Which receivers were truly most effective with the ball in their hands last season? We look at the leaders in YAC+ for 2014 and the last nine years.
03 Nov 2012
by Matt Waldman
Last week, I wrote about Notre Dame’s Tyler Eifert and how his skills fit into the growing pantheon of versatile tight end play that is in vogue in the NFL. But versatility can have a number of different meanings depending on the talents of the player and his fit within an offense. The word doesn’t necessarily mean that the player can do everything well.
Players like Jermaine Gresham, Brandon Pettigrew, Brent Celek, and Heath Miller are versatile in the sense that they can run block, have enough speed to stretch the intermediate seam, and produce in tight coverage in the red zone. I think they do a lot well, but nothing great. If anything, I believe they are the current evolution of the "average" tight end. (Though I have to say that calling personal favorite Miller "average" insults my sensibilities because in terms of smarts and execution he blows away players like Gresham and Pettigrew.)
Jermichael Finley, Jimmy Graham, and Jared Cook are versatile because they have the speed to run more vertical routes and the height and hands to function more as outside receivers. While Graham and Finley have improved as blockers, neither would list this skill as a true strength of their games. All three are essentially big wide receivers that can do a passable job as blockers depending on the way an offensive coordinator incorporates them into a scheme. In other words: teams have to be more creative with them when they aren’t running a route.
The only tight ends I believe have it all are Rob Gronkowski, Vernon Davis, and Antonio Gates. This trio can run block, pass protect, and work nearly every range of the field as a receiver. They are also difficult to bring to the ground as ball carriers. Tony Gonzalez used to be the best in this category, but the venerable tight end now belongs in the Gresham-Pettigrew-Celek-Miller group. Martellus Bennett has the potential to join this elite tier of players. So does Titans rookie Taylor Thompson.
Then there’s Aaron Hernandez, a player who I believe is in his own class. That is something I have heard echoed by the likes of Bill Parcells, Greg Cosell, and a bevy of analysts with extensive experience watching the game. It doesn’t mean he’s the best tight end in the game; just that his versatility is unique. Hernandez is a matchup problem for linebackers, safeties, and cornerbacks. Like the Finley-Graham-Cook tier, the Patriots tight end can be passable as a blocker with some scheming creativity, but unlike any tight end in the league, his versatility as a ball carrier is similar to Percy Harvin. Note that I said versatility, not talent.
The 6-foot-2, 245-pound Hernandez was a fourth-round pick in the 2010 NFL Draft. One reason he was a second-day selection was multiple failed drug tests in college, but I believe that issue didn’t cost him more than a round. I think it was more likely that NFL teams were also wondering how exactly they would use Hernandez’s unique set of skills. It may be one thing for an NFL team to look at a space player like Harvin or Dexter McCluster and wonder whether he’s a running back or wide receiver while knowing it can use the player as a return specialist while it figures him out. However, it is a different matter when that unique player might not have one true position in any of the three phases of the game.
I believe that University of Florida tight end Jordan Reed has the potential to pose a similar quandary for teams in the 2013 NFL Draft. I had a strong pre-draft report on Hernandez and I see aspects of Reed’s game that reminds me of Hernandez. He’s a former high school quarterback who earned 77 carries for 238 yards and five touchdowns during his freshman year with the Gators. However, I’m not ready to stand behind the idea that the 6-foot-3, 245-pound redshirt junior is Hernandez 2.0. I have at least a few more months of games to study before I arrive at a firm conclusion.
Still, I think two plays I saw from Reed in Florida’s 2012 matchup against Texas A&M, as well as one against Kentucky, offer an illustration of both the best and worst of the tight end’s game. One is a short reception that Reed turns into a nice gain with uncommon skill for a tight end, another is a well-publicized catch under duress, and the third is a pedestrian run-blocking assignment where his deficiencies are prominent. If he can demonstrate additional skill as a downfield receiver in tight coverage while showing improvement as a run blocker, he might earn a stronger Hernandez comparison.
The first Hernandez-like skill set that Reed flashes is his ball-carrying. Here is a second-and-13 pass from a 2x1 receiver, 11-personnel shotgun set with 4:19 left in the first half of the Gators’ matchup with the Aggies that provides ample illustration. Reed is set as the wing back to the near side and is running a quick flat route underneath the shallow zone of the Texas A&M defense.
Reed is the first option on this pass, as quarterback Jeff Driskel drops, turns, and releases the ball before the tight end finishes his break to the flat.
The tight end looks the ball into his hands and turns upfield with defenders over the top and in pursuit. His initial move to avoid the oncoming defender in this sequence of photos is the first indication that Reed is not the average ball carrier at the tight end position.
Reed initially bends at the knees and hips to stop and cut inside the oncoming defender, but his opponent proves too quick, and a split-second later, he has to make an adjustment to hurdle the defender. For most tight ends this requires more of a running start, which is what makes Reed different. The rest of the run turns into a showcase for his uncommon agility. Here’s an end-zone view just as he turns up field and encounters the defender over top.
