Ty Montgomery didn’t need a clear, definitive position at Stanford. He was an athlete.
His job title was receiver, but he’d sometimes function as a running back. His true area of excellence? Kick returner. His open-field speed led to the nation’s third-highest kick-return average in 2013 (30.3 yards).
Now as he prepares for the NFL draft, Montgomery faces a mold that needs to be shattered. An athlete has to become a football athlete, and at the next level that means being an offensive weapon coordinators don’t struggle to use.
The alternative is quickly having versatility erased and being placed into an inescapable NFL box.
The alternative is becoming Cordarrelle Patterson.
|Best college seasons: Montgomery vs. Patterson|
|Player||Receiving yards||Rushing yards||Return yards||TDs|
|Ty Montgomery (2013)||958||159||1,091||14|
|Cordarrelle Patterson (2012)||778||308||772||9|
|Source: College Football Reference|
The line connecting Montgomery—a likely mid-round pick—to Patterson and his quickly fizzling career with the Minnesota Vikings isn’t a difficult one to draw.
Patterson’s raw athleticism led to puddles of scout drool prior to the draft in 2013. The previous season he had three games with 100-plus yards for the Tennessee Volunteers as either a kick or punt returner. He also averaged 12.3 yards per carry, showing instant explosiveness in space.
A 67-yard run was among Patterson’s highlights that year.
He later flashed that same speed in the 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine. A time of 4.42 and other eye-popping measurables (including a 37-inch vertical) sent Patterson vaulting up draft boards, and eventually into the first round where he was selected with the Vikings’ 29th overall pick.
Triumph followed by a whole lot of tragedy sums up the rest of Patterson’s story after two seasons.
The good? As a rookie Patterson set a record for the NFL’s longest kick return with a 109-yard sprint to glory against the Green Bay Packers. The great? He finished the season with 1,393 return yards, and was named a first-team All-Pro because of that specialty.
The awful? Through two seasons Patterson has compiled only 1,110 yards from scrimmage. He was benched in Week 13 of his second year and saw only 28 snaps throughout the rest of the season, per Pro Football Focus.
Vikings offensive coordinator Norv Turner seemed to sigh and shrug his shoulders after instaling 10 plays specifically for Patterson. Worse, head coach Mike Zimmer is now batting away trade rumors while being forced to speak quite frankly about a potential failed first-round pick.
Montgomery’s mission is to make sure he steers clear of Patterson's career trajectory. Of course, his first goal is simple, though far more urgent: to find a position and/or role in the NFL.
“Montgomery is an exciting return man with home run potential with the ball in his hands,” wrote Dane Brugler of NFLDraftScout.com while breaking down the 22-year-old’s potential. “But what position does he play in the NFL? His best NFL comparison might be a slightly better version of Josh Cribbs.”
That’s not an insult. The 1,809 kick return yards Cribbs posted in 2007 still stands as the second-highest single-season total of all time. He’s had a fine career, but one with a singular function. Cribbs' NFL role is almost strictly limited to kick returner, the same hole Patterson is quickly falling into and one Montgomery is looking to avoid.
But wherever he turns during the pre-draft process, that label greets him.
“I think he's day one a starting kick returner,” said NFL Network draft analyst and former scout Daniel Jeremiah. “He could be a Pro Bowl kickoff returner in his NFL career. He's a little bit of a project at the wide receiver spot."
Understanding the divide between Montgomery the returner and Montgomery the receiver is confusing at first. How can a guy capable of this…
...Average only 9.9 yards per catch in 2014?
And how can a returner who’s only a year removed from doing this…
|2013 College football kick-return leaders|
|Source: College Football Reference|
...Score only three receiving touchdowns during his final collegiate season, down from 10 in 2013?
The answer to those questions doubles as the primary hurdle Montgomery needs to clear if he wants to become more than a Cribbs or Patterson. He needs to develop his hands and concentration.
Montgomery had 16 drops and three fumbles over his final three seasons at Stanford. That’s some serious slipperiness in the worst way. Combine that with his lack of refined, polished route-running skills, and NFL.com analyst Lance Zierlein was led to note that he “doesn’t display natural wide receiver characteristics.”
There’s no shortage of speed from Montgomery, even if he was surprisingly sluggish at the combine, posting a 40-yard dash time of 4.55. It was a concerning result, but it can be cast aside because of his abundant in-game speed.
For good measure, though, Montgomery improved significantly at Stanford’s pro day when he needed only 4.46 seconds to sprint 40 yards, according to the school’s official Twitter account. The cause? Well, partly shedding 10 pounds and coming in much lighter than his combine weight (he tipped the scales at 221 lbs in Indianapolis).
But the athletic version of beauty sleep also helped.
By now you’re understanding a central theme here that’s obvious after even the most passing glance at Montgomery’s game film: He’s stupid fast. His 2,208 all-purpose yards in 2013 were the third-highest single-season total in school history.
Maybe not quite Patterson fast, but he’s close enough that during an injury-shortened 2014 season (three missed games, including the Foster Farms Bowl because of a shoulder problem) Montgomery still had two return touchdowns, both on punts.
Converting that quickness into offensive effectiveness at the next level—and doing it consistently—is the challenge ahead. Success will mean holding on to the ball and running a more diverse route tree.
Montgomery’s speed creates opportunities because of the cautious defensive approach it demands. We saw that in Week 5 of the 2014 season against Notre Dame, yet due to several key drops he finished with only 12 receiving yards on four catches.
