Twenty three is a rough age—a time in which most young adults are trying to get their life on track, all while trying to ignore the fact that their most stress-free years are likely behind them.
In that regard, New York Jets receiver Stephen Hill is not unlike most kids his age. Just over two years removed from his junior season at Georgia Tech, Hill is also trying to carve out his path in the professional workplace.
However, most kids are not trying to play world-class football with the best players in the world. Also unlike his classmates, every mistake they make is not printed on the back pages of the New York tabloids.
Public criticism comes with the territory of earning a healthy second-round NFL paycheck, but that can never take away the fact that Hill is, at his heart, a young kind trying to learn his way—but hard-working season ticket holders want results, not heartfelt coming-of-age stories. The Jets are here to win football games, not cradle college athletes into manhood.
Hill's career reached a low point in the middle of the 2013 season. His productivity reached a point low enough that he lost his starting job to David Nelson, a midseason addition who was still learning the playbook. He finished with just 24 catches for 342 yards.
Regardless of his age, Hill has been in an NFL facility long enough to know that simply having potential does not last in the long term. If Hill wants to call himself a New York Jet beyond this summer, simply flashing potential will not suffice.
Expectations are certainly raised for Hill—but they also must be tempered. After all, the kid has not even stopped growing:
Coming out of Georgia Tech, Hill was a glorified jump-ball specialist, playing street football in a college arena. His "route tree" consisted of him making opposing defenses pay for overcommitting to defend Georgia Tech's triple-option offense.
Hill was the ultimate project—a speedy physical specimen that needed to be taught from scratch how to play the receiver position. The problem was, Hill was drafted in 2012 to start right away in a Jets offense that was anything but a juggernaut, led by a below-average starter in Mark Sanchez with Tony Sparano calling the shots.
In a word, Hill was drafted into the worst situation imaginable. He needed to be brought along slowly by a well-oiled offensive machine...something like the New Orleans Saints or Green Bay Packers. Forced into a meaningful role from the start, Hill was set up for failure.
Putting his "rawness" aside, the fact that Hill has been slow to adapt to the NFL as a wide receiver is hardly a unique case. By and large, receiver is one of the most difficult positions to transition from the college to professional ranks.
Georgia Tech's simplistic offense required Hill to run just a handful of predetermined routes. On the other hand, NFL receivers often adjust routes on a multitude of factors, including the defense's alignment, down-and-distance and whether a blitz has been called.
The NFL is littered with examples of wide receivers who have taken multiple seasons to blossom from disappointing draft duds into superstars. Jerome Simpson nearly tripled his reception total from his second season to his third (although there was a one-year gap he missed in 2009 due to injury). Drafted in 2003, it was not until the 2006 season that Andre Johnson had his breakout year of 103 receptions. Faced with the same "bust" label as Hill, Atlanta's Roddy White more than doubled his receiving yardage totals from his second season (506) to his third year (1,202).
Fantasy football provides some evidence to the third-year phenomenon as well. Using ESPN's standard scoring system, third-year receivers tend to have significantly more production than their less-experienced counterparts, as shown by a study by ESPN's Tristan H. Cockcroft.
This is not to say that Stephen Hill is destined for stardom simply because he was a high draft pick who is entering his third season. But writing off a talented player who is young enough to have some difficulty renting cars in some states because he has not yet outpaced history is premature, to say the least.
As disappointing as his production has been, he has flashed some big-time playmaking ability, particularly early in the 2013 season. He has some huge, game-saving plays on his resume, including this one against the Buffalo Bills.
For Hill, getting open has never been the big issue—reeling the ball in at the moment of truth has tormented him throughout his time in New York. Since he failed to come up with this crucial catch against the New England Patriots in his rookie 2012 season, Hill has been as unreliable as they come in the hands department.
Despite his tremendous size, Hill fails to take advantage because of his apparent reluctance to extend his hands. A receiver who catches the ball with his body negates any size mismatch he may have against a defensive back. So far, Hill has proven to be nothing more than a lanky, speedy receiver who has little knowledge about the ins-and-outs of route-running.
Unfortunately for Hill, his issue with drops and inconsistent hands have continued to hold him back thus far in his third training camp. Darryl Slater of The Star-Ledger reports:
Antonio Allen beat by Stephen Hill on first play of team period. But Hill dropped Geno Smith deep ball. Rain made it tough catch, obviously.— Darryl Slater (@DarrylSlater) August 12, 2014
The good news for Hill is that he still has time to prove himself to be a quality receiver. As long as he can earn a spot on the Jets (or perhaps even another roster), he is learning a few techniques away from becoming not just a serviceable receiver but a quality starter. There are plenty of receivers who run good routes and catch everything in sight, but only a few humans on the planet have Hill's size and speed.
This is the most important summer of Stephen Hill's football life. While he has yet to change the negative perception around him, we should reserve our judgment until after he gets adequate time to prove his worth on the football field.