Our offseason Four Downs series continues with a division-by-division look at each team's biggest remaining holes and their most notable UDFA signings. In the NFC North, quality wide receivers and defensive backs are in short supply.
28 Dec 2013
by Matt Waldman
The best NFL teams possess three characteristics on the field: resiliency, intimidation, and explosiveness. Two are psychological and one is physical. All three are methods of managing the most pervasive elemental force in football: punishment.
Be it physical, mental, or emotional, or how a player takes it, inflicts it, or avoids it, punishment is a bellwether for success in the NFL. Name a good pro player or prospect and his game is an individual expression of how he arrived at slowing the cumulative effects of punishment on his body, mind, and psyche while redirecting it to his opponent.
On the football field, Jace Amaro is a powerful and explosive athlete whose size, strength, and speed can intimidate opponents. A unanimous first-team All-American and one of the two best prospects at the tight end position eligible for the 2014 NFL Draft, the 6-foot-5, 260-pound Amaro is a complete player with the upside to develop into an All-Pro with similar strengths as Dallas Cowboys tight end Jason Witten.
Amaro’s work away from the football is the aspect of his game that he’ll need to address the most during the early stages of his NFL career. Amaro doesn’t face professional-caliber athletes on a weekly basis as a blocker and NFL defenders will push his technique to its limits. However, blocking is also the most promising facet of Amaro’s play and his athleticism and attitude provide a glimpse of his potential to grow into one of the best in the game.
Because Amaro doesn’t face opponents his own size and speed on a weekly basis, much of his work comes against undersized linebackers and defensive backs. These are not only battles he should win, but ones he should dominate. Amaro doesn’t disappoint.
Here is a screen pass from a 2x3 receiver empty personnel set with 6:33 in the third quarter. Amaro is the middle receiver on the trips side. At the snap, Amaro works five yards downfield and delivers a punch to the defensive back inside the numbers of the right flat.
Note the punch, hand placement, and hand strength to lock onto the defender. Amaro gives the runner room to work outside the block and the tight end puts the defender on the ground with his effort. This is dominating a weaker player and it’s what an evaluator wants to see when there’s a clear mismatch.
Here’s another, a 3x3 stack set with 14:47 in the half. Amaro is the lead blocker in the trips set on the right side of the field. The second Amaro gets his hands on the defensive back the tight end dominates the matchup.
Amaro locks his hands on the defender and drives the defender backwards like his opponent is a blocking sled made of paper mache. Amaro pancakes the defender after pushing the man 12 yards down field.
Although Texas Tech is known for spreading the field and airing it out, it does use enough 11-personnel sets to watch Amaro in action at the line of scrimmage. Here is a strong-side trips, 11 personnel run on a third-and-2 with 2:07 in the half. Amaro is next to the right tackle.
Once again this is an undersized defender that Amaro faces, but watch how fast Amaro gets his hands into the defender’s body. The punch, lock, and drive immobilize the defender and Amaro pancakes his man with intensity bordering on a finishing move in a professional wrestling match.
What I haven’t seen enough from Amaro’s tape his work against defenders his own size at the line of scrimmage. He’s quick and strong enough to punch, hook, or shield defenders with more of a finesse game, but I want to see him drive block and anchor in pass protection. How well Amaro can grow into this type of in-line player will determine the teams interested level in his services.
Teams will look at what’s on tape, work out Amaro, and come to the conclusion that he’ll develop into an excellent in-line blocker. They’ll see the strength, quickness, hand use, and intensity to stay with an assignment and they conclude that the tight end has a baseline feel for blocking that they can build on. I believe he’ll develop fast in this area of his game and within three years become one of the finer all-around tight ends in the game.
Speed is coveted, but only if a player possesses the body control to maximize it. Functional speed is just another example of an integrated skill set. Amaro’s speed is functional and it’s apparent on even the simplest of routes.
This crossing route from a 1x3 receiver set on second-and-18 with 14:58 in the game is a good example. Amaro is the inside man in the trips set near the left hash. The tight end faces a safety seven yards over top and a linebacker at five-yard depth further inside.
