After years of what looked like waffling, Joe Webb—the often-controversial backup for Christian Ponder—has been moved to wide receiver in what might be his last chance to stick with the Minnesota Vikings.
This is the last year of his contract, and his ability to play at receiver will likely make or break his chances at earning a renewal contract. Given his game-breaking athleticism, it makes sense for the Vikings to try and find ways to give Webb the ball.
While they've deemed his ability to play quarterback a failure—probably due in large part to a weak effort against Green Bay in the playoffs—the Vikings seemingly remain committed to finding ways to use his extraordinary physical abilities.
Unquestionably, when Webb has been given the opportunity to make plays in space, he's been incredible so the Vikings have looked to maximize his impact.
Becoming an NFL wide receiver isn't easy, however, nor will athleticism be enough. Webb's athletic capability shouldn't be dismissed by any means, but it may not save technical deficiencies he likely has as a wide receiver.
At the same time, it would be a mistake to dismiss the superiority that Webb has over other players. His measureables alone are eye-popping.
40-yard dash: 4.44 seconds, which was in the top 20 percent of all receivers.
10-yard split: 1.54 seconds, in the top half of all receivers.
Vertical Jump: 42.5 inches, which was in the top percent of receivers.
Broad Jump: 137 inches, the top score of any receiver.
Short Shuttle: 4.04 seconds, in the top 10 percent of all receivers.
3-Cone Drill: 6.71 seconds, in the top 10 percent of all receivers.
Bench Press: 21 reps, in the top five percent of all receivers.
He did all of this at 6'3" and 223 pounds, giving him a Barnwell Speed Score of 114, which put him in the top five percent of every receiver who attended the NFL combine during that time.
Given that the Barnwell Speed Score is designed to adjust 40-yard dash times for weight, it generally tends to be a "truer" test of a prospect's ability to move on the football field.
When adjusted for historical markers of wide receiver capability, Webb ends up outscoring every other receiver in the 2013 draft class, including other pass-catchers who only put up numbers in their pro days.
Naturally, that includes phenoms like Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson, who have been compared athletically to Randy Moss by respected scouting organizations like the National Football Post and personnel men who work with NFL teams, according to Sports Illustrated.
Of the receivers whose full data are available, only Calvin Johnson outperformed Webb, with athletic luminaries like Greg Little and Vincent Jackson falling behind him. Given Webb's enormous hands (10.75 inches) and fantastic length (33.75 inches), he has even more to offer than his combine measureables.
Calling Webb "athletic" undersells the physical ability he has. Webb is one of the premier athletes not just in the NFL, but in the United States. It shows up on the field, too. Quick open-field running, agile movement and a powerful body all translate on the field into what could be running dominance.
Many athletes, however, don't make it in the NFL. What defines receivers more than simply being top athletes is how refined they are as technicians.
Of every receiver to enter the Hall of Fame, there isn't one pure athlete who wasn't also an incredible technician. Even "Bullet" Bob Hayes and Don Maynard, freak athletes in their day, ended up as dominant players when they refined their craft.
Neither of them earned reputations as efficient route-runners, but both learned to control their speed and bodies while giving little away throughout the route. Moss will soon join them as one of the masterful skill artists in the NFL, despite a greater reputation for his physical ability than his ability to deceive defensive backs.
No matter how fast you are, defenses will find a way to stay on top unless a receiver give them a reason not to do so.
Jerry Rice explained to ESPN Magazine the importance of repetition, practice, knowledge of the game and refinement:
Those inches come with preparation. I can sit down on a Saturday night and know certain predicaments I'll face on Sunday. Before it happens, I know how a DB will respond to specific routes and how we'll be able to take advantage. It's all in my head before I step on the field. I visualize it. I can't tell you how many times I've caught a pass or scored a touchdown and thought, That's exactly how I knew it would happen.
There was a play against San Diego, a TD pass on a corner-post route, that is a perfect example. (It proved to be the decisive score in the Raiders AFC West-clinching 13-6 win.) It's a route that only works if you stare the safety (in this case, the Chargers Rogers Beckett) straight up and down, fake to the corner and go to the post. But it's not that easy. You can't give it away with your eyes or your feet. You have to look straight ahead. You've got to pick the perfect time to make the move toward the corner. I hit it right, just the way I'd run it every day in practice. I'd watched Beckett in films, and I had a good idea how he would react. When it happened, it was perfect. I came out of the break and the ball was there. In the locker room after the game, Al Davis shook my hand and said, "That was an easy one." I answered, "Nothing's easy in this game."
It's repetition and preparation. The corner-post is a route I've done over and over in practice, and in the game you do it the exact same way. That's the key: In the heat of battle, you have to respond under pressure with the same precision. You can't rush just because it's a big situation. You have to be calm or you'll lose those inches you need to make the play successful.
You cannot cheat it. You cannot fake to the corner early because you'll show it too soon and the guy's going to get a break on you. You can't cut it too late or the safety won't buy it. He'll see where the play's going before it gets there. Either way, it's a couple of inches between success and failure.
If Rich Gannon and I are working a route on the outside, that clock lets me know when to come out of the route, when he's going to throw and when I need to turn. It's experience and execution. I rely on that clock to give me the inches I need out there. Think about it: How often does a receiver come out of a route and catch the ball on his fingertips? If he turns too soon or too late it's an incompletion or an interception. The defense is looking for those inches too. They're trying to predict what you're going to do.
Generally speaking, technical skills can be ranked from "easy to fix" to "difficult to fix," and Matt Waldman painstakingly laid them out in his Rookie Scouting Portfolio (for purchase).
