One of the most athletically gifted players to come out of the 2012 draft, Stephen Hill has become the face of the New York Jets' inept receiving corps over the past year-and-a-half. An unshakable drop problem combined with injuries and lapses of toughness have led to some fans throwing around the dreaded "bust" label already.
Hill has made plenty of mistakes in his young Jets career, but he is still a developing player that was a very raw prospect to begin with. Known for his spectacular leaping ability and deep speed at Georgia Tech, the long-striding Hill would need some time to grow as a route technician as he made the adjustment from an elementary triple-option offense.
Hill, however, never had the luxury of easing himself into the NFL as he should have. Rather, he was thrust into the fire as a rookie and was eventually named the Jets' top receiving target after Santonio Holmes went down in Week 4.
Hill's rookie season actually started out as well as one could have imagined, catching two touchdowns in front of a home crowd against the Bills in the season opener in 2012.
Things would quickly turn sour—he only caught one more touchdown all season.
The play Hill became most famous for was a key third down against the Patriots in mid-October in which Hill dropped a pass that hit him square in the chest. As the Jets' season spiraled out of control, so did Hill's confidence. He battled mental lapses as well as a nagging hamstring injury.
Finally, a new leaf has turned and Stephen Hill has a chance to erase the bad memories from last year—but how far along has he come?
The Good: Using His Raw Ability
Despite his flaws, Hill is able to set himself up to make plays based on his unique combination of size and speed—which is exactly why he was drafted in the first place. A long strider, Hill may not be the quickest in and out of his cuts, but he can certainly build up some serious speed and use his height and length to reach passes opposing cornerbacks simply have no chance to bring down.
This play last Thursday night against the Patriots encompasses everything that is right—and wrong—with Stephen Hill as a receiver.
Hill is lined up in the slot, set to run a skinny post down the seam. The Patriots' top defensive back, Aqib Talib, is in man coverage with him.
With his speed, Hill is able to get a good step on Talib. The safety chooses to help the outside cornerback on the other side, making Hill virtually wide-open. Geno Smith recognizes this and throws a timely pass right to Hill, who is able to haul it in.
Talib tries to get into position to make a play on the ball, but Hill uses his frame to block Talib from making a big play.
Hill then tries to get a few yards after the catch—and fumbles, bringing us to the first downside of his game, ball security.
The Bad: Ball Security
In the constant search for the biggest, fastest wide receivers on the planet, catching and securing the football becomes an overlooked trait when evaluating receiver prospects.
The Jets are finding that out.
According to Pro Football Focus, Hill dropped six passes last year in 14 games, highlighted by his crucial drop against the Patriots in the second half of the season that has defined his career thus far.
His ball security issues continue to be a problem in 2013, having already dropped a pass and fumbled one away.
The frustrating aspect of Hill's game is that he is able to make such spectacular catches from time to time—then lets a floater bounce off his chest. Hill has the ability to make these catches, but when a rookie is rattled early in his career by costly turnovers (much like David Wilson of the Giants), he has no other experience to fall back on.
For example, if Reggie Wayne loses a game because of a dropped pass, he has over 12 years of experience and a Super Bowl ring to fall back on from a mental standpoint.
For younger players like Hill, their confidence is much more easily shattered.
Hill needs to find the balance between increased concentration and just allowing himself to play organically. Focusing too much on catching the ball can detract from other parts of his game that make him a prospect worth developing.
The Good: "High-Pointing" the Ball
At Georgia Tech, Hill was used strictly for the rare long pass the Yellow Jackets would throw in their triple-option offense. In this caveman passing game, Hill just needed to run a certain amount of yards, turn around, then do everything he could to reel in the catch.
This skill is one of the few of Hill's that has actually translated to the NFL. While he does not extend his arms on this play, Hill's height and leaping ability are enough to catch a ball that the cornerback simply would not have been able to reach.
These are the types of catches the Jets envisioned Hill making when they moved into the second round to draft him. You can teach a player how to run routes—but you can't teach height.
The Improving: Release
Stephen Hill is never going to be a route technician like Wes Welker or Reggie Wayne—his strides are simply too long to make sudden cuts and create separation.
Hill is, however, showing promising signs at the start of his route, namely getting off his release at the line of scrimmage.
Here, the Bucs are in man coverage on Hill. They do not press, however, likely because Hill is too fast and strong to risk getting beaten so quickly.
Recognizing the man coverage, Hill adjusts his route by shielding his frame away from the defender so that the defender cannot get square to Hill, as opposed to running straight at him.
Hill uses his speed to get great separation, although Geno Smith never sees him get open.
These types of plays are not going to show up on the stat sheet, but these slight improvements are eventually going to take Hill into the next echelon of receivers.
Ultimately, Stephen Hill is too talented of a receiver to be a bust so quickly. Hill should have been slowly introduced into the league, but he was thrown into a situation where he had to grow up far too fast with erratic quarterback play making everything look much worse than it really was.
Hill has a good chance to be a good receiver in the NFL, but it is going to take some time.
While he is making subtle improvements to his route-running, his lack of mental (and sometimes physical) toughness is holding him back from being the type of receiver he is going to become.
The good news is that almost all of his on-field issues are coachable; teaching a player how to run better routes or get off the press is the easy part. With 14 games left of his sophomore season, the time is now for Hill to step into the impact role the Jets imagined he would eventually take over.
Advanced statistics provided by ProFootballFocus.com (subscription required).