2016 NFL Draft: How Notre Dame WR Will Fuller Can Reach Stardom in the NFL

Ryan McCrystal@@ryan_mccrystalFeatured ColumnistFebruary 16, 2016

Notre Dame wide receiver Will Fuller (7) heads to the end zone for a touchdown after getting past Georgia Tech defensive back Chris Milton (6) during the first half of an NCAA college football game in South Bend, Ind., Saturday, Sept. 19, 2015. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)
Michael Conroy/Associated Press

An NFL draft scouting report on Notre Dame wide receiver Will Fuller has to start by acknowledging his elite speed. 

Among the prospects in the 2016 NFL draft, Fuller is one of the most electrifying talents. His highlight reels are as impressive as any receiver in this year's pool of prospects. 

However, a more in-depth evaluation turns up some flaws that will cause some teams to worry about Fuller's ability to ever reach his full potential. 

Evaluating draft prospects is a balancing act. Teams need to weigh the immediate value of a prospect against what they believe he can become in the future. And, of course, evaluate the likelihood he ever reaches that ceiling. 

Fuller is a great example of a prospect with the ceiling of a first-round talent, but his immediate value may force teams to push him down on their draft board. 

To evaluate Fuller, let's take a look at what he offers a team in 2016 and what he needs to improve to reach his full potential in the NFL.

Immediate Role: Deep Threat

Fuller has the type of speed that changes the way defenses approach the game. Few cornerbacks have the skills to match him stride for stride, which often draws a safety to his side of the field to protect the corner from getting beat over the top. 

Forcing this adjustment alone is valuable, which is why deep threats such as Ted Ginn Jr. often have long careers despite modest overall numbers. 

And when the defense doesn't protect their cornerback, it can lead to momentum-changing plays, which Notre Dame took full advantage of in 2015. 

According to CFB Film Room, Fuller hauled in 17 receptions on passes thrown at least 20 yards downfield— nearly double the rest of his teammates' total: 

Notre Dame WRs on targets 20+ yds downfield
Will Fuller: 17 rec on 28 tgts (61% catch rate)
Everyone else: 9 rec on 36 tgts (25%)

— CFB Film Room (@CFBFilmRoom) January 20, 2016

Underrated Skill: Intermediate Routes

The threat of speed also impacts the cornerback in coverage and can open up intermediate routes. 

Fuller is not an elite route-runner, but he frequently found himself open simply due to the threat of his speed. This play against Texas ultimately does not go to him, but you can see the cornerback is so scared of Fuller (top of screen) beating him deep, he completely loses track of Fuller as he cuts to the sideline. 

Credit: DraftBreakdown.com

And it's not just the inexperienced cornerbacks who get caught up in anticipating the deep route. Fuller found himself in a similar situation against Clemson cornerback Mackensie Alexander—a likely first-round selection.

On this play, Alexander lines up near the line of scrimmage (top of screen), but he clearly understands this risk as he prepares for Fuller to try to burn him deep. As Alexander is preparing to run stride for stride with the receiver, Fuller cuts to the outside and finds himself wide-open on the sideline. 

Credit: YouTube

Fuller doesn't perfectly execute either of these out routes. His cuts are not extreme and won't often lose a corner locked on him in tight coverage. But because these cornerbacks are fearful of giving up the big play, Fuller has a built-in advantage. 

This effect may not carry over to the NFL with as much frequency, but there will certainly be moments when Fuller can catch the defense guessing and surprise it by cutting his route short. 

To Reach Potential: Eliminate Drops

BOSTON, MA - NOVEMBER 21:  Will Fuller #7 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish misses a pass from DeShone Kizer #14 during the second half against the Boston College Eagles at Fenway Park on November 21, 2015 in Boston, Massachusetts. The Fighting Irish defea
Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

To reach an elite level, Fuller has to learn how to catch the ball with more consistency. 

In his scouting report on Fuller, NFL.com's Lance Zierlein wrote: "Hands can be retched at times. ... Body catcher with focus issues and lack of hand strength."

According to CFB Film Room, Fuller dropped 15 percent of his catchable targets thrown 10 or more yards downfield—an unacceptable rate for a receiver expecting to play a major role in an NFL offense.  

The defense won't pay any less attention to him because of his drops, so he'll always impact the game when he's on the field. But his drops could damage the trust he has with his quarterback or even cut into his playing time. 

This play against Navy is a great example of how Fuller's athleticism can only take him so far. While this isn't the easiest of catches to make, a receiver of Fuller's caliber should have the concentration and hand-eye coordination to make this reception—or at the very least, not misjudge an over-the-shoulder catch so poorly that it bounces off his forearms:

Credit: YouTube

There are a lot of skills that can't be taught, especially once you reach the NFL level. But improving his hands is definitely an area in which Fuller can improve. 

He'll need to dedicate himself to making this area a focus of his training, but given his elite physical skills, there's reason to be hopeful Fuller can develop more reliable hands. 

NFL Projection

Due to this combination of speed and issues with drops, it's tough to find a better NFL comparison for Fuller than Ted Ginn Jr. 

However, it's worth noting this is the comparison where Fuller's career begins, not where it ends. 

The ceiling for Fuller as a prospect is probably DeSean Jackson. 

Jackson never had the same issue with drops, so his impact at the NFL level was more immediate than we should expect from Fuller. But Jackson wins in many of the same ways Fuller did at Notre Dame. 

Fuller will likely come off the board in the late-first or early-second round. Fans of his future team can expect some exciting moments early in his career, but they also should brace themselves for some frustrating games. 

Keep in mind, Fuller is not a finished product, so anything he produces on the field in 2016 will be a bonus. A high pick spent on Fuller is an investment in the future, not in his immediate value.


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