What Does It Take to Make It as a Wide Receiver in the NFL?

Michael Schottey@SchotteyNFL National Lead WriterApril 3, 2015

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There is more to the game of football than speed. 

This is true everywhere on the field but perhaps nowhere more so than at the wide receiver position. Speed has often defined how we think of the great pass-catchers the NFL and NFL draft have to offer, but it's truly only a piece of the puzzle. 

If one had a nickel for every track-star athlete who could never make it in the NFL as a receiver, that person could afford to buy an NFL team and stock it with speedsters—heck, that may have been how Al Davis did it with the Oakland Raiders. 

With the draft around the corner and another fantastic wide receiver crop to look forward to in 2015 after last year's star-studded one, it's a fine time to ask what exactly it takes to make it as a wide receiver in the NFL.

Let's focus not only on what to look for in a prospect at the position but also what those prospects need to work on once they get to the pros. 

Physical Ability Matters…To a Point

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Detroit Lions WR Calvin Johnson
Detroit Lions WR Calvin JohnsonPaul Sancya/Associated Press

One of the first scouting maxims I ever learned was very simple: Separate what a player can do from what he can learn. Put another way, a scout needs to train his or her eye to differentiate between what "the good Lord and their mamas" gave players and what they've learned from coaching over time. 

On a grand scale of physical ability versus acquired talent, one would obviously love to have ample amounts of both, but NFL coaches and personnel men are trained to find young men who have the elite physical talent first and foremost. The assumption is that the coaches can subsequently teach the young men what they need to learn. 

You can't teach speed—that's another oft-repeated maxim. 

The problem is, however, that the lines are blurred. 

You actually can teach speed. It's done every single year both for draft prospects and current NFL players. Tom Shaw might be the most famous speed coach out there, but there's a more-than-cottage industry around making current and future NFL players faster. Each year, players will head "to Florida," which is code for IMG's athletic training facilities in Bradenton. Or they'll head "to Arizona," which means they're going to EXOS

We've been teaching speed longer than we've been saying that you can't teach it. 

Catching ability is another trait that similarly straddles that line between natural and acquired. Jugs machines exist for a reason, but it is rare that a player goes from having poor hands to having good ones, no matter how much he practices. 

Physical Attributes Important for Wide Receivers
SizeFor receivers, this typically means height first and foremost, but scouts also look at a player's frame to see how well he'll stand up against NFL corners.
SpeedTypically used to denote straight-line speed. More than just a 40 time, though. Tape is always the best proof of how fast a receiver plays.
AgilityAlso called "lateral athleticism" and can be combined with terms such as "balance" to quantify a receiver's shiftiness and natural running ability.
ExplosivenessIn many ways, this can be a combination of the previous two traits. It can also be shorthand for "release off the line" or "leaping ability."
HandsObviously a big deal for receivers, it's not just how many catches or drops a guy has, but whether or not he looks comfortable or if he's consistently fighting the ball.

So we're not just weighing natural against acquired; we're also trying to asses what is what for each certain player. Is a guy a good route-runner because of natural balance and agility, or has he simply run the routes so many times that the polish shines forth?

Does a guy separate from defenders because he possesses incredible straight-line speed or because he understands "shifting gears" and using his body (as well as his eyes, head, shoulders, etc.) to push defenders off his route?

Physical ability only really matters for two big reasons. 

First, there's the "planet theory." This theory states that on this tiny little planet of ours, there are only so many human beings who possess a certain caliber of size, speed, strength, agility, etc. These are the Calvin Johnsons, Adrian Petersons and Cam Newtons of the world.

If you have a chance at one of these physical wunderkinds, grab him. 

Distilled down to the purest terms, this is usually found in the "triangle numbers": height, weight and 40-yard-dash time. If a player has those three things in spades, scouts and their bosses will begin to salivate no matter how terrible the tape is. 

For receivers, that typically means height over 6'2", weight over 205-210 pounds and speed in the 4.3 range. Each of those on its own merit warrants a second look at the prospect, but all of them together in one package means there's the chance for something special. 

