2014 NFL Draft: The Wide Receiver Fables Part 1

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Wide receivers are fun to scout, especially considering that the Jets will likely be looking at one early this May.  Yet the process of scouting them is often abbreviated or done is haste when playmaking ability is evident.  I see this often today and I have major issues with it for many reasons.  I believe the position I’ve learned the most about through scouting prospects is at receiver, so seeing underrated traits or flaws go unaccounted for is striking to me.

There are so many of these minor issues that are much more important than the community makes them out to be.  However, one stands above the rest due to the hidden complexity of it and how essential it is for the basis of a receivers’ skillset, and that is a wide area I’d like to call “catching ability.”

It’s a pet-peeve of mine to read a thorough evaluation of a receiver only to come across his catching ability labeled bluntly as “good hands” or “drops too many passes.”  This simply does not give me enough information in this respective area to get another full opinion on a guy before I go in and watch him myself.

There are countless reasons why receivers drop passes, and patterns to pick up on and evaluate on their severity.  Then, to be thorough, those patterns can be analyzed for translation to see how they can improve or benefit a guy at the next level with a different speed and strength in competition.

On the other hand, it is not like a receiver can either catch the ball effectively or can’t; the middle ground is a large space with many paths trailing off.  For example, a player may catch nearly every pass sent his way at the collegiate level, but show concerning signs while doing so that would make one question his overall ability there or even consistency down the road.

Now of course, a player who catches a lower percentage of his targets can soar high above another receiver who caught every pass in his direction on the year in regards to catching ability.  This is because of special traits shown at the catch point can be valued much more than overall consistency from a player if the traits that will develop him greatly at the next level aren’t there on tape.

Yes, there are plenty of other areas in a receiver’s game that can help make up for inconsistent or poor catching mechanics and ability, but determining where prospects stand in this ever-so important area is a stable jumping off point.  So, I’ve been wasting way too much time in the past two weeks charting just that for thirty receivers in this year’s NFL Draft.

I completed similar metrics last year to chart catching ability and found that it summarized my thoughts on the matter accurately, and thus, effected my rankings accordingly.  Now to avoid any confusion on the system I used later in the article, let’s touch upon the biggest factors of catching ability that helped or hindered certain players you guys love (they’re listed in no particular order of importance, for there are just too many to mention and all serve different levels of importance for different players).

Body Control:
Considering that a receiver is naturally jostling for position to some extent during their route, receivers should be accustomed to having control over their own frames to make the actual catch.  This is body control.  You may have heard this term elsewhere in scouting, maybe applying to a superb athlete just trying to control their own movement (looking at you, Barkevious Mingo).  For receivers, I’d say body control comes into play approximately 90% in the 1-2 seconds before the WR makes a play on the ball.

A receiver who uses their body control to their advantage will gain leverage not by being over physical at the point of the catch (will draw flags more often than not in the NFL), but by putting themselves in the best position to make the catch.  For example, a fluttering pass might result in a jump ball scenario.  In this situation, the receiver would ideally either slow his steps or take the necessary amount of strides to get under the ball to the best of his abilities, while still leaving enough time to jump and highpoint the  football.

”High-pointing” is a term that relates to the target judging the path and speed of the pass correctly, than leaping up to catch the ball at its highest point that’s possible to catch it.  This tactic is extremely useful since it separates the WR away from the defender as much as possible, but using it in any situation where the ball isn’t contested by a defender will only risk drops.

Another way receivers can incorporate body control into their game is in areas with limited room due to boundaries.  It is easy to tell when a receiver isn’t comfortable along the sideline or near the back of the end zone.  Each movement becomes less fluid and more fidgety, and tough catches where a foot (NCAA rules) must come down are only seldom made.

By executing efficient body control, wideouts can open themselves up to many more passes and make every pass more catchable, while therefore setting themselves up for more withstand-able impact from defenders or more yards after catch opportunities.

Discipline: 
Such a crucial yet often passed-over trait for a receiver to have.  Receivers who are grounded to fundamentals properly won’t suffer in other areas when going over the middle or knowing contact is coming because they’re disciplined and aren’t afraid of it.

Additionally, they can haul in more highly contested passes.  This also directly correlates to hand strength, but disciplined receivers have a knack for knowing the contact will arrive, and that their main priority is to get the ball tucked away strongly.

Discipline reaches out to other areas as well.  Running effective routes is a whole other issue, of course, but treading back to the ball whether the route calls for it or not is a key step for a receiver as the point of the catch.

