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 Rutgers receiver Mohamed Sanu. With the increase in three- and four-receiver sets at the NFL level, and the need for coverage-busting speed in the slot (think DeSean Jackson and Victor Cruz), it's the bigger, slower receiver with other tools that sometimes goes unheralded. Sanu is that kind of player -- you're going to hear a lot about the lack of pure speed that will probably keep him out of the first round, and that's a legit concern. However, as I learned when watching his Rutgers tape and by writing the pool report of his scouting combine drills, Sanu is a player well-versed in the finer points that make surprise receivers into 10-year stars and occasional Pro Bowlers.
From the pool report:
On the 13-yard comeback, he had good stride and reached out to grab the ball with his hands, keeping him in bounds. However, he misjudged the 25-yard seam route and came up short. He had great form in the gauntlet -- one of the most impressive receivers on the day. Caught every ball with his hands on the first one (again, good technique -- not a body catcher), kept his body straight on the line, and threw the balls away with ease.
He was even better on the second gauntlet, adjusting to high and low throws. No drops in either drill, and straight-line all the way. He rounded off his route slightly on the short cut slant, but caught the ball. He had a better cut on the 10-yard out-and-up, and adjusted to an overthrow inside to make the catch. He wasn't able to make the catch on the 13-yard dig route due to an overthrow by Russell Wilson.
On the 35-yard seam, he tracked the ball very well, turning his head at the right time and making an over-the-shoulder catch. He had a good cut and catch on the t13-yard inside dig, and he made okay cuts on the deep post corner, adjusting to an underthrown pass at the end.
In 37 of a possible 38 starts for Rutgers, Sanu caught a Big East-record 210 career passes, including 115 in 2011 alone. He added seven touchdown catches to his résumé last season, as well as a 10.5 YPC average that has some wondering if he isn't a bigger deep threat than previously imagined. There are limitations to that ideal, especially when he's facing NFL defenses, but there are a lot of things about Sanu's game to like -- it's just that with some of them, you have to know where and when to look.
Pros: Strong, high-waisted player with gliding acceleration. Potentially dominant possession receiver with a great feel for slants and in-routes -- especially against zone defenses, in the slot, or against off-coverage. Very practiced stride player who knows how to time his breaks and open things up for the quarterback with quick cuts to escape intermediate coverage. Sanu is completely unafraid to lay his body out in traffic, and he will go up to make the tough catch of an overthrown ball even against converging defenders -- no alligator arms on this guy. Could be an excellent asset in the red zone as a result; when facing defenders in compressed spaces, Sanu's limited top-end speed is less of a disadvantage, and it's more a physical battle at that point.
Sanu beats press coverage with excellent fundamentals more than pure speed -- he's great at putting his foot in the ground and cutting away from a backpedaling defender, he knows how to use his hands to get separation, and he doesn't let himself get pushed off by physical, aggressive cornerbacks. An excellent and willing run blocker who certainly got enough practice in Rutgers' back-dated offense. Doesn't blast at the second level, but he's a good YAC threat by virtue of his physical play -- he'll throw a stiff-arm and hit the first-down marker more often than not. Total grinder who earns an unusual level of respect from his coaches.
Cons: Sanu's most talked-about deficit as an NFL prospect -- his lack of top-end speed -- does show up on tape, and it is a real issue.
Not only does he lack that extra gear allowing the game's best receivers to blow by defenders, his tendency to take a while to ramp up to top speed will limit his route concepts. I don't see him getting free on a lot of 30-yard seam routes from the slot, for example, with the faster pace of the NFL game -- there are simply patterns he won't have time to run before his quarterback gets smushed.
Not a real threat on end-arounds and he'll get boxed out on punt returns. For a player with his catch radius and generally good hands, Sanu will surprise by dropping balls in traffic at times; sometimes it even happens when he's a free receiver, like on simple bubble screens. Struggles to switch inside position on defenders jumping routes or in brackets; he'll have to learn that to excel in the NFL. An optimal #2 or #1a receiver, because he's not going to beat lead corners at the NFL level -- think of T.J. Houshmandzadeh with the Bengals, and how he loaded up all those catches when defenses were trying to stop Senor Ochocinco in his prime.
Conclusion: As is the case with LSU's Rueben Randle, I think Sanu gets debited for things that aren't really his fault. He isn't catching passes from great quarterbacks, and the route concepts he's learned are boxed in by more than his own physical limitations. Scads of receivers have succeeded despite the fact that they're slower than Sanu on the field, and I think he has many of the assets common to those players -- great potential with underneath routes, a natural physical style, toughness, and a clear eagerness to learn and get better.
The Colston comparison is instructive -- a few scouting combines ago, Sean Payton told me that many teams had Colston scouted as a receiving tight end out of college because he really didn't light it up on tape. That Colston has become one of the game's most productive and consistent receivers is a testament to his own hard work, and to the fact that he's operated in a super-dynamic offense with a peerless quarterback when it comes to the intermediate route tree. When he gets the drops sorted out, and if he's in the right kind of offense, Sanu could become the best definition of a possession receiver -- the guy who drives defenses crazy by extending drives with incredible consistency. From the combine performance I saw and wrote up, I think he's got all the tools to do just that.
Pro Comparison: Marques Colston, New Orleans Saints
More Shutdown 50:
#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