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Scouting Wide Receivers: Important Factors That Keep Getting Missed

The intrigue for the big-bodied, physical wide receiver that can make high point catches is something that the devy community has been attracted to for years. Evaluators tend to look for the receivers that are tall with a solid frame and the physical strength to box out defenders in contested catch situations. The hope to find the next Calvin Johnson or Brandon Marshall for that matter has devy evaluators scrolling though measurements of high school prospects looking for NFL-ready size while neglecting important variables for the position.

Let’s face it, the NFL doesn’t value what most devy evaluators do. The NFL Draft leaves most dynasty owners scratching their heads at the end of every April, rather than reaping the rewards of their personal evaluations. What scouting variables are missing from the evaluation process that leaves dynasty teams with Equanimeous St. Brown and Auden Tate sitting on their roster in hopes they find a spot on an NFL roster?

The evaluation process can be time-consuming, exhausting and yet enjoyable for those who love to scout. Every evaluator is different. Some base their evaluations on size, some on combine numbers and others base it on college production and analytics.

No matter what the process is for each evaluator, there is one thing that needs to be understood, the NFL doesn’t care about your evaluations. For instance, the NFL doesn’t care you drafted Josh Malone as a college freshman in your devy league. They don’t care he had a 35.3% dominator rating and a 4.40 40-yard dash at 6’3″ 208lbs.

One would think that a former 4-star with almost 1,000 yards and 11 TDs his junior year would get drafted higher than the 4th round and find playing time on an NFL team, right? Those who have both Tyler Boyd and Josh Malone on their dynasty rosters are looking at the drop button daily but can’t do it. They anxiously keep their ears to the ground and wait for a glimmer of hope.

The 2018 NFL Draft left many dynasty owners staring at their rosters wondering what to do with players like Simmie Cobbs and Allen Lazard who both went undrafted. How was a community of devy evaluators so intrigued by players of this caliber and yet they didn’t even get selected in the draft? Let’s look at a few wide receiver prospects from this year’s draft and see what variables we can find to better understand where they went drafted and how NFL teams value them.

Top Six Receivers in 2018 NFL Draft

1.24 D.J. Moore, Maryland
1.26 Calvin Ridley, Alabama
2.08 Courtland Sutton, SMU
2.12 Dante Pettis, Washington
2.15 Christian Kirk, Texas A&M
2.19 Anthony Miller, Memphis

Break and Separate

These are the top six receivers taken in the 2018 NFL Draft. Only Courtland Sutton stands over 6’0″. Both D.J. Moore and Calvin Ridley don’t have prototypical WR1 size but were taken in the first round over the many big-bodied receivers in this draft. What made these two receivers so much more intriguing to NFL teams than the rest of the receivers in this class?

Ironically, there is a specific positional trait that all except Sutton possesses, the ability to separate. Separation quickness is vital to the success of a receiver. If a receiver can’t separate and get open, that receiver is more than likely not getting the ball, it’s that simple. Ridley and Dante Pettis have the best separation quickness at the line of scrimmage in this draft. Both possess crisp, quick footwork and deceptive body gestures to get past Man coverage. Eyes, hands, and feet all work in sync to manipulates DBs hips.

Moore, Christian Kirk, and Anthony Miller possess very good breaks in their routes to gain separation at the top of their routes. They all effectively set up their route stems and route breaks are sharp, not rounded on 45 to 90-degree breaks. Separation talent is imperative to the wide receiver position and those that possess this ability tend to have a higher draft capital.

Above the Rim

It would be easy to argue that the NFL values big-bodied wide receivers that don’t have this above average ability to separate at the line of scrimmage and use sharp, crisp breaks at the top of their routes. Chargers WR Mike Williams, who was drafted 7th overall in 2017 and Bucs Mike Evans, drafted 7th overall in 2014, did not possess the ability to show separation with fluid, lateral quickness. Quick twitch DBs would consistently give them trouble because they lack the initial quickness to accelerate into their vertical stem.

What these receivers do have are size and length. They can use their frame and functional strength to break the initial jam and hand fight their way through contact, not allowing the DB to compress them to the perimeter. Separation at the top of their routes might be rounded and late, but they can use their large frames to attack the ball in the air and outmuscle defenders in traffic situations. They all have strong, reliable hands and are physical after the catch, fighting for every yard.

Receivers with the large, thick frames that display a good catch radius and adjustment to the ball vary in how the NFL values them. Receivers that make a living high-pointing the ball must display a good amount of athleticism and a 40 time in the 4.5’s or lower is a must. These big framed receivers must also show that they can be a reliable target in clutch situations, consistently play at a high-level, play with physicality, and are elite playmakers.

For example, the Carolina Panthers took Kelvin Benjamin 28th overall in 2014 after running a 4.61 40-yard dash. Benjamin only had one big year at FSU, but it was the best year a receiver could have to get considered in the first round of the draft. He helped lead FSU to a championship in 2013 and led the ACC in touchdown receptions (15 TDs), including the game-winner in the BCS Championship Game.