Too often receivers focus directly on catching the ball and lose awareness to stay disciplined to just getting their before the defender.  Discipline also correlates with a receiver’s strategy to make the catch.

Physicality:
A lot of receivers execute appropriate leverage and physicality through their routes, but shrink to nothing when the ball nears them for the catch.  Ideally, a receiver will maintain that level of physicality to only increase separation, but only doing so to the extent that the rules allow.  A blatant push-off doesn’t qualify as anything good in this category.  Timing has to be keen here.

Reactions/Timing:
The two categories are so intertwined here that you may as well combine them.  There’s so much a receiver must be aware of before the catch that drops or tough catches are the result of poor timing with all of the other factors that go into making the catch making even the simple step harder.  As mentioned before, this ties directly into a receiver’s physicality endeavors versus a defender since once one has become engaged or entangled, releasing from the defender to make the catch might be hard to time correctly.

Another obvious trait in this category is being able to adjust to a throw quickly with reactions.  A not so obvious one is keeping the play hidden from an unaware defender with clever timing.  This is a very special trait.

What I mean by it is a receiver’s knack for subtly adjusting to a pass if a defender cannot see the pass, or possibly turning to make the catch in one swift motion instead of turning early and giving the desperate defender a clue what direction the ball is coming from.  While it’s so tricky to get down, this kind of timing can go a long way for a wideout.

Ball Skills: 
Here is the pretty obvious category, though it’s worth mentioning because it has so many branches.  Primarily, this pertains to being able to get the most use out of ones hands and consistently catching the ball with the hands away from the body.  There is basically never a situation when the receiver should rely on a body catch.  Luckily, it’s a fixable habit with practice.

Ball skills also cover the speed in which a receiver can get his hands out to a ball extended within his catch radius.  Reaction time is useful, but being able to properly form the hands into a clutch for the football is the other half to it.  Lastly, a receiver’s catch radius is something the may be outside of his control due to athleticism or height, but the strength of one’s hands can help offer a better catch radius than one’s measurables and such would suggest.

Let’s get down to it.  I threw away all that these receivers have to their name besides catching ability on tape.  Please excuse the simplicity of the metrics I used, I’m just a guy who’s going to graduate high school without ever taking calculus.  My method consisted of adding and deducting points to a receiver when he caught a pass or slipped up and didn’t haul in a target.  I ranged my additions and deductions from -4 to +4, which seemed like a reasonable scale to work with.

Yet I complicated it to make it more accurate.  An 80 yard touchdown for example, could garner a one point addition if it was a simple play that didn’t require any display of traits besides making the catch; a five yard catch could result in much more if the receiver shines in multiple areas in making the reception.

Vice-versa, a simple focus drop typically subtracted only one point or so since every receiver is a victim of them at times.  However, a catch that seemed very difficult to make on the surface could take off two or three points if it was made so difficult because the receiver failed to meet expectations in several requirements or even just one, but in a major way.

Once the final see-saw score was tallied up, I divided it by the numbers of targets that drew in a score addition or subtraction so that the final score could reflect how many targets the receiver saw.  The final product was the receiver’s overall catching ability score.

Some things to note before reading the observations and scores:

-I know these are subjective.  All metric charting is.  However, I did so unbiased and they ended up lining up very parallel to my initial thoughts on these guys’ catching ability.
-I only watched four games of each player to complete this (a couple needed five because of less targets).  More games would have been unnecessary.
-These are just five of the thirty receivers I charted for.  The ones included in this one are randomized, as they will all be.

MARTAVIS BRYANT, CLEMSON
-Games Viewed: Virginia, Maryland, Ohio State, Georgia Tech, Syracuse
-Catching Ability Score: (.926)

Bryant, the second fiddle to Clemson’s offense this year, blew me away in the metrics. People criticize him for being extremely raw, but I just don’t see it.  He’s raw to an extent, but just within his fluidity, because his catching ability is already off the map.  He shows some inconsistencies, but there are catches he can make and effortless efforts that nobody on this entire list could rival.  His entire pallet of skills at the catch point is strong, but he’s particularly good with his body control and taking full advantage of his height.  Here are some examples in GIFs..
http---makeagif.com--media-3-26-2014-NajE0W

Let us marvel this play.  Bryant gives a perfectly timed shove as the ball is thrown to immediately gain the leverage he needs to be great.  Next, he does even more than he had to do, which is mystifying.  He sidesteps a bit to not only prepare his jump, but it also baits the corner who’s turned to think he’s treading sideways because that’s where the ball is going.  With the corner way to inward on Bryant’s body, he can then perfectly time his jump and work his body control to make it a fairly easy touchdown reception (for 3.5 points).

http---makeagif.com--media-3-26-2014-_2W67V

My only complaint through charting Bryant is his ability to quickly transition from being physical to reacting to the ball on a consistent basis.  The timing issue I stressed above in the category description is clearly at fault here, as he simply needs to catch this ball and wasn’t even close.  This play resulted in a two point subtraction.

