Juron Criner is used to doing this. (Getty Images)
Now that the 2012 NFL draft is in the can, it's time to take the Shutdown 50 scouting format forward and get a closer look at some of the surprising and fascinating selections from this year's draft -- the guys we missed in the original 50, but who could be impact players now or down the road. Our next entry: Arizona receiver Juron Criner, selected by the Oakland Raiders with the 33rd pick in the fifth round (168th overall).
Overview: While most of the talk about Pac-12 passing attacks in 2011 focused on the offenses led by Andrew Luck and Matt Barkley, the Arizona passing game has been one of the more productive in the nation in recent seasons -- and receiver Juron Criner may be the primary reason for that. If you're in the group who believes that former Arizona and current Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Nick Foles hurt that aerial attack as much as he helped it with his inaccuracy and questionable decision-making, Criner stands out in sharper relief. After catching seven passes for 88 yards and a touchdown as a true freshman, Criner moved up to 45/582/9 in 2009, and made a name for himself in 2010, when he caught 82 passes for 1,233 yards and 11 touchdowns. He repeated that touchdown figure last year, and the rest of the numbers almost matched up (75 for 926).
Criner further set himself on the radar with an exciting week at the Senior Bowl. From our own Mike Tanier's report:
Criner has probably helped his stock more than any other player during Senior Bowl practices this week ... [He] does not have breakaway speed, but he appears to have the rest of the package.
"I'm very agile for a man my size," Criner said after Thursday's practice. That agility was evident earlier in the week, when he made smooth cuts and adjusted to poorly thrown balls in live practices. Criner has also been demonstrating good hands and pass-catching technique, and he looks more fluid and comfortable running routes than some of the other big receivers on the South squad.
Janoris Jenkins (CB, North Alabama), the likely first-round pick who transferred from Florida because of personal issues, singled Criner out as the hardest South receiver to cover this week during his Thursday press conference. "He's kinda got ball skills," Jenkins said. "If you hit his hand, he'll catch it. And he's tall."
So, there's that. When he's thrown to by good quarterbacks, Juron Criner tends to make plays. And even when he's thrown to by quarterbacks who couldn't hit water if they fell out of a boat, he's going to do some interesting things. Now a proud member of the Oakland Raiders, Criner has a shot at doing what Tennessee wideout Denarius Moore did in 2011 -- come out of nowhere as a late-round pick and impress the NFL. Moore went off the hook in a relative sense in his rookie campaign, catching 33 passes for 618 yards and five touchdowns. Could Criner be the next guy on the Raiders' late-draft boards to flash that same kind of long-term potential?
Strengths: Shows an impressive burst for an alleged "possession receiver" -- Criner gets up to speed quickly off the line and in end-arounds. Fires upfield with an impressive second gear. Good catch radius and fine hands in space -- Criner often contorted his body to make catches when Foles was throwing with questionable accuracy. Will adjust his body to catch deep balls without losing too much speed after he's already beaten the corner or safety down the seam.
Made a lot of catches despite the fact that Foles was clearly targeting him as the first read, which allowed opponents to time their jumps on the ball. Will fight to get through contact before he's wrapped up and occasionally gets free to make a big play. Senior Bowl performances showed what he could do when targeted by quarterbacks with a clue, as has his brief performances in Raiders minicamp. Frequently listed as a possession receiver, but he's got more downfield speed than the title might imply.
Weaknesses: Tends to lose control of the ball when contact is coming -- doesn't have alligator arms, per se, but has trouble bringing the ball in and securing it when a defender is bearing down on him. Will lose the ball too often upon contact, leading to fumbles and incompletions. Not an especially physical player when fighting for balls with defenders in short spaces.
Yards after catch player against zone defenses, but you'd like to see him bounce off and make extra gains after first contact more often than he does. Didn't face a lot of press coverage in Arizona's spread offenses and will have to learn to adjust to being re-directed. Benefited from off-coverage far more than he will in the NFL; many of Criner's plays came from bubble screens or comebacks with coverage 2-5 yards away.
Conclusion: Criner reminds me of a few receivers who made their bones in the mid-2000s against the Cover-2 and Tampa-2 defenses that were all the rage back then. Keenan McCardell, Torry Holt and Derrick Mason are a few who come to mind in that general sense. While Criner has a long way to go when it comes to facing up to the more physical demands placed on all receivers by the NFL's increasing use of man and press-man coverage, he's also probably getting debited at times for things that weren't his fault.
And in that sense, he's very much like a group of receivers in the 2012 draft class -- LSU's Rueben Randle and Georgia Tech's Stephen Hill are two others -- whose tape is tougher to evaluate for various quarterback/scheme reasons. In the right kind of offense, and with a quarterback who will throw him open once in a while, Criner could be one of this draft's more compelling breakout performers.
NFL Comparison: Bernard Berrian, Fresno State/Chicago Bears/Minnesota Vikings (2006-2009)
Beyond the Shutdown 50:
Bruce Irvin, OLB/DE, Seattle Seahawks | Brock Osweiler, QB, Denver Broncos | Kevin Zeitler, OG, Cincinnati Bengals | Brandon Weeden, QB, Cleveland Browns | Gino Gradkowski, C/G. Baltimore Ravens
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