What NFL Analysts Should Look at When Evaluating Wide Receivers
The NFL hasn't been able to make its mind up about what the perfect wide receiver should look like for the past few years, and despite some obvious success stories, wide receiver remains one of the positions with the highest bust rate in the draft.
Much of that comes from the gulf between college offenses and their NFL counterparts in terms of complexity and demands from a receiver. A player might have all the physical skills necessary to succeed at this level, but in college he was only ever asked to run two or three routes.
Depending on what offense he lands in at the NFL level, he could have the choice of two or three routes on any given play depending on how the defense lines up and reacts.
You can talk to a player pre-draft and get a handle on his ability to think and process information, but you're never going to be able to reliably project how he will handle the mental workload and understand the correct adjustments in the scheme until he's out there trying to do it.
Chad Johnson has had a career that at times flirted with the Hall of Fame, but he was completely unable to grasp the Patriots' playbook when he was brought over from Cincinnati.
Johnson is still physically able to play the game and often got open on the limited snaps he saw for New England, but the Pats couldn't trust him to make the right reads and get to the right spot at the right time, so his playing time was cut to almost nothing by the end of the season.
If it can happen to a player as great as Johnson has been, imagine how tough it is for college kids who ran even simpler offenses, and how tough it is to project whether they will be able to make the leap successfully.
With that in mind, there are still certain traits that you need to look for to find a viable receiver at this level, because the right guy can succeed despite lacking desired measurables.
Hands and Mental Strength
This sounds obvious, but if you can't catch the ball, you can't be an NFL wide receiver, and it's amazing how often a guy makes it to this level without being able to.
Troy Williamson is a great example. He came from an offense that barely featured its wide receivers in college, but he had prototype size, excellent speed and ran mostly great routes for the Vikings quickly.
He was most of the way towards being a very good wide receiver and had the hard parts mastered. His trouble was drops, and when drops became an issue, his confidence evaporated, leading to ever more clanging drops.
The pictured drop came against the Denver Broncos and was one of the worst drops you will ever see.
The Vikings trailed by four midway through the second quarter and set up for a deep pass. The route combination caused a complete breakdown in the Denver secondary, and Troy Williamson found himself 10 yards clear of the nearest Bronco with just 20 yards to walk into the end zone by the time the ball arrived.
Tarvaris Jackson put it right on him, but Williamson made a complete and total mess of the catch, falling to the floor in the process and pounding the ground in the frustration of a man who just couldn't shake the dropsies.
That drop may well have signaled the end for Williamson's career with the Vikings, and it definitely summed up the depth of his struggles.
He may not have had the best hands of all time, but you don't reach the NFL without at least a basic ability to catch the football. He embodied the mental aspect that goes along with the ability to catch the football.
What happened to Williamson was quicksand. A drop, followed by another, and then the more he struggled to try to fix the problem, the worse it got and the deeper he sank. In the end, he could never overcome the fatal flaw in his game.
To succeed at the NFL level, you don't need to have perfect hands, but you have to be able to catch reliably, and you need the ability to shake off drops when they happen.
Very rarely will a receiver make it through an NFL season without recording a drop, even players with hands as good as Larry Fitzgerald, but the key is the best receivers don't dwell on those drops. They go out the next play with no less belief in their ability to catch the ball than they had the play before.
Great hands can paper over a lot of other flaws, and some players have made careers out of their reliability that they wouldn't have achieved otherwise.
Houston's Kevin Walter remains a starter despite being limited athletically because he has hands of glue and rarely drops a pass.
Marques Colston has become a vital part of the Saints' passing attack because they can send him into all kinds of trouble over the middle and not worry about the ball bouncing off his hands to defenders. His hands earn him targets.
There are exceptions to this rule—players that are good enough that their average hands are tolerated. Brandon Marshall and Roddy White will always drop more passes than most receivers, but both have game-breaking ability, and both have shown the mental fortitude to avoid plunging into a hole of confidence issues like Williamson did.
The bottom line is that you need to have pretty good hands to be viable at the NFL level. Great hands can make up for a lot, and if you have suspect hands, you had better be a phenomenal athlete and have the mental ability to ignore the drops and move on.
Quickness and Change of Direction
Everybody talks about speed for wide receivers, but in truth, quickness is far more important. Speed is a long-distance concept, but quickness is a short-area acceleration and burst, and it is far more relevant to most NFL plays.
Defensive backs are often the fastest guys on the field. If you watch the scouting combine, you will see defensive backs regularly topping the 40-time list for the week, so you need a receiver with some truly elite speed to be guaranteed of being faster than the guy he's going up against.
Playing defensive back, however, is almost an entirely reactive process. If the DB knows he just has to turn and run with the receiver, a fast guy will be able to get that job done without too many issues.
Where they have to really worry is a guy that can change direction quickly and accelerate in an instant, because those are the players that can separate.
The key to many route fakes is to get the defensive back moving in a way to cut off one move before changing and exploiting the space the fake opened up.
From that point onwards you're relying on making the most of the time it takes that player to react and recover his position. Quick receivers will gain big separation in that recovery time, while guys that are simply fast over a long distance might not.
This is why Wes Welker can get open on pretty much every snap. The former Dolphin ran a 4.65 40 time when he was coming out, slower than most defensive backs in the NFL, but he has the quickness and sudden moves to move players out of position every time he runs a route.
