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.
05 Feb 2014
by Matt Waldman
On most Saturdays where he treads his feet, Oregon State junior Brandin Cooks is the most dangerous athlete on any college football field. The 2013 Biletnikoff Award winner has earned comparisons to a slightly bigger, slightly slower, Tavon Austin. His playmaking ability even has some comparing Cooks to Steve Smith.
I recognize that Cooks is a marquee name who possesses the big-play potential and the athleticism to develop into a mainstay with an NFL offense. Yet that’s not as much of a foregone conclusion as many want to think.
Cooks may be a headliner, but there was a game this year where Cooks was upstaged in such resounding fashion that the receiver looked like a pedestrian player by comparison. The player who stole the spotlight from Cooks was Oregon cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu.
Like Cooks, Ekpre-Olomu is a junior. The Oregon cornerback is also considered one of the top prospects at his position.
Unlike Cooks, Ekpre-Olomu is widely regarded as one of the top two or three players at his position. And despite his acclaim, the second-team All-American is returning to school for his senior year to get his degree.
I like to watch players get tested in ways where the right answers are not the numbers in the box score, but the techniques, concepts, and athleticism that show up regardless of the data. One of the most compelling dramas on the field is a wide receiver-cornerback matchup.
Earlier this year, I watched Ohio State cornerback Bradley Roby and couldn’t take my eyes off Wisconsin's Jared Abbrederis, who won their September matchup. It was a similar dynamic with Cooks and Ekpre-Olomu, except this time it was the cornerback’s performance that was far more compelling.
This matchup with Ekpre-Olomu is a good indicator of the challenges Cooks will need to overcome for his game to translate to the NFL. Unless Ekpre-Olomu is a truly special player with a future as one of the top shutdown corners in the NFL, the Oregon corner offers a challenge that will be the norm for a player like Cooks when he sets foot on Sunday grass.
Ekpre-Olomu exposed flaws with Cooks' route skills, tested Cooks' strength in space, and revealed the limits of Cooks' speed. Cooks' best moments came against Oregon’s other corner, Terrance Mitchell. The Ducks' other junior corner is one of the top defenders in his conference, but not in the same league as Olomu. Even the plays Cooks made against Mitchell weren’t all that impressive.
In contrast, it often appeared that Ekpre-Olomu was baiting Cooks when matched in single coverage. Ekpre-Olomu had the confidence that he could match the receiver’s athleticism and stay a step ahead of Cooks.
Ekpre-Olomu was one of the most impressive defenders I’ve seen in college football this year. Today you’re going to see how he made Cooks look ordinary.
Oregon's best defender had 84 tackles this year -– including five for a loss. Those aren’t the kind of numbers you often see from a perimeter defender.
Here are two plays where Ekpre-Olomu gets the best of Cooks because he’s patient. It’s a trait that Wyoming wide receiver Robert Herron listed when he praised Oakland rookie D.J. Hayden, affirming the notion that a patient defender’s game essentially says, "I won’t let you go around me, you’re gonna have to through me."
The first play is a stop route. Cooks expects Ekpre-Olomu to charge hard to the reception point after laying back in the cut.
Instead, the corner continues to hang back and allow Cooks to declare his intentions. Once Cooks does, Ekpre-Olomu wraps high and throws the receiver to the ground, limiting the gain.
It’s a first down for Cooks, but a common theme in this game is the limited amount of yards after the catch that the receiver earns –- especially against Ekpre-Olomu.
Here is a jet sweep to the left side where Ekpre-Olomu limits the play to a one-yard gain.
Once again, the corner’s position remains patient and once he diagnoses the angle he gets downhill, finishing the play with his initial contact.
This fourth-and-2 red zone pass from the 15 with 11:11 in the half is another good example of Ekpre-Olumu demonstrating the patience to keep Cooks in front of him. Although the receiver earns a first down, the receiver has to push off to earn separation.
The Oregon corner dictates the contact early in the route and maintains the position to force Cooks to push off. Once again, Cooks has little room to operate after the catch. Force an offense to settle for these types of plays series after series and it will look a lot like this year’s Super Bowl.
This two-point conversion attempt with 1:38 in the game is a good example of patience by a corner. Cooks is the single receiver outside the right hash and Ekpre-Olumu is playing inside position five yards off the line of scrimmage after Cooks' pre-snap motion.
Note the discipline of the corner not to keep his feet and hips still until he sees the break outside. He’s anticipating the break and turns at the same time as the receiver’s change of direction. Ekpre-Olumu undercuts the target and almost intercepts it at the goal line.
A player like Cooks, whose size is conducive to playing the slot, will have to demonstrate skill at diagnosing and beating zones. The difference between winning against man and zone coverage for a receiver is about acting (man) and reacting (zone).
