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.
12 Oct 2013
by Matt Waldman
When it comes to workouts, interviews, and background investigations, I have nothing on the NFL. I’m just like everyone else; I’m waiting to hear the outcomes of whatever the league shares with the public. But after speaking with former and current scouts, I can say with confidence that the NFL has nothing on me when it comes to my process for evaluating on-field performance.
It sounds a lot like I’m saying that I know more about football than NFL scouts and front offices, but what I mean is that I believe I have a process that does a better job of helping an evaluator structure his thinking and get out of his own way. I’ve seen scouting reports from the National Scouting Service as well as reports from NFL teams. Based on the structure of their reporting, many teams don’t realize that their methodology often gets in the way of their collective knowledge.
They don’t have a written working definition for every positional technique they observe. They don’t possess a weighted score assigned to each. And they don’t categorize and define the level of difficulty to improve skills as a player transitions to the NFL.
I know of an NFL player-personnel man borrowing some of my ideas to incorporate into his team’s scouting processes. This is because the things I described eliminate some of the inherent variation that exists among scouts and management. But this type of change in thinking is a slow sell compared to upgrading technology that allows them to do the same things they’ve been doing for 50 years -– only with greater speed and convenience.
While I believe my process is a good start towards a consistent approach when evaluating players, at the end of the day there’s no denying that scouting talent is a subjective process. Subjectivity can be a bad word -– especially for a site like Football Outsiders, which strives to use data to arrive at insights that provide a counterpoint to fallacies stemming from what we observe on a qualitative level. However, I doubt anyone writing for this site would say all subjective analysis is bad.
I believe in the power of intuition. Some of you who lean hard on black and white thinking may be turned off to that idea. The idea that intuition is a bodily indicator based on factors we cannot fully explain (yet) is hogwash. I can’t help you there –- you feel similar about it or you don’t.
When I evaluate a player and his performance evokes a feeling that I attribute to intuition, I accept that feeling. It doesn’t mean that I ignore my scouting process or change my outcomes, but I have learned to pay attention to those emotions.
Sometimes what resonates when I watch a player is something that is a part of my everyday life: I’m a magnet for the troubled. I’ve learned how to see it coming in life, but in football, I am still learning that many players I have a strong feeling about are prospects carrying a lot of off-field baggage that bleeds into their professional lives.
But when I can differentiate between talent and trouble, I might use that good vibe as a tiebreaker when ranking a close subset of players. Kenbrell Thompkins was a good example. I knew nothing about Thompkins when I watched him at Cincinnati, but I had a strong feeling about him right away in addition to seeing his perform techniques that I associate with quality wide receiver prospects.
When I couldn’t find more tape to watch of the receiver I began researching his career and learned about his past troubles. I like to joke that Thompkins activated my intuition for both talent and trouble on a variety of levels.
Another player whose performances immediately set off my Spidey Senses last year -– and continues to do so in 2013 –- is Florida State wide receiver Rashad Greene. In addition to his physical build, there is something both savvy and electric about Greene’s game. When I watch Greene, Marvin Harrison and DeSean Jackson come to mind.
He’s a fluid, fearless playmaker with a knack for playing the ball with his back to the quarterback and navigating the boundary. He also possesses a good feel for winning the ball in high-traffic areas despite lacking the physical dimensions to take a pounding. This is something you’ll see from his highlights as early as his senior year of high school through his senior year at Florida State.
My overall feeling about Greene is that if possesses good health and mature decision-making as a professional and citizen, he’ll become a reliable starter with big-play ability. In the right offense, he could lead his team in receiving.
Despite what my intuition tells me, I like having a well-defined process to counter balance it. While I like Greene as much as any wide receiver in this class, he is not a plug-and-play prospect.
Greene does things on the field that are difficult to teach, but I see enough flaws in his game that, if they are not addressed, will prevent him from making a consistent impact as a pro. Randy Moss was one of the most intuitive athletes in the history of the receiving position. Combine this with his athleticism and his instant impact wasn't a surprise. On the other hand, Raymond Berry was one of its hardest workers. Rarely do players fall on these extremes of the spectrum. Greene works at his craft, but he strikes me as a more intuitive player. He displays a feel for playing in traffic and winning the ball that is difficult to practice.
These high-school highlights illustrate that Greene has a strong comfort level with making receptions with his back to the football and tracking the pass over his head. He does a fine job of controlling the position of his body behind the defender and the pace of his stride.
Most impressive is Greene’s consistency in extending his arms away from his body on the run. He can wait until the last moment to shoot his arms towards the ball or gracefully swoop under the ball and look the target into his hands. There’s a wide catch radius on these targets on display. He can high-point the ball or extend long and maintain his position. There’s a good feel for tracking passes on these targets that looks easy to him. This is where I often see the DeSean Jackson in Greene’s game.
Here’s a touchdown reception against Clemson where Greene tracks the ball directly over his head with his arms extended at a full gallop while close to the boundary. He makes it look easy.
Watch the various angles the broadcast shows of this play (until the 1:20-mark) and despite the boundary, the coverage, the impending hit from the safety, and the trajectory of the ball, Greene is decisive and fluid.
Against Notre Dame, Greene makes an even more difficult catch with his back the ball, displaying the same skills he’s shown since high school.
