Wide receiver can be a difficult position to evaluate because there are three general factors that contribute to a player’s success in the NFL: Athleticism, technique, and the mesh of his skills within the team’s offensive system. Here are six NFL WRs with lessons to share through the lens of YouTube highlights.
Welcome to a master class on receiving. Our guest lecturers will be Tim Brown, Isaac Bruce, Austin Collie, Derrick Mason, Sterling Sharpe, and Reggie Wayne. You’re familiar with their body of work. Now it’s time to examine them under the microscope.
At first glance, these six receivers appear to have different games to the naked eye. Brown and Sharpe were often seen as physical wide outs with strength, balance, and speed. Tackle breakers who turned slants and crosses into long scores. Collie is regarded as a slot weapon with great hands and smarts to find openings in zone to get yardage after the catch. Mason and Bruce are seen as crafty route specialists with dangerous speed and quickness. I believe most people see Wayne as the ultimate possession receiver.
What I did not fully realize was that during their careers they were all listed between 5’10″-6’1″ and 188-201 lbs.
In an NFL environment where there is a demand for the impressive size-strength-speed combos of Miles Austin, Vincent Jackson, Terrell Owens, Andre Johnson, and Calvin Johnson, is it necessarily a slam dunk that you take these players’ best seasons over the ones who will be teaching class today?
You can nitpick minor differences in stats or take into account the surrounding talent and arrive at a different opinion. However in most cases, you’re making a mistake if you do. With the exception of Collie, whose career is too brief to compare, the career portfolios of Bruce, Brown, Sharpe, and Wayne indicate that “bigger-stronger-faster” doesn’t mean “better.”
Buying Back Real Estate
Our first instructor is Sharpe, who 3-5 years ago delivered a coaching session to an Oklahoma State receiving corps that included pupils Dez Bryant and Adarius Bowman. The former Green Bay star demonstrates on this YouTube excerpt that “open” shouldn’t be defined as only a clear gap of space between the body of a receiver and a defender. This is a fundamental truth you will see played out with the other receivers’ highlights in this post.
Notice how Sharpe emphasizes the importance of a receiver catching the ball with his arms away from his body. Another tendency Sharpe mentions is the common response young receivers have that is false: we’re comfortable with this technique. Sharpe is correct; annually we’ve seen early-round receiving prospects who cannot manage to execute this technique successfully.
What Sharpe is essentially saying is that in college football, receivers are more frequently targeted when they have a definite gap between themselves and a defender. One of the reasons is the lower skill level of quarterbacks throwing to them. Pinpoint accuracy is more often a bonus rather than a requirement at the college level.
Another factor is that most college receivers don’t get a consistent chance to make plays in tight coverage. With the collective accuracy of quarterbacks at a lower level than NFL passers, there are fewer opportunities for receivers to hone this technique in college football. The result is naturally a greater adjustment curve for those receivers who do enter the pros.
Derrick Mason: A Crafty Agent of the Sterling Sharpe Real Estate Firm
Sharpe’s lesson about “buying back” position from a defender after the break is an important part of route running. Since Sharpe’s career doesn’t have a lot of highlights on YouTube, Derrick Mason has some great examples. Note how frequently he gets position on the defender in tight coverage.
1:29 – Although not shown in this video, Mason trails the Vikings CB after his break. However, you can get a glimpse of what he does to get ahead. First, Mason places his hand behind the back of the corner and lags just enough at the defender’s back shoulder to force the CB to consider a back shoulder throw. This setup gives Mason the opportunity to burst ahead of the corner. Paired with a small shove to the chest, Mason’s move jerks the CB’s head back and this helps the Ravens receiver get position as the ball arrives ahead of the defender. This technique was far more craft than athleticism.
On this touchdown reception against the Steelers, watch how Mason doesn’t bring his arms away from his body until the last moment of the pass. Imagine those nature videos of a frog catching insects with its tongue and you’ll see how it closely resembles the refined technique of a polished receiver. This practice allows a receiver to cover more ground at a faster rate than holding the arms out for the ball while tracking its trajectory.
The base athleticism of quickness and leaping ability are certainly there in this reception, but most of this is technique refined through years of coaching and practice. To the naked eye it’s an athletic play. To the football-savvy, it is great execution of technique.
Tim Brown: Setting up breaks
You’re going to notice on several of these highlights similar hands techniques that Mason demonstrated. But the primary focus is to watch how effectively Brown sets up his breaks early in his routes. Brown’s highlights reveal that effective pass receiving in the NFL has a lot to do with getting the early advantage in tight coverage.
0:17 – Brown earns separation in this wheel route within the first five steps. The Raiders WR forces the DB to account for his inside move before breaking hard to the sideline. The most important thing Brown does on this route is to initially break hard in an east west direction rather than veering down field. Most younger receivers with a less refined game will make the mistake of breaking vertically too soon.
Brown’s horizontal break does two things:
- If the DB tries to close the gap down field by angling his chase diagonally to get ahead of or cut off Brown, the WR can adjust his route inside for a big play. These contingencies are often a part of a pass and catch combo’s rapport.
