With the 2011 NFL season in the books, it's time to turn our eyes to the NFL draft, and the pre-draft evaluation process. Right up to the draft, we'll be taking a closer look at the 50 players who may be the biggest NFL difference-makers when all is said and done.
We continue this year's series with Georgia Tech receiver Stephen Hill. After catching just 49 passes for 1,248 yards and nine touchdowns in his collegiate career, Hill had to do as much as he could at the 2012 scouting combine to show the kind of raw tools that would allow NFL executives to project professional starting potential. Hill couldn't have done much better than he did -- he ran an official 4.36 40-yard dash that some teams had timed as low as 4.28. He excelled in just about every drill, and sent personnel men back to the game tape to see what they could of Hill in a triple-option offense that gave him relatively few opportunities to catch passes. What is on tape seems to indicate that Stephen Hill could be a special talent.
Pros: Hill's on-field speed is obvious, but I was pleasantly surprised by his physical play. He fights to get free from press coverage, and he has no problem mixing it up downfield to get open in short spaces. Very effective slot receiver in two- and three-receiver sets; he has the ability to sit in a zone, make the quick catch after a in-cut or quick comeback, and then, it's off to the races. Could be a nightmare for nickel cornerbacks and high safeties in that role -- he can beat brackets by running by the zone corner and catching the ball before the safety gets there. Nice lateral agility and quick steps to get upfield after receiver screens -- Hill is not just a speed guy who will go down upon first contact. Practiced at faking the stutter at the line and fooling the press corner into thinking he's heading downfield, which opens up room from tight coverage. Uses his height to high-point the ball very well; he has a nice library of fairly ridiculous one-handed catches, and he will also splay out to bring in the overthrow.
Perhaps the most underrated part of Hill's skill set is his blocking -- he's aggressive and willing to deal with linebackers and DBs downfield, and he had a lot of practice in that offense. Will use his downfield speed on picks to box out defenders, and if he gets a free release once he's up to acceleration, he's most likely gone. Reports indicate that Hill's route savvy has increased with off-season work.
Cons: Many of Hill's longer plays in college came about as a result of defenses loading the box to deal with Tech's trip-option attack -- quite often, he'd be wide open downfield or able to take a screen at the line as the cornerback covering him was slanted to read run as a force defender.
When he hits the NFL and its advanced coverage concepts, he'll have to adjust, and it could take a while for him to grasp the entire route tree. Never caught more than six passes in a single game due to Tech's limited passing concepts, so there's no evidence that Hill can take the beating that elite receivers take when they're catching 10-plus balls in a single afternoon. While he is a burner downfield, he doesn't always show that speed right out of the route; it takes him a bit to get to full-blast.
Conclusion: After watching his game tape, I believe that any comparisons to speed-based flameouts like Troy Williamson and Darrius Heyward-Bey are unjustified when it comes to Stephen Hill. In the NFL, it's likely that Hill will find his best opportunities in an offense that features heavy doses of three- and four-receiver sets. He could be a real asset to any team looking for speed, cutting ability, and a tough receiver who can make things happen out of zones from the slot. As a "X" or "Z" receiver, his process may take a bit more time, delayed as it could be by his need to get up to code with the kinds of route concepts needed to beat the NFL's best cornerbacks.
Hill was a bit of a hidden asset until he lit the scouting combine up -- now, the challenge will be for the team drafting him to avoid putting too much on him before he's ready. Over time, he could be an elite deep threat, but that doesn't mean he couldn't help an offense right away. Watching the New York Giants cheat their safeties up on almost every play in Super Bowl XVLI because the New England Patriots didn't have any consistent receivers who could force those safeties back in coverage, one of my thoughts was, "The Patriots could really use Stephen Hill right about now."
I am usually reluctant to compare players who went to the same schools, but I believe that the Thomas comparison applies in this case -- like Hill, Thomas transcended a limited passing offense to excel in the NFL over time. In the right system, and given the time to do it, Hill has the potential to be one of the NFL's most dynamic receivers.
Pro Comparison: Demaryius Thomas, Denver Broncos
More Shutdown 50:
#38: Vinny Curry, DE, Marshall | #39: Doug Martin, RB, Boise State | #40 : Mohamed Sanu, WR, Rutgers | #41: Zach Brown, OLB, North Carolina | #42: Lavonte David, OLB, Nebraska | #43: Jared Crick, DE/DT, Nebraska | #44: Alshon Jeffrey, WR, South Carolina | #45: Kirk Cousins, QB, Michigan State| #46: Orson Charles, TE, Georgia | #47: Lamar Miller, RB, Miami| #48: Shea McClellin, OLB/DE, Boise State | #49: Rueben Randle, WR, LSU| #50: Jonathan Massaqoui, OLB/DE, Troy