For the vast majority of prospects, though—at any position—athleticism is less about being the biggest, fastest or strongest and simply slotting oneself within a specific tier of their peers. Generally speaking, a top receiver will need to have the prerequisite athleticism of a top receiver and so on, while lower-round picks and underrated free agents will need to prove they have the baseline athleticism needed to simply play in the NFL. 

I asked Denver Broncos wide receiver and 2014 NFL draft pick Cody Latimer about the physical differences between college (he played at Indiana) and the pros, and he said that top matchups are about the same from a physical standpoint, saying, "I didn't see much of a difference."

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CLEVELAND, OH - JANUARY 01: Wide receiver Antonio Brown #84 of the Pittsburgh Steelers pushes wide receiver Joshua Cribbs #16 of the Cleveland Browns at Cleveland Browns Stadium on January 1, 2012 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Matt Sullivan/Getty Images)
Matt Sullivan/Getty Images

Latimer's Broncos teammate, Demaryius Thomas, was quick to point out what he thought the biggest difference between college and the pros is.

"In college, they don’t press a lot, and they got great corners in the NFL that do press a lot," he said. "When I got drafted, I had a guy—going against Champ [Bailey] all the time—I worked and I worked and I worked with him. You’re not going against those types of guys in college."

Press coverage is when a cornerback lines up right on the line of scrimmage against the receiver, challenging him to beat the defender one-on-one in a physical battle.

Press coverage not only potentially stymies the receiver but also throws off the timing of the entire play for the offense. This is the value of the best press-cover corners in the NFL, such as the New York Jets' Darrelle Revis or Seattle Seahawks corner Richard Sherman.

In the college ranks, most teams play either some form of zone coverage or off-man coverage. One can usually count on one hand the number of solid press corners in any given draft class, and it's even rarer to find a receiver who has enough tape to scout a fair number of his reps against good press coverage. 

Because of that, as Thomas said, it's important for a receiver to learn this skill once he gets to the NFL.

For the website Gridiron Strategies, University of West Alabama receivers coach Desmond Lindsey had this to say about receivers beating press: "We emphasize to our wide receivers that they need to be technical professionals to defeat press coverage." 

Lindsey then runs through a description of the stance needed for receivers to beat press coverage and describes four drills his receivers go through to beat it.

Chris Brown from Smart Football did a similar breakdown, pointing out, "All receivers must master—and I mean master—at least two of these release moves. At the NFL level, you need three if not more. But all receivers, college and high school, need to be masters of two and competent at three or four. Don't forget to use hands."

Overall, it takes a hefty dose of those aforementioned physical skills to consistently win against the best press corners in the league. Explosiveness helps a receiver get off the line before the corner can make contact. Strength and size allow a receiver to fight back—both with his hands and with his body. Balance and agility give a receiver the chance to get back on his route after being jammed off it. 

It's more than physical, however. 

When scouting receivers, NFL teams look for the physical attributes that might allow them to consistently beat press, but they're also looking for prospects dedicated enough to put the work in so that they can learn the techniques that will be (mostly) new to them. 

This is the most important place where scouting turns over to development and where physical ability has to mesh well with acquired skills. A receiver can have all the tools in the world, but he needs to become a craftsman in this area if he wants to succeed. 

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Detroit Lions WR Golden Tate
Detroit Lions WR Golden TateRick Osentoski/Associated Press

When asked what he wished he could go back and tell himself as a rookie, Detroit Lions wide receiver Golden Tate said, "I thought my athleticism alone would be enough."

In many ways, this echoed the overall sentiments of Latimer and Thomas. Both seemed to dwell on what they learned when they got to the NFL and the overall inability for physical skills to do more than act like a crutch in a league where everyone is among the biggest, fastest and strongest. 

2014 was a either a bit of a mirage for NFL rookie receivers or a tipping point.

On one hand, young receivers often take a year or two in the league to really start producing at the level expected of them.

