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.
20 Mar 2013
by Matt Waldman
A series I started this year at the RSP blog is The Boiler Room. One of the challenges involved with player analysis is to be succinct while still delivering the goods. As the author of an annual tome, I’m often a spectacular failure in this respect. Even so, I will study a prospect and see a play unfold that does a great job of encapsulating that player’s skills. When I witness these moments, I try to imagine if I would include this play as part of a cut-up of highlights for a draft show at a major network.
The Boiler Room is focused on prospects I expect to be drafted, and often before the fourth round. One example a few weeks ago is a play from Syracuse quarterback Ryan Nassib. So this week, I thought I’d borrow this concept from my blog and modify it to introduce three players I like in this 2013 class with two plays each. Next week, I’ll share three players in this class I like who will likely be late-round or undrafted free agent prospects.
This week’s trio is Cincinnati tight end Travis Kelce, Clemson wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins, and Kansas State linebacker Arthur Brown. What they all have in common is that draft analysts are projecting them to get picked between the late first and early second round. Despite having high grades, I think all three players are still underrated and I wouldn’t be surprised if they turn out to have better careers than their peers selected ahead of them.
Tyler Eifert is the safest tight end prospect on the board this year. The Notre Dame star has excellent skill as a receiver and he has improved each year as a blocker. If he continues to add muscle to his core and focuses on his early steps with inline assignments, I think he’ll become a passable NFL blocker.
I’m telling you this because I doubt in Eifert’s wildest dreams that he’ll ever match Kelce as a run blocker or pass protector. Kelce –- a former three-sport star and starting high school quarterback -– is one of the best blockers in his class. (Maybe it is genetic; his brother Jason plays center for the Philadelphia Eagles.) He's capable of handling ends and linebackers at the line of scrimmage with power and defensive backs on an island with finesse. He's quick, powerful, technically sound, and finishes plays with a nasty streak. Kelce would make a perfect H-Back for Robert Griffin and the Redskins.
The reason Kelce could go before Eifert in drafts is his versatility and skill to excel at every aspect of the tight end and/or H-Back position. The reason he won’t is a yearlong suspension from the Cincinnati Bearcats squad as a sophomore with no specific details of the cause.
The first play we'll look at is a first-and-10 from the Cincinnati 23. Kelce is at the line of scrimmage next to the right tackle in a 2x1 receiver, 11-personnel shotgun set.
Note the quickness Kelce displays at the top of his stem with his stop and turn to the flat. For much of the night, Kelce has been on the wing running crossing routes or hooks under zone where he executed hard breaks with an agility that belies his 6-foot-4, 255-pound frame.
This isn’t one of his best examples. The punctuation of his stop and turn is so tight that Cincinnati often has Kelce use double moves in the red zone (with great success) and it begins with this tight, initial break. I won’t be the slightest bit surprised if Kelce scores a few NFL touchdowns with double moves due to his agility.
Kelce does a fine job of turning to the target and presenting his pads to the quarterback, catching the ball with his hands and turning up the right flat. This is where there’s a taste of Kelce’s skill as a ball carrier. Most college tight ends who are blockers with Kelce’s skill lack the balance, agility, burst, and fluid athleticism to do what the Bearcats tight end does here.
The tight end runs through one wrap, weaves inside the safety to catch the defensive back at a bad angle, and corners the defender tight enough to avoid the tackle and get downfield just ahead of the pursuit to gain another 20 yards. He outruns that pursuit before finishing with his pads on defenders.
It’s the burst that’s impressive. Something that’s also evident in a game-winning catch in the Belk Bowl versus Duke with 0:56 in the game. This play is a first-and-10 pass with Kelce as the middle receiver on the trips side of a 1x3 receiver, 10-personnel pistol formation at the Cincinnati 17.
I’m sure you’ll see this one on ESPN and the NFL Network when he’s drafted no later than the third round. While the play is an equal result of two Duke defensive backs misdiagnosing the angle on Kelce on this simple seam route, the fact that Kelce makes them pay is impressive.
