How Do Scouts Break Down NFL Wide Receiver Prospects?
The one question I'm asked most by readers, Twitter followers or prospective writers is, "How do you break down NFL prospects?"
It is also one of the toughest questions to answer in a tweet or quick email exchange.
Here, I'll go deeper.
Each position requires different criteria for scouting, but the method of scouting remains the same. Tape study, background checks and pre-draft workouts are all a part of the puzzle that makes up a player's scouting report. But what goes into a deeper study of each position and each player at that position?
After starting with quarterbacks and running backs, here is a look at what it takes to scout wide receivers for the NFL.
Ask yourself, what is the No. 1 job of a wide receiver?
The answer? To catch the ball. More than any other aspect of what the player does, his hands are the most important feature when scouting a player.
Think back on your own career—whether that's college football or simply backyard touch games. You might become more comfortable catching in pads and a helmet over time, but being able to pluck the football out of the air is very much a skill you either have or don't have at an early stage in your playing career.
Hands. They provide the ability to consistently catch the football, and so much more.
When we look at wide receivers in the college game and project them to the NFL, you want not only a player who catches a lot of passes—production really isn't that important for wide receivers—but one who routinely catches the ball when it is thrown his way. In this regard, it's much more important to have a high percentage of catches than it is to have a high number of catches.
How do we track this? Much in the same way that I chart quarterback accuracy, the same chart is used to track wide receiver consistency.
A simple "X" for drops and "O" for catches will give you an accurate look at a player's catch-to-drops ratio and a clear picture of where they may have problems catching the ball. This chart is the one I used before the 2012 draft to uncover Justin Blackmon's struggle to secure the ball on quick-hit throws on slant routes. And that's something we eventually saw more of from him.
It can be too easy to say that a wide receiver has good hands because he catches a lot of passes, but there are many wide receivers who don't have great production—because of the quarterback or the scheme—but go on to be very productive NFL receivers. Throw out the stat sheet on this one.
2. Route Running
If the No. 1 goal of a wide receiver is to catch the ball, a major part of that equation is his ability to get open.
Being a good route-runner is something that can be taught. Demaryius Thomas has become a nice example of this. Coming out of Georgia Tech's option offense, Thomas wasn't an accomplished route-runner, but with time, the Denver Broncos have been able to perfect his timing, steps and ability to change direction. Those are the keys to being able to separate from a defender in coverage.
Knowing how well a player runs routes can be very tough to grade or judge. To help myself keep track of this, I like to sketch out route trees while watching film. It's simple enough to take a piece of paper and draw out which routes you see the player run. You can then add notes—like "poor cut to inside"—on those routes for reference.
Being a good route-runner is something that I find to be underrated too often. How well the receiver sees the field, separates from the coverage and adjusts to the ball are keys to his future success. Of course, this is largely size, quickness and mechanics all wrapped up into one neat little package.
When a player is a high-level route-runner, we'll see things like quick feet, great balance, the flexibility in their lower body to change direction and the speed to accelerate away from defenders. Those are all important aspects of the game outside of route running, but here get pulled in to make up the second-most important criteria for wide receiver prospects.
3. Quickness and Agility
Throughout this series, one constant you will see is the scouting of agility. For almost every position on the football field, it is the backbone of what a player can or cannot do. Tie in the player's quickness with his agility and you'll have a good idea of the type of athlete you're scouting.
Being an agile wide receiver, to me, is better than being a fast wide receiver. Yes, anyone would love to have both, but being quick in short areas beats being able to run past defenders in a straight line. Take Wes Welker, for example.
Coming out of Texas Tech, Welker was an undersized player with below-average speed—timed at 4.61 at his pro day—but what's made him such a great underneath receiver is his quickness in space. Welker is able to change direction without slowing down, and he's shifty enough when there is room to run that he can create separation from defenders and then accelerate away from tacklers.
Not every player who is quicker than fast will succeed, but speed alone will get you in trouble when scouting wide receivers.
4. Speed and Acceleration
Speed. It's damn near a four-letter word in the scouting community thanks to the over-drafting of players who wow scouts with amazing 40-yard dash times. How important is speed to the position?
The chart above shows you that of the 10 fastest wide receivers to enter the NFL over the last seven drafts, just two have made a Pro Bowl. It's easy to surmise that speed, while nice, is overrated as a stand-alone scouting criteria. If only Al Davis had learned this.
Finding a wide receiver with speed is always nice, but only if he has good hands and is either an accomplished route-runner or has the skills—balance, flexibility and quickness—to become one. Darrius Heyward-Bey hasn't been an elite NFL wide receiver no matter how fast he gets up the field. On the other hand, players with less speed but better skills, like Anquan Boldin, have become much better players overall.
Speed and acceleration can be important, though. I'm not suggesting that a slow receiver is better than a fast one, especially when we're talking about being able to make plays after the catch and separate from coverage. Those two areas are where speed is a major benefit.
Guys like Percy Harvin are so dangerous because of their ability to quickly hit a second gear and pull away from defenders. This blend of wide receiver is equal parts pass-catcher and running back, thanks to their open-field ability and penchant for picking up yards post-catch. Harvin's speed alone isn't elite, but his acceleration, quickness and vision make him extremely dangerous in the open field.
Every spring, we see a handful of players who move up draft boards because of a 40-yard dash time, but remember that speed is a small part of the puzzle when evaluating a wide receiver or any NFL draft prospect. Positional skills come first.
A wise man once told me that it's fine for wide receivers to be short, as long as they're not small.
That may sound like a Chinese proverb, but consider its merits. Short wide receivers have become much more common in today's NFL. Players like Wes Welker, DeSean Jackson and now Tavon Austin are being used as centerpieces in pro offenses. All three are considered short while not being small.
What does that mean?
Welker, Jackson and Austin are all under 5'11", but they all weigh at least 175 pounds. Welker has nice bulk at 190 pounds on his 5'9" frame, and similarly, Austin packs 174 pounds on a 5'9" frame. Both have the build to hold up against NFL tacklers.
How about the other end of this spectrum? The oversized wide receiver was all the rage in the NFL for years, with the Roy Williams' and Mike Williams' of the world becoming top 10 picks thanks to their matchup potential on the edge against smaller cornerbacks.
That trend hasn't completely died, but NFL teams have learned that size isn't everything. Calvin Johnson is enormous, but he's also other-worldly agile. Same for Julio Jones. Size is great, when it comes with balance, flexibility, quick feet and speed.
Blocking. How much does it really matter? If you ask NFL evaluators, not that much.
In my time covering the NFL draft, working as a recruiter and a scout, I've never once heard of a wide receiver being moved up or down draft boards because of his blocking ability.
Blocking is a nice skill set for a wide receiver, but NFL coaches could teach a toddler to stalk block or run off coverage. It's great that Julio Jones is a menacing blocker, but how often does that skill change or win ball games for the Atlanta Falcons?
When you're evaluating wide receivers, it's fine to keep an eye on how well they block, but remember, we're paying the player to do one thing—catch the football.
Scouting wide receivers can be tough—just ask Bill Belichick or Matt Millen—but too often, the job becomes harder than it needs to be because the evaluator falls in love with one part of the package instead of the whole thing.
Wide receivers like A.J. Green, Julio Jones and Calvin Johnson were sure-thing prospects because they possessed all of the above qualities at high levels. While not every prospect can be at that level, the job of an evaluator is to find a player with the most ability in each of these areas. Those players become your starting-caliber wide receivers over the long haul.
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