Schottey's Top 2015 Receivers
Class RankNameSchoolProsConsNFL Comparison
1Amari CooperAlabamaHands, route running, balance/agility, great overall athlete, production.Triangle numbers are not elite.Roddy White
2Kevin WhiteWest VirginiaTriangle numbers (6'3", 215, 4.35), consistent improvement at West Virginia, huge catch radius.Drop issues in the past, better in space than with a defender on his hip.Larry Fitzgerald
3DeVante ParkerLouisvilleRidiculously competitive with the ball in the air; plays with "big receiver" size/mentality but can win with "small receiver" routes and quickness.Past foot injuries, routes could be more crisp, top end speed a concern.Smaller Brandon Marshall
4Doral Green-BeckhamMissouriTriangle numbers (6'5", 237, 4.49), hands, catch radius, body control.Off-the-field concerns after multiple suspensions and leaving Missouri. Does not play as big as he is.Josh Gordon
5Jaelen StrongArizona StateHigh-points the ball and wins in the air as well as any receiver in the class; can play multiple receiver positions.Raw, lacks elite explosiveness or top-end speed.Anquan Boldin

Thomas is a good example of this, as he came out of a college offense at Georgia Tech centered on the veer-option run game. Receivers who played in those offenses have typically floundered early on in their NFL careers, and very few have achieved the level of play of Thomas and fellow Georgia Tech alumnus Calvin Johnson. 

Another really good example of this is Pittsburgh Steelers receiver Antonio Brown, who has ascended to become one of the best receivers in the league even without fantastic "triangle numbers." As he's learned the nuances of the pro game more and more, his game speed on the NFL level has started to match the quickness he displayed on his college tape—far more a product of his craftsmanship than his physical tools. 

It was nothing innate to Thomas that required a few years of maturation. College coaches (and their schemes) are designed to win college football games, not prepare players for the NFL. 

On the other hand, NFL offensive schemes are starting to mimic the spread-type offenses of their college counterparts more and more, so it's made the learning curve slightly less steep for some. 

It's still not just running fast and catching the ball, though. 

"For me, Sundays are the easiest day," Tate said on the topic of preparation. "You spend all week preparing. Sunday’s the reward. You win the game during the week. Find a routine and sticking with it."

Latimer had similar sentiments, pointing out the need to get mentally prepared.

"They’re smarter," he said. "The speed of the game is faster, but it's because they’ve been doing it for years and know what you’re doing before you do."

Latimer also added that the biggest difference for him in the NFL was learning multiple receiver positions. In college, No. 1 wideouts may learn a full route tree (although even that is rarer and rarer these days), but they usually play only the X position. Even the best receivers in the NFL have to learn multiple spots to beat NFL coverages. 

The game is more than just athletes against athletes. 

It's why the obsession with speed, speed and more speed has become so infuriating when it comes to the receiver position. The old saying is that "speed kills." Well, more often than not, the fastest receivers end up proverbially killing the teams that draft them instead of their opponents. 

These are scouting points that can't be quantified solely on a stat sheet. 

To succeed in the NFL, a receiver has to be willing to bring himself to another level of play that was previously unattainable. This means a commitment to getting better that starts on the very first day of the offseason and continues 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. 

The line of improvement should not simply be linear throughout the prospect's college career. It should be a steep parabolic curve, showcasing not only that aforementioned commitment but also physical and mental maturation and an understanding of what it takes to be the best. 

They're only a day apart on the schedule, but Sundays are a world away from Saturdays for a receiver.

"For me, it was learning to play the game within the game—more than just the football part, taking care of your body, eating healthy, getting massages, studying the playbook, learning to read the coverage. In the NFL, everybody’s a pro," Tate said.

"You’re not in college any more," Thomas adds. "You’re a grown man. It’s a grind. Training camp is a grind. Main thing is taking care of your body."

Receivers in 2015 want to make it in the NFL, not just make it into the NFL. To do that, their personal growth over the next six months will set them on a course that will largely define their future. The next 12 months after that will either be the first chapter in a book about their fantastic NFL careers or the last chapter in careers that never were. 

It's not about immediate production. Even after last season, the NFL will still have patience with receiver prospects, understanding that the position takes some learning. It is about immediate improvement, though, and a receiver who isn't getting better from day one will soon find himself on the outs. 

What does it take for a receiver to make it in the NFL?

"Discipline," Tate said. "You gotta be disciplined. You have to be the guy the quarterback expects you to be."

Michael Schottey is an award-winning NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report and a writer for Football Insiders. Follow him on Twitter. Unless otherwise noted, quotes were obtained by the author.

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