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.
26 Mar 2014
by Matt Waldman
The depth of the wide receiver class is one of the headlines of the 2014 NFL Draft. The subtext of this storyline that deserves more attention is how the volume of talent at the position generates a massive variation of player grades from team to team across the league.
According to a scout that has worked for a few teams during his career, variation at the position is common. The contributing factors go beyond the fundamental differences with how individuals within these organizations see talent.
Fit within the offensive scheme is the most obvious differentiating factor. One organization may use a slot receiver as a primary weapon -- an extension of the running game, a movable mismatch, or an every-down zone beater. Another team has specific schemes where it needs a slot receiver on the field. Then there’s the offense that uses a tight end or running back in that role.
In light of these differences, a talented 5-foot-9, 192-pound prospect will have a second-round grade for the first team and a fourth-round grade for the second, while the final team may consider the player an undrafted free agent. Expect a lot of hand-wringing and fist-shaking from fans and writers on draft day when receivers they value are passed over for receivers they don’t.
A receiver I suspect has a wide range of draft grades this year is Wake Forest’s Michael Campanaro. In eight games last year, the Demon Deacons’ receiver accounted for 41 percent of the passing game’s completions, 46 percent of its passing yards, and 55 percent of its touchdowns. His combine performance was as impressive as any receiver:
But at 5-foot-9, 192 pounds, Campanaro has been a slot receiver at Wake Forest, and it’s a label he’ll likely take with him to the NFL. Deservedly so, as Campanaro is the best receiver in this class at getting open against zone coverage.
Good route running versus zone isn’t a given. Look at Eddie Royal. The Chargers receiver made a splash beating single coverage as a rookie with the Broncos. However, once Denver integrated Royal into situations where the young receiver faced zone coverage, Royal struggled mightily.
Route running versus single coverage requires a more active-aggressive mentality. Receivers dictate the action and force defenders to react to their movement. Pass patterns against zone are more reactive to the structure of the coverage and the depth of the drops -- often reading multiple defenders. This is a simplistic explanation, but Campanaro’s work against N.C. State is a good illustration that there are subtleties to zone routes.
This first-quarter route from a 3x2 empty shotgun set is a good example of where some of the same concepts of route running for man coverage also matter for zone. Campanaro is the receiver in the left slot of the formation.
The linebacker five yards off the line of scrimmage is guarding the inside with his alignment. Campanaro’s job is no different than if this were single coverage: Force the linebacker to turn his hips opposite the direction of the break.
The first thing Campanaro does well is execute a release with a fast pace into his stem. Pacing is one of the most important facets of a good route, because a receiver has to sell the idea that the defender has to act fast or get left behind on a deeper route.
Campanaro’s stem forces the defender to backpedal. At the top of the stem, Campanaro executes a hard jab step with his outside foot and this opens the hips of the linebacker toward the sideline for the briefest moment.
This is all Campanaro needs to break inside, catch the cross in stride, and turn up the middle for another 17 yards on a 22-yard play. The speed of Campanaro’s burst and change of direction on this play is something that will translate to the NFL.
The following play features another crossing route from a 2x3 empty shotgun set, but this time Campanaro is slot right and he used a completely different method to get open on a crossing route.
The linebacker is four yards off Campanaro and shaded inside. Instead of attempting a jab step outside and breaking inside, Campanaro mixes it up by running what at first appears to be a stop route.
The quick turn to the quarterback and slight pause before a burst inside on the cross forces the linebacker to open his hips outside and break on the stop route as Campanaro begins his break on the cross. The separation Campanaro gets with this double-move is fantastic and he earns another 10 on the play for a gain of 12. As you can see, double moves aren’t only for single coverage.
Here’s one of the better routes you’ll see where the receiver doesn’t earn the target, but gets open against two zone defenders with a pattern that is essentially a "triple move," on this red zone play at the N.C. State 11 in the third quarter.
Campanaro is the inside trips man near the right hash and three yards behind the line of scrimmage. The outside linebacker and safety are split six yards deep and book-ending the hash.
Campanaro makes the first part of the route look like a button hook between the two defenders. His burst off the line forces both defenders to drop and it gives Campanaro a cushion to work with.
He then turns up field as if he’s running a hook-and-go between the defenders to the end zone. However, he’s actually running another route that breaks inside.
It’s no accident that Campanaro targeted the area between the two zone defenders.
He wants to force both men to react on the play. Pressure in the pocket gets to quarterback Tanner Price and Campanaro isn’t targeted on the play, but it doesn’t take away from how well-crafted the route is.
This triple move sets up a route later in the quarter from a 2x2 receiver, 10-personnel shotgun set. Campanaro is slot left, the outside linebacker is three yards over top to the inside, and the defensive back also has inside shade 12 yards off the line of scrimmage. This time Campanaro sells the shallow cross during his stem, baits the outside linebacker, and then drifts behind this shallow defender to break on a deeper cross at the 35 for an 11-yard gain. This is now four different ways Campanaro has sold a crossing route against zone coverage in one game.
Instead of pressuring the two defenders to react in the same direction, Campanaro has widened the zone by forcing the linebacker to step up and the safety to see this potential shallow zone and maintain his depth.
When a receiver has this many ways to get open with one route, it’s far more difficult to anticipate a double move on any route that begins in the shallow zone.
This touchdown on third-and-goal from the N.C. State 10 with 0:11 in the half from a 2x2 empty shotgun is a route that my dad taught me in the backyard when I was three-years-old. It's simple, but the execution is elegant.
Campanaro is slot left facing the outside linebacker five yards off the line of scrimmage and shading inside. The N.C. State safety is over the top at seven yards. Once again, it’s all about the fast pace of the stem that contrasts the first move -- the stop route.
The change of fast movement to a sudden stop will force all but the very best to react. The stem is run between the defenders, forcing both to react as Campanaro sells the stop route just long enough to draw the defenders from their spots. This opens the middle of the end zone for the post and an easy catch over the shoulder for the score.
This receiver class that is not only jam-packed with talent, but loaded with potential slot wideouts. That might deflate Campanaro’s draft value. However, I don’t see many college receivers demonstrate this type of craftiness with zone coverage that also possess his athleticism.
Campanaro is one of the least-mentioned receivers in this draft. If paired with a team that wants the slot receiver as a primary weapon, Campanaro could be a bargain as one of the most surprising early producers in this talented group.
Matt Waldman authors the Rookie Scouting Portfolio. Pre-order the RSP now for it's publication on April 1. If you’re a fantasy owner the 56-page Post-Draft Add-on comes with the 2012 – 2014 RSPs at no additional charge and available for download within a week after the NFL Draft. Best of all, 10 percent of every sale is donated to Darkness to Light to combat sexual abuse. You can purchase past editions of the Rookie Scouting Portfolio (2006-2013) for just $9.95 apiece.
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