- If the DB follows Brown horizontally as shown on this highlight, the WR should consistently establish separation with his back to the chasing DB as Shannon Sharpe coached Dez Bryant and Adarius Bowman.
Brown then catches the football just like Shannon Sharpe demonstrated early in the video; extending his arms outside and away from his body to snare the pass.
0:27 – This simple slant is just a quick demonstration of a release technique I’ll cover in a forthcoming post: forcing the coverage to account for his outside contact with a jab step outside before bursting inside and across the defender’s chest.
0:54 – This route is against off-man coverage. The defensive back is playing about seven yards off Brown. This play is a great example of how a receiver is trying to get the defender to raise or turn his head. When a DB raises his head or turns his head in the opposite direction of the eventual break, the WR earns an advantage.
Brown initially drives hard off the line of scrimmage with his head down and shoulders forward. This form influences the defender’s back pedal. As the receiver approaches the top of his route he raises his head and shoulders and begins the slightest turn of his upper body to the outside.
This movement, and a very quick head fake coordinated with a jab step with his outside foot forces the DB to bite outside as Brown turns inside on his break. The receiver’s move turns the DB around and he crosses the middle of the field wide open.
1:26 – This is a classic double move that most college receivers don’t do very well because they don’t carry out the initial move well enough to sell it. Watch how Brown initially sells the out by making a hard jab step inside to set up the initial break outside. This is what forces the DB to bite hard on the initial move and sacrifice his distance and reaction time to Brown’s second break to the inside. Few young receivers sell the initial move as if it is a real route. They think of a double move as two moves when it is actually more like three or four.
1:34 – Although the CB in off-man coverage is back-pedaling with his back to the sideline early in Brown’s route, the WR doesn’t simply turn outside. He reinforces the CB’s position by giving a shoulder fake inside before breaking outside. This is what gives Brown so much open space after his break. These small shoulder fakes, head fakes, and jab steps are simple techniques that almost every receiver uses, but with varying degrees of success.
When I post some of the instructional links that I’ve found, you’ll see aspiring high school players who use these moves but their execution is far less refined and it makes them less believable. It should reinforce the point that “simple” is not always synonymous with “easy.”
Isaac Bruce: “Hands, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes (Knees and Toes)”
The producer of these highlight compilations of Bruce’s 14-year career begins with a great find of Bruce playing special teams. The rookie blocks a punt against the Packers something I’ve seen from former rookie gunners like Hines Ward and Brandon Lloyd.
The best part of the blocked punt is that Bruce reveals a technique often used to beat the jam: slipping the shoulders under contact. Watch these videos and learn how a smaller player uses technique to beat the jam as well as any big-bodied receiver in the game.
2:28 – At the right end of your screen you’re going to see Bruce releasing from the slot and dip his outside shoulder under the DB in coverage on this corner route that breaks to the back of the end zone. The shoulder dip is set up with a hard-driving release from the line and the combo of these two techniques puts the DB in trail position early.
This early trail position forces the DB to focus on making up ground with Bruce inside of him. The WR’s subsequent break outside forces a harder change of direction for the DB and creates the separation. However, as with many of the routes we saw from Tim Brown, it wasn’t what happened at the break, but how the break was set up.
5:45 – While we won’t see the receiver’s break from the first camera angle, Bruce runs a deep post from the slot that results in a 27-yard completion and a 77-yard touchdown. However what you do see is how Bruce sets up this break with a sharp dip outside, getting his head, shoulders, knees, and toes pointed diagonal to the sideline long enough to force the shallow coverage to turn outside as well as the safety over top.
If you pay attention, you’ll notice a lot of star receivers in the college game that don’t create this alignment with these four body parts when they try to set up a break. Maybe you’ll see a head fake, a shoulder fake, or a jab step. However, a complete sale of a seam route that forces the safety to widen his zone isn’t common. It requires patience, confidence, and attention to detail.
We don’t see the safety over top turning outside with the first look, but when the camera angle following the trajectory of the pass returns to Bruce, it is easy to see that the safety misses Bruce because the set up of the receiver’s break took him out of position to cut off the play. The safety is already trailing Bruce’s break inside as the ball arrives and the last line of defense misses the diving wrap for the Rams receiver’s legs.
0:55 – This is a replay of a touchdown pass against the Jets against off-man coverage. Bruce runs through contact using a variation of a rip move that you’d see a defensive tackle use to get past a blocker. Bruce economizes this move by using the same arm to hit and rip the defender to run through. This is a practiced technique that is clearly second nature to Bruce based on its execution.
Austin Collie: Winning Early
Austin Collie was not regarded as a fast prospect. But I saw a lot of examples of him open on vertical routes at BYU. Collie also had one of the fastest 20-yard shuttles and 3-cone drills of the 2009 draft class at the position. Most importantly, that quickness shows up on the field in pads.
The highlights below illustrate the importance of “winning early” in the NFL and then a receiver using his body to maintain that advantage through the length of the route. You’ll see this on plays in this highlight package other than the one I detail below. When a receiver capable of getting behind a defender early is in sync with Peyton Manning – one the most prepared, aggressive, and accurate passers in history – it is an example of what a great fit within an offensive system looks like.
