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. Before and after the 2012 scouting combine, we'll be taking a closer look at the 50 draft-eligible players who may be the biggest NFL difference-makers when all is said and done.
We continue this year's series with LSU receiver Rueben Randle. The high-school standout quarterback and receiver was approached by many colleges, but chose to stay close to home. He improved in each of his three years with the Tigers, but really broke out in 2011 after a 125-yard performance against Alabama in 2010 set him on the path. In an system that requires scouts and other personnel types to isolate receivers from the team's frequently prehistoric offensive concepts, Randle didn't have to go far to stand out. He went from 173 to 544 to 917 receiving yards in his three seasons -- and before you discount that 2011 total, keep in mind that Randle accounted for 43 percent of his team's receiving numbers.
Unless he somehow goes through a time machine and gets drafted by the 1963 Chicago Bears, Randle's NFL team will have a far more expansive passing offense. How ready is he for that adventure?
Pros: Very physical receiver with a good release off the line. Randle high-points the ball extremely well; he'll use his height (6-foot-3, 208) to get above defenders, even when on the run or turning around to see the ball. Tremendous after-catch receiver who seems stronger on the run than his body type would reveal. Perfectly willing to go over the middle and make the tough catch in traffic, and he's a load to take down on slants and posts. Always looking to turn upfield and make that extra gain.
Perhaps at his best on sideline routes -- he gets the ball quickly, turns aggressively, and starts juking for extra space right away. Also great with fade routes, where he can use the boundary to gain an advantage. Not exceedingly fast, but appears to have an extra gear to break coverage when necessary. Will spin out of arm tackles and bull through defenders to make additional gains. Willing and able blocker who will sell out in run support and blitz pickup. Impressive understanding of route concepts.
Cons: Not always a hands-catcher -- sometimes, he uses that vertical jump to catch a high throw when he could simply grab it with stronger and more consistent hands. Could take even more advantage of his physical nature with a better ability to use his hands to disengage from press coverage. Tends to disappear against stronger defenses, through this is due in part to LSU's generally conservative game plans against such teams (19.9 passes per game for LSU in 2011, versus 42.2 rushing attempts per game). Doesn't have elite speed, but his sense of the field should make up for that. Occasionally gets too acrobatic when an economy of motion would serve him well; NFL technique work should help a lot.
Conclusion: With more and more NFL teams using three- and four-receiver sets as the default, there's never been a better time for slot/Y hybrid pass-catchers to come into the pros and make an immediate impact. Randle has all the skills to do so in that capacity. While he might not immediately flash the skills required of a #1 receiver, that designation is nebulous enough on many teams to have scouts looking at him as a possible late first- or early second-round pick. In particular, receiver-starved teams like the 49ers, Ravens, and Patriots, who need more players to be dangerous in the post/slant/seam area downfield, should be eager to see what Rueben Randle can do for them.
Right now, he's an interesting and impressive "do-it-all" guy who has shown a lot in a limited passing offense. Depending on his next team, scheme, and system, Randle could outshine many receivers rated above him in the 2012 draft class.
NFL Comparison: Donald Driver, WR, Green Bay Packers (Peak years -- 2002-2009)
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