The late, great Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis coined the phrase “speed kills.” There was a time Davis prized speed the way a trained gun enthusiast prized a competition model Glock. But late in his career, Davis’ love for fast-moving players seemed more like a warning for addiction.
If Davis were alive to see Stephen Hill’s 4.36-second, 40-yard sprint on Sunday, he’d probably get a contact buzz just from watching the Georgia Tech receiver on Lucas Field’s track. It’s hard to blame Davis, speed is a lot like a loaded gun. Capable of great power, it can disable an opponent without even pulling the trigger – sometimes without even removing it from the holster. However in untrained hands, it’s often more dangerous to those handling it.
The better NFL organizations value speed as a raw material. “Playing speed” is more important, and the greatest factors behind playing speed isn’t an optimal 40. Those who possess the minimum required speed, display an understanding of the game, refined the techniques of their position, and learn the tendencies of their opponents are far more productive than those whose games are built solely on an excess of speed.
Stephen Hill is more than a fast athlete – he’s a promising young receiver with budding game skills. But he’ll get the boost in draft status from his 40-time because there’s only so much one can teach to maximize speed in a straight. NFL teams see his 40-time as a baseline of what they have to work with. Sometimes it works out. Vincent Jackson is one of several positive cases.
However, the risk with taking a fast player with raw technique is that he’ll never harness that commodity that made everyone ooh and aah in late February and pick him high in April. But from September through December he continuously disappoints. Donte Stallworth and to some extend Lee Evans fit that bill.
Ultimately, I think Hill is worth a high pick because he flashes enough of the baseline technical skills that’s required from a successful NFL receiver that I think he’ll refine. However, it’s easy to scout a player and communicate that he’s capable of developing. It’s a whole other story for football management to determine if that player will do what it takes to make that leap. The plays below reveal why speed is only an advantage if its harnessed.
Good Result, Bad Form
Hills’ first target is a six-yard catch from a 1×1 receiver, 30-personnel, double-wing formation with 12:34 in the first quarter of this contest versus Kansas. Hill is the near side receiver with the CB playing single coverage seven yards off the line and shading Hill to the inside.
Hill runs a seven-yard hook. This is the type of route that works best with a hard break where the receiver stops his forward momentum as soon as possible and the way to do it is to take a hard plant step forward and drop the hips to begin the turn. The strongest muscles of the leg are used like a brake. A receiver with speed can easily manipulate a defender on this route by driving hard off the line to force the defender react to the possibility of a deep route. Then the receiver drops his hips and begins the turn to the ball while the defender is going deep.
However, Hill lacks this kind of refined game. At the snap, Hill drives off the line at a desirable angle, but the corner back is looking into the backfield to see if the route will be a short one.
For Hill to sell the CB that he’s going deep, he needs to maintain his drive phase longer in his initial release. However, we see that doesn’t happen.
In addition to leaving his drive phase, the Tech receiver changes his stride before his turn, taking a series of shorter steps rather than one plant and drop of the hips. The more shorter steps a player takes, the slower he runs. It also tips off the defender that he’s beginning to change direction.
The photo below might appear that Hill has “dropped his hips,” but note the direction of the feet and the knees. This is not what the proper technique looks like when a player begins his break and this is what Hill’s knees and feet looked like at the top of his break. You want to see the head over the knees and a minimal amount of steps. Michael Irvin was “slow” by receiver standards, but he was a great player. Watch him tutor A.J. Green and Greg Little on executing a break.
On this route Hill does a few things that Irvin warns not to do, but he still gets a small amount of separation because his renown speed afforded him a good starting cushion from the CB.
Hill catches the ball low and at his back hip with the defender coming from behind to hit him over the back.
In the NFL, Hill will need to maintain his drive phase longer, sink his hips to generate more immediate separation, and work towards towards the QB and the ball rather than veer outside where the CB can undercut the pass from behind. On this route, Hill isn’t in position to shield the defender from the ball because he breaks too far outside and has to reach back for the pass. Understandably the pass could have been too far inside in terms of desired placement, but Hill’s route didn’t help. A good result with bad form
Bad Result, Bad Form
Hill’s next target was a 1st and 10 pass with 6:00 in the third quarter versus Clemson as the far side receiver in Tech’s base offense that you saw in the last play. This time CB plays nine yards off the line as his single coverage cushion.
Hill once again runs a hook route with a really slow break.
Hill begins his break a little over six yards down field. You can see in the photo below his knees are bent down hill and his butt is down. The problem is that Hill doesn’t plant and turn back here. He takes several more short steps towards the first down marker. Short steps that slow him down and throw off the timing with his quarterback.
The quarterback’s pass arrives on time and outside, but Hill is not where he suppose to be.
Hill had to take too many steps to set up his break and this caused him to be late to his spot. Bad form, bad result. The amount of separation he had to make the play made the error more egregious. Quarterbacks need to feel comfortable knowing where a receiver is going to be on timing routes. That’s how they can develop rapport about where exactly on a receiver’s body the quarterback can place the ball.
If a quarterback cannot gauge his receiver’s speed because that receiver lacks the consistent technique to execute a route the same way every time then rapport is harder to develop. Drew Brees and Peyton Manning thrive off great rapport with their receivers. Josh Nesbitt was not a great college passer, but I don’t think he was to blame here. If the WR is erratic with his routes, the QB is the player fans blame for his inaccuracy 8 targets out of 10.
Harnessed Speed Generates Big Plays, Raw Speed Generates Bad Plays
Let’s got to Hill’s wheel house: the vertical route. If you ask me today which NFL prospects runs the best vertical routes in single coverage on the perimeter, Hill would not be one of them. Arizona’s Juron Criner and East Carolina’s Lance Lewis are the two receivers I think of right away and neither of them will hear their names the draft’s first day – and in Lewis’ case, he might not hear his name called at all. Neither player is remotely as fast as Hill, but they know how to use their speed as a tool to create a big play. The example below shows that Hill still has some lessons to learn.
The play begins with Hill as the near side slot in a twin receiver alignment on 1st and 10 with 3:28 left in this Clemson match up and Tech is down by 14. Hill’s coverage is five yards off the line.
While Hill slows his gait during the out and up portion of his route, it’s what happens after he releases vertically and gets to showcase his speed that is most bothersome. Hill’s slow beginning gives the CB the opportunity to maintain inside position on the vertical portion of the route – keeping up with Hill nearly step for step.
If he’s even, he’s leavin’ might be a truism for gauging if a receiver is open on a vertical route, but not when the throw isn’t leading the receiver down field. In this case, Hill needs to know that he must adjust to the football and outrunning the CB won’t get it done. Unfortunately, Hill only tries to use his speed rather than turn the defender’s perception of his speed to his advantage.
This kind of angle to the ball is not a display of a “my ball mentality.” He’s not attacking the ball, he’s waiting for the ball to come to him.
There is no denying that Josh Nesbitt under threw the ball on his roll outside. However, Hill could have stopped short, let the CB pass in front and then undercut the defender with his leap and attack the ball.
This suggested route adjustment is a common play we’ve seen for years from Randy Moss, Larry Fitzgerald, Andre Johnson, and most other quality “X” receivers in the NFL. Brandon Lloyd does it to perfection. Stephen Hill has probably had plays where he has done this well, but it’s not a consistent weapon for him yet.
I believe Hill can develop into a good “X” receiver. Tomorrow, I’ll show you what else he must learn and one play where he flashes more than speed that give me encouragement that Hill will make that transition if he’s willing to work at it.
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