NFL offenses continue to evolve, and the premium has begun to put on playmakers. In last year’s draft, the Bucs valued size and length, drafting Mike Evans and Austin Seferian-Jenkins. In the past two drafts, the Rams selected Tavon Austin and the Saints took Brandin Cooks, both sub 5’10 receivers with electric speed and big-play ability.
Duke senior Jamison Crowder fits into the latter category, with diminutive size (likely to measure in around 5’8 and a half) but the ability to make up for it with vertical-stretching ability, run after catch shiftiness and the ability to win on short-area routes.
Those three characteristics are essential for a smaller receiver to be worthy of a top 100 pick in the NFL draft, and I’ve used two of Crowder’s games from last year (North Carolina and Texas A&M) to illustrate how he can find success in the NFL…and become worthy of a surprisingly high draft selection.
It doesn’t matter whether where a receiver like Jamison Crowder is lined up, as long as they can threaten down the field and force defenses to play off initially. While speed is generally a prime factor in a receiver’s vertical ability, for an undersized threat like Crowder, it’s more about initial quickness off the line and breaking away in zone coverage to have success. Crowder has shown the ability to win quickly at the top of his route, getting separation and giving Anthony Boone a window to capitalize on.
To follow that, it’s Crowder’s ability (like Brandin Cooks before him) to set defenders up to exploit them down the field. Against good defensive backs, which will become much more prevalent in the NFL, his speed can be neutralized with proper steps and anticipation. However, it’s his explosiveness in his route tree, especially when being matched-up in the slot when attacking downfield against safeties that most easily translates to the NFL.
Similar to route quickness, having the ability to make defenders miss in the short area as a ball carrier is more important than big-play speed. Crowder has the vertical speed with the ball in his hands that will likely give him a forty-time in the 4.4s, but it’s more important that Crowder has plus shiftiness after the catch.
While Crowder isn’t as dangerous as Austin, Cooks or another diminutive receiver like DeSean Jackson with the ball in his hands and doesn’t have the same elite elusiveness, he does offer NFL-level value as a reverse runner, short-area receiver and punt returner.
His ability to finish runs with the ball in his hands allows him to slide into a screen-pass and short-area route role in the NFL, something that has begun to take a more firm hold on NFL playbooks after becoming so dominant at the college level in recent years.
Short-Area Finishing Capability
Smaller receivers are generally forced to provide value in three areas: Behind the line of scrimmage on screens or reverses, quick hitches and slants from the slot and when they can get free down the field. However, there are more than a handful of quick-twitch speed receivers that can provide those three things on a situational basis.
But what made Tavon Austin and Brandin Cooks first-round picks, and what gives Crowder added value, is his capability to do more than just show off his speed. His short area route-running and ability to finish in traffic allows him to have a more diverse route tree, letting him stay on the field longer and threaten defenses in more ways than the obvious.
Below, you can see his quickness at the top of his route and the minimal rounding he shows when working inside. His route and driving stance upfield forces the shading linebacker too far inside, and he grabs the ball while taking a hit to pick up the first down on 3rd and four.
In the exact same route against Texas A&M, Crowder easily works around the play-action bitten linebackers but also finishes with the safety dropping down, embracing the contact and finishes at the field goal marker. Again, it’s this ability to finish with an impending hit that allows him to provide value in the middle of the field that many receivers his size aren’t able (or willing) to follow through on.
What to Expect in 2014
With David Cutliffe still managing the offense and Anthony Boone still at the helm on the field, Crowder has a chance to further cement his reputation as a highly talented college receiver with top-100 NFL Draft aspirations. The Blue Devils have plenty of offensive talent returning, but Crowder will likely see plenty of double coverage, especially vertically, the same way teams did to Brandin Cooks at Oregon State a season ago.
The 2015 receiver class doesn’t look to be AS loaded as the 2014 group was, and if Tavon Austin and Brandin Cooks make a profound impact this season, it could spell great things for Crowder if teams hope to replicate their success.
As of now, we have Crowder as a 3rd-4th rounder, with the opportunity to emerge as a top-64 pick if he can put up the type of gaudy numbers many expect in his senior campaign to boast. But he can thank Tavon Austin and Brandin Cooks for putting an undersized receiver in the first-round discussion, and he’ll hope they produce to keep the smaller edge threat a big part of NFL teams’ draft plans.