By: Matt Harmon
Wide receiver is one of the tougher positions to project to the pros when scouting the college ranks. NFL coverage schemes are harder to figure out. Defensive coordinators ask their corners to play with more physicality than in the off-man heavy college football world. Combine those with timing adjustments and an advanced route tree, and its tough for most pass catchers to make an immediate impact.
More often than not, we must wait until at least the second or third season of a wide receivers’ career to see their potential. It is during those years that receivers begin to show advanced traits. These supplement their athletic ability, and are required for NFL success.
When scouting college receiver prospects, it’s important to consider some of these advanced traits. If they show signs of them in them in college there’s a strong chance they’ll develop nicely in the NFL. Not many prospects will show these with regularity, but even flashes should provide scouts with hope.
Alshon Jeffery amassed 218 yards and a touchdown in week five against the Saints. We will take a look at the sophomore pro’s first dominant game from 2013 to scout advanced traits. I’ll use a one game version of my process to evaluate wide receivers, Reception Perception. Jeffery has always been a physical marvel, and would have made a future in the NFL off that alone. By infusing advanced traits into his game, he became a star in just his second season—recording 89 receptions and over 1,400 yards.
Versatility in alignment
Wide receivers are typically thought of as either outside the numbers players or a slot maven. Yet, as with all positions in the NFL these days, the lines are fast becoming blurred. Teams and coaches want receivers who can play in multiple spots, and keep defenses on their toes. Versatility and multiplicity in where a receiver can line up is a nice indicator of future success.
Alshon Jeffery is 6’3 and 216 pounds, at least. He looks massive on tape. Jeffery certainly profiles as big time X-receiver, but he does a bit more than that. In this loss to the Saints, Jeffery lined up all over the formation for the Bears:
Jeffery took the majority of his 53 snaps outside the numbers to the right (41.5%), and behind the line of scrimmage (53%). However, he still played in a number of other spots. Alshon played in the slot, and made a few receptions from. He was able to get off tight coverage when he started plays on the line of scrimmage—47% of the time.
When scouting receivers, you want to note whether they line up in multiple spots. If a player is protected by how he’s deployed, like Kelvin Benjamin was at FSU, they might have trouble getting off the line. Should a receiver just produce average numbers from one spot, he might be a scheme dependent asset. In order to grade a wide receiver as a high-end draft pick, they need to play more than one role.
Potential for route running development
It’s unfair to expect any college receiver to be a proficient route runner. It’s extremely rare that a prospect comes out of school polished in that area. They don’t need to have those skills in order to beat their NCAA defensive completion. The key is to look for signs of future growth and potential development as a full route runner.
Alshon Jeffery was no route running master in college, and wasn’t expected to be one in the NFL, at least not early. But as a second year receiver, he showed a ton of hints that this was a secret strength of his. In the sampled game, Jeffery made use of a number of different patterns:
Jeffery’s week five Route Tree Percentage chart is a very balanced one. He never runs any route more than 20% of the time. Not only was he adept at running a number of routes, but he produced through multiple ones as well:
Jeffery converted opportunities and produced big plays on nine routes and an improvisational route (defined here as other). Most of his 218 yards came from those two patterns. Yet, its important to not that he was still succeeding and producing on multiple routes. This was due to Jeffery developing subtle skills that led to big improvements from year one to year two:
Alshon Jeffery lines up at the bottom of the screen across from Keenan Lewis, who broke out in 2013. Jeffery presents a reasonable target to his quarterback, but doesn’t make a reception due to pressure. He still comes open on this out route down the sideline.
What makes this a good play by Jeffery is his ability to change speeds during a route. As a massive human being, he naturally has a long stride. However, right as he gets into his break, he accelerates with incredible foot frequency. Jeffery then shuffles and breaks out and back to the line of scrimmage, leaving Lewis out of position.
Its subtle movements, short area explosion and quick foot speed like this you want to see when scouting. College receivers won’t always run crisp routes. Demonstrating these attributes allows you to believe they could develop in this area.
Awareness and reading coverage
The primary job of a wide receiver is to beat the coverage across from him. Whether it’s a double team, a single man or a zone scheme, the receiver must defeat the opposition. Presenting a reasonable target for the quarterback is what’s paramount, and everything else comes after.
Alshon Jeffery made highlight reels because of his ridiculous touchdown catches, and ability in traffic. But he’s still a player who has developed enough to beat coverage far more often than not:
For Reception Perception data, Jeffery’s week five work was quite good. The Saints did not have slouches for corners at this time either. Jeffery did battle with the emerging Keenan Lewis, and the veteran Jabari Greer. The young Chicago receiver beat those players, and others, in man coverage 70% of the time. When New Orleans went to zone coverage, Jeffery still maintained a fine success rate figure.
While Jeffery can win coverage wars due to his physical gifts, it’s his developed awareness that brought about these figures. He can read coverage, and use the necessary moves to put defenders in poor positions:
Jeffery sees the cornerback’s position and anticipates his movement. The Bears’ receiver then fakes as if he’s breaking in field. When he sees the defender comes downhill, he breaks hard past him toward the end zone. The result is a big 34-yard reception, and a huge play over the middle.
By understand defender’s positioning, and how cornerbacks play, receivers can defeat their coverage opponents. Again, this isn’t an attribute most college receivers display. Yet, if a scout even sees flashes of it, they must make note and weigh it heavily. General on field intelligence is something evaluators can project into receivers developing this trait.
When they maintain high success rate against coverage, wide receivers become big parts of their offense. Jeffery was a massive fixture of the Chicago offense in week five:
Jeffery was targeted on 42% and caught passes on 32.2% of the 31 routes he ran against the Saints. Jay Cutler knew he would beat his coverage assignments, and was willing to toss him the ball. Jeffery repaid his quarterback by catching passes on 76.9% of his targets.
Height, weight and speed are important in receiver scouting. Players need a certain amount of those physical skills to succeed in the NFL. Yet, scouts must also learn to look for clues that wideouts can develop the advanced traits. The ones that do turn into superstars, and some very quickly like Alshon Jeffery.