At the same time, the receiver must possess some anticipation of the drop depth multiple opponents will be making before the ball is snapped, or he could cut into the path of a defender rather than fly through open space. This third-and-6 pass with 10:52 in the first quarter sees Cooks in the right flat in a 12-personnel shotgun set.
The Oregon State receiver is the outside twin receiver just inside the numbers of the flat. Ekpre-Olomu is over the slot man with four yards cushion. At this point, it’s one safety deep, which often indicates man coverage.
However, note the drop of the second safety just before the snap. In the NFL, Cooks will have to know all the contingencies and execute them at moment’s notice.
Ekpre-Olomu drops to the perfect spot to disrupt Cooks' route, meeting the receiver at the break point with his pads square and feet downhill. Cooks' speed break takes on a collision course with the defender.
When the quarterback checks down to the tight end, Ekpre-Olomu is already in position to work downhill and inside Cooks to stop the tight end and force a punt. As a tackler, Ekpre-Olomu reminds me of Giants cornerback Terrell Thomas, a second-round pick who has flashed high-end skills before he missed two seasons due to knee injuries.
Some of the biggest plays that we see receivers make at any level of football come in situations when a cornerback believes he has a safety working over top as part of an over-under bracket coverage and the safety fails to take on that responsibility, leaving the corner too shallow and ultimately chasing a receiver on a long reception to the end zone.
This fourth-and-1 with 10:10 in the first quarter isn’t one of them. Cooks is the outside twin man beyond the left hash in a 12-personnel weak side twin set at the Oregon 27. Ekpre-Olumu has outside shade on the receiver three yards off the line of scrimmage.
Cooks runs a post on this play and the Oregon corner gets to be the ball hawk. Neither the quarterback nor the receiver read the late drop of the safety and this allows Ekpre-Olumu to bait the quarterback into thinking Cooks has separation.
When the receiver makes his break, he’s on a collision course with the safety coming from the opposite direction and it allows Ekpre-Olumu to undercut the route and make the interception in the end zone. Once again, the drop comes late, the offensive players fail to make the read and adjustment, and the advantage goes to the defense.
Cooks' failure to recognize the safety’s drop and cut under the defender so he could have free space to attack the ball is something he’ll have to get better at doing. Another recurring theme in this game is that Cooks has difficulty winning against physical play.
Based on his comfort with physical play, Steve Smith plays like a 6-foot-5 receiver. In this game, Cooks looks like he’s 5-foot-9 or 5-foot-10.
Patient cornerbacks force receivers to tip off breaks. When a receiver reveals what he’s about to do, the corner wins. This red zone play on third-and-7 at the 20 of Oregon is a good example.
Ekpre-Olumu plays three yards off the line of scrimmage shading Cooks to the inside. Cooks runs the slant, but he stutters his feet at the top of the stem and tips off the break.
Most receivers won’t get away with this against an NFL-caliber cornerback and Ekpre-Olumu demonstrates he has this kind of athleticism and technique. He trails the receiver and gets a little tug with his back arm while extending his front arm to the path of the ball.
The decisive angle Ekpre-Olumu takes so early in the break is a great indication of how much Cooks tips off this slant. Watch the replay and freeze the frame at the 2:35-mark to see the corner already starting downhill to the inside before the receiver has started his break.
This is more damning of the receiver than the corner. It doesn’t matter how fast Cooks runs at the Combine. If he tips off routes, he’ll play slow.
No team will be drafting Cooks thinking he’ll be a great addition as a downfield run blocker. However, every team will expect Cooks to deliver passable work in this area.
Cooks' favorite method of blocking is to cut defenders. This is understandable when looking at the receiver’s size and quickness. However, this second-and-10 run in the final minutes of the half is one of at least three examples in this game where Cooks illustrates a flawed method of cut blocking.
Cooks initiates the cut attempt with a head-first dive rather than working across the legs above the knee. Cooks' method tips off the attempt because the head often dips into the dive and there’s not as much surface area that the receiver is blocking with his body.
Ekpre-Olumu anticipates the cut, hops over it, and manages to get into the play. This may seem like a minor issue within the overall context of Cooks’ game, but he’s the type of receiver that in theory fits well with spread offenses that like to run screen plays to a variety of receivers. Cooks will have to demonstrate that he can be a more effective blocker.
Although his head-first cut attempts force Ekpre-Olumu away from the path of the ball carrier on two successful plays, neither drops the defender and that’s what a cut block should do.
Cooks runs a deep cross on a flea-flicker with 11:09 in the third quarter against Terrance Mitchell. He’s the single receiver in a 12-personnel set at the Oregon 30. Ekpre-Olumu is on the opposite side of the field.
Watch how Ekpre-Olumu comes off his receiver and works underneath Cooks to make a play on the ball in the end zone.
Cooks has separation on Mitchell after his break, but it’s Ekpre-Olumu who is the aggressor at the end of this play. Watch the replay and you’ll see Ekpre-Olumu frame his position with a hand check of the receiver’s inside forearm.