Benjamin played at a high level and proved reliable in clutch situations, using his 83-inch wingspan to help lead FSU to a championship. He did everything needed to get the attention of NFL evaluators even if his career hasn’t been the benchmark for what is expected from first-round receivers. Maybe the one year of production at FSU and lack of elite speed and separation quickness is limiting his development? Only time will tell.

The Dominator Effect

In the past three drafts, only Clemson WR Mike Williams had a dominator rating lower than 30% and went in the first round of the draft. In fact, he went top 10 in the 2017 NFL Draft. Western Michigan WR Corey Davis, who went two picks before Williams, produced a 51.6% dominator rating.

John Ross who was drafted two picks later by the Cincinnati Bengals exhibited a 31.4% dominator rating according to playerprofiler.com. Dominator rating is a player’s “market share” of his team’s offensive production. This can help measure the projected success of a player at the next level.

Sometimes the perfect scenario comes around and the dominator rating is, let’s say, 63.9%. This player has good size at 6’0″ and 211lbs and accumulated over 2,000 receiving yards, averaging 19.5 YPC and 29 TDs in his college career. Oh, and let’s say he had a breakout age of 19.6 and ran a 4.50 40-yard dash.

Sounds like a very intriguing prospect based on all the analytical data and measurements, right? Well, this profile is the one and only Miami Dolphins WR Leonte Carroo out of Rutgers who to this point seems like a complete bust. So, what did the NFL and devy evaluators miss and why doesn’t the data support his current outcome?

First, Carroo came from a pass attack system at Rutgers that didn’t expose his inability to beat corners downfield due to his lack of long speed. He also struggled to beat Press or Man coverage at the line of scrimmage. That inability to fight off physical DBs at the college level was not going to get any easier at the NFL level. Route breaks were rounded when they needed to be sharp and his change of direction took time due to tight hips.

I would be a liar myself if I said that I wasn’t excited for Carroo coming out of college. Unfortunately, this is where the analytics and stats don’t match the film and can produce an ugly outcome. Some could argue that Carroo could have been coached up at the next level and learned the nuances of the position. This is true and a fair point, but there were red flags that needed to be addressed and ultimately could have allowed the eight ball to tell dynasty owners to heed caution.

The Love for the Game

Webster dictionary defines success as a favorable or desired outcome. It’s a simple concept honestly. Those who work hard and strive to be the best can obtain their desired outcome. Love for the game of football isn’t something all players possess. Some are extremely passionate about mastering their craft, ala Antonio Brown of the Steelers. Some just think they will get by on mediocre effort and athleticism.

For Carroo, the red flags were evident in scout’s eyes. There were many concerned about Carroo’s personal character and questioned his ability to be reliable to a team. He was suspended the first half of the first game in 2014 for missing curfew. He was also involved in a domestic dispute which was later dismissed.

Size and athleticism can get the best of evaluators. The intrigue is just too much, and the potential upside can produce dividends which are how players like Justin Blackmon get drafted 5th overall in the NFL Draft. Work ethic and love for the game might not be the end-all-be-all but having the passion to love the game and the desire to master the nuances of the position will only make good players, great. The unwillingness to do so can turn good players into jobless ones.

Dorial Green Beckham is a prime example of this concept. Former 5-star recruit and the top rated WR in the 2012 recruiting class, Green-Beckham struggled to stay out of trouble at Missouri. He didn’t listen to coaches and didn’t put the work in on the field. Yes, he is a specimen standing at 6’5″ and 235lbs with impressive athleticism and speed that will make anyone anxious to pull the trigger on draft day, but the red flags were waving and smacking every evaluator in the face.

The Tennessee Titans drafted Green-Beckham 40th overall in 2015 and ended up trading him to the Eagles in 2016. He was waived by the Eagles in July of 2017 and is currently out of the league. Sometimes the questions of whether a prospect is a hard worker and loves the game could possibly be the most important questions asked.

Devy owners are not general managers of an NFL team and don’t need to care about character concerns within such a high regard. The only thing that matters is putting up enough fantasy points to dominate their dynasty league. Putting so much emphasis on character might have stopped some from rostering Josh Gordon, one of the best receivers in the NFL, right?

Ask yourself this, how much fantasy production have Gordon owners really amassed from him in six years? Has he been an asset to dynasty teams or a headache to those trying to roster him for all that time, hoping he plays up to his potential someday?

The Lowdown

As the next crop of WRs begins to get broken down and evaluated for the 2019 NFL Draft, devy and dynasty league owners are watching game film and tweaking their evals in order to draft players that will contribute for their dynasty team for years to come.

The best gift the NFL has given us is the gift of historical trends. What types of receivers end up going in the top 100 picks and what types of receivers end up going in the top-10? Thankfully, the breadcrumbs are left to gather and analyze, leading us to fine tune our evals to contain the right information.

Receivers that can separate at the line of scrimmage with good footwork and hand use tend to find their way up the draft board. Those receivers that can break with fluid, quick cuts at the top of their routes and play with explosive lateral movements, suddenness and good speed often find themselves in the top 50 picks of the draft.

