Why does the NFL aspire to write large receivers?
It was a question I was asked on Twitter the other day and it was not something I had really considered in recent years. After digging a bit, I came across an Arrowhead Pride article published in 2015, which concluded that only 58% of first-round receivers were “hit” and 42% of “busts.” This would make it the worst overall common position in terms of “busts” in the first round. The “success” rate also dropped slightly to 49% in the second round.
It’s pretty scary to see as a fan of the Eagles since the Eagles are going to need instant production from at least one rookie wide receiver this year. Fortunately, this class of receivers is excellent and there are a ton of talented receivers available. Despite this, it’s a safe bet that there will almost certainly be some busts during the first two rounds of this year’s draft. So I decided to investigate why the NFL is struggling to write wide receivers and what the Eagles could do this year to help them solve this problem.
Let’s start by looking at what the NFL wants in this position. These are the first round receivers taken in recent years.
Marquise Brown (Pick 25)
N’Keal Harry (Pick 32)
DJ Moore (Pick 24)
Calvin Ridley (choice 26)
Corey Davis (choice 5)
Mike Williams (choice 7)
John Ross (choice 9)
Corey Coleman (choice 15)
Will Fuller (Pick 21)
Josh Doctson (choice 22)
Laquan Treadwell ((choice 23)
For the most part, I would say that most NFL teams look for two things when they draft a receiver in the first round. They are looking to write an “X” that can beat media coverage. These receivers often have a good size and they can use that size to get out of the media coverage and win the sidelines. Looking at the list above, many of these draft players struggled to be their “X” teams because they couldn’t get out of the line of scrimmage and defeat quality press coverage. This led to busts such as Doctson, Treadwell and arguably Corey Davis. Looking at the list above, DJ Moore and Mike Williams are the only ones who have worked as an “X” for their current teams, which shows you how hard it is to find these guys.
Second, NFL teams are looking to draft an explosive playmaker who will provide a vertical element to their attack. These guys will often play the role of “Z” so they get a free version and often provide a spark of the slot too. This need for speed has led guys like John Ross, Will Fuller and Marquise Brown to be first round picks. Hitting an explosive playmaker can change your attack – just look at how much the Eagles missed DeSean Jackson last year. These playmakers are the ones who will keep the defensive coordinators up at night and are essential to the success of an offense. If you want to have a big offense in modern NFL – you have to have explosive playmakers on your team who can create chunk games and change a game into a few games. These guys will also force a team to play a deeper blanket, put a safety guard over it to help and so they can help your “X” to open without even catching a ball by opening the midfield. Guys like John Ross and Will Fuller were drafted in the first round, although the Bengals (AJ Green) and Texans (DeAndre Hopkins) are two of the best “X” receivers in the league on their lists. This shows you how precious these vertical threats are.
As Benjamin Solak recently wrote, finding an outside “X” receiver that can defeat media coverage is the hardest to find and most valuable receiver in a team. Finding an explosive playmaker to pair with an “X” is also hard to find. That’s why players like John Ross entered the top 10! The teams are desperately looking for an explosive vertical element to add to their attack. Unfortunately, a good 40 does not mean that you will be a good vertical threat. You need more than straight line speed to be a vertical elite threat. You need incredible speed off the line of scrimmage, the ability to play on touch and follow soccer while it is in the air. As fans of the Eagles, (sorry Nelson Agholor), we know it is not easy. If you’re incredibly lucky, you might even be able to find an “X” receiver that also provides an explosive vertical element, like an Odell Beckham or a Julio Jones, if you think you’ve found this guy, you’re extremely lucky and you shouldn’t trade them…
So why are there so many busts at the receiver position? You just have to write the big “X” receivers that constantly beat the press in college, then write the best vertical threats to play in front of them … easy isn’t it?
The biggest problem with the catcher’s position is how they win college likely not going to cut it in the NFL.
The director general of the above AFC hits the nail on the head. In college gaming, there are far too many examples of receivers who don’t face media coverage and who win with free exit. It is much easier to defeat human coverage when a BC is 5-10 meters away from you and allows you to easily get out of the fray. Worse still, you will often see receptions facing a ton of area coverage and opening without even defeating human coverage. Life at the NFL is not that easy. When we begin to understand this, we begin to realize why players like Nelson Agholor could be explosive deep threats in college and find it difficult to do so in the NFL.