Confidence in ability:  Strong.  I totally agree with the validity of these results I came to.

MIKE EVANS, TEXAS A&M
-Games viewed: Auburn, Arkansas, LSU, Alabama
-Catching Ability Score: (.925)

Everybody who watches Evans knows his body control, hand strength, and catch radius are something else because of how Johnny Football depended on him at multiple times down the stretch in 2013.  Yet, Evans also showed up nicely in basically all other areas of my parameters, with no noticeable patterns in his slight flaws.
http---makeagif.com--media-3-24-2014-hUofBn

I don’t think you can take much away from either Bryant or Evans in their catching ability.  While watching Bryant is more mystical (if I may), Evans is what you see above most of the time, which is just overpowering defenders with his traits in discipline combined with his natural hand strength.  The most impressive part of the play above isn’t even the incredible timing and control by Evans to find a gap in the cluster, it’s how he holds on to the football.  The play drew a 2.5 point addition.

Confidence in ability:  Strong.  Evans is one of the obvious cases when you watch him at the catch point.  The only times I took off points from him were some tough catches at his knees or lower or a focus drop or two.  As you can guess, his absurd plays made up for those subtractions.

JOSH HUFF, OREGON
-Games Viewed: Colorado, Texas, Tennessee, Oregon State
-Catching Ability Score: (.61)

Huff is a confusing case, but there’s a lot to like versus the limitations in his catching ability.  For a guy with such a small frame, his discipline is as good as you’ll find from anybody in this class and he can do some special, fluid things with his smooth awareness and body control.

His score is really impressive because of the work he did in heavy traffic over the middle at Oregon versus beating corners one on one on the boundaries.  However, there are obvious signs that his catch radius has severe limitations, and not only because of his height.  He doesn’t have a very impressive vertical and doesn’t change gears very well while running, which understandably makes it difficult for him to elevate or extend for tougher passes.  Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to draw any good examples of this, but it’s very clear after watching.
http---makeagif.com--media-3-24-2014-0Sz7pM (2)

Like I said, the things Huff does well within his catching ability are so smooth and impressive.  In the GIF above, Huff scored a two with this really nice play that I found special.  Huff contorts his body with excellent reaction time to catch the ball behind him with his hands, all while doing so to turn away from a looming hit from a defender.

He brings the ball into his body for safety, but he already plucked it, so it’s a very smart move.  There were multiple ways Huff could have caught this pass, but I am so impressed because I don’t think he could have done anything better here.

Confidence in ability:  Solid.  It’s so easy to believe in Huff’s ability in catching the ball down the road because of how grounded he is with his discipline.  He bounces off contact after the catch well with a safe, strong grip on the football, and his fluidity in body control helps him avoid these hits most of the time anyway.  Still, they’re those limitations that can’t be ignored.  His catch radius won’t allow him to do much that most NFL receivers with his size and frame wouldn’t be able to do, despite his incredible fluidity.

ALLEN ROBINSON, PENN STATE
-Games Viewed: Wisconsin, UCF, Nebraska, East Michigan
-Catching Ability Score: (.166)

I’m not a big fan of Robinson overall because he’s just so annoying to deal with in a sense, and his catching ability is basically the exact same pest that his entire skillset is.  He will flash unbelievable skill in the charting only to have three or four major lapses in a row.

Robinson is a very inconsistent player overall.  It’s tough to pin down what specific areas he has the most repetitive issues in.  His timing is typically poor, and sometimes it’s simply non-existent.  His body control can be excellent at times and also non-existent the next instance.  His physicality at the catch point is way to spotty to consistently count on, as well.  I captured two examples of the crazy highs and lows you’ll see with his body control down below.
http---makeagif.com--media-3-24-2014-ySQGuM (1)

Here is a prime push and release from Robinson with timing that fooled the defender a bit, too.  Robinson completes the play with a smooth 180 degree turn to highpoint the football and come down with it contested, all while getting his feet down.  After watching this play you won’t even believe the receiver in the next play is him.
http---makeagif.com--media-3-24-2014-JDEwk3

This play is pure frustration to me.  At first, it looks like a very impossible catch to make.  The defender is closing on a terribly underthrown pass pretty quickly and Robinson has to adjust.  Yet the more you watch, it becomes apparent that the way Robinson attempted to make the catch, it was never going to happen.

