Rapid development, surprising production and enticing potential has Green Bay Packers head coach Mike McCarthy singing the praises of Jarrett Boykin, his young, ascending receiver.
"I'm as high on Boykin as anybody in our building," McCarthy said Friday from the NFL Scouting Combine, per Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "He had a heck of a year, and I still think he has another jump in him."
Filling in once injuries robbed the Packers of both Randall Cobb and James Jones last season, Boykin quickly established himself as a trusted receiving option, regardless of who was playing quarterback. He didn't record a catch during the first four games of 2013, but in the final 12, he hauled in 49 for 681 yards and three scores, with five games of 80 or more yards receiving.
In the seven games without Aaron Rodgers, Boykin still averaged 60 receiving yards and caught two of his three scores. Arguably, his finest game came in Week 7, during his first NFL start, when he caught a career-high eight passes and his first professional score against the Cleveland Browns.
Not bad for a guy who went undrafted in 2012 and was once cut by the Jacksonville Jaguars during a rookie minicamp.
Boykin's rise has been meteoric.
Once the longest of long shots, Boykin needed to fight and claw his way onto Green Bay's final 53-man roster back in the summer of 2012. Now, he's looking at entering 2014 as the Packers' No. 3 receiver, as he outplayed looming free-agent James Jones for much of last season.
"I've always liked Jarrett," McCarthy said. "I've always felt he had it."
Here's a look at why McCarthy is so high on Boykin ahead of next season, using evidence from 2013 as our basis.
A receiver like Boykin, whose 4.74-second 40-yard dash at the 2012 combine ranks as the second slowest among receivers over the last four years, can't rely on speed or the threat of speed to get open. Instead, he uses a remarkably deep understanding of route running to create necessary separation.
For starters, the 218-pound Boykin makes it difficult for defensive backs to reroute him at the line of scrimmage.
Watch the clip below for evidence:
On this 3rd-and-short play, Minnesota Vikings cornerback Josh Robinson attempts to jam Boykin at the line. But instead of getting tied up early in the route, Boykin fights off Robinson with his hands, accelerates up the field and hauls in a deep throw from Aaron Rodgers.
Cornerback Sam Shields, who sees the Packers offense every day in practice, said Boykin is a top route-runner who is difficult to jam.
"He's one of my hardest guys when I'm pressing," Shields said, via Tyler Dunne of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "He's hard to play in press coverage."
Here's another example of Boykin beating the press and getting up field for a big play, this time against the New York Giants:
While getting a clean release off the line is one of most important aspects of playing receiver at the NFL level, so is actually getting open once into a route. Again, Boykin can't rely on the threat of pressing the 9-route (otherwise known as the fly- or go-route). He needs to set up cornerbacks and make sharp, efficient cuts at the top of each route.
Below, we see Boykin doing exactly that against the Cleveland Browns:
Boykin fakes the deep post, causing the cornerback to break inside. Once his defender is leaning and off balance, Boykin breaks the route off to the outside, fighting through a panicked, slipping defender before flashing wide open near the boundary.
After the catch, Boykin rumbles for a near-score.
The route combination is one Greg Jennings turned into a science in Green Bay. And while Boykin isn't the same quick-twitch athlete Jennings was, you can see so many of the same intricacies Jennings brought to the table when running routes in Boykin.
Fast receivers get open with athleticism and a hint of fear. The more ordinary athletes have to rely on other traits, such as release technique, deceptive routes and quick breaks. Boykin still has work to do in these areas. But receivers who run 4.74 in the 40 don't get open at the NFL level without an understanding and dedication to the all-around craft of route running.
Use of Separation
The most impressive part of Boykin's game isn't his ability to create an inch of separation; It's actually what he does with his separation that allows him to be a productive receiver, no matter which part of the field he's working.
I liken Boykin a little bit to a power forward in basketball. He's very good at creating position at the point of attack and then using his big frame to ensure that space is maximized. This skill allows Boykin to box out defenders at every level. And once in position, he can attack the football using his long arms and leaping ability. He's also very good at making contested catches in traffic.
This catch in overtime against the Vikings is a perfect example:
Boykin identifies the football, providing himself just enough space between the sideline and defender. He then goes up and gets the throw, high-pointing the football while also absorbing contact and getting two feet in-bounds. It was a play you just don't see many undrafted free agents make in such a big situation.
He had a similar catch against the Philadelphia Eagles, which we will see later.
But Boykin isn't just good at maximizing space down the field on vertical routes. He does the same off short to intermediate areas, including on comebacks, slants and short outs. And this ability really pays off on back-shoulder throws, where he can turn his head, gain position and keep an unaware defender on the back hip.
Boykin scored his third and final touchdown of the season on such a play. Against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Matt Flynn threw a back-shoulder attempt that mistakenly came inside, but Boykin fought through the defender and made the catch for the score.
Boykin has the potential to be a productive possession receiver throughout much of his career because of his ability to maximize separation. It's an increasingly rare skill in a game predicated on vertical speed.
Yards After the Catch
Playing receiver in the Green Bay offense demands the ability to create after the catch, and it is here where we see great improvement in Boykin's game.
In 2012, Boykin caught five passes and averaged just 1.4 yards after the catch. His opportunities were limited, but you saw a somewhat hesitant player still learning the ropes.
Those numbers jumped dramatically this past season, up to 49 catches and 5.2 yards after the catch. He led all Packers receivers with 12 missed tackles forced, and his 255 yards after the catch ranked third on the offense.
Here's one example of Boykin causing trouble in the open field:
He again looks a little bit like Jennings, using a head nod to bait the would-be tackler before planting his foot and cutting inside. A short, quick throw is then turned into 11 yards and a first down.
Boykin may never be a consistent threat in the open field like Jennings or Cobb. But he's smart and tough enough to ground out yards after the ball finds his hands.
While limited in straight-line speed, Boykin compensates with other physical attributes.
Boykin has monstrous hands that measure 10 1/4", which help him pluck the football out of the air without much trouble. He struggled with drops against the Baltimore Ravens after coming on for Cobb, but the rest of his season was mostly spotless in the catching department. He's typically strong in this area because of his consistency in catching the football with his hands away from his body; There's no body catching.
And as the confidence in his craft grows, it's reasonable to expect his drop rate to fall.
Boykin's hands are also useful in chucking cornerbacks and fighting through the hand duels that so often occupy the early moments after the snap for receivers.
Other helpful tools for Boykin are his long arms and tall, lean frame at 6'2". His height and arm length allow him to provide quarterbacks with a large catching radius.
Watch Boykin go get this pass along the sidelines against the Eagles:
Also, you can't discount Boykin's ability as a run blocker. He came on as the Packers' best blocking receiver in 2013, which should be valuable down the road when you consider how much this offense has committed to running the football.
Boykin was provided an opportunity in 2013 and made the most of it. He outplayed Jones, who battled injury and then struggled to make impact plays down the stretch. This reality has opened the door for Boykin to open next season as Green Bay's No. 3 receiver, an important position in the Packers offense, while Jones might be playing elsewhere.
Route running, separation maximization, improving run-after-the-catch ability, big, reliable hands and a wide catching radius give Boykin the tools necessary to build on his breakout 2013 season. And provided his coach is being genuine, there's every reason to think Boykin will be provided that opportunity in 2014.