading of the defense. Take for instance this pivot route ran by Jordy Nelson of the Green Bay Packers against Atlanta Falcons cornerback Dunta Robinson.

Prior to the snap, Nelson was played by Robinson with a cushion, meaning it was a loose alignment by the defender, in the red zone...

When quarterback Aaron Rodgers put the ball in the play, Nelson ran a horizontal, inside-breaking route that quickly ate up the cushion between him and Robinson. Nelson took a vertical stem and then broke inside, making it look like a square-in.

However, when the Falcons cornerback aggressively attacked downhill to break on the ball and potentially (in his mind) create a turnover, Nelson broke off his route and pivoted back to the outside.

The pivot back to the outside was successful because he created great separation from the over-aggressive defender.

When he did this, he opened himself up for the catch and touchdown. 

This route can be designed as a pivot route or have a "bounce" technique applied to it, which implies that if a defender is over-aggressive in attacking downhill, the receiver should take advantage by "bouncing" from the inside to the outside and getting open, as Nelson did here.

 

Body Control

One of the best ways for an offense to throw the ball effectively to its elite pass-catcher is to put it where only he can get it: the peak. 

It's what the Detroit Lions do with star wide receiver Calvin "Megatron" Johnson, an exceptionally gifted 6'5" receiver with an off-the-charts vertical leap. Johnson is able to reach the ball at its highest point and bring it down consistently, not just because of his vertical leap, but his body control.

Johnson is able to make the most difficult catches look routine on a consistent basis, despite having great stature for the position. For anyone who is of this height or greater, they can tell you from experience that his or her coordination skills are not the same as that of a 5'11" person in most cases. It's why the Detroit Lions receiver is so special.

Last season in a meeting against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, he showcased his body control on a third-quarter touchdown in the red zone that gave the team a two-touchdown lead. 

The Lions offense came out in 11 personnel package, which consists of a single tailback and tight end, against the Buccaneers' four-man front.

At the snap, Matthew Stafford took three steps away from center and threw an off-balance pass to a fading Calvin Johnson. The pass was on the money, placed high and giving Johnson a chance to come down with it, and the intended target came down with it.

Johnson displayed his body control on the play by reaching for the ball at its peak, while also maintaining control to not only hold on to it, but keep his feet in the field of play for the touchdown.

That's what body control is all about.

 

Win Vertically

Stretching the field vertically is one of the most important aspects of NFL offenses today. If an offense is unable to do this with some consistency, they will have issues against defenses (unless you're Bill Belichick drawing up plays) because defensive backs will serve as "squat" defenders, sitting on short routes and waiting to pick passes off.

Furthermore, when an offense has a receiver that can blow the lid off of the top of coverage, it betters the rest of the offense by creating space for the short to intermediate route-runners, because defenders are being drawn vertically by the deep receiver. 

There's no better example of this than Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Mike Wallace. Wallace is not an elite receiver, but he has a trait that could help make him one if he continues to develop his game. He is currently a speed demon, blowing by defenders each step of the way, drawing attention to himself and coming up with the catch or creating space underneath for others.

An example of this came in Week 3 against the Indianapolis Colts, when Wallace beat the defense 81 yards for a touchdown on a pass from Ben Roethlisberger. The play illustrates the vertical ability of Wallace and how he can beat the defense for six while also showing how he creates space.

Per usual, the Steelers aligned in a stacked set with Wallace off the line of scrimmage, in order to give him a clean release to develop into his route. The Colts aligned in their 2-high safety shell and played the famous Tampa 2 coverage out of it.

What Wallace did to attack the defense vertically was run a skinny post from his free release off the line of scrimmage. When he did this, he not only grabbed the attention of the two deep safeties, but the middle linebacker, who dropped down the "pipe" (seam) of the defense. 

When he got down the middle of the field, the safeties turned their focus to him instead of getting over the top of the cornerbacks, who are flat defenders. This created an opening for the pass to the top of the image to tight end Heath Miller, who ran a corner route, as well as in the middle of the field, which was vacated when the middle linebacker ran down the field with Wallace.

But because Wallace beat the defense vertically, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger hit him deep for the quick score. If he wasn't open, Roethlisberger had other options because of the space created for the underneath pass-catchers.

 

Hands

It's incredible how often receivers drop passes. I mean, think about it; it seems like a simple task that's easily stated: catch the ball. Yet, every Sunday, we see a plethora of drops.

The drops come in many different ways, whether it's attempting to catch the ball and failing to look at it all the way through or catching it and then getting it knocked out when receiving contact. Sometimes it's just a flat-out drop, as if the receiver is catching passes with two tennis rackets.

Top-notch NFL receivers don't have this problem; they catch the ball year in and year out with consistency. A few years ago, I watched former Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Anquan Boldin catch passes and take a beating, most notably a vicious hit at the goal line from New York Jets safety Eric Smith in 2008.  

Boldin was one of the league's best at the time, and despite taking contact multiple times, Boldin would almost always hold on to the ball and either go down at the point of contact with the ball in hand or continue moving as if he was a pinball. 

The reason for this ability is his strong wrists. Boldin is well known for staying in shape and doing a significant amount of work in the weight room. 

 

YAC (Yards after Catch)

If catching the ball is the most important trait of an elite wide receiver, then yards after catch is likely second. 

The ability to pick up yards after the catch is one of the most important aspects of offenses today because chunk yardage is crucial to winning games. Explosive plays have long been one of the essential parts of offenses, and that hasn't changed in today's "pass-happy" league.

Picking up yards after the catch can come in more ways than one; a receiver may be hit in stride on a crossing route that leads him to pick up a significant amount of yards, or he may catch a pass and put on a few moves while displaying the vision to find open field to run to.

One of the league's best at it is New England's Wes Welker, who makes a living off of picking up yardage in chunks off of short (as well as intermediate) passes thrown by quarterback Tom Brady, as can be seen in the video to the right against the Oakland Raiders this past season.

Welker has a good understanding of what his teammates are doing and displays instincts when seeking the open field. He also does a good job of setting up blocks with his eyes and then making defenders miss with his quick feet and shiftiness—all traits that help make up YAC ability. 

 

Overall

Elite receivers in the NFL are hard to come by because it's a difficult transition from the collegiate game to the professionals. Receivers typically take three to four years to develop into what they are billed as, or in some cases, they don't develop at all because the game moves too fast for them to pick up what is going on in their surroundings.

Because of this, elite receivers are truly special athletes that have to be able to multitask out on the field and possess many traits that make them elite. These traits are route-running, body control, the ability to win vertically, hands and yards after the catch.

There are many receivers that have some of these traits, such as the aforementioned Mike Wallace, but lack others, which is why they are not universally considered elite players at their position. 

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