Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The Making of Wide Receivers

In today's NFL, wide receivers play an important role in most offenses. They make big catches, move the chains, and open the field up. It doesn't hurt if they can block, too. What goes into the making of wide receivers? We will examine the "measurables" and 'immeasurables", the various types of wide receivers, and how they fit into an offensive scheme.

"Measurables" versus "Immeasurables"

Most wide receivers nowadays are rated coming out of college based on how well they performed in the 40-yard dash and the vertical jump at the NFL Combine. It's possible for under performing receivers to be propelled into the first round simply because they ran a 4.35 in the 40 and measured out at 6' 3". As of late, this formula has resulted in many first round busts with later round receivers exhibiting the talent that should have had them in round one.

In my opinion, you really have to look at certain skills and immeasurables to determine how good a wide receiver is or will be--not just their speed, height, or vertical. There are several factors I personally look at, but a lot of it is about preference and the type of reciever a team is looking for.

The Key Immeasureables

Any style of wide receiver needs a few skills to will make them into a better player. For the most part, these are not physical attributes. Instead, they focus on the mental aspects of the position.

  • General field awareness. The ability to know where you are on the field--where the defenders, the goal line, and the sidelines are--and knowing when the ball should be coming to you if you are the quarterback's target.
  • Good route running. The ability to keep track of your feet and to be in position to make the catch. This usually comes with experience, but all wide receivers need to be able to run a crisp, well-timed route. Creating separation to overcome good coverage or a lack of speed is a calling card of a good route runner.
  • Route Adjustments. The ability to make adjustments during the play. In more diverse offenses, the wide receiver may need to make adjustments to their route based on the coverage before the quarterback gets hit.
  • Catching adjustments. The ability to locate the football and adjust your body to make the catch, even if it means exposing yourself to a hit.
  • Catching ability. - Pretty self-explanatory. Whether you call it "good hands", "catching ability" or even Madden's "spectacular catcher", it goes without saying that this is one of the single most unmeasurable features a wide receiver must have.
  • Blocking. You still need to be able to block as a receiver, especially if your team plans on running outside the tackles at any point in the game.
The Styles

As with every position, there are different styles of play that vary from receiver to receiver. Some earn titles for their style of play like "possession receiver" or "deep threat", but as always, such a term can be quite vague. Labels like "number one target" or "slot receiver" become even more vague when you consider the amount of variable skill sets a guy could have as that number one target or slot guy. I'm going to do my best to break down these titles, explain what skill sets are generally associated with them, and analyze how they fit into offensive schemes.

Possession Receivers

A possession receiver is a pretty vague description, but personally, I call these types of receivers the "pure receivers." Some may be big, tough targets who make all the tough grabs for first downs, taking the big hit from the coverage and hanging onto the football. Other possession receivers strive at getting yards-after-catch (YAC) by using their toughness or elusiveness in space.

Some kinds of possession receivers even combine both of those styles of possession receiving (able to take the big hit over the middle for a first down and able to slip a tackler or two for a big gain). Receivers of this style are often referred to as YAC specialists for their ability to generate yards after catch when given the ball in a shallower area of the field.

A common misconception about possession receivers is that they aren't fast runners. That is not always true. For example, one of more physical possession threats was Keyshawn Johnson, and he lacked ideal wide receivers speed. There are also other cases (T.O. comes to mind) in which the possession receiver does have speed, though it might not be equivalent to a game-breaking speed/deep threat.

The main factors and skills that are associated with possession receivers are that they are typically a taller, bigger target without world-class speed, play physical, possess amazing "hands", and adjust well to the pass. They also need to be willing to extend their body and risk taking a hard hit.

If your team has a receiver who fits that description, he is probably used in a role where he runs a lot of routes 5 to 15 yards deep and works the middle areas of the field more often.

Keyshawn Johnson is the prototype when it comes to possession receivers.

Deep threats

Deep threats are usually titles given to receivers who thrive at running the deep routes. While they vary in effectiveness based on what skill sets and immeasurables they have, they generally have one common skill: speed.

Deep threats generally need to be well-versed at looking the football into their hands from over their shoulders. Foot control is required for difficult sideline catches.

The main concept behind a deep threat receiver is to have a target to always throw deep to, thus lifting the coverage away from the shallower areas of the field. This opens up the field for the quarterback to make shorter passes.

