At this time of year, leading up to the NFL Draft, everyone wants lists. Who are the top five quarterbacks? The top five running backs? The top five wide receivers? I get asked those questions all the time. They’re difficult to answer, for the simple reason there are far too many variables to categorize individual and distinctive players with the same set of standards and criteria. Part of the equation, as well, is that different teams, based on schemes and utilization, have divergent visions of how best to deploy those players. For instance, how can you possibly compare Matt Barkley and Mike Glennon? If your offense features intermediate and downfield passing as a foundational element, you would not evaluate Barkley very highly. Maybe you have him as a fourth-round pick, if that. Glennon, on the other hand, fits your approach. You might well grade him as a late first, or early second round option.
There’s no question every team in the league puts together a draft board, both overall, without regard to position, and more specifically, by position. But they do that with their particular systems and concepts in mind. Certainly there are players who are scheme transcendent. Andrew Luck immediately comes to mind. Two years ago, at the wide receiver position, A.J. Green and Julio Jones fit that template.
Let’s focus on wide receiver. In my last column, I spoke of what I believe will be the evolving trend in the NFL: multiple receivers, at least three and ideally four or even all five eligibles, capable of aligning anywhere in the formation. As I postulated, it will not be relevant as to the traditional positional designations as long as they are “Jokers”, chess pieces that can be arranged anywhere on the board. I remember watching the Falcons-Redskins game last season, and seeing Roddy White shift from the slot to an offset position in the backfield, next to Matt Ryan in the shotgun. From that backfield alignment, White ran an angle route, a common route almost always run by backs. The conventional defensive matchup is a linebacker playing that route, due to the location of the receiver, and the strong percentage likelihood that it’s a back, not a wide receiver. That’s what the Redskins did with London Fletcher. In this case, it was not a matchup, but a mismatch. 20 yards later, it was "First down, Atlanta."
White simply reinforces the point I made in my previous article, that there are more wide receivers capable of being multi-dimensional “move” players, as long as coaches are not confined and restrained by the more conventional definitions and limits that have persisted for years, and allow themselves to think outside the box. Don’t get wrapped up in the conformist classifications: he’s an “x” receiver, he’s a “z”, he’s a slot. That just reduces the utilization of broader concepts of expansive offense in this age of the pass.
With that as prologue, let’s look at Keenan Allen from California. Allen has excellent size at 6’2” and 206 pounds. He fits the “Joker” profile I described. He has extensive experience both outside and in the slot, and is more than capable of being an effective weapon out of the backfield, given his punt return background and his strong run-after-catch ability. More often than not he looked like a big running back with the ball in his hands. One thing I really liked about Allen was that he had a very compact vertical stem, making every route initially look the same. Corners will always tell you that that presents problems because there is no tell, no indication of what the route might be.
Allen is a fluid route runner with excellent quickness in-and-out of breaks. As I mentioned, he was very efficient with free access off the line of scrimmage, but he also showed the quick feet to defeat press man coverage, with the kind of short space burst and explosiveness that’s needed. He had a wide catching radius, consistently displaying the ability to snatch the ball with his hands, and away from his body. Many might see him more as a short to intermediate receiver, but I evaluated him as a smooth accelerator with deceptive speed, if not timed speed, and the ability to get on top of corners. Watching Allen reminded me of a pretty darn good NFL receiver when he came out of college in 2001 as the 30th overall pick in that draft: Reggie Wayne.
There are three receivers in this draft that have somewhat similar traits, and I liked each one of them on tape: DeAndre Hopkins of Clemson, Kansas State’s Chris Harper and Tennessee Tech’s Da’rick Rogers, who led the SEC in receptions at the University of Tennessee in 2011. All three are big bodies: Harper is the shortest at 6’1¾”, and Hopkins weighs the least at 214 pounds. They each attacked the ball, and they consistently made contested catches with excellent timing, body flexibility and strong hands. They were very competitive with the ball in the air. In that sense, they were reminiscent of Anquan Boldin. By the way, Boldin ran a 4.7 40-yard dash at the Scouting Combine in 2003. That has not seemed to negatively impact his NFL career.