The Clemson wide receiver lacks the top end speed and agility of either Tavon Austin or Cordarrelle Patterson, but his game is more NFL-ready. Hopkins thrives against tight coverage and contact, and one of the reasons is his precision as a route runner on timing routes. Austin and Patterson both work off crosses, slants, posts, and screens.
Patterson’s size also earns him opportunities on fades -– a route Hopkins executes as well as anyone in this class -– but it’s refined footwork and ability to set up a defender on a series of routes that makes Hopkins a prospect with the potential to continue to thrive even as his physical skills slowly decline.
Hopkins faces cornerback David Amerson on both routes. Amerson is best at off-man coverage and this is how he plays Hopkins on the single side of a 1x3 receiver 10-personnel pistol with 2:45 in the half.
Hopkins sinks the hips and makes a sharp turn, working inside-out and using his hands to make an adept check of the defender at the top of his stem in the process. Some call this a push-off, but it’s not so much a push as an emphasis of owning his space. There’s no force in the contact -- just the illusion of such. The replay shows that Hopkins finishes the break with a nice cushion on Amerson and then makes the catch with his hands.
This play sets up the next, which is a double-move with a false break inside leading to a go route.
I love how Hopkins disguises the route. He comes off the line of scrimmage with his pads over his knees, driving off his mark for the first six yards and then sinking his hips and throwing his outside leg well ahead of his body as if he’s going to plant and break hard on a hook.
This looks like textbook break and it baits Amerson into sinking his hips and breaking down to attack the short route. Additionally, look at the drumming of the arms just enough to sell the break just a bit more. As the corner reacts to this move, Hopkins is already working outside.
By the time the ball arrives 30 yards past that initial move, Hopkins has three yards on Amerson, makes the catch in stride, and scores easily. I think Austin and Patterson have upside –- especially in offenses that will work hard to mold the scheme to them. But if you ask me, Hopkins can play in any scheme.
Bryce Brown’s brother is a redshirt senior who went to Miami, didn’t fit in there, and returned to his home state to enroll at Kansas State. If you recall, Bryce was a stud in the making at Tennessee, didn’t like it there, and opted to join his brother when everything unraveled.
Arthur isn’t likely to see his draft stock dip past the second round. The 6-foot-0 linebacker is on the short side, but I’m a fan of his balance and skill after contact. This opening play against West Virgnia with 11:25 in the first quarter is a good example.
Brown is the middle linebacker working inside as the left tackle delivers a well-timed cut block that is high enough at the hips and knees to knock most defenders to the ground. Brown plants his hand in the ground, maintains his balance, and pops up. Then he finishes the play with a downhill burst, closes on the running back, and drops the Mountaineers back for a loss of three on the play. Watch this a few times to appreciate the balance, burst, and his form tackle on the finish.
I also like his ability to take on a fullback and make the tackle on a runner on this third-and-1 with 9:50 in the first quarter.
Watch the replay. Brown is quick to get the angle with his outside shoulder away from the contact, makes a low approach to hit and drive the fullback into the backfield, and sheds the collision to wrap the ball carrier for another loss. His ability to diagnose plays, achieve good leverage, and explode makes him a prospect that plays big despite his shorter stature.
There may be more flash at the top of draft boards at tight end, wide receiver, and linebacker, but Kelce, Hopkins, and Brown are versatile, athletic, technically sound, and physical players who thrive against contact. If I were building a team, they’re the kind of prospects I’d take with no reservation.
Matt Waldman authors the Rookie Scouting Portfolio, an online publication devoted to play-by-play analysis of offensive skill position prospects. Now in its eighth year of publication, the RSP provides pre- and post-draft rankings, analysis, and stylistic comparisons. Waldman also includes all of his play-by-play notes, grading reports, and a glossary that defines and explains his grading criteria. The RSP is available for download every April 1 and 10 percent of each sale is donated to Darkness to Light, a non-profit devoted to preventing sexual abuse in communities across the country.
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