Can Marqise Lee Be More Than a No. 2 WR in the NFL?

Tyson Langland@TysonNFLNFC West Lead WriterApril 6, 2014

LOS ANGELES, CA - SEPTEMBER 22:  Marqise Lee #9 of the USC Trojans comes in motion during the game against the California Golden Bears at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on September 22, 2012 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
Harry How/Getty Images

Anyone who watched wide receiver Marqise Lee at USC the last three years most likely came away with this conclusion: He has incredible straight-line speed, runs crisp routes, tracks the ball well in the air and can throw a block in the run game.

However, for every trait draft analysts admire about Lee’s game, there are a handful of ones they don’t think highly of. Case in point, here’s what Rob Rang of CBS Sports had to say about Lee’s weaknesses:

Possesses a relatively slight frame and struggled with injuries in 2013, raising legitimate questions about his ability to remain healthy against NFL competition. Relies on his natural athleticism to work himself free, at times, rather than exploding out of his routes at the proper depths, showing a willingness to freelance that has led to interceptions for the Trojans.

It’s hard to disagree with some of the details Rang pointed out in his write-up. Lee did miss a few games due to injury in 2013, and he only weighed 192 pounds at the NFL Scouting Combine. Surely a receiver who stands six feet tall should be in the 200-pound range.

Build isn’t everything in the NFL, but it does go a long way. Having a solid frame at the wide receiver position improves durability and helps pass-catchers carve out spaces in zones and body up defensive backs.

Just ask New England Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman. When the Patriots drafted Edelman in the seventh round of the 2009 draft, he had played quarterback at Kent State and weighed 195 pounds. Since then, he has bulked up and added five pounds of muscle to his frame.

The slight bump in weight helped Edelman complete the first 16-game season of his career in 2013. Coincidentally enough, his first full season was his most productive. On 1,038 snaps, the 27-year-old California native tallied 105 receptions, amassed 1,056 yards receiving and scored six touchdowns.

Could five to eight pounds of extra muscle have the same effect on Lee? Considering he hasn’t filled out his frame yet, one shouldn’t be surprised if he checks in at 198 pounds to start the season.

Nevertheless, an increase in size may not silence his most vocal critics. Why? Because talent evaluators continuously ponder this question: Can Lee be more than a No. 2 wide receiver in the NFL?

In terms of the tape, it’s hard to project if Lee will be a high-end No. 2 or a low-end No. 1. He had two phenomenal seasons to start his collegiate career and a run-of-the-mill season to end it.

A lot people blamed his mediocre 2013 season on the nagging injuries he suffered late in the year, but it’s clear that his demise was a direct result of poor hands. According to Greg Peshek of Rotoworld, Lee dropped 12.31 percent of the catchable passes thrown his way. That proved to be a higher percentage than Sammy Watkins (4.49), Mike Evans (4.29) and Kelvin Benjamin (9.68).

Ask yourself, what is the No. 1 thing a wide receiver should be able to do?

Catch the football.

That is by far the most important thing a wideout has to consistently do on a weekly basis, via Matt Miller of Bleacher Report:

When we look at wide receivers in the college game and project them to the NFL, you want not only a player who catches a lot of passes—production really isn't that important for wide receivers—but one who routinely catches the ball when it is thrown his way. In this regard, it's much more important to have a high percentage of catches than it is to have a high number of catches.

If garnering a high percentage of catches is more important than having a high number of catches, Lee has plenty of work to do from now until the start of the season.

The good news is that drops are fixable with the proper coaching. Players like James Jones, Doug Baldwin and Robert Meachem have all progressed into sure-handed pass-catchers after rough starts to their careers.

Lee has acknowledged those drops and is working specifically on improving his hands. Pro Football Talk's Mike Florio asked Lee on PFT Live what area of his game he needs to improve upon, and the receiver said, "Really just catching the ball. I was doing a lot of thinking about running before catching the ball. I've just really been focused on looking the ball all the way in before I actually turn upfield and get going."

When looking at the second-most valuable attribute scouts examine, Miller of Bleacher Report says route running is important because it goes hand in hand with catching the ball:

If the No. 1 goal of a wide receiver is to catch the ball, a major part of that equation is his ability to get open.

Being a good route-runner is something that can be taught. Demaryius Thomas has become a nice example of this. Coming out of Georgia Tech's option offense, Thomas wasn't an accomplished route-runner, but with time, the Denver Broncos have been able to perfect his timing, steps and ability to change direction. Those are the keys to being able to separate from a defender in coverage.

Luckily for Lee, he is an exceptional route-runner who gets in and out of his cuts very quickly.

Whether he is split out wide as the X or Z, the 2012 Biletnikoff Award winner sees the field well and can run every route on the route tree. Furthermore, he shows things like quick feet, flexibility and great balance.

In the video below, notice how pretty a 9-route (fade) Lee ran down the left sideline. As he came off the line of scrimmage, he showed good acceleration, quick feet, a deceptive inside move and top-notch balance throughout the catch.

Lee’s elite route-running skills transition into the third thing scouts look for when evaluating wide receivers—quickness and agility.

Quickness and agility can be a bit tricky to judge because of guys like Wes Welker and Danny Amendola. Despite running slow 40 times, both players are quicker than they are fast thanks in large part to their ability to change direction without slowing down.

Personally, I would take the slow 40-time and excellent short-area quickness over a fast 40-time and poor short-area quickness. Yes, having both would be outstanding, but it’s rare to see a receiver possess both qualities.

Shockingly, Lee is one of the few receivers in the draft who possess both qualities. He can either blow by opposing defensive backs with his 4.52 speed or work them underneath with terrific acceleration and short-area burst.

In relation to Lee’s quickness and agility, you can’t overlook his knack for manipulating man and zone coverages. His manipulation tactics often help him understand where the soft spots are in coverage.

Last but definitely not least are speed and acceleration. They're similar to quickness and agility, yet speed is overrated as a standalone scouting criteria, per Miller of Bleacher Report.

Speed and acceleration can certainly be important at times, but a wide receiver has to have the total package. In addition to speed and acceleration, he has to be able to run good routes, have good hands and showcase the power of moving quickly and easily.

While his hands are debatable after a porous junior season, Lee is a top-tier prospect in all the other categories. As I mentioned above, he ran a 4.52 second 40-yard dash, staged savvy route-running skills and cleaned house underneath with quickness and agility.

Shoot, Bucky Brooks of NFL.com thinks Lee should be in the same conversation as Watkins:

I still believe a healthy Marqise Lee can rival Sammy Watkins for what he's able to do. They just flipped years. Sammy Watkins had a bad sophomore year, and Marqise Lee had a great sophomore year. Sammy Watkins had an outstanding junior year, Marqise Lee had an injury-plagued year.

When you really look at these two guys, I think they're closer in terms of separation. These guys are talented enough that they should be in the same conversation.

Based on the tape work, Brooks is on to something. Like me, he sees Lee as a low-end No. 1 who could eventually blossom into a Victor Cruz/Keenan Allen type. Neither player is a top-10 pass-catcher in the NFL, yet both are highly touted by the folks at Pro Football Focus (subscription required).

Cruz finished the 2013 season with a plus-6.5 grade, and Allen concluded with a plus-17 grade. That’s a cumulative grade of plus-23.5 between the two of them on 1,769 offensive snaps.

If Lee manages to accumulate a grade half as good as Allen’s mark in 2013, the No. 1 receiver questions will die fast. Yet it will be up to him to add mass to his frame, eliminate the drops and do a better job adjusting to deeper throws.


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