By Matt Waldman
The 2014 class of rookie receivers has taken the NFL by storm. Mike Evans, Odell Beckham, Sammy Watkins, Jarvis Landry, Jordan Matthews, John Brown, Martavis Bryant, Allen Hurns, Allen Robinson, and Donte Moncrief have all at least flashed their potential, if not become reliable weapons from the jump. The past two classes have been stocked with talent, and a popular narrative making its rounds among colleagues is that the work of the 2014 rookie class is a sign of things to come for the future of college receiver prospects.
It's obvious that the NFL has incorporated several college offensive concepts in recent years. The willingness of certain teams to simplify some of its passing game concepts encourages a faster transition for young wide receivers.
However, I'm not buying the inference that the future crops of rookie wideouts will perform anywhere close to the 2014 class because of the gradual changes in both college and pro football. The emerging narrative suggests that scheme is making it easier for receivers to contribute immediately, and it's an unintentional swipe at the excellence of the 2014 class.
Yes, the paring down of passing game intricacies helps the likes of Jordan Matthews and Jarvis Landry, two big slot receivers who draw enough coverage from linebackers and safeties that their production isn't nearly as dependent on beating cornerbacks on refined routes as some of their counterparts, but the Dolphins and Eagles one of only a handful of teams that are adopting these concepts. It's easy to say, "The talent is there ... but he's got to round off his game, he's got to become more complete, he's got to understand the intricacies of playing the receiver position. It's not just running down the field and then making a play. There's a lot more to it."
Mel Kiper said this yesterday on this week's pre-draft conference call to the media about Auburn junior D'haquille Williams, and I could not say it any better in a succinct sound bite. At the same time, writer Brandon Marcello of Al.com paraphrased a Kiper statement that Williams "has the 'ability' to [refine his route running] quickly like Mike Evans and Kelvin Benjamin did out of the draft last year."
Evans is 6-foot-4, 230 pounds and Benjamin is 6-foot-5, 240 pounds. Williams might be 6-foot-2, 216 pounds. With the exception of smaller options with great vertical skills as speedsters and leapers, the difference of 2 to 3 inches and 15 to 25 pounds shows up dramatically in the ways that NFL teams use receivers.
Evans and Benjamin have shown some improvement with the way they set up defenders after the break and play the ball in the air, but they were already building on strengths more than shoring up weaknesses. The size of both receivers affords the Buccaneers and Panthers the luxury to use them in high-impact situations that aren't much different than their college offenses. However, Evans and (especially) Benjamin still display a lack of route refinement on targets that, if they improve, will make them the weapons everyone expects them to become in a season or two. It has been well-documented that Benjamin hasn't finished his breaks on targets, which has resulted in interceptions.
Williams is closer to Michael Crabtree in size and athleticism than Benjamin and Evans. It also doesn't take many plays to see some of the major strengths and weaknesses of his game at this stage of his development.
The Boiler Room is a series at my blog designed to display a minimum number of plays to share something vital about a prospect's game. Imagine if you were a scout or scouting director asked to compile highlights during a pre-draft meeting with a general manager, owner, and coach of an NFL team, and they only wanted to see key plays that support your overall report. This week, I'm taking this approach with Williams. Williams might get paired with an offense that can maximize his strengths and minimize his weaknesses early, or he might polish his route running immediately. I believe, however, that Williams' game is an example of the non-stop wishful thinking that we're seeing embedded in the narrative that college receivers will take the NFL by storm as rookies from here on out.
Route ABCs: Stems, Breaks, and Handiwork
Williams' first target of the Arkansas game captures a habit that needs immediate correction if he wants to get open against man coverage as a professional. The receiver is slot right at the hash facing nickel coverage. The defender assigned to Williams in the slot creeps to 8 yards depth as the play begins, closing the gap on the receiver's release upfield. However, this change in depth shouldn't have derailed the receiver's work to get open on this in-breaking route.
Williams gets jammed at the break point 5 yards from the line of scrimmage because he tips off his break at the top of his stem. Slow the video to half-speed (you can do this by clicking the third icon from the right that looks like a wheel to adjust the speed) and note the change in Williams' stride after the fourth step of the route. Hoping to freeze or bait the defensive back into a false step in the wrong direction, the receiver stutters his steps and drums his arms. There are instances where this is a sound route technique, but I find it works better against tight man coverage. When the defender is playing off the receiver, he has a full view of the receiver's body, and an exaggerated fake at the top of a stem tips off the break point more often than it creates an illusion of acceleration or a different change of direction.
Williams relies too much on the stutter at the top of his stems on these routes, and it becomes easy for a defender to remain patient, maintain his position, and force the receiver to work through contact. However, Williams doesn't anticipate contact because he doesn't show any technique to address it with his hands.
When the receiver collides with the defender, his pads not only come up, but he also leans backwards. This is the reaction of a receiver not anticipating the position of his opponent. Williams could have used a rip move to break past the defender's inside arm, or he could have issued a harder fake to the outside at the end of his stutter steps, punching the defender with his inside arm, and swimming over top with the outside arm.
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A more ideal execution of this route for Williams would have been to avoid the stutter, maintain the speed of his release until he was a foot from the defender's body, drop his hips as if he was sitting in a chair, and make one hard plant step to halt his momentum. Once Williams breaks inside with this technique, which is guaranteed to create a sharper and more sudden change of direction, he would still have space to chop any lingering contact with his outside arm.
Instead, the defender stones Williams' break. Although the quarterback moves to his second read well before Williams' break, this play highlights a bad habit that impacts the outcome of plays, and will do so in the NFL.