Amaro is quick enough to accelerate across the face of the linebacker to the middle of the field and catches the ball in stride with his hands. His acceleration is good enough to continue untouched for another 15 yards, earning the first down and five more outside the right hash.
Part of functional speed is the ability to maintain balance while making a play like this as a receiver. It’s also maintaining footing when taking a hit and when the cornerback hits Amaro at the 40, he still manages to keep his footing long enough to earn another eight yards on the play. Many players Amaro’s size are stiffer athletes with build-up speed who wipe out in spectacular fashion for minimal gains after contact. Amaro routinely maintains his footing for gains after contact that will make him a dangerous player in the middle of the field in the NFL.
Another display of this functional speed in action is a play we may not see Amaro try in the NFL, but it’s an indication that the tight end has enough agility and balance to perform as a productive ball carrier after the catch in the NFL. This is a 3x1 receiver, 11-personnel pass play on second-and-6 at the top of the second quarter. He’s the slot man working another shallow cross.
Amaro catches the ball seven yards down field at the left hash and outruns the linebacker to the left flat. Notice Amaro’s ball security. Although his second and third efforts as a ball carrier heighten his risk of losing the football (more later), the Red Raiders tight end is consistent with practicing good ball security by toting the ball under his outside arm.
Amaro spots the safety over top at and sets up the defender with an inside-out move to freeze and then hurdle the man at the 45. We may see Amaro try this move a couple of times early in his career in the NFL, but don’t count on it as a habit.
However like Le'veon Bell, Brian Leonard, Peyton Hillis, Brandon Jacobs, Ben Troupe, and other prospects before him, the skill to hurdle a defender in the open field is a display of explosiveness even if it isn’t a consistently wise choice. It’s also a positive sign that Amaro is willingly to play with a degree of recklessness to his game.
One of the sure signs that a football player is a dangerous ball carrier is his balance against flush hits that don’t come from a head-on collision. If a ball carrier can bounce off contact to the legs and hips from directions where he cannot attack the collision with his pads, he possesses strong balance and functional power. Amaro displays this type of athleticism almost weekly.
This is a 10-personnel shotgun set with 7:35 left in the game. He’s the inside trips man running a stop route.
Amaro drifts inside, makes the catch with his hands, and turns outside at the nine to get additional yardage. The safety delivers a flush hit from an indirect angle to Amaro’s legs, but the tight end maintains his footing, drags a second defender wrapped around his waist from the Oklahoma seven to the two, and finishes with an extension of his body and the ball towards the goal line. It’s the culmination of an athletic display that comes within centimeters of a touchdown.
It’s also this kind of determination that can backfire. Here’s a catch where Amaro turns up field, delivers a forearm to the chin of the defensive back, and then spins inside the contact while the defensive end wraps him from behind.
Amaro backs his way down field, but the combination of the defensive end yanking at the ball and a hit from a second defender to Amaro’s ball-carrying arm is enough to lose possession. Ask Adrian Peterson about this type of effort early in his career. There’s a line between determination that’s productive and reckless.
Amaro’s style of play reflects a player with the mindset that he’s the mismatch for opposing defenses every week. It’s a confidence that NFL teams will want him to have when he becomes a pro player. And there’s good reason to believe he’ll be player with a lot of highlights to his credit.
However these big plays may not come in the same form as they do at Texas Tech and there’s an inherent danger with giving too much praise to a college prospect whose expression of punishment leans more towards the spectrum of bullying opponents in space. There’s no question that Amaro is a tough football player. He has overcome an ACL tear as a junior in high school and he has taken his share of big hits in college football.
At the same time, Amaro will also have to excel at the line of scrimmage in a league filled with players who come a lot closer to matching –- if not sometimes exceeding -– his size, athleticism, and intensity. Will Amaro be a bully turned shrinking violet once he’s punched in the mouth by someone taking the fight to him, or will he continue to take the fight to his opponents? As with any player, we won’t truly know if Amaro can reach his potential until we see how he fares when opponents test his resiliency in the trenches.
(Schedule note: Futures will not appear next weekend and then will move to Wednesdays through the NFL Draft beginning January 8.)