I wrote a series of articles last March and April that broke down the attributes to look for when scouting players for the NFL Draft. Here's my take, reloaded, on what attributes and skills you should look for evaluating wide receivers.
The NFL Draft is quickly approaching and over the next month, if you're like me, you'll be devouring reports and surveying prospect videos on YouTube and DraftBreakdown.com, looking to really scout potential picks for your team. As I've gone through that process myself, I've researched and broken down some of the scouting methodologies that NFL teams use, in order to learn the background into the process, and I've illustrated some of the terms player reports commonly use, in order to provide some context for scout-speak vernacular.
"Breaking down tape," as they say, is the next step, and it's the absolute best way to evaluate individual players. It's a complex and highly varied process across scouting departments league-wide, but the evaluation of game film can be boiled down to a simple question, whether you're a personnel exec, a pro scout, a pro draft analyst or an amateur fan at home:
What do you look for?
I don't know whether it's true or just perception based on the prominence of the position, but it seems like wide receivers bust at a higher rate than most other groups, at least outside quarterback. Maybe, maybe not. At least it's accurate to say that it takes more than speed or height or pure athleticism to play the position at a high level in the NFL.
If I asked you now to give your list of the top attributes, skills or tools that you look for at the receiver position when evaluating college players for your favorite team, I'm guessing I'll get a pretty varied response. I would also assume that if I asked scouts from different teams to give their takes, I'd get a pretty diverse list as well. The reason for disparity would probably come down to subjective priorities from individual evaluators, in addition to the obvious -- individual schemes within different organizations require different skill sets. Not to mention, there are different positions and roles among receivers -- the X/split end, Z/flanker and slot receivers -- and all require specific attributes.
Let's just break it down in general terms. We'll start with the ability to high-point or attack the football.
Attacks, high-points the football
"The critical factor at wide receiver in my mind," said Bill Walsh, "is agility and body control, the ability to change your body position, often off the ground, in order to get your hands in position to make the catch, a la Cris Carter of Minnesota. He would be the ideal in that respect. That particular characteristic must be there for the receiver to be considered a Pro Bowl or a Hall of Fame player. You must have that to get to the highest tier of play."
An ability to, as they say, high-point or attack the football relies on certain skills and techniques. As Walsh points out above, the most essential attribute is excellent body control. The ability to turn, look up, jump, spin and catch all in one smooth motion, whilst warding off pesky cornerbacks and preparing to take a big hit from a safety, well, that's rare.
There are several excellent prospects in this year's draft that are excellent at high-pointing or attacking the football, but LSU's Odell Beckham Jr. is one of the best. You don't have to watch further than a few seconds into Beckham's 2013 matchup vs. Mississippi State to see that you have a player with excellent balance, agility and body control to go up and get the football. Attack the football in traffic.
"Hands are vital, but you almost have to assume that anyone you are considering is going to have outstanding hands. The difference between players is the agility and strength that was mentioned. That allows them to get into position to make the catch, to use their hands.
"We can have drills where the receiver is running under the ball and making great catch after great catch. So people would assume that he has outstanding hands. But in reality, most catches are made with the ball and the defender closing at the same instant and the receiver having to reverse his body into a totally different position, get your hands up and catch the ball and be hit at the same moment. That is the key element in greatness -- agility and strength together.
"Focus is critical here. The ability to find the ball, focusing on it and isolating it from everything else that's happening. When you are evaluating the tapes, you look for those plays that demonstrate those situations. You make a evaluation tape of those plays."
Now, I follow the Seahawks, who were one of only four teams to run the football more than 500 times in 2013. With Seattle's low-volume passing attack, one that relied a good deal on deep sideline shots and so-called explosive plays in the passing game, the required toolbox for its receiver corps is pretty specific. The ability to win one-on-one, high-point a pass and come down with it cleanly, that's nearly a must.
Jermaine Kearse, Golden Tate and Doug Baldwin demonstrate:
Body control, focus.
Catch radius is a bit synonymous to the high-point attribute in that body control is key. But in this case, it's more specific to size, length and explosive athleticism. A player with an exceptional arm length, wingspan, size or, more specifically, a combination of all of the above, has a great catch radius.
Florida State's Kelvin Benjamin is this year's catch radius freak of nature; he's 6'5 with 35" arms, and coupled with his 32.5" vertical jump, there's a theoretical radius of like 50 feet in which Benjamin could go up or out and get a pass. He proved this with the national championship-winning touchdown catch on a slant route from Jameis Winston. All Winston had to do was put the ball high in the middle and Benjamin went and got it.
Clemson's Martavis Bryant is a guy to keep an eye on in this category as well, standing 6'3 with 33" arms and a 39" vertical jump. Just throw the ball near him and he'll have the advantage of using his length and jumping ability to go get it.
It's funny that hands are so far down the list. This list isn't in any specific ranked order, but when you picture a pass catcher, it only makes sense that the ability to CATCH PASSES would be the first thing you mention. Obviously, if you have stone hands, this will typically impede your ability in this area.
Past that, though, scouts look to see the way a receiver catches the ball. Does he extend with his hands (good) or does he too often look to trap the ball against the body or basket catch it (bad)? It's easy to see if a receiver relies on this too much, so I don't need to go into too much detail on it, but it's worth noting that a body catcher's catch radius is severely diminished if he cannot reach out and pluck the football away from his frame or adjust back to catch a ball that is behind him.
