What exactly is it that makes an elite NFL receiver? I mean Larry Fitzgerald, Randy Moss, Calvin Johnson, Steve Smith, and Andre Johnson all seem to be elite and perfect right?
Well it’s quite simple as to what makes an elite receiver actually but unfortunately for any of their respective teams none of the aforementioned guys posses the perfect skillset, which leads one to beg the question of “what skillset would create the perfect NFL receiver?”
A “Frankenstein receiver” if you will…
Well this is the perfect opportunity to examine such a question by examining the best players at the skills required to play at a high level in the National Football League.
These skills are hands, route running/finding holes in the zone, in-traffic ability, big play ability, ability after the catch, understanding of “x’s and o’s” and—to a lesser extent—run blocking.
Hands refer to a receiver’s ability to make both routine and circus catches without dropping the ball. Whether they are wide open or are in traffic with defensive backs.
People tend to think that because someone makes a lot of receptions it means they have good hands but that is not the case; one’s hands can be measured by a lack of drops and catching seemingly uncatchable balls.
The best individuals at the aforementioned traits in my opinion are Larry Fitzgerald, Reggie Wayne, Jerricho Cotchery, T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Torry Holt.
Each has an excellent set of hands that are soft and sure. Unfortunately only one of these guys can get the nomination and it comes down to Reggie Wayne or Larry Fitzgerald.
Both Wayne and Fitz were taught by two of the greatest sets of hands in the history of the NFL in Marvin Harrison and Cris Carter respectively.
However, there is one thing that that sets one apart from the other and that is that Fitzgerald can bring down balls in heavy traffic where as Wayne is more of a circus catch guy with a defender on him.
It is because of this that I have to give the best hands in the league–and therefore to our Frankenstein wide receiver–to Larry Fitzgerald.
A younger player that stands out with good hands is Eddie Royal.
The next skill that is important to posses to be a good NFL wide receiver is the ability to run precise routes. One is hard pressed to find an individual who makes it in the NFL based on talent alone.
Even the great Randy Moss has had to refine his game to include more than the post and fly routes. Speed can only last you so long and route running allows you to gain separation if you lack top-end speed, to make the right moves in the two-minute drill and to build a connection with your quarterback.
The best route runners in the NFL in my opinion are Torry Holt, Reggie Wayne, Greg Jennings, TJ Houshmandzadeh and Terrell Owens. Holt and Wayne run the best “straight line” routes as they run them the exact way they’re drawn on paper.
Perhaps they learned this from mentors Marvin Harrison and Isaac Bruce who did the same thing.
TJ Houshmandzadeh and Terell Owens on the other hand run their routes with such aggression that it’s nearly impossible to run alongside them unless you’re a linebacker.
Furthermore you’d be hard-pressed to find a person who can run every route in the tree as often as they do as both of them run the in and short post routes more than the rest of the league. Additional to this is that few corners can jam them.
Finally there is Greg Jennings who runs routes “sloppily” in that he doesn’t run them in the “straight line” fashion, but has the best body movement in the league at running routes.
Route running is as physical as it as mental and Jennings possesses a trait that few receivers do; the ability to change direction immediately and cut off the defender. What this allows him to do is make any cut in any route and prevent the defender from undercutting the route by using his body as a shield while running the route.
So which one of these guys runs the best routes? I personally am a fan of cutting off defenders with your route running. Unfortunately I am also a fan of “straight line” route running.
In the end I feel that the latter is the better of the two and that Reggie Wayne’s youth and good knees gives him the edge over Torry Holt for our receiver’s route running skills.
Youngsters to watch because of their impeccable route running are Eddie Royal, Jordy Nelson and Donnie Avery.
Finding holes in the zone and sitting in them is a part of the route running skill but differs in that it’s something that can’t be taught by coaches. It is a skill that is often overlooked.
When a receiver sees the ebbs and flows of the defense and knows where they can space themselves away from the defenders, they maximize their chances to be the quarterback’s target on a non-timing play.
In my opinion the five best receivers in the NFL at this are Anquan Boldin, Hines Ward, Wes Welker, Roddy White and Brandon Stokely.
When you see wideouts making plays on third downs and the defense doesn’t blitz it is usually because they were capable of finding a hole in the zone. This is why receivers that are great at this skill usually have a nice understanding of the x’s and o’s of football.
Wes Welker happens to get a lot of his yardage on screen passes but the remainder of his production comes from finding holes in the zone. This is why I have chosen him as the guy for this skill in building our Frankenstein receiver.
Notable youngsters that posses this skill already are Jason Avant, Steve Smith(NYG) and Eddie Royal.
To some people “In-Traffic Ability” refers to a receiver’s ability to go over the middle and make catches knowing they’re probably going to get hit. That, however, is merely one part of it.
“In-Traffic Ability” also refers to a receiver’s ability to out-jump defensive backs in jump ball situations as well as to make adjustments on errantly thrown passes with defenders around them.
Of those latter two classifications of “In-Traffic Ability” the five best players in the league are Greg Jennings, Steve Smith, Larry Fitzgerald, Calvin Johnson and Randy Moss.
All five of these receivers are ridiculously good at out-jumping the opposition and coming down with balls. In addition to this Greg Jennings, Steve Smith and Larry Fitzgerald have absolutely amazing abilities to bail their quarterbacks out when they make errant throws by making tremendous adjustments in mid-air. However, do these guys go over the middle?