He overcomes his lack of speed with an overabundance of quickness and change-of-direction skills that nobody can match.
Other players have been able to exploit this trait even out on the edge rather than in the slot. Victor Cruz has become an expert in hard route fakes to open up space which he can explode into.
He has incredible change-of-direction speed, taking hard angles away from defensive backs that he has just baited into a false step. Cruz has decent speed as well, but it's his quickness and change of direction skills that break him wide open even on the perimeter.
Again, there are exceptions to this, and some players are so fast that they have been able to ply their trade running past people and exploiting the cushion that gives them (Mike Wallace and Randy Moss are two that leap to mind), but there are far more players with the required quickness to succeed than there are with the necessary sprinter's speed to be another Moss or Wallace.
Understanding Zones and Spatial Awareness
Victor Cruz is fast becoming one of my favorite players to watch in the NFL, and it isn't because of his dance or his touchdowns. It's because of the little things he does that usually take receivers years to learn and master.
We already mentioned how impressive his route fakes are, but his ability to understand where the space is in a defense is already better than most receivers in the NFL.
Today's NFL does not play that much pure man coverage. With the passing game ever more prevalent, teams are playing a lot of zone coverages, especially over the middle to try to combat it.
In order to succeed in today's NFL, a receiver can't simply get by on his ability to beat man coverage. He needs to understand zones, be able to recognize where the space is and sit down in the right hole for his quarterback to find him and pick up yards.
Victor Cruz is already excellent at this, and Wes Welker is a master of the art, but it doesn't just apply to slot receivers.
Wide receivers won't run as many routes across the middle into tight zone coverage as those slot guys, but they will run in-breaking routes often and need to understand how to adjust their pace to hit the throwing lanes at the correct time to maximize the chance of a completion.
The Rams under Mike Martz were the best team in the league at this, with both Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce killing teams with their deep-dig routes.
Both of those players were excellent route-runners who had a sophisticated understanding of how to adjust their flow and maximize their time inside a throwing lane to give Kurt Warner and later Marc Bulger the best chance of finding them with a pass.
Being able to beat the guy right in front of you is nice, but with as much zone coverage played as there is in today's NFL, receivers also need to understand how their route relates to multiple defenders and the space around them. They need to be able to throttle up or down to find the holes in the zone and make the catches easier for themselves.
Run After the Catch
The NFL isn't just about the yards in the air, but what happens after the catch as well, and receivers need to be a threat with the ball in their hands, not just before it arrives.
There were receivers last season that notched more than 700 yards after the ball was in their hands, and this yardage can be achieved in a couple of ways.
Players can be a threat after the catch with shifty moves and running instincts. Guys like Steve Smith or Nate Burleson are great at making people miss in open space and picking up additional yardage with the ball in their hands.
The other way of getting it done is with size, strength and the ability to break tackles. Calvin Johnson, at 6'5", 235 pounds, is a nightmare for cornerbacks to have to deal with. Even big corners are giving away a few inches and the better part of 30 pounds to him, and that makes bringing him to the ground no easy task.
Players like Megatron, as well as Brandon Marshall, Hakeem Nicks and Andre Johnson among others, are able to take a simple hitch or a bubble screen and have a shot to break one tackle against a much smaller defender to pick up significant yardage after the catch.
The Giants in particular did this a lot with Nicks last season—firing the ball out to him quickly on the edge and backing him to break through the tackle of the corner that was on his own in defending him.
If he broke free, the Giants were looking at a healthy gain and a first down, and even if the corner got him to the ground, it would usually take five yards to do so, with the bigger receiver forcing his way for extra yards before going down.
Adjusting to the Football and Body Control
Larry Fitzgerald has many traits that make him arguably the game's best receiver, but perhaps the most important is his ability to adjust to the football and use his body as part of the catch.
Fitzgerald is another player that doesn't blow the world away with his 40 time, but he has become a serious deep threat because you often don't need that speed to come down with those catches.
Even Randy Moss, one of the fastest players to play in the NFL, was a devastating deep receiver as much because of his ability to use his body and adjust to the football as his ability to simply run past defenders into 10 yards of space.
Moss had an incredible ability to ease back on a deep ball having stacked the corner (adjusted his path to prevent the defender from being able to run alongside him and influence the throw) and buy himself some space in front where he could allow the ball to drop over his shoulder. He would then accelerate forward at the last instant and reach out to make an uncontested grab.
One key advantage a receiver has over defensive backs is that he will see the ball coming far earlier in most cases and have a much better chance of adjusting to it.
Back-shoulder throws work along this principle. With the defender turned away from the football, a quarterback can simply hang the ball up and allow the receiver to adjust to it, while the defender never sees it coming.
Fitzgerald is among the best at seeing any adjustment he needs to make early and putting himself between the defender and the ball, giving him the best chance of coming down with it. He is known for winning contested jump balls, but in most of those cases he has done a lot of hard work by the time the ball arrives by shielding the defender from the football.
When I started writing this, I didn't set out with the intention of minimizing the importance of speed for wide receivers.
Every team in the NFL still yearns for game-breaking speed, and any player that runs a legitimate 4.20 at the combine will have teams falling over themselves with interest, but the key point to make is there are aspects to being an NFL receiver that are far more important, and players that can master these traits can make up for some extremely average speed.
Several of the best receivers in the game today do not have anything approaching elite speed but remain virtually unstoppable because of their other abilities.