Once Reed finishes this hurdle of the defender, he demonstrates the acceleration to beat the backside pursuit up the sideline. Note at the foreground of the photo that Reed has an obstacle over top that will require him to change direction despite the fact that he’s accelerating at a good clip.
Within two steps, Reed has a cornerback getting blocked over the top, but in position under the receiver’s pads to cut off the sideline. The Florida tight end maintains his footing in bounds while accelerating past the backside pursuit and prepares to make a cut that I only typically see from a smaller receiver or a tight end of Aaron Hernandez’s skill set.
This is a sharp, lateral cut that takes Reed from the sideline to a point well inside the flat and leaves two defenders in the dust. However, he displays enough control at a strong pace to dip back to the outside of his next block. You won’t see this from most of the NFL tight ends mentioned at the beginning of this article. Reed gains another 12 yards up the sideline before he’s pushed out of bounds for a 30-yard gain on what would have been a gain of two-to-five yards in the flat by most tight ends. While I want to see Reed hold the ball tighter to his body, his skill to anticipate and react to blocks in the open field while accelerating is rare.
The Florida tight end demonstrates the type of speed, agility, and control that makes it easy to project him as a threat down the seam even if one never saw such a play from him in this offense. However, one of the big litmus tests for me with any pass catcher is how well he handles imminent contact from a defender, especially when running at a full gallop to catch the ball and in a vulnerable position for an oncoming hit. This catch underneath the Kentucky Wildcats secondary is ample demonstration that Reed has what it takes to make tough plays in tight windows at the NFL level.
Reed is open behind the linebackers on a deep cross, and turns his head over his back shoulder to look the ball into his hands just above eye level at the right hash with two defensive backs over top. As Reed turns up field with the ball in his hands, the outside defender leads with his head into Reed’s helmet. The inside defender meets the first at the intersection of Reed’s outside and inside shoulders for a hit that pop’s the tight end’s helmet like a champagne cork. The ball never wavers from Reed’s grip as he falls backward to the turf with his helmet six-to-eight feet behind him.
Players that I have seen this type of play in the past that passed this litmus test included former USC receiver Steve Smith, A.J. Green, Randall Cobb, Eric Decker, Gronkowski, and Hernandez. That doesn’t mean that Reed is going to be a star, but the fact he displays the skill to make these plays is one facet among many that projects well for success as a pro.
As a former quarterback, blocking is the tight end’s greatest weakness. However, there are numerous tight ends in the NFL that played quarterback in high school and learned to become effective blockers. Miller is one example.
Here’s an assignment with 14:19 left in the game that encapsulates the issues I’ve seen from Reed in several other examples. Reed is outside right tackle with junior defensive end Damontre Moore, a recently converted linebacker who is making a strong impression this season.
A quick get-off is one of the more import facets of run blocking. Reed is quick to release at the snap and he takes a short step inside to hopefully force Moore to react outside and widen the defensive end’s path. That way Reed can set up a running lane behind the fullback heading to that edge.
Although Reed establishes the position he needs before engaging Moore, his approach to the defender leaves a lot to be desired.
Reed leads with his head down and his hands outside the defender’s arms. The biggest issue is Reed’s head. Although he has his pads low and he’s driving off the line towards Moore, his head leaves him in an unbalanced position that will allow the defensive end to control the tight end’s momentum. It also prevents the tight end from changing direction. Running backs make this mistake at the college level all the time and they generally pay by whiffing in their attempt on the edge rusher.
Reed makes contact with Moore but because his head was down, the defender easily takes a step outside and gets his hands into Reed’s body -– establishing firm control to shed the tight end at his convenience.
Moore rips the tight end aside by pulling Reed to his right and discards the Florida player to the turf to create an angle to the running back.
Reed acknowledges that he has to do a better job of using his hands and feet in sync as a blocker, but the first thing I would like to see him improve is getting his head up and eyes on the target. This is preventing him from setting the anchor to use his hands and feet to punch, turn, and hold his ground with his opponent. Unlike some of the high-waist Missouri prospects that lacked the build to succeed as NFL blockers and receivers, including Martin Rucker, Chase Coffman, and likely Michael Egnew, Reed has the build to develop into a passable blocker.
The Florida tight end has eye-opening potential as a pass-catching weapon in space as well as in tight spaces. If he can improve upon his work in tight spaces without the ball in his hands, Reed will make a nice mid-round selection. He's got a high ceiling that would fit nicely in many NFL offenses. If Miami wants to hear Joe Philbin say "that’s more like it," about a rookie tight end in training camp this year, Reed would make a nice selection to pair with Anthony Fasano if the team decides to keep Charles Clay at fullback. They could develop a nice multiple offense with this trio.
4 comments, Last at 05 Nov 2012, 6:31pm by justanothersteve