Greg Jennings goes over the middle–at least within the box–the least out of the remaining three wide receivers and Larry Fitzgerald just began to go over the middle with relative frequency last season.
I guess that that Steve Smith wins by default. However, Smith is very skilled at jump ball situations despite his small stature, makes excellent adjustments on the ball in the air and goes over the middle with ease. For these reasons our Frankenstein receiver receives this ability from Steve Smith.
All the above abilities mean absolutely nothing if the guy cannot make something out of nothing or can’t make plays by himself (for lack of a better term).
A receiver who can turn in a first down on third down and long is a necessity and a guy that can score in the redzone or from afar is even better. Guys in the NFL that are great at this are Steve Smith, Greg Jennings, Larry Fitzgerald, Randy Moss and Terrell Owens.
Steve Smith, Greg Jennings and Terrell Owens are all guys that can take a five yard hitch route and turn it to an 80-yard touchdown. Jennings has excellent moves, Owens excellent strength and Smith a combination of both.
Meanwhile Randy Moss and Larry Fitzgerald are just guys that their quarterbacks can rely on when running the fly or post route. They’re almost guaranteed to come down with the ball in big time situations and average 12 (Moss) and 9.6 (Fitzgerald) touchdowns per season.
The only times that either hasn’t eclipsed the double digit touchdown mark is via injury shortened seasons. Terrell Owens is also in this category via averaging 10 touchdowns a season.
While I would like to give the nod to Owens because he has been a more versatile player than Moss over their respective careers the fact remains that Moss has always had a bigger propensity for the big play. Therefore his big play ability goes to our Frankenstein receiver.
Of the young receivers not in the top five for this respective skill Calvin Johnson is the only person to qualify.
Even if you are a rather big playmaker if you cannot make something happen after the catch with relative frequency than you become considered somewhat of a one-trick pony.
Making something happen after the catch helps to make the receiver’s production fall on their own shoulders rather than making them a “product” of a good quarterback. Brandon Marshall, Anquan Boldin, Greg Jennings, Steve Smith and Wes Welker
Both Marshall and Boldin manage to make their plays after the reception through their strength by mowing through much lighter cornerbacks. It is all too common to see one of them running out of a wimpy arm tackle from a less physical cornerback.
On the other hand Jennings, Smith and Welker manage to make their plays after the catch through weaving in and out of traffic and making defenders miss. Smith is capable of muscling through arm tackles like Boldin and Marshall as well.
Jennings route running seems to carry over as he can cut on a dime and make defenders miss. However, at this point—whether you consider him a “product of a system” or not—Wes Welker is probably the best receiver in the league at creating something with the ball in his hands.
Welker brings in the majority of his catches within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage and turns them into first downs with ease by weaving through defenders. As a result, Wes Welker’s ability after the catch goes to our Frankenstein receiver.
Young receivers with this ability include Dwayne Bowe, Eddie Royal, Calvin Johnson and DeSean Jackson.
Understanding the ebbs and flows of the games is possibly the most overlooked skill of them all. A player can have all the natural talent in the world but if it’s not paired with a hard work ethic to understand how their opposition will play them or how the rules can benefit them than it is meaningless.
Knowing that you weren’t touched upon falling to the ground and gaining as much out of a play as possible is what wins games.
The five best candidates for this skill in my opinion are Reggie Wayne, Torry Holt, Wes Welker, Hines Ward and Derrick Mason.
Holt, Ward and Mason’s understanding of the game has come with over 10 years in the league each allowing them to learn more and more about the game every season.
Not to mention these three can almost always be found in the film room studying their upcoming opponents. It’s why they can still produce despite their age.
Wayne and Welker, thought not as old as these guys, have spent a lot of time in the film room and have already become elite at understanding how the game works. Both understand how the other 21 individuals on the field tend to act and how that is going to affect them.
Through understanding this they can get the maximum amount of production possible out of every play.
Reggie Wayne has already exhibited an immense understanding of the Xs and Os that undoubtedly has come from playing with two players with very high levels of understanding in Peyton Manning and Marvin Harrison.
As a result Reggie Wayne gets our nod for this category as he has just begun to scratch the surface in terms of understanding the game and is already top five. He allows for our Frankenstein receiver to be the most knowledgeable ever.
I don’t know if–in good conscience–I can say that any second or third year receiver has a strong Xs and Os understanding.
Run blocking is more of an extra rather than a necessity to be an elite wide receiver but it is important in the grand scheme of things. It helps makes better teams and last I checked football is the ultimate team sport.
The best run blockers in my opinion are Hines Ward, Anquan Boldin, T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Terrell Owens and Jason Avant.
While all of these guys are good at run blocking it is easily Hines Ward that is the best. Ward is the epitome of an excellent blocker that is capable of lining up at tight end due to his blocking abilities and occasionally did prior to Bruce Arians coming to Pittsburgh. Ward loves to “play with a defensive players mentality” and lay guys down and it’s no secret that defensive backs fear him.
With our Frankenstein receiver already feared for his ability to produce why not make him fearful because of the fact that, when he doesn’t get the ball, he’s going to pound you.
A young receiver that knows how to throw an effective block is Limas Sweed as exhibited in the AFC Championship Game.