Kiper says that smaller corners will have trouble with Williams' game, but that won't be true until the future rookie can demonstrate basic techniques that will force these smaller defenders to abandon a patient approach of off coverage. Williams can learn enough of these techniques between now and September to become a more effective receiver, but it's a process of acquiring more fundamentals, not refining skills he has yet to show.
Every position in football has its manifestation of Hero Syndrome, a common disorder with young prospects. You can't blame them, really. Imagine being the top one percent of athletes in high school football. That player has experienced two or three years of success based on his speed, agility, and strength during his formative stages of football development. It's tricky for a football player to know his limits when he's asked day after day for years on end to push through barriers -- especially when teams lean on him to make plays when nothing else is working.
There is a subtle adjustment factor that many players experience over the course of a college and pro career when it comes to learning when to accept the limitations of a play and when to use his athleticism to push past them.
Hero Syndrome baits quarterbacks into thinking that their arms are strong enough to make off-balanced throws into tight windows from difficult trajectories and distances. It seduces defensive ends into abandoning their gap responsibility with the hopes of blowing up a play before it begins despite the risk of opening an entire third of open field for a ball carrier to exploit. And it lures ball carriers like flies to horse manure. At one time or another they all think they are quick enough to execute cutbacks across the line of scrimmage or a hemmed-in open field, transforming a 1-yard gain into a 60-yard touchdown.
The very best NFL players do it. They're the stars that every team wants to use as a template for the position, but with the exception of a few dozen players at each position in the history of the game, there are few capable of making NFL opponents look like the high school team from the neighboring county.
Williams is a fine athlete. He generates excitement about his potential because he has a wide catch radius.
Throw the ball high, low, or away from his frame, and he can fully extend for the football. Surround him with defenders in the open field, and Williams often finds a way to make half of them miss for extra yards.
It's similar to the excitement many had with USC's Marqise Lee. The Jaguars' receiver has the talent to develop into a fine NFL option, but he's one of the players not listed at the beginning of this article because of two issues that were apparent on his college tape: he had consistent difficulty making catches in tight coverage where contact was imminent on intermediate and vertical routes, and he had a major case of Hero Syndrome in the open field.
Williams shares this flaw as a ball carrier. Here's an impressive display of unharnessed athleticism from the Auburn star which Brent Musburger pegs as a case of Hero Syndrome, noting, "It might work in a J-C [Junior College] game, but not in the SEC."
The pivotal point where Williams errs as a runner comes immediately after the defender knocks Williams away from the first down marker. Freeze that video at 2:58; this is the point when Williams should have accelerated to the sideline and taken what he could have gotten on a second-and-6.
But Williams, a JUCO star playing his first season of SEC ball, leans too heavily on his upper-echelon quickness and power to the detriment of the team. A good guideline for developing mature decision-making as an athlete taught to push the envelope is to remain aware at all times of down and distance, score of the game, and time left in the game, and always make decisions based on those three factors. It sounds elementary, but players at all levels of football make bad decisions every weekend.
Despite the glaring lack of judgment, it's a fun play to watch -- even as an Auburn fan (if capable of momentary detachment from the context of the play to admire the athleticism). It's clear that Williams has a terrific feel for sliding from contact in tight quarters and the flexibility to sidestep, bend, cut, and spin from oncoming hits. This was simply not the situation to create, and he compounded the error to the point that he might have netted 1 yard when he at least had an easy 5, if not the first down with a wiser course.
Another concern is Williams' ball security. He waves the rock around like it's a blunt weapon for smiting his adversaries. Even on runs where he gains separation, Williams carries the ball with a piston-like motion like it's a track baton. Combine his desire to never say die with his lapses of ball security, and Williams could have some rough welcomes to the NFL if his bad habits are not corrected soon.
Kiper told the conference call audience that Williams could earn a "late-first to early-to-mid-second round" grade if he runs well. The play above displays enough burst to separate from a safety with an angle, but not the next gear to maintain that distance on a trailing cornerback during this 50-yard gain after the catch. The corner makes up nearly 3 yards of separation within a 25-yard span after initially falling behind by 3 during the first 25.
The fact that Williams often earns time in the slot is another indicator that he's quick and maybe even has good speed, but he's not a classic burner with all-around freakish athleticism by NFL standards. If he could run refined routes against man coverage and make better decisions with the ball in his hands where security is a must, I'd have no questions about him earning a first- or second-round grade.
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As it stands, Williams has the potential to develop into an NFL player worthy of that standing in hindsight. If he declares for the 2015 NFL draft, I'm not convinced he's worthy of more than a mid-second round grade unless the team picking the junior intends to use him as an active slot receiver like Matthews or Landry -- two receivers performing at an impressive level, but on the lower end of the great crop of 2014.
The idea of eight to 12 rookie wideouts performing on par with the 2014 class every year seems Pollyannaish, especially if Williams is considered among the best of this group. Cut that expectation in half and I'll credit you for reasonable optimism.
I'm more inclined to classify Williams as a receiver within the stylistic spectrum of Michael Crabtree: big enough to get physical, agile enough to make defenders miss, and good enough mitts to make excellent adjustments on the ball. Crabtree was a much better route technician than Williams, and he's more of an aspirational comparison. Hopefully, teams won't mistake Williams' game as a direct comparison.
Matt Waldman authors the Rookie Scouting Portfolio. available for download now. The guide covers 164 prospects at the offensive skill positions (QB, RB, WR, and TE). 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.