That being said, it is pointless to have any player be nothing more than a decoy every down. Many offenses rely on a progression based system and post-snap adjustments by the quarterback. If the safety bites up or the corner gets beat (anything that would favor the deep match up), the deep threat must make the catch; hands and catching ability are also needed. (Without the hands, you have Troy Williamson, and he isn't particularly good.) In the the situation that a deep threat lacks the ideal catching ability, they must make up for it in "decoy-potential" and game-breaking speed.

There are deep threats who excel at catching. These deep threats are good enough at their job that they become the top receiver for their team. However, I prefer to call this type "speed threats." To me, "deep threat" implies they only work deep, while a "speed threat" implies that it's a receiver whose speed is a major threat to all areas of the field.

Speed threats can make great YAC specialists because of their explosive ability when given the football in space. If they can make a catch in stride or are great at the "run-turn-catch-turn-run" transition and can do it without losing much forward momentum, they can often speed right through a seam to the end zone. However, this usually only applies to speed threats or deep threats that have some of the immeasurable abilities of a possession receiver: the willingness to make the tough catches where they could be subject to a big hit.

Randy Moss is the NFL's best deep threat.

Number 1 Targets

Guys like Marvin Harrison--who can do the job of a possession receiver but are also a legitimate threat with speed and deep ability--are considered "number 1 targets." The majority of this title is nothing but fanfare. Teams have been successful for decades using recievers who only strive in one area of receiving while just mix and matching them to the proper role in their offense. They may use spread offensive sets to feature more recievers and substitute players for specific play calls or down and distances.

Slot receivers

Slot receivers are the guys who work well from the third wide receivers spot, which is the position between the offensive tackle (or tight end) and the outer most recievers.

These guys vary in skill sets depending on scheme, team, and preference. In some cases, the slot receiver is the pure speed threat, capable of lifting coverages and able to break a game open with one catch. Some teams prefer a possession receiver or YAC specialist in the slot, giving another big possession threat for the quarterback in the 3rd down situations where you might go to a 3 wide receivers set.

As always, it's all about the scheme--and in some cases, all about the players available when a coach tailors his offense to them.

Putting it into a system

A wide receiver usually is not the tell-tale sign of what an offense schemes to do or of what system they try to run. Many offenses, since the dawn of the forward pass, simply utilize a good possession target (even if it's a tight end) and a good speed threat or deep threat opposite them; they may have tremendous success.

It all comes down to the routes they are asked to run within the system. Most coaches will adjust the play calling to reflect the routes their receivers are best at. This is actually one of the easiest positions to adjust your scheme to fit the personnel (as long as your not like Bill Parcells who refuses to adjust for whatever old-fashioned reason).

Typically, most schemes nowadays make perfect use of whatever type of receivers they have or obtain. It's rare you come across a team searching for just one or two styles. Instead, a diversity in receiving styles helps to variate am offense in an affordable manner.

Summarizing it all

The speed threats have been hot commodities lately, but measurables are often times misleading. However, this trend towards the measurements is dying. Slowly (but surely), it's converting back to the classic possession-types preference, with selections like Jordy Nelson (not saying he's slow or can't go deep, just saying, he fits the bill of a "pure receiver") being made before some of the more exciting speedsters available is a testament to this. The best speed receivers and the best deep threats are the receivers who can combine at least some of the possession receiver's abilities into their own game.

Possession receivers generally are the more pure of receivers, able to make the tough catches a routine part of their job. While many of them may not be as exciting as Steve Smith--a real speedster who outruns the entire defense with the ball in his hand--their role in an offenses is just as important.

It more or less breaks down to if the receiver is physical enough for working in the middle regularly or breaking tackles in shallow routes; or if they are quick enough to run the deeper routes without allowing the rush to get to the quarterback.

As always, there are plenty of players with mixed-skill sets who break and even shatter any barrier that a tag like "deep threat" or "possession receiver" usually brings.


About the Undrafted Free Agent

Ron Crimson was the only player on the high school roster to not get in a game. He couldn't argue with the decision, because he sucked. Needless to say, yet stated anyway, when he entered the NBA draft following his sophomore season in college, he went undrafted. Now, Ron Crimson is the Undrafted Free Agent.

Contact the Undrafted Free Agent

Interested in informing the Undrafted Free Agent of his mistakes, advertisement opportunities, or a scoop on the latest sports scandal? (You can guess which is more likely.) Well, email him at undraftedfreeagent [at] gmail.com.

Look at This!

There's nothing here; I just needed to fill some space. Space eater! Space eater! Space eater! Space eater! Space eater! Space eater! Space eater! Space eater! Space eater! I also needed to balance it out a bit.

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