Kyle Shanahan was asked about Deebo Samuel’s journey last year and said:
“Working on so many routes in college is kind of a waste of time. They just go against the area. You just have to open them in the area and run them. ” This is a terrifying quote to read as a fan of the Eagles considering that we need an instant production of at least one receiver debuting next year. The 49ers took Deebo Samuel in the second round and Kyle Shanahan still didn’t think he was a good road runner! Shanahan was ready to bet on his own plan using Deebo’s physical traits to help him succeed.
A great example of this is Justin Jefferson vs Ole Miss last year. Jefferson had 9 catches, 112 yards and 2 touchdowns. It sounds like a brilliant game. Now watch the All22 of the game and tell me how many great routes you’ve seen will continue in the NFL.
I’ve seen short routes and loops with free versions. I saw a crossing route with absolutely no one to fight for 50 meters. I saw a bubble screen for a TD and a flat course from the backfield. The best route was his final capture, where he won inside and took the slope for a TD. If you are nervous… the corner half was 7 meters away from him and didn’t even put his finger on him. This will not happen in the NFL and it shows why it is so difficult to project players into the NFL.
Finally, let’s listen to what Mike Mayock said about why receivers are having trouble moving from the NFL to college.
“The number one reason is the lack of quality media coverage in football.” As I said earlier, it is incredibly difficult to find a receiver that has faced press coverage and consistently defeated it in college. Mayock then goes on to talk about how the receivers seem slower in pros because they think too much. Receptors can survive by performing well two ways in college. This is not the case in the NFL. Finally, he talks about having to learn different positions in the NFL, “you better get in there and learn 3 positions, not 1”. A common excuse for JJ Arcega-Whiteside is that he must have learned too many positions last year. Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon in the NFL, so you better get used to it. You must be able to play multiple positions so that the offensive coordinators can take advantage of different skills depending on who they play each week. It is no longer enough to just be able to play a position well.
So what can the Eagles do to hit a wide receiver this year?
It is incredibly difficult to do and it may sound obvious, but they must try to find examples of players consistently beating the press and playing through outside contact if they want to write an “X” receiver. The problem is that the guys who do this regularly (Ceedee Lamb, Jerry Jeudy) will not be there at 21 because as I mentioned before, they are the most valuable players so they will go early. So if you can’t find examples of a player beating the press (because he’s just never been in a hurry), then you have to plan and basically guess – who has the skills to get out of the media coverage? You want to see receivers exploding out of the line of scrimmage, which can play on contact, which can make difficult disputed takes and have the footwork to separate from the cornerbacks. Look closely at the first second of each rep, it will tell you a lot about this wide receiver and whether it is explosive enough to create vertical games or to come out of the press cover. Athletic tests are useful here too, you can use the tests to try out explosive athletes and then see if their strip matches. However, even if you think you’ve found a great prospect – if he hasn’t been in a hurry in college, you take a risk if you ask him to get out of the press in the NFL! This is not a fault with the NFL directors general but a fault with the way receivers are used in college.
If the Eagles are looking to find a vertical threat that can play the role of “Z” and also take pictures in the slot, they must find receivers that made it in college and decide if it will result in the pros . Don’t just look for receivers that look explosive when they cross huge gaps in area coverage. They must find receivers that are explosive off the line of scrimmage, can beat human coverage, have shown the ability to play on contact, show elite ball tracking skills and win to the point of capture. Considering what Mayock said earlier, you also want to find receivers that run a variety of routes and line up at different college positions, as they will have to do it in the NFL.
The good news is – I believe there are receivers outside of the top 3 that have the potential to be either this “X” receiver (Denzel Mims or Tee Higgins for example) and there are receivers that can be this explosive vertical threat (Brandon Aiyuk or Jalen Reagor) and these are the types of players the Eagles should prioritize. The worst thing the Eagles can do is write someone down and ask them to do something completely different from what they were asked to do at college. This leads to Nelson Agholor 2.0, a good slot machine receiver that was explosive in college but couldn’t play outside because it couldn’t play on contact.
All 4 of the above mentioned receivers could certainly “burst” if they were drafted by the Eagles and I like all 4 of these receivers. There are certainly safer prospects in the project. I am extremely confident that Justin Jefferson will be a very good wide receiver. I also believe that Van Jefferson, who will likely be drafted in the 3rd and 4th rounds, will be a very solid receiver for slot machines. Van Jefferson could even give you “Z” shots and maybe do well there. So why are NFL teams at risk of recruiting players with “bust” potential rather than just taking the safer prospect? Let’s go even further in the draft, I’m confident that KJ Hill could be a good WR3 / 4 and that he will almost certainly go on day 3.
