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If D.J. Hackett Can Be as Good as We Think He Can Be

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Taking a late flyer on a productive college wide receiver is one of the hallmarks of a Mike Holmgren draft. Yep, not Tim Ruskell, but the man so consistently derided for his personnel choices. Since Holmgren started coaching in 1992, his teams have drafted a wide receiver in the fifth round or later 14 times. The major difference between the sea of Taco Wallaces and Chris Holders and the current crop of Ben Obomanu, Courtney Taylor, Jordan Kent and D.J. Hackett is a greater system wide emphasis on talent evaluation. The Hawks' first major find from this approach was Hackett in the fifth round of the 2004 draft. That draft was helmed by Paul Allen's favorite utility executive, Bob Whitsitt. After 5 very thin drafts by Holmgren, ones that netted some top talent like Shaun Alexander and Steve Hutchinson but were notably lacking in acquiring useful depth, 2004's crop was stacked. The 3-6th round picks all produced players still on Seattle's roster, including premium free agents to be Hackett and Sean Locklear.

Hackett was devalued for all the wrong reasons. He enrolled with the California State Northridge Matadors out of high school. The Matadors are much better known for their baseball program and famous alumni Cheech Marin. Hackett from the outset was head and shoulders above his teammates talent-wise. Two years later the football program folded. Hackett transferred to the University of Colorado, where he was shuffled way down on the Buffalo's (actually Bison) depth chart. Pro scouts noticed Hackett, though, and he was invited to the 2004 NFL combine. There he showed tremendous athleticism, besting the other 51 entrants in the Vert and Broad Jump and ranking third in the Cone drill. Couple that with his 6'2" frame, character (a 3.5 student throughout college) and quality, if limited production at two division 1-A schools and you have a great under the radar NFL talent.

Hackett spent the 2004 season on injured reserved with a strained hip flexor. In 2005 he injured his ankle in the second preseason game and didn't see action again until the Hawks' 4th game against the Redskins. Then the kid gloves came off.

Over the last two seasons, Hackett has been a force working out of the slot. In 2005 he led all receivers with fewer than 50 receptions in DPAR. In 2006, with an expanded role after the Hawks lost Darrell Jackson and Bobby Engram to injury and ailment, respectively, Hackett enjoyed a true breakout season. He finished 15th overall in DPAR, and 2nd among all receivers with greater than 50 receptions in DVOA. In those two seasons, Hackett produced 30.9 points above a replacement receiver.

His emergence was one of many reasons the Seahawks deemed D-Jack expendable this offseason. Eager fans no doubt envisioned a wide receiver corps with two potential #1 receivers. That may have been a tad premature. As I've mentioned before, DVOA and DPAR are great tools for evaluating how well a player has played, but not how well he will play--especially not in a different role. I went back seven seasons cataloging players who finished in the top 20 in DVOA while playing slot. I chose three concrete parameters, they must have been targeted on more than 50 catches, less than 70, and played 12 or more games. That's not perfect, but since slot receiver isn't designated in official stats, it's the best I could to do isolate the player type. That list includes 29 unique player seasons, and 27 unique players. Only Az Hakim and Troy Brown appear on the list twice. 14 played for top ten passing offenses. Of those 27 different players, only two have made it as #1 wideouts: Ronald Curry and Deion Branch. That's because the skills it takes to be a #1 receiver and the skills it takes to be a premier slot receiver are very different. In D.J. Hackett's 2006 season review I wrote:

The biggest obstacle Hackett faces is simply getting open. As a slot receiver he was free to pick apart zones, but as a starter he will face much more man coverage. The stat to look for in the pre-season and early regular season is simple receptions. If Hackett can post a few 6-8+ reception games early, you can be pretty certain that Hack is ready to start, perhaps ready for superstardom, but if he stays around four receptions a contest, continues to disappear for stretches between big plays, it might be a good indication that Hack is better suited for playing out of the slot, a position he would continue to be valuable in, just not among the NFL elite.

In the preseason he disappeared for long stretches and was generally outplayed by Nate Burleson. That's not enough info to make any strong conclusions from, but the fact remains, if Hackett is ever to become a starting wide out he must master a skill so many successful slot receivers before him never could: get open against consistent man coverage. That's something to watch for the remainder of the season and leading up to contract talks this offseason. You don't want to pay starting wide out money to a player whose skills will never allow for him to succeed in that role.

The 2007 Hawks don't need Hackett to be a true #2 for him to be immensely valuable, though. Ever since Mike Holmgren drafted Jerramy Stevens in 2002, Holmgren has looked desperately for a seam stretcher to allow his modified Walsh offense to work. The key isn't consistent production deep, but only a consistent deep threat. When the Hawks can align an explosive player at tight end or in the slot to force the safety or safeties deep, Holmgren's preferred real estate opens underneath. In a Walsh offense, a deep skinny post is a stock play, while a wide receiver drag is a potential homerun. The true failure of Ben Obomanu is not simply that he's been awful at receiving the football, it's that his struggles have allowed teams to essentially ignore him. Hackett, already an elite slot receiver, will make everyone else around him better. Branch can become the deadly possession and run after catch threat he was brought in to be. Burleson can work underneath against zones and in slants and wide receiver screen patterns, plays that minimize his hands and maximize his open field prowess. Engram can once again become the first down machine that shreds linebackers and picks apart short zones. So Hackett doesn't need to be as good as we think he can be, with Hackett being only as good as he already is, the 2007 Seattle Seahawks should have one of the five best passing attacks in the NFL. If he arrives, becomes a force at split end, the Hawks will have the deadliest four receiver set in football.

Image Courtesy: 12 Seahawks Street