1:22 – Collie has the initial speed to get the DB to trail him early from the slot and this helps the receiver sell his break inside by demonstrating great form with his knees and hips as he goes into his break. At the same time, Collie uses a great head fake to the outside once he reaches the top of his break.
This move leaves the Patriots defensive back on the ground. Once again, the head fake is a simple, fundamental technique, but Collie’s mastery of the move in terms of its timing on this play in conjunction with other crisp technique is the difference.
Reggie Wayne – A Master Practitioner Putting it All Together
Wayne is one of the best technicians at his position playing today. I could spend all day marveling over the rare physical feats of players most other media profile and Wayne would never be in the conversation. However, the Colts primary option rightfully belongs in the elite tier of NFL wide receivers.
0:32 – Wayne demonstrates why being the first to establish contact in man coverage often gives the aggressor the advantage in the battle. The Colts receiver gets behind the defender quickly because he foils the CB’s position to jam with his arm. Wayne’s use of his arm to block the CB’s path allows him to run through contact to get behind the opponent early. Since Wayne and Manning both recognize this single coverage, the pass is thrown quickly down field so enough touch can be used for the receiver to run under it.
0:39 - Wayne’s knowledge of the zone coverage (appears to be Cover-2) and how to play it is key on this play. Less polished receivers will simply run to the open spot and rely on the quarterback to thread the needle. Instead, Wayne sets up his ultimate destination by faking the slant. This draws the CB inside before Wayne releases down field.
This initial fake of the slant forces the safety to maintain his original position and it delays the defender’s reaction to Wayne long enough to give the Colts receiver an extra step or two in the open zone. Although Wayne has to dive for the ball because of his initial fake, he gains extra room to make the play.
It’s the little things like this extra fake that separate young players like an Austin Collie or a veteran like Wayne who had a promising start to his career from a Jacoby Jones, a Craig Davis, or a James Hardy, all prospects who had more desirable physical skills but weren’t immediately or consistently productive.
The best part of the play might be Wayne’s hands technique. Look at the hand position with palms up and fingers forming a web-like pattern that converges on the football. This slight angle of the hands helps a receiver cover a greater surface area of the ball with his hands because the quicker more fingers can touch the ball, the faster his hands will slow the ball’s movement to grip it.
This is why on this diving catch that Wayne could manage to tuck the ball with one hand under his arm while in the air and parallel with the ground. Without this angling of the hands, the ball only touches the first two fingers of each hand (at best) and the ball is more likely to slip through the receiver’s grasp.
1:09 – Look at the angle of Wayne’s hips and knees as he drops into the top of his break on a perimeter timing route against the Jaguars corner in off-man coverage. Good form.
1:15 – This post route for a TD versus the Cowboys is another great example of Sterling Sharpe’s words of wisdom regarding body positioning. Wayne gets his back to the defender, shields the opponent from the ball, and then attacks the ball at the last moment with his arms extended from his body with an explosive reach.
2:21: This might be one of the better examples of technique versus athleticism that I will show you in this post. Wayne’s opponent is Champ Bailey, the star cornerback whose athleticism prompted the saying, “Water covers two-thirds of the earth, the other third is covered by Champ Bailey.”
Bailey is bigger, faster, and as experienced as Wayne. But the WR and Manning know how to turn Bailey’s physical advantages against him. The key is the location of the throw.
Manning throws Wayne open on this route by placing the ball behind Bailey. One of the reasons this strategy succeeds is Wayne, who baits Bailey into trying to cut off the route at the top. Wayne finishes the play with the late hands technique we’ve discussed with Mason and Brown, but used with a different purpose.
Wayne doesn’t bring his hands to meet the ball until the pass is close enough to catch. In this case, the late hands aren’t used to help Wayne continue running to meet the ball; the technique is used to avoid tipping off Bailey to the placement of the throw.
3:00 – Wayne double-clutches the ball on an over the shoulder catch against Cortland Finnegan of the Titans, but because he used his hands first to catch the ball rather than immediate go for the trap to the chest, the ball bounces off his hands rather than his chest. This gives Wayne a second chance to control the ball. Good technique with less than perfect results breeds optimal second chances.
3:02 – Wayne scores on this fade-stop against the Giants, setting up the reception by looking to the ball as if he’s going to catch it over his inside shoulder. This look sets up the last-second break back to the ball.
There is nothing physically imposing about Wayne, Collie, Mason or Bruce, and neither Sharpe nor Brown were considered big receivers for their time. Their games were built on executing the offense with precision and that rapport comes from the smarts and technique built on consistent and intense preparation.
Prospects entering the NFL with a higher level of technician in them are more favorable to me than most elite athletes without these tendencies. The reason should be more obvious: if they have the base level athleticism to compete in the NFL and they’ve already shown evidence of their smarts and work ethic to hone the craft of playing the position, then they are more likely to make a smooth transition to the rigors of professional football.