Just as a receiver can frame his position late in the route with a little hand checking, a defender can do the same and the corner does a fine job of establishing position, flipping his hips outside and making first contact with the ball to foil the touchdown.
Cooks looked better against Terrance Mitchell than he did against Ekpre-Olumu, but he still didn’t look like the Biletnikoff Award winner. Here’s a second-and-10 play from an 11-personnel shotgun set at the 31 of Oregon where Cooks is the outside twin receiver at the right has.
Cooks takes an outside release on the corner and makes a spinning catch on a fade route. The receiver does a good job adjusting to the quarterback’s throw that should have led Cooks and was placed to the outside shoulder rather than thrown behind the target.
Even so, there’s something stiff about the way Cooks moves. He’s a fine athlete in terms of speed and quickness but there’s a rigidity to his movements that leaves me wondering if he’ll possess that extra dose of fluidity to make plays in tight coverage at the NFL level.
One thing is clear from this play, teams have to jam Cooks. When Ekpre-Olumu got his hands on Cooks –- even when playing under in a bracket with the safety -– Cooks struggled to work free.
Late in this route, Cooks pushes off and it was a move that could have been cited for offensive pass interference. The play ends with Mitchell stripping the ball from Cooks, leading to a touchback.
Get physical with Cooks and he struggles more than a first look at his highlights might indicate.
That rigidity of movement also appears as a ball carrier. Cooks' height, quickness, and low center of gravity help him change direction and make defenders in the open field. Unlike Tavon Austin, Cooks has a tendency to use a lot of stutter moves that slow his progress.
Cooks is the single man two yards behind the line of scrimmage on this smash screen with 1:07 left in the half versus Oregon’s 3-3-5 defense with two safeties deep.
Cooks makes the catch a yard behind the line, takes a tight path beyond the defensive end to reach the right hash, and then comes the first stutter and dip. It gets him inside the safety at the hash, but it allows the pursuit to catch up.
Cooks then faces the other safety four yards downfield and executes another stutter and dip inside. He earns eight yards at this point and begins accelerating, but it’s too late. The two stutter moves allow the defensive tackle time to pursue and catch Cooks 12 yards downfield.
In this respect, Cooks reminds me a lot of fellow Oregon State alum Jacquizz Rodgers. The runner has skills, but his style of play is not as dynamic as it appears because Rodgers' choice of moves often slows his pace. I have concerns Cooks will have the same issue against a higher level of competition.
Here’s a play that ends with a pass interference penalty on Mitchell, but it’s a target that I believe Cooks should have caught. This is a slant in tight coverage with 2:32 in the third quarter.
Mitchell comes over the top too early and it disrupts Cooks' attempt. However, review the two replays and its clear Cooks hands reach the ball unimpeded.
Cooks is a hands-catcher of the football, but he often makes these plays with his arms tighter to his body than I want to see from a receiver. Many of his spinning and leaping catches against coverage are pretty highlights, but the coverage is not often glove-tight and he’s not as effective when forced to attack the ball.
Here’s another pass Cooks should have caught, but he doesn’t do well attacking the ball against glove-tight coverage.
Cooks is late getting his hands up and the result is the receiver meeting the ball at the last available window of opportunity to catch the ball -– over his head and slightly behind his helmet. Cooks' hands need to be meeting the ball at the earliest possible point ahead of the helmet.
Cooks had 10 catches for 110 yards in this game. It was a busy day for Cooks, but he was far from a game-changer in this contest. On the other hand, Ekpre-Olumu stole a potential touchdown, broke up a two-point conversion, and forced a turnover on downs with a near-interception of a flea-flicker targeted to Cooks –- who wasn’t even his assignment.
If Ekpre-Olumu’s skills are what one might expect from a quality NFL cornerback, Cooks has a lot of work to do if he wants to earn time beyond returning kicks and playing the slot. Even if Cooks earns slot duty, his skills against zone coverage have to improve before he’ll have a lasting impact on the field.
On the other side of the line, Ekpre-Olumu looks like the player many expected when watching David Amerson at North Carolina State. The Oregon corner is a strong off-man cover corner with better skill as a tackler than Amerson and better diagnostic skills. Moreover, Ekpre-Olumu flashes skill as a press corner.
It’s fascinating that Cooks is leaving early to earn a likely selection as the seventh to tenth receiver off the board, Mitchell is leaving early after earning a late-round grade from the NFL Advisory Committee, and Ekpre-Olumu is staying in school. In this case the best player available of the three -- with a slam-dunk first-round grade -- is sticking around in a year where over 100 juniors have declared.
I hope in this case that patience is as virtuous as it looks.
Matt Waldman authors the Rookie Scouting Portfolio. The 2014 RSP will available April 1 and if you pre-order before February 10, you get a 10 percent discount. Better yet, 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, yet, 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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