In the third quarter the Cardinal were backed up and facing 2nd-and-17. Montgomery was split out wide to the right side and ran a deep hook. Notre Dame cornerback Cody Riggs was forced to provide a cushion, respecting the speed of his assignment.
Often at Stanford it didn't matter if Montgomery's routes were a little ragged and lacked precision. Just as it does for the likes of Patterson, the Bills’ Percy Harvin and even Cribbs at one time, the mere threat of a downfield burst leads to space underneath.
On this play, Riggs offered plenty of room while being wary of Montgomery’s acceleration. He was leaning on his back foot when Montgomery broke off his route. At least two full strides separated receiver and cornerback.
But this is when the receiving part of being a receiver becomes difficult for Montgomery. He had an easy, uncontested lay-up. And he threw it over the backboard.
Riggs was removed from the picture, and Montgomery wasn’t being harassed. He had no reason to lose concentration or rush the process of securing the ball. With his quickness he may have had a chance to shake Riggs’ tackle attempt, too, and churn out even more yards after the catch.
He didn’t get that opportunity because the ball thumped off his chest instead.
Drops and developing hands that resemble pillows instead of turtle shells will be Montgomery’s main area of concern in the NFL. He has a simple flaw, but also a fundamental one: Completing the catch should be a priority before any other movement.
Montgomery needs to track the ball into his hands and absorb the throw. He doesn’t have the soft mitts to do that yet, which leads to drops, unnecessary bobbles and a potential interception if the ball is batted away or deflected.
Analyst Rob Rang of CBSSports.com observed those weaknesses in his pre-draft scouting report.
“[He] allows too many passes to get to his pads, resulting in some ugly drops in which the ball simply goes through his fingers,” wrote Rang. He also noted that Montgomery’s muscular, Hulk-like 6'0" build for his size leads to rigid movement on quick-breaking routes, and poor flexibility to execute the cuts required for intermediate looks.
That’s why we arrive at a familiar tale with Montgomery, and the Patterson comparisons. He’s a hybrid offensive weapon who needs to be slotted somewhere.
We’ll call him a wide receiver because, well, we have to call him something. But in truth he’s an athlete, and he’ll be drafted on the irresistible appeal to deploy him everywhere, and to do so often.
Looking at the Notre Dame game again as an example, he was frequently split out wide and asked to run deep curls or verticals. He was placed in the slot just as much, which is where his high volume of targets on quick screens came from. But he also received a season single-game-high five carries, one coming on a Wildcat run up the gut.
Then there was little dose of creativity…
Montgomery started to split out wide to the left, then motioned into the backfield. After the snap he sprinted laterally again as his offensive line set up a screen. Stanford Cardinal quarterback Kevin Hogan rolled to his right and found Montgomery streaking at top speed.
The play sputtered for a minimal gain, but the design still shows the breadth of creativity Montgomery’s presence allows.
Of course, the eternal question when dealing with the Montgomerys and Pattersons always circles back to the familiar philosophical quagmire of chicken vs. egg. Is an athletically gifted player really, truly blessed on a football field if he requires that creativity and needs to be inserted into space? Or is it the responsibility of the coaching staff to muster enough innovation and capitalize on the talent they've been handed?
John Neal is familiar with Montgomery, but from the other sideline. He's an assistant coach with the Oregon Ducks and oversees the defensive backs. In a phone conversation with Bleacher Report Neal expressed little doubt about Montgomery's future.
"His work ethic had to be fabulous to get a body like that," said Neal. "I think he most definitely has a chance to be a really solid eight-to-nine year NFL player."
Neal's Ducks had to defend Montgomery annually. The dual-threat nature of his skill set and usage created a difficult defensive problem.
"One play he could be running a reverse, the next play he's going deep on us, and the next play he's taking the snap and lined up as a quarterback running the football," he said, also emphasizing that even when Montgomery was lined up as a receiver in the slot he remained a run threat.
Neal called Montgomery a physical specimen, and jamming him at the line was a chore. However, his speed was the true, constantly looming concern.
"I think his speed was even greater than his strength. I feared his speed more than I did that big body of his, so we tried to limit how much he got off the ball and on top of us."
While Montgomery has impressed the likes of Neal and many others, there’s no blanket answer for what lies ahead after comparing him to similarly skilled receivers/returners who have tried to make the transition.
During his fleeting moments of good health, Harvin has piled up yards in chunks (1,312 yards from scrimmage in 2011). But between him, Patterson, Cribbs and the Rams’ Tavon Austin—who averaged all of 7.8 yards per catch in 2014—the larger sample size isn’t encouraging.
Montgomery’s goal is to separate himself from that group, and he may be best suited to do it while used as a runner with a slight increase in carries. If he re-gains the weight he lost after the combine and returns to about 220 pounds, Montgomery would become a legitimate threat as an inside runner after already showing a willingness to take the abuse. Over four seasons at Stanford he totaled 344 rushing yards, averaging 8.6 per carry.
The current versions of Montgomery in the NFL don’t share that body type or mentality, meaning his most optimistic outlook is to become a more legitimate hybrid option. He needs to go beyond being an athlete who can be deployed at multiple positions. Being effective from all of them is the real challenge.
Failing means a descent from versatile to specialist, the kick-returning kind. It means being a slightly better Josh Cribbs.