Route running is one of the most difficult aspects of not just playing wide receiver, but football in general.
It can take years for a wide receiver to master this craft because of the multiple parts and details to it. Quality route running can be the difference between a touchdown catch and not getting thrown the ball, which is why its crucial to develop the necessary skills as soon as possible.
But before you develop the necessary skills, you have to know what they are. They range from having the natural talent to run sublime routes to developing the techniques of it.
The vitals of route running can be narrowed down to seven distinct characteristics: short area quickness, head and shoulders, footwork, pad level, hips and complete understanding of coverages. The NFL's top receivers are very strong in all of these areas, which is why they will be used as examples throughout this piece.
Short-area quickness is exactly what it says it is: the ability to stop and start quickly in the short area.
There are multiple receivers who have this ability, but perhaps none more impressive than Philadelphia Eagles pass-catcher DeSean Jackson. Jackson is very quick in the short area, and it is visible in every aspect of his game, most notably at the line of scrimmage and when separating from defensive backs at the top of his route.
Jackson can beat defensive backs with an explosive first step or take stutter steps to mislead the defender and explode in another direction. For defensive backs, it comes down to jamming him at the line of scrimmage—if you can get to him quickly, that is—or potentially getting burned for six points.
Once Jackson gets going on his vertical stem, he is able to run full speed and then make sudden cuts that separate him from defensive backs and exemplify his short-area quickness.
This ability is very important to have because if a receiver runs routes perfectly but lacks short-area quickness, he is unlikely to get open on a consistent basis regardless of his technique.
Head and Shoulders
Head and Shoulders isn't just the name of NFL players' shampoo, it's also a technique that receivers are taught by their coaches early in their careers.
When a pass-catcher gets off the line of scrimmage and starts to develop his route, it's crucial that he doesn't give it away with his eyes and shoulders. He has to run with his shoulders squared and his eyes focused on the defensive back in front of him. The league's best pass-catchers do it consistently, and it's a big reason why they get open from the opposition.
I vividly recall then-Oakland Raiders cornerback Nnamdi Asomougha talking about rookie Darrius Heyward-Bey and how raw he was.
Asomougha was quick to point out that Heyward-Bey was still learning the wide receiver position, and one big aspect was that he was giving his routes away before he even finished running them. The All-Pro defensive back stated that Heyward-Bey was tipping off the route with his eyes often, and it was a big reason why he struggled to get open.
As you'll see in the clip to the right, Green Bay Packers wide receiver Greg Jennings doesn't have that issue. Jennings is a veteran and one of the league's best at the position, so only the best is expected of him, but he stays square while running downfield until he is ready to break off his route and separate from the defender. Jennings broke down the Vikings cornerback following his vertical stem and created separation with ease.
Over the years, analysts and commentators have brought up footwork as a vital aspect of various positions, and they are absolutely right in doing so. Footwork is essential in every position in football, and wide receiver is no exception.
Wide receivers must have quality footwork when running routes because they have to be sharp and fluid out of their cuts. Too many steps taken means that the defensive back has more time to close the gap between himself and the receiver. Consequently, this means that the defensive back also has a greater chance of making a play on the ball.
Conversely, if the receiver is sharp, there's little chance of success for the opposition.
The latter is the case when it comes to recently acquired Chicago Bears wide receiver Brandon Marshall. The former Broncos and Dolphins receiver is one of the league's best because of his size and sheer power. But what's often forgotten (I'm guilty of this too) with Marshall is how crisp of a route runner he is. He is very clean in his footwork, taking as few steps as possible to break off his route and create separation from the defender.
This has been illustrated by Marshall throughout his career, but most recently against arguably the league's best cornerback, Darelle Revis of the New York Jets. Marshall ran his routes with cookie-cutter precision and got open on several occasions against a cornerback that is typically on receivers like white on rice.
Along with quality footwork, a receiver must have the ability to sink his hips when running his routes.
Fluid hips are one of the most important traits that NFL personnel men look for when evaluating wide receivers because it indicates what kind of routes the prospect can run. If the player is stiff in the hips and has trouble sinking them on a consistent basis, like former LSU and current New York Giants rookie receiver Reuben Randle does, then he may not be as explosive or quality in all facets of the route tree.
On the other hand, if the receiver is fluid and able to sink his hips, then he is likely to have little trouble running various routes from various alignments, like Randle's teammate, Victor Cruz. Cruz has developed into a strong route runner since coming into the league, and a big reason is because of his hip flexibility and fluidity.
As witnessed against the division rival Dallas Cowboys last season, Cruz can create separation with ease because of his hips, which allows him to make big plays like the 74-yard touchdown he scored. At the three-second mark, Cruz sinks his hips while planting his foot and separates from the defender.
Using the same video, Victor Cruz also does a good job of dropping his shoulder pads low while running his route.
Like the aforementioned footwork, pad level is important at every position, and when it comes to the wide receiver position, it's near the top.
It's very important for a receiver to play with low pad level because he is able to get out of his breaks quicker that way. If he played with high pad level, essentially standing up, he'd have trouble making quick cuts and running away from the defender. He'd have issues moving laterally, and it would look as if he's very slow-footed, which is unlikely to be true.
Understanding of Coverage
Last of all is the understanding of coverage. A receiver's success in the NFL can be narrowed down to the mental aspect of the game. If he doesn't understand what he's seeking and doesn't know when to run the "go" route or the "deep comeback" based off of the coverage he is given post-snap, then he's going to struggle.
Chad Johnson, who is formerly of the New England Patriots, was an example of this last season when he failed to contribute to the offense because he was unable to figure out which routes to run and when.
On the flip side, Patriots receiver Wes Welker, who does most of his work from the slot alignment, has a great understanding of this part of the game and knows when to continue running on a built-in shallow cross and when to break it off and sit in the zone between the play-side and middle linebackers.
Welker also understands when to sit between the two linebackers and when to use the "bounce" technique and go back outside, toward the numbers, to get open for quarterback Tom Brady.
Unfortunately, not all receivers end up picking this up, and it's a big reason why they struggle.
Running routes in the NFL is a difficult task, especially when the receiver is fresh out of college and a spread offense that relies heavily on bubble and flanker screens. These are not the types of plays that he's going to be primarily catching, although they are used in the NFL.
Instead, the receiver has to use his natural talent and develop important techniques to adapt to the speed of the game and get open for his quarterback in a pro-style system. These talents and techniques include short area quickness, head and shoulders, footwork, pad level, hips and complete understanding of coverages.
The receivers that master these aspects of route running are hailed as some of the best at their position and in the league overall. However, few are able to master these techniques on a consistent basis: every snap, every Sunday.