Further, as excellent NFL Draft analyst Fusue Vue has pointed out in a recent series of posts and GIFs, there is such thing as solid fundamental hands technique, as Chris Boyd of Vanderbilt and Matt Hazel of Coastal Carolina demonstrate below at the combine (all GIFs used with permission from Fusue Vue), and there is also questionable form and habits, as USC's Marqise Lee shows after.
First, Boyd shows how with fundamental technique, the hands first find each other then move toward the point of the catch in unison.
Hazel demonstrates the full motion ...
Now, on the other hand, in Vue's analysis, Lee's hands are often clapping or clamping onto the football, making smooth, soft hands catches more difficult and unpredictable.
Ultimately, in order to consistently pluck an off-target ball or softly corral an on-target throw, fundamental hand usage is key.
Put it all together -- high-pointing, attacking the football, body control, catch radius and proper hands technique:
Of course, I've only talked about the point in time right before and precisely as the ball hits the receiver in the hands. Half the battle -- actually, probably more than that -- for a receiver, is getting to a position to make an attempt in the first place. It starts with getting off the line of scrimmage.
As CBSSports.com and NFLDraftScout.com draft analyst Derek Stephens told me, "The first thing you look for in a receiver is the ability to beat press. Can he get off the jam and get off the line without his timing being disrupted? More practically speaking, does he get his hands up and how quick are his feet? How balanced is he through contact, or is he easily tossed off course?"
Timing is extremely important between receiver and quarterback, and if the receiver is held up too much or re-routed off course too far at the line of scrimmage, the quarterback is throwing late to a spot he's not expecting to. This is how turnovers happen.
As Stephens noted: "The next thing you look at is hips. What type of hip sink is he able to get, when cutting in and out of breaks as a route runner? Does he have to slow down and ease into his breaks? Or, can he sink and explode with suddenness, and without telegraphing that he's about to cut, to the defender. Isaac Bruce was a great example of a guy who could be running full speed, and do a 90-degree cut across the field without slowing down. That's what you want in a receiver."
Bill Walsh talked about this aspect too.
"Strength that is somewhat related to girth. You need to power through players. When you are bounced into players you must be able to keep your feet, regain your balance and move into position and continue your pass route. So there has to be a certain amount of strength, as Jerry Rice or John Taylor demonstrated so often with the 49ers."
You'll often hear fans complain that "no one is getting open." I'd argue that at the NFL level, it's somewhat rare that a receiver is open for more than a split second or two. The NFL game is predicated on getting open, even it it's only for a moment, at the exact right time. Hall of Famer Michael Irvin explains the nuance of "separation" ...
"When you'[re] matched up against a great corner, you can't beat him early. You have to beat him as late as possible. So, it doesn't require you to be masterful in your feet, your ins, your cuts; it requires you to be masterful in your understanding of timing. I need to be open at the last second, when the ball's arriving, because I'm only going to be open for that second with this kind of a guy."
"These guys, they keep trying to run away from people and think 'I'm going to get wide open.' There is no such thing as ‘wide open' when you're playing a great corner. They're always going to be tight on you. So you're complaining, because you beat them too early, and they get back there right around the time the ball is getting there. That's why you beat him late, and you're the only person there when the ball gets there. For the corner, it's too late for you to recover, because [he] pushed off at the last possible second."
Fresno State's Davante Adams, in addition to many other skills, is already very adept at getting open at the exact moment the ball is arriving. Take a look at the videos below:
Tracking the football, turning on the afterburners
"Finally," Stephens told me, "when running vertical routes, 1. Does he pull away at the second level? Does he have a second gear? And, 2. Does he locate and track the ball over his shoulder and show good coordination to reach out for it when it arrives?"
Number one is fairly straightforward. Rutgers' Brandon Coleman is neither sudden nor quick-twitch, and in fact, some believe he'll be too slow at the NFL level. That said, he does appear to have that second-level second gear to pull away from defenders in the open field if he gets going. He's a long strider -- but if he gets out in front, he's dangerous enough to not get caught. At 6'6, that's an intriguing option.
Said Bill Walsh:
"Pure speed is helpful, but full-stride speed becomes important. You would like a receiver with the ball in the open field to be able to keep the separation with the closing defenders until he gets over the goal line. He doesn't have to outrun them. He doesn't have to gain ground on them. He just has to get there before they do so he scores. So it doesn't have to be sprinters' speed, but full-stride speed.
"A good example of that was Mike Quick when he was at Philadelphia. He had just an average 40 time, but once in the open field the long strides gave him the functional speed to stay away or get away from defenders. Dwight Clark, believe it or not, was never caught from behind once he got into full stride. Now he used the field to weave and bend, but he was never caught. And Jerry Rice will never be caught from behind by anyone if they both have the same, basic starting point.
"Now there have been other people who have been Olympic sprinters who get tangled up and can't get back into full stride quickly enough and somebody just comes up and overwhelms them from out of nowhere. If they catch the ball and there is any contact at all, by the time they get back in running stride, the people have closed on them. Full-stride speed is the key."
As for number two, if you're going to be a deep threat to run up the seam or up the sideline, the ability to track the football over your shoulder is important. This is just one play below, and Coleman has demonstrated the ability to do this with his 22 YPC average in college, but it still sends up a red flag for me.
Run after the catch
See: Brandin Cooks.
This list of attributes to evaluate when watching college wide receiver prospects is not complete nor authoritative. When I set out to write it, I hoped that it would generate some discussion in the comments section about priority and weight that different evaluators might give each aspect. Which tools have I missed? Which skills are most important at the position? As with anything in scouting, it's probably subjective.