Luckily, Webb doesn't carry any technical baggage that would be most difficult to fix at the moment (including fluidity of movement and extending his hands), but also hasn't proven a proficiency in many of them to allay concerns about how rough a receiver he is on the field.
Waldman ends up listing 43 different technical abilities receivers can be judged on. For the most part, they can be reduced to route-running, balance, ball security, elusiveness, power, blocking, vision and the ability to catch or adjust to the ball in the air.
For the most part, Webb is missing out on most of those specific skills. His limited time at receiver hasn't shown an ability to consistently adjust to the ball in the air or exhibit "late hands" that have been so important in creating exclusive real estate for a receiver.
Given that it generally takes a polished college receiver three years before making an impact in the NFL, it would be beyond optimistic to think that Webb could make an impact this year as a result of his switch.
Rookie wide receivers with many times the technical ability that Webb has displayed have historically been disappointing, and there's little reason to believe Webb can make up for it simply by being athletic.
Nothing makes a receiver look faster than making a defensive back take a false step, and his limited time at receiver shows no experience at selling routes. He also has a stiffness in transition, difficulty tracking the ball in the air, imprecision in routes and a very poor understanding of leverage.
That's not to say the experiment will fail. He has rare fluidity and looks to be the type of player who can string together complex movements to accomplish a single goal. His time at the Senior Bowl was productive, as he showed the capability to box cornerbacks out of the ball and can even make tougher catches in traffic.
He'll have to work on fundamentals, like sinking his hips and high-pointing the ball before he can even work on intermediate skills like varying his speed in-routes (which is what turned Hayes from good to great). Subtle moves like dipping the "wrong" shoulder or looking off the corner will be even more difficult to learn and may require several offseasons to be a realistic contributor.
His greatest asset is his open-field running. Should he learn how to attack the ball and catch with his hands, he'll see time running bubble screens or reverses with occasional deep shots and underneath routes to vary his looks. That run-after-catch ability is rare, and if he gets space, he'll be deadly.
Not only is Webb difficult to get ahold of, he's strong enough to avoid tackles and punch at defenders. The combination of power and elusiveness is something that very few players have and if Webb has an impact in 2013, it will be there, probably to serve as relief for Patterson or Jerome Simpson.
If Webb has anything, it's vision and the physical tools to use his vision. If he is to succeed in the NFL, he'll be part of the "space player" revolution that Chris Brown of Grantland documented with Darren Sproles two years ago:
In coaching the Saints, Payton takes advantage of the three best ways to use space players. First are screen passes — plays designed to get the runner into open space, preferably with blockers ahead of him. Second is the space player's role as an underneath receiver, where he provides an easy option for a quarterback while drawing coverage away from downfield receivers. And, finally, a space player can be a runner on draws and sweeps after the earlier plays have forced the defense to substitute favorable (for the offense) personnel. When the defense adjusts its personnel to cover such screens and quick passes to Sproles, it opens an opportunity for the Saints to run the ball at quicker, pass-concerned defenders.
The New Orleans Saints love screen passes, and for good reason. Since they throw the ball a great deal (Brees led the NFL in pass attempts in two of the past four seasons, and has thrown more passes than any other quarterback through four games this year), defenses focus on the dropback pass game. Depending on their assignments, defenders either charge relentlessly toward the quarterback or turn their backs and run downfield to cover receivers. The screen counters all this aggression. Offensive linemen let the defenders charge past them and then slip out to block for the space player who catches the screen pass. Meanwhile, the defensive backs who followed the receivers downfield will have to reverse course, find the ball carrier, and avoid being blocked.
It's a big if, however. Receivers need to consistently show sticky hands on short routes—dropping even one in 10 passes could get an average receiver cut, much less a limited one like Webb.
It is difficult to emphasize how important working on the receiver craft really is. There's a reason the only Olympic track athletes that have receiver jobs in the NFL also happened to play receiver for quite some time in college. Otherwise, Usain Bolt would have been signed for a hefty some money by now, particularly because he has an unusually quick burst, even for Olympic athletes. Bolt is 6'5" and 207 pounds, and has a fairly prototypical receiver build, like many track athletes.
Unfortunately for Webb, his kick and punt return abilities may not be tested with a player like Cordarrelle Patterson potentially taking those valuable snaps. Webb's best chance at making the roster will be on the kickoff return unit, mostly because Patterson doesn't distinguish between punt return skills and kick return skills yet—two distinctly different talents. Given the Tennessee receiver's dominance as a punt returner, Webb won't crack the special teams unit there, so he should focus on the kick return game.
Should Webb impress coaches with his ability to pick up new skills and a different part of the playbook, he'll likely be competing with players like Stephen Burton and Erik Highsmith for the last roster spot. Given Burton's rapid improvement and Highsmith's current underrated sophistication, it could be an uphill battle.
In order to earn another contract, Webb will have to show even more improvement than Burton did last year and demonstrate the type of remarkable learning curve that propelled Jarius Wright from a benchwarmer to impact role player in one short season.
He'll perhaps be used like Sproles, but with the potential to add more gimmick plays. Unfortunately, every team the Vikings will play against will be cognizant of this.
Don't think the Packers haven't thought of a flea flicker with Webb. The fact that most of his gadget-style plays can be countered by simply playing in tight man coverage, he may be limited to end-arounds, reverses and screen passes for some time.
If he shows the ability to maintain his hold on the ball in the air through contact, you will largely find him running shorter routes later in the season. Otherwise, don't expect to see variety in his game early on.
Webb may be able to succeed at receiver, but he has a short amount of time to impress coaches in a position that takes a long time to make an impact. At best, his odds are long, but the payoff is huge.
A smart gambler would bet against it.