Running routes in the NFL is hard work. Receivers are bumped and jammed in the first five yards and then have to figure out how to separate in the next five to seven yards. Not all receivers are able to do this, however, which is why many become busts despite being dynamic players in college. This is also why there are only a handful of receivers that are extraordinary route-runners in the pros.
Three of them are Wes Welker of the New England Patriots, the Carolina Panthers' Steve Smith and Larry Fitzgerald of the Arizona Cardinals. Each of the above are exceptional targets for their quarterbacks because they all understand how to play with discipline, know their position on the field and use veteran technique.
Starting with Wes Welker, the small slot receiver has been one of the league's best receivers since being traded to the Patriots prior to the 2007 season.
In the past six seasons, five of them have consisted of at least 111 receptions, which is simply outstanding. A big reason why he's been able to catch so many passes is his discipline, which was on display against the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC Championship Game.
Lined up in the left slot as part of the Patriots' trips right (three pass catchers to the right) formation, the 31-year-old Welker stood across inside linebacker Dannell Ellerbe. Ellerbe, who is not known for his quickness and pass coverage, had a difficult assignment on his hands and would be dealing with an option route from the receiver.
Option routes are a specialty of the Patriots receiver because of his quick feet and outstanding agility, which are very effective when combined with discipline.
On this route, Welker ran a vertical stem and didn't give the route away by tipping off his intentions. A younger receiver in this case would have shown the route beforehand with his head or feet but not Welker.
With his eyes focused on Ellerbe and shoulders squared, Welker executed a quick jab with his left foot and exploded toward the middle of the field.
This was the veteran receiver at his best. He ran the route with discipline, and because of his quick feet, he was able to pull away from the Ravens linebacker before catching the pass from quarterback Tom Brady.
As the reception total shows, Brady favors throwing to Welker because it's a high-percentage throw. His receiver is often open and almost always prepared to catch the football.
Steve Smith is one of the best, yet most underrated wide receivers in the league. He's been very productive for the majority of his career despite not having top tier quarterbacks and is one of the league's best route-runners. As a matter of fact, one can make the case that he's arguably the best route-runner.
A big reason why he's one of the league's best, if not the best, is his understanding of the field. He is exceptional working down the sideline, as he frequently creates space for his quarterback to throw him the football when many other receivers leave little room down the sideline.
Against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 1, Smith made a very impressive catch down the left sideline. He ran a simple go route on the play, but the subtle movements he made while running it helped him create space down the sideline.
When he released from the line of scrimmage, he beat the tight man coverage of Bucs cornerback Eric Wright and then made a quick and savvy move of looking back to quarterback Cam Newton. The quick look made the defender look back as well, consequently slowing him down. In the meantime, Smith sped up and worked his way downfield.
While working downfield, he did a good job of keeping space between himself and the sideline prior to using his hands to push off and separate. As he went to push off, the amount of space he created down the sideline for his quarterback to throw to was evident.
This space is something that a lot receivers fail to create because they work too hard to try to get on top of the route. Smith doesn't have that issue here, and it shows as his quarterback delivers a back-shoulder pass. As always, Smith is aware of his whereabouts and taps his feet in after catching the ball.
Even though Larry Fitzgerald failed to surpass the 1,000-yard marker for the first time since 2006, there was no doubting his talent.
He's still one of the league's best receivers and has been widely recognized as such. Two big reasons for that are how strong he is at the line of scrimmage, which is noticeable when he's seemingly beating press coverage with ease, and how smart of a route-runner he is.
One of the things that the Cardinals receiver has excelled at is running inside breaking routes, particularly crossing and post patterns. These two routes enable him to use proper technique that few are able to do at such a high level.
The technique that I'm discussing is the ability to lean into the defensive back covering him prior to exploding downfield. This is a very difficult thing to do, but he can do it because of his elite balance. He displayed both against the Philadelphia Eagles' Nnamdi Asomugha in their Week 3 meeting.
Before the snap, Fitzgerald was lined up to the left in the short side of the field and was faced with press coverage from Asomugha.
He then beat the tight coverage at the line of scrimmage and released inside. When he released inside, he continued his vertical stem before moving slightly outside and leaning into the Eagles cornerback. This was the veteran move that Fitzgerald was so good at, because he made it seem as if he was going outside before going inside again.
After leaning inside to push Asomugha further outside, he quickly changed directions, exploded downfield and broke off his stem to the inside, where he created separation.
The route was sublime, and quarterback Kevin Kolb completed a 37-yard pass to Fitzgerald for a touchdown.
There are not many receivers like Wes Welker, Steve Smith and Larry Fitzgerald. All three of them have been or are considered some of the NFL's best because of their proper route running.
Each of them brings discipline, an understanding of field position and savvy technique that combines to make them some of the league's most productive receivers on a weekly basis.
For the rookies coming into the NFL, it's these three receivers that they should be studying film on because they will illustrate how to consistently get open and most importantly, have the ball thrown in their direction often.
After all, a quarterback's best friend is the receiver that's open.