Rogers was the most surprising to me. Not only did I look at his Tennessee Tech tape, but I went back and evaluated his SEC tape the year before, including a fascinating slot matchup with LSU’s Tyrann Mathieu. It was a matchup Rogers dominated with his utilitarian combination of size, strength, aggression, short area quickness, and run-after-catch. The more I studied Rogers, the more I liked him. He played with an edge, demonstrating physicality, toughness and competitiveness. What I kept seeing was deceptive acceleration as a route runner. He did not have top end, or long speed, but he understood how to use his vertical stem to break down, or close the yardage cushion that existed at the snap of the ball between his alignment and the corner. That allowed him to get on top of corners and beat them deep. It’s a subtlety of route running that I saw from Rogers on a consistent basis.
Rogers, Harper and Hopkins raise fascinating questions about the value of wide receivers that would not, based purely on attributes, project as number one receivers, like a Calvin Johnson or an A.J. Green. Again, value is a word that’s freely tossed around this time of year, as if it’s more important when a player is drafted as opposed to what seems to me to be the whole point of the draft, which is to acquire good players who will improve your roster and your team. I would not have a problem with any of the three being chosen in the second round, or even late in the first, for a team that needs a receiver, such as the Houston Texans or the Baltimore Ravens. Again, the academic discussion of “value” has no meaning when it’s week six of the regular season and you’re lacking quality receivers, which handicaps your quarterback in a passing league, and thus limits your ability to win.
Two more receivers that intrigued me were Aaron Dobson of Marshall, and Aaron Mellette from Elon University. Again, both are big, which clearly seems to be an increasing trend as the game evolves. The 6’2½”, 217 pound Mellette carries the small school label, immediately diminishing his value in the eyes of many. His three year domination at a Division I-AA school is routinely dismissed due to the dreaded “level of competition” moniker, the ultimate cross to bear. I went back to 2011, when Elon played Vanderbilt. You may recall that Casey Hayward was on that Commodore team. Lo and behold, he had a difficult time with Mellette’s impressive mix of size, hands, and plus athleticism. Overall, Mellette gives you a lot to work with, with his size/movement combination.
Dobson, at 6’3” and 210 pounds, was a strong blend of size and fluid movement. He was quicker than fast, regardless of his outstanding 4.42 40 time at his recent pro day. Yet, like many tall wide receivers, his height and stride length generated deceptive speed on vertical routes. What continually stood out the more I evaluated Dobson were his vice grip hands, and his body control and flexibility to adjust to the ball in the air, resulting in both contested and difficult catches. He’s not quite Larry Fitzgerald (few are, plus Fitzgerald’s play speed is a lot faster than people think; just talk to NFL corners), but I saw some similar traits in Dobson. A year ago, Justin Blackmon, Michael Floyd, Kendall Wright and A.J. Jenkins were all selected in the first round. Are they significantly better NFL prospects than Dobson, Rogers, Hopkins and Harper? I would argue they are not.
I will end with Justin Hunter from Tennessee, the most physically talented wide receiver prospect in this draft class. He is, without question, the most explosive as a route runner with his long body (6’4”), route fluidity, vertical speed and playmaking ability at the catch point. Like every receiver entering the NFL, he is not a finished product. (Sometimes we forget that). He displayed inconsistent hands, with too many easy drops. And the lingering effects of his 2011 ACL injury, likely more mental than physical, cannot be dismissed in any evaluation. But he has legitimate acceleration and vertical explosion that clearly projects to the NFL, and it will impact games.
Hunter is the most intriguing receiver on the board. The tape shows you how he moves: he’s smooth, supple and explosive. He looks like AJ Green with his body type and his fluid strides. He’s not the receiver at this point that Green was coming out of Georgia two years ago, but if Hunter develops and grows as a professional, always a question with all but a few prospects, he has a chance to be a Pro Bowl player. I’ve talked to some who see Randy Moss comparisons. Regardless, there are not many with his height, length and movement. I’d be surprised if his name wasn’t called on the first night.
The common thread with all the wide receivers I’ve touched on: size. It’s a fascinating dichotomy that is now crystallizing in the NFL. Smaller receivers have increased value due to the expansion of the multi-dimensional “Joker”, the player who can align anywhere in the formation. On the other hand, bigger wideouts provide matchup problems for smaller corners on the outside. The NFL has always been cyclical. Is offense a step of the defense right now? Defensive coaches think so.