When Allen Robinson ran a 4.60 at the combine, his stock immediately started to fall. His lack of elite top-end speed became a concern. This is where separation quickness is vital to a receiver’s success. Even though Robinson’s speed wasn’t ideal, his lateral quickness and ability to beat Press coverage was and is outstanding. His breaks in his routes are sharp and crisp, while his release at the line of scrimmage to beat Press was just as impressive.

Robinson understood route concepts as he ran a full route tree in a pro-style offense. He possessed this route running ability while playing like a future X receiver with good play strength, hands, body control and athletic ability.

This is what NFL evaluators look for in their potential X receivers. This is also why players like Simmie Cobbs, Allen Lazard, Equanimeous St. Brown and Auden Tate get overlooked by NFL teams. Either these players lacked separation quickness and speed, lacked consistency and/or production, didn’t play at a high level, or had injuries or character issues that needed to be considered.

The trend of separation quickness is consistent in the top 50 picks. Looking at the 2016 class, Corey Coleman, Will Fuller, Josh Doctson, Sterling Shepard and Michael Thomas all had good ability to get separation within their routes. Laquon Treadwell was the only receiver taken in the top 50 of the 2016 receivers that had questionable separation quickness and speed.

When a prospect has the combination of size, athletic ability, separation quickness, explosion, body control, hands and body adjustment at an elite level, that’s when you have a blue-chip receiver. Julio Jones, A.J. Green, Calvin Johnson and Larry Fitzgerald are prime examples of having the blue-chip traits with a high-level of work ethic and passion for the game.

Examples of Receivers the NFL Will Value

Big-Bodied Wide Receiver

Kelvin Harmon, N.C State

Harmon possesses very good size at 6’3″ 213lbs with very good athletic ability. Shows good separation at the line of scrimmage using speed, hand fighting, and initial quickness to beat Man coverage. Plays with good play strength to not allow DBs to compress him to the redline, while also showing off very good play speed to get downfield quickly on go-routes.

He displays very good adjustment to the ball and maintains excellent body control throughout the catch. Tracks the ball very well and shows very good ability to high-point and snatch the ball over defenders.

Harmon had a 1,000-yard season in 2017 but needs to improve his touchdown numbers. With so much talent departing from N.C. State, Harmon should be the number one target and have a career year in 2018. Don’t be surprised to see Harmon talked about in the first round of the NFL Draft.

Click here for a more in-depth report on Kelvin Harmon

Route Running Wide Receiver

Jerry Jeudy, Alabama

With Calvin Ridley now with the Atlanta Falcons, sophomore WR Jerry Jeudy finds himself as a priority receiver for the Crimson Tide. Jeudy stands at 6’1″ 187lbs exhibiting excellent hands and can adjust to the ball very well. Jeudy was one of the best route runners in the 2017 recruit class. He has very good separation quickness at the line of scrimmage and exhibits good deception in his body movements.

The tempo in his routes is very good as he can adjust route speeds. Route breaks contain good burst and come out sharp. Alabama recorded him at a 4.47 40-time during the 2017 offseason showing he has very good long speed to get upfield quickly. Jeudy is a much younger version of Calvin Ridley at only 19 years old and will be looked at as a first-round prospect when the 2020 NFL Draft comes along.

The evaluation process can go in any order depending on how evaluators value certain traits. As much as size is needed to be considered a true WR1, is not necessarily the case in today’s NFL. The best receiver in the game, Antonio Brown, is 5’10” and 181lbs. His athletic profile coming out of college was terrible which is why he was drafted in the 6th round in 2010. What made Brown the receiver he is today was learning how to separate from coverage. By understanding tempo, body manipulation and perfecting lateral movements, Brown was able to take his route running to an elite level regardless of possible athletic limitations.

The receiver position has the best chance of career longevity compared to other positions. Receivers that tend to have the longest careers are the ones that have mastered their ability to be effective route runners and get initial separation at the line of scrimmage. Anquan Boldin, Steve Smith, Reggie Wayne, Marvin Harrison, Isaac Bruce and the best receiver in NFL history, Jerry Rice are all examples of this.

To be an effective route runner, receivers need to make every route stem look similar up to the first ten yards. This keeps the DB honest within this range. Receivers then must understand how to manipulate the Db by getting them to open their hips using deceptive nods and hands gestures. The DB will open their hips at the same time the receiver cuts and breaks off their route. This allows the receiver to gain separation at the top of their route and be on time at the catch point.

When preparing your next receiver evaluation, don’t get mesmerized by the occasional spectacular catch and the overall size of a prospect. Pay attention to how they win at the line of scrimmage against Press or Man. Pay attention to their physicality within their route stem. Do they allow the DB to bully them in their vertical stem or does he fight off contact? Is there fluid agility and lateral quickness to cut with sharp, fluid breaks at the top of their route or is the break rounded and off-balance?

Paying attention to these important factors will allow you to identify receivers that have a future in the NFL and not just an opportunity in the NFL The evaluation process is far from perfect and misses will always occur, but setting yourself up with the best opportunity to find NFL caliber receivers is as simple as identifying the important factors that keep getting missed.

jdirienzo

College Football Evaluator. Senior Director of Talent Acquisitions 🎧🎙Co-host of the Devy Watch Podcast. Previous student of the Scouting Academy. You can follow me on Twitter at @allpurposescout

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