I don’t think Greene has Jackson’s long speed, but his short-area quickness is similar. Watch his release against tight coverage at the line of scrimmage during the replay (2:25 mark) of the reception below.
The integration of the feet and hands on this release to bait and avoid the cornerback is excellent, but the quickness is what earns him the massive separation. Note the comfort Greene displays tracking the ball and high-pointing the pass at the earliest window of arrival. It’s a graceful play, so its difficulty is deceptive at the end when he tucks the ball just as the defender wraps him. I’ve seen many good receivers lose control of the ball in this situation, but Greene secures the ball to his body with no problem.
Greene also understands how to set up his defender from snap to snap. Watch him follow up this outside-in move from the previous play with a shake route that begins with a release up the middle -- if not a little to the inside -- before popping out and up.
There is great suddenness with his moves, strong control and manipulation of pace, and no tipping off his final direction of the initial stem.
Although his speed might not be on par with Jackson, he’s the type of player that is going to take a mile if defenses give him a step.
While the speed is evident when you watch him outrun four defenders –- three with angles on him -– it’s the way he runs the route that sets up this touchdown. Greene takes a strong angle with his break to work well underneath the zone. So many young receivers round their break on crossers and, as a result, fail to set up opportunities for big gains. Greene’s sharp break makes all the difference.
Despite the sharp break on the crossing route, this is one area where Greene has to get better. His quickness, speed, and fluid ball skills won’t matter if he can’t get separation on top-flight athletes with years of accumulated NFL savvy. This route underneath zone is a good example.
In the NFL, a defensive back will spot Greene’s elongated break, drive on the ball, and at the very least disrupt the reception. Greene has to learn to run at full speed and slam on the brakes at the end. Here’s a great video tutorial from Top Gun Academy.
Greene is letting off on the gas on this route against Pittsburgh. If you want to see a great example of a slow NFL player who doesn’t brake until the last moment, check out Tony Gonzalez for the past two seasons. The Falcons tight end is slow with his release and stem, but so quick with his break and turn that he almost always has position on his opponent and can make the catch in tight coverage. Greene has the speed, but he has to learn control.
This is where Greene often shines. Here’s a post against Pitt where Greene takes a hit from the safety just after he makes the catch over the middle. It’s the type of bang-bang play that often results in the ball flying loose.
Here’s another between defenders on an ill-advised, but successful throw.
What I like about Greene’s reaction on this play is that he leaves his feet, but angles his back just enough towards the oncoming defender that he provides some shielding with his body to make a play on the ball. On this target above and the next, he allows the ball to approach close to his frame because he’s expecting contact and is using his arms brace himself for the hit.
Generally, this is something I’d frown upon because it’s often a sign that the player isn’t confident about extending for the ball. In Greene’s case, he has not only displayed strong hands and good extension, but there’s even a video of him doing drills to encourage good arm extension.
The play below isn’t a catch versus impending contact, but Greene has to make the play over a linebacker, extend his arms to win it, and snatch it back to his body to ensure the defender doesn’t rip it away.
I also love that Greene makes his play to take the lead in a Bowl game and EJ Manuel has the confidence in this sophomore receiver (2011) to target him in tight coverage. This play speaks volumes about the trust the quarterback has in Greene –- especially given that I’ve studied enough of Manuel to know that he tends to do a good job of finding the open man and didn’t take many chances like these during his career with the Seminoles.
It’s this Notre Dame play where I see shades of Marvin Harrison, a fantastic red zone player when paired with a confident timing and placement passer like Peyton Manning. Here’s another one downfield where the defender contests the target, the ball pops loose, and Greene displays the presence to win the ball on a second chance and stay inbounds.
This looks like a fluke of a play. In fact, I wouldn’t argue with you if you say it is. However, I’ve seen Harrison make this type of play numerous times in the vertical game or in the red zone. I’ve also seen Greene make difficult plays like these more than once.
Although Greene can win some 50/50 balls and make strong adjustments in single coverage, I like his chances of developing into a red zone weapon if paired with a creative (Ben Roethlisberger) or aggressive down field passer (Philip Rivers). But if the team that drafts Green has a starting quarterback who lacks that aggressive mindset (Alex Smith), he’ll need to develop into a consummate route runner.
Greene should focus on routes regardless. He isn’t a tall and powerful receiver, which means he will have to rely more on precision and technique to get open in comparison to big-bodied rebounders like Alshon Jeffery or Brandon Marshall who earn physical matchup advantages. Otherwise, he’ll just be a limited deep threat.
If I were to rank Greene among the receivers I’ve seen thus far in this 2013 class, he might not be among my top-five. He has a thin frame and I want to see him handle press coverage with physical corners. I hope he'll be at an all-star game this year to gauge his ability to learn on the practice field.
Another important face of the game where he has work to do is those short and intermediate timing routes I touched upon earlier. My eyes, intuition, and experience tell me that the types of skills Greene has to learn won't be a struggle for him to acquire. It's why I believe Greene’s potential for growth is strong enough that three-to-five years from now he can develop into a player as good as the players that I might rank ahead of him today.
2 comments, Last at 02 Jan 2015, 11:19pm by avelin