By Matt Waldman
Sleeper. It might be my favorite word. If by some infinitesimal chance -- or twisted act of fate -- I somehow wind up on stage at Pace University’s New York City Campus and I'm sitting across the table from James Lipton, 'Sleeper' would be my answer.
I love the word and all the relatives in its family. There’s its feisty little brother Underrated, its sneaky-smart cousin Undervalued, and its quiet, workaholic uncle Unsung. This clan of words describes my favorite prospects -– guys lacking marquee names, but flashing marquee games.
"Sleeper" is a relative term in sports. It’s all about expectation. A sleeper to a fan might be Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith -- a prospect expected to make a roster, but not universally expected to become a star. Arian Foster might be the classical definition of sleeper –- an undrafted prospect that wound up becoming a Pro Bowler. However, a sleeper can also be a player who simply makes a roster, displaces a more-heralded veteran and contributes part-time, or a player drafted higher, starting earlier, and succeeding faster than most analysts thought.
Some of my favorite sleepers last year who matched various ways of defining the term were Russell Wilson, Bryce Brown, Marvin Jones, LaVon Brazill, and Bobby Rainey. I already have a healthy list of sleepers for 2013. One of them is Northern Illinois wide receiver Martel Moore.
Last week’s Futures subject, Marquess Wilson, could get drafted in the late rounds because, among other distinguishing characteristics, he played in a program with the conference pedigree to earn early hype. Moore isn't likely to earn a phone call from an NFL team until the latter half of the April proceedings because he isn't a big-time physical specimen. Despite sporting a recent track record of professionals like Michael Turner, Justin McCareins, Sam Hurd, and Garrett Wolfe, NIU isn't a big-name program. Although the 6-foot-0, 183-pound Moore has an average-sized frame, he has the potential to develop into a big-play threat along the lines of other average-sized-but-extraordinary-skilled receivers like Isaac Bruce, Torry Holt, Tim Brown, Derrick Mason, and Brandon Lloyd.
What these players have in common is a keen awareness and control of their bodies in relationship to their on-field environment. Some might define this as an aspect of "on-field awareness" or "football intelligence." It also qualifies to some degree as uncanny athleticism.
To define this awareness further, Moore exhibits skills that are difficult to teach a receiver at a stage of development as advanced as college football: catching the football with a wide radius from one’s body and accurately tracking its arrival from a difficult angle, all while gauging the position and distance of an opponent or boundary. This caliber of skill is really an integration of several individual traits like balance, timing, athleticism, and hand-eye coordination. Several prospects are lauded every year for possessing one or more of these individual traits, but they often cannot put them together on the football field when it counts.
Perhaps the best way to describe what I’m talking about is to say that Moore often exhibits an integrated skill set. This week’s column is devoted to plays where Moore’s integrated skill set shows up. When I watch him play, I often wonder if Moore might have been regarded along the lines of a prospect like Kendall Wright if Moore caught passes from Robert Griffin instead of Chandler Harnish and Jordan Lynch. I don’t have a definitive answer for that musing, but the fact that it crosses my mind should tell you that Moore is a prospect worth monitoring next spring and summer regardless of his draft status.
Eye Tracking and Spatial Awareness Integrated with Body Control
One of Moore’s better games at NIU was a 153-yard, two-touchdown performance where he caught 7-of-8 targets against Toledo in the 2012 MAC Conference Championship. Moore’s first touchdown came on second-and-goal from the Toledo 5 with 6:37 in the half. NIU employed 22 personnel with both tight ends to the right side of the formation.
Moore is the single receiver split outside and at the opposite hash. The corner in coverage plays off-man and the route is a corner fade. Moore does a fantastic job of tracking the ball, employing a set of skills that Larry Fitzgerald routinely practices before games. The drill involves a trainer standing behind Fitzgerald and tossing the football so the Cardinals receiver has to locate and capture it despite having a limited sight-line and little time to track the ball.
Note that the cornerback’s position is inside Moore when the receiver releases from the line of scrimmage. I can’t be sure why he opted to protect the slant when there appeared to be help inside. However, what I like about Moore’s route is how he uses his head to hold the cornerback inside so his break to the outside remains unfettered.
Moore checks the defender with his inside arm and turns his head inside to track the ball. This cues a reaction from the defender to believe he’s in position to make a play on the ball. However, Moore’s quarterback throws a perfect corner fade to the receiver’s outside shoulder. The wideout demonstrates the coordination to maintain this tight position with the defender, track the ball with his head, and successfully bait the corner long enough to turn late in the route and generate excellent separation.
Moore also manages to get three steps in bounds as the defender makes his wrap and an unsuccessful attempt to pry the ball loose. This play isn't an isolated occurrence from Moore. Here is a video clip of Moore making the same play against an Iowa cornerback. This is also the same type of play I've written about last year when watching Jones, Lloyd, Lance Lewis, and Juron Criner.
Balance, Acceleration, and Awareness of the Rules
Moore’s next catch in this conference championship match-up is a smash screen that he turns into a 73-yard touchdown on the first offensive play of the second half. NIU approaches the line in a 2x3 empty set. Moore is the outside receiver on the twin side.
From the look of this play’s development at the beginning, it appears Toledo will contain this reception to a minimal gain, if not a loss. The linebacker is in great position to make a direct hit on Moore, the cornerback in the right flat has inside position on the wide receiver trying to seal the sideline, and there’s enough backside pursuit that Moore will have difficulty cutting against the grain to earn additional yards.
None of these good angles turn into a tackle for Toledo’s defense. Moore catches the football and makes a sharp dip behind the oncoming linebacker. The change of direction is dramatic enough that the linebacker only manages to lay a hand on Moore’s heal.
This is where the play takes a fascinating turn. Moore loses his balance during an elusive maneuver and is forced to plant his free hand on the ground. This is your garden-variety good effort. However, just as Moore finishes his recovery, he runs into the backside pursuit.
The Toledo lineman forces Moore once again to plant his free hand on the turf, but now the receiver has to adjust by planting his ball-carrying hand on the turf to maintain his balance. Here is the sequence of events below.
While I wouldn't recommend a receiver use his ball-carrying hand to brace himself this way, the fact that Moore demonstrates the balance to stay upright after changing direction and running through two wraps is pretty special. Most importantly, Moore shows the awareness not to use the back of his hand rather than his forearm, so the official doesn't blow the play dead. The strength of his hand to maintain possession of the football while executing this maneuver is impressive.
Moore manages to regain his balance, run through a third defender’s wrap, and accelerate untouched through the flat for his second touchdown of the night.
There are several more examples in this game where Moore demonstrates integrated skill sets, including a third-and-6 reception for a nine-yard gain with 4:45 left in the contest where he sets up the corner with a jab-step inside to release outside, then breaks on a back-shoulder fade while checking the defender with his inside arm. Moore makes the catch a yard past the first-down marker and turns up field for a few more. The coordination, story-telling of the route, and speed of the cut were all impressive.
If Moore receives an invitation to one of the college all-star games and performs up to my expectations, I think he can earn a trip to Indianapolis for the Combine. Perhaps he can work his way into the second day of the draft. The current speculation is that Moore runs a 40-yard dash in the range of 4.45-to-4.55 seconds. This is a similar range to what Marvin Jones ran last year. Jones surprised many scouts and draft analysts unfamiliar with the Cal receiver's game; I think Moore has a shot to do the same.