What to Make of Stephen Hill's Career Struggles

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What to Make of Stephen Hill's Career Struggles
Rich Schultz/Getty Images
It's not a reach to say Jets wide receiver Stephen Hill (above) has struggled through his first 1.5 years in the NFL.

Draft evaluation is best done three years down the road. In the case of New York Jets wide receiver Stephen Hill, however, some people have seen enough just 21 games into his professional career.

Head coach Rex Ryan hasn't been impressed with the production.

"Well, it certainly hasn't been where we thought it would be and where we hoped it would be," said Ryan. "I know the young man, he's nicked up a little bit. He's trying. He's doing all that. I know the want-to is there. It's just the production hasn't been there for whatever reason."

Would they consider benching him?

"Yeah," Ryan said, "that will be a consideration."

It's been that kind of career in New York for Hill, but what's leading to his struggles? Ryan said defenses were playing Hill differently, hinting that defenses might be paying more attention to him now than when he entered the league in 2012.

In watching the film, there are times where Hill is doubled over the top, but that's also a product of him constantly being sent on deep patterns. Jets opponents know what to expect from Hill. He is a speedster with limited route-running ability.

NFL Game Rewind

Even when he gets opportunities, he hasn't taken advantage of them.

Quite simply, he hasn't been able to gain separation on a consistent basis, even when singled up. Buccaneers cornerback Leonard Johnson was left on an island against Hill in the red zone. Ordinarily, you'd think a 6'4", 215-pound receiver would win easily over a 5'10", 202-pound cornerback one-on-one.

NFL Game Rewind

Hill gained no separation off the defender, however, and Smith went through his progression only to find Hill completely blanketed as he reached the end zone. Smith had no alternative but to throw the ball away.

The Jets need to get creative with how they get Hill involved, and Hill has to return the favor by running crisp routes.

According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Hill has caught five of the 13 deep passes (20 yards or more downfield) thrown his way.

Two of those came in one game against the Buffalo Bills, with Justin Rogers in coverage. Rogers, according to PFF, has allowed the highest passer rating of any cornerback in the league on throws into his coverage at 142.3, with a catch rate of 61.5 percent, five touchdowns, no picks and four passes defensed.

It wasn't the best measuring stick for Hill, but the Jets could still glean some ideas on how they could use Hill effectively downfield.

NFL Game Rewind

On this 3rd-and-7 in the first quarter, Hill started to the post, which held the safety over the middle. Then he broke to the corner, splitting the corner and safety and getting behind the coverage.

Hill's sharp route helps him break away from the defender. This goes back to getting creative with Hill. If defenses know what he's going to do, it's all too easy for them to stop it.

Bleacher Report research

In reviewing all of Hill's 13 targets of 20 yards or more downfield, a few things jump out. They've sent him on a lot of fade routes to try to get him off the jam. Those have had mixed results, but only five of his 13 deep targets have involved any kind of break in the route.

The coaching staff could be doing a better job of helping Hill get open by having him run more diverse routes. He doesn't run crisp routes underneath, but his speed makes him a threat on just about any deep route.

It would help if Hill had a quarterback who could get him the ball; of the eight incomplete deep throws to Hill, I counted four of them as being a result of poor throws by Smith. One was a result of pressure on Smith, and three were a result of poor routes by Hill or a failure to get open.

That being said, defensive backs have been able to take away the vertical pass because they've committed to it. The Jets must do a better job of getting him involved in other ways.

How much longer should the Jets stay patient with Stephen Hill?

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Hill needs to improve on his short and intermediate route-running so that he can be used more frequently and more effectively in that role. He's been targeted just 23 times on throws shorter than 10 yards beyond the line of scrimmage and the same number of times 10 yards and beyond.

In some ways, Hill's situation has been as unfavorable as it could be. He's had instability at quarterback and offensive coordinator, and while Santonio Holmes is one veteran presence in the receiver group, Hill needed to go somewhere he could hone his skills without the pressure of producing big numbers early on.

For all his physical talents, the Jets knew Hill would be a project. Until he begins to round out his game by being a more diligent and effective route-runner, there's no guarantee he'll be given that opportunity.

 

 

Erik Frenz is also a Patriots/AFC East writer for Boston.com. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand or via team news releases.

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