The safety was hopelessly raising his arm in defense, completely unaware of where the ball was.  If Robinson made even the slightest effort to retract back to the ball and win it over a terribly unaware defender, he would have made this play.  He had all of the time in the world, yet decided to go with a feeble attempt at scooping it off the ground.

Confidence in ability:  Little.  Robinson is so erratic in his inconsistencies that it’s hard to imagine he can round them off with even years of practice and coaching.  Anything can happen, but there are far too many alerting signs.  He’s definitely not a guy I’d ever want to count on to make a tough catch, which is sad because he’s proven he can do it.

KELVIN BENJAMIN, FLORIDA STATE
-Games Viewed: Duke, Boston College, NC State, Florida
-Catching Ability Score: -(.125)

Yep, Benjamin was really that bad.  It gets even uglier because the rest of his game is extremely flawed and forgettable, but I’ll try and stick to the topic at hand.  To start, Benjamin’s discipline is bad enough where at times it’s hard to argue that he cares out there.  He’s either careless or painfully unaware.

On one play here and there it might click for him, but the steps towards making catches easier just never connect for him.  He drops passes starting with focus issues, and the drops range all the way to not making a condemned effort.  Here are some examples of the usual lows and occasional highs you’ll find with him.
http---makeagif.com--media-3-26-2014-DVoKnI

Here’s a nice adjustment reaction from Benjamin that resulted in one of his only big flashes, a 2.5 point increase.  The confidence he had turning his head without turning his body at all really impressed me.
http---makeagif.com--media-3-25-2014-mSLQb2

I apologize for the poor quality and cutting I did for this GIF, but it still should be very visible that Benjamin willingly sits back on this pass despite clearly seeing the incoming defender, who deflects it into his teammate’s hands for an easy interception.  His discipline is also a major question here, as he doesn’t drive through the defender at the point of the catch even though he could have since he shifted his body weight.  He was bullied after making a crucial mistake, and it doesn’t get much worse than that.

Confidence in ability:  None.  For a receiver as incapable as Benjamin can prove to be at times without any sort of basis of skill in catching ability to fall back on, I don’t see how Benjamin miraculously turns it around.

 

 

 

  • Justin C.

    Kelvin Benjamin is most certainly Stephen Hill 2.0. What would be your (anyone who reads this) reaction if the Jets draft Kelvin Benjamin with the eighteenth overall pick?

  • LeeBur

    Justin- I would be pissed.

    Michael- have you seen this article on rotoworld?

    http://www.rotoworld.com/articles/nfl/46661/311/nfl-draft-the-phenom-index

    Not sure what I make of it or how useful it is. Was wondering if you could give some insight?

  • Lidman

    LeeBur

    I’m a big believer in the age argument. Kids that play up, and dominate earlier usually continue to do so. There is a reason a guy like Mike Evans goes pro, after 2 college seasons (he did red shirt as a Frosh) and others take a red shirt year, and 4 seasons.
    He’s simply better. Look at the majority of the All Pros, and tell me how many of them played a full 4yrs. It’s not a high %.

  • LeeBur

    Michael- forgot to mention, great article too. Very informative read.

  • LeeBur

    Lidman- im also a believer. Just interesting to see 1 article rate Allen Robinson really high and Michael saying hes not a fan of him. I know the 2 articles are apples and oranges in terms on discussion topic. Was just curious if Michael believed in the Phenom Index as a good formula to project out a WR.

  • KAsh

    @LeeBur

    The Phenom Index disproves itself in its own article. If a statistic cannot differentiate between Calvin Johnson and Sidney Rice and in fact mixes good players with busts and secondary receivers, while some of the best land outside the top 10, then it is more of a coincidence then an indicator. My problem with it is the same as my problem with DR (which it uses): if a measure cannot separate the very best from the merely good, why would I trust it to separate out the serviceable from the busts? And if it cannot differentiate busts from brilliance, what use is it other than to call someone a “phenom”?

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