The answer comes back to the impact a player will have on an offense. Let’s go back to the list of wide receivers written previously during the first round. None of them is strictly a slot receiver. It is just too easy to find a slit receiver in the project that you don’t need it with a first choice of lathe. It is also much easier to organize a slot machine receiver that has the ability to enter or exit on roads and it will also be more likely to encounter linebackers and safeties on occasion. Look what Greg Ward did last year for the Eagles. Also, that’s why Jordan Matthews had 16 touchdowns and 1,759 yards in his first two seasons, even if he couldn’t separate! In the end, the Eagles decided to replace Matthews with Agholor in the slot. Matthews had good numbers, but it wasn’t due to his own abilities and he had absolutely no explosive vertical elements in his game. The Eagles decided that Agholor was more explosive and so he gave up on offensive something he didn’t have with Matthews.
In the first round, you want to get an “X” receiver that can defeat press coverage or an explosive playmaker who can make big plays in the outside pass game and the slot machine. These guys will not be there in later rounds while the guys who can win with a free slot out will be. If they can find a player who can successfully play the “X” and / or create vertical games, this will have a huge impact in the passing game and will also help to open the field which will help Ertz, Goedert and JJAW to win. on intermediate routes. This is why players like Aiyuk, Reagor, Mims and Higgins will likely go earlier than people think in the project. NFL teams will take a risk on themselves because the value they could bring to an offense if they “hit” is enormous.
This brings me to Justin Jefferson, a popular choice for the Eagles at 21. Jefferson is a very good prospect, but he is a slot machine receiver only IMHO. He played outside in 2018 and had very poor performance against the press. He has trouble playing on contact and is much better with a free outing. There is a reason he was transferred full time in 2019, it is his best position and there is nothing wrong with that. If the Eagles drafted him at 21, I guess they must believe he can play both indoors and outdoors. Writing a slot machine receiver at 21 would be a misallocation of resources, especially when the Eagles fielded Zach Ertz 47% of the time last year and Dallas Goedert 40% of the time. Jefferson is a safe bet if you ask him to do in the NFL what he did at college, which is to win the slot machine. I don’t think Jefferson would provide the Eagles with a receiver that could beat press coverage or provide them with an explosive vertical threat. That means they will have to try to find these guys later and it is very, very difficult.
If the Eagles want Jefferson to be something they couldn’t do last year, which is to win away, this is where “busts” can happen. Another example from Laviska Shenault, a good prospect that shouldn’t be written early and made to be something it is not. If you write Shenault and expect him to be an “X” receiver or an explosive vertical threat due to his athleticism, you will probably try to place a square peg in a round hole. He wasn’t asked to do it in college, so it’s a huge risk to ask him to do it in the NFL.
None of the perspectives of the class project is “bust proof”. If the Eagles are to avoid a disaster and really improve their receiving talent, they need to make sure they write players based on what they showed in college and don’t ask them to do different things. They should also prioritize the search for a legitimate “X” receiver who can defeat media coverage or find another explosive playmaker to supplement DeSean Jackson or replace him when he is injured. You won’t find any explosive vertical threats or “X” receivers in the middle rounds, so you better get your guy in the 1st round too. Howie Roseman left this team with a huge need for wide receiver, and I don’t think he can afford to wait for the middle laps to fix it.
So overall, the NFL teams will always “break” the receiver position more than the other positions for many reasons. For the most part, however, this is a position that requires a huge amount of projection because college play is just so different from NFL play. It’s easy to criticize NFL teams, why spot players at risk and not just write “safe” prospects like a Van Jefferson or a KJ Hill? This is because these players, although good players, can be easily replaced. None of these players actually provide explosives or are particularly large or fast. They can be replaced. The Eagles can replace a Jordan Matthews type. Greg Ward had a good season last year, but he can be replaced quite easily. Replacing a DeSean Jackson is much more difficult, however. Likewise, the value that a legitimate “X” receiver can provide is simply enormous and cannot be easily replaced.
Don’t be surprised if Howie takes a risk on a Reagor or Mims in the first round. If the risk pays off, the Eagles’ offense may well be excellent again next year …