Wide receiver is the only position among the offense and defense that must do only what is planned. Linemen, offensive and defensive, read and react. So do corners. Safeties, linebackers, read and react. Quarterbacks have set plays, but from moving in the pocket to finding the open man, quarterbacks read and react. That's football: A good plan cast against the rocks. Survivors negotiate the turbulence. Champions surf it.
Every week, a corner faces a new wide receiver, of different height, weight, style and specialty. Pick a position, and the story repeats. This week, an edge rusher with a spin move. Next, a 3-4 end with length and power. This week, a cutback rusher that demands patience and discipline. Next, a speed rusher that demands quick reactions and sure tackling. Every position and what they do, depends on a new plan, a new goal, and a new opponent, wholly unique.
Wide receivers read and react on option plays, but that's hardly standard. They adjust routes somewhat, break jams, find soft spots, deke corners, target tendencies, but as nearly as is possible, wide receivers just do as they're asked. Run a post. Run a drag. Run a bubble screen. Modern passing rules protect from interference. Wide receivers are choreographed dancers in a collision sport.
That makes wide receiver a particularly hard position to project. Instead of asking simple questions like, can this tackle effectively block a speed rusher, or is this quarterback accurate, when evaluating a wide receiver, we are asking something much more like: Can this player do what is asked of him by his offensive coordinator? Can we know what he will be asked to do? Can his teammate's accommodate his strengths and weaknesses? How does he fit the broader plan?
Deon Butler's performance in 2009 is an example of this phenomenon. Butler was instructed: Run deep. See, Butler is killer fast and many coaches see that ability and nothing else. Two problems with this strategy: Butler is slight and not particularly adept at deep routes. Matt Hasselbeck, especially injured Matt Hasselbeck, lacks any kind of deep pass. Butler did as instructed but passes to Butler were cripplingly ineffective: 42 targets, 15 receptions, 4.2 yards per reception and negative value per target.
It's worth asking, what exactly did Butler do wrong? He didn't mis-run a "go." Hopefully, he wasn't asked to outjump or outposition the defender. He was asked to outrun the defender, and if he could, for Seattle to cash in, he had to be led by the quarterback. He had to run to the pass. I am oversimplifying, Butler did not strictly run "go" or even deep routes, but I am oversimplifying to make a point. A receiver can do everything right and still fail to produce value. They are the last link in a chain of events. A reception is an upshot, an outcome, a payoff.
I don't know exactly how Jeremy Bates plans on using Golden Tate. I hope to get a better grasp on that soon. The obvious parallel is Eddie Royal, but apart from height and speed, Tate isn't much like Royal. Royal is an explosive route runner that can plant and cut and cause defenders to fall on their asses. Butler is more Royal than Tate, but neither player is likely to match the production of Royal running the routes Royal ran. We need some tailoring.
Tools-wise, Tate is fast, powerful, coordinated and agile. He can outrun you. He can run through you. He can tiptoe inbounds. He can lose you in space.
Skills-wise, Tate is composed in traffic, runs great speed cuts, redirects quickly and has promising hands.
Tools-wise, Tate isn't explosive, big or tall. That's not too bad, of course. Tate is among the best pure athletes of the 2010 class and the best athlete among wide receivers. He won't become Marvin Harrison or Randy Moss. He isn't that profile of player. He is, well, Golden Tate; somewhere between Steve Smith and Greg Jennings.
Skills-wise, Tate isn't snap to whistle, doesn't excel at beating the press, isn't a refined hands catcher, doesn't disguise his routes well, and isn't consistently quick off the snap or out of his cuts. Tate looks like a quick study at a position he hasn't played very long. He picked up more than enough to be successful at the collegiate level, but is still more rough than polished. That speaks to his exceptional athleticism and immense potential.
The patterns I like for Tate are digs, speed-outs, crosses, drags, corner-posts and screens of all types. Curls, outs, anything involving sudden slowing, planting, cutting, getting back to speed, those are now and may continue to be weaknesses.
Luckily, Tate only has to do what is asked of him.