No prospect is perfect. Although I can hear some of you thinking Andrew Luck’s name (or maybe that’s the voice in my head and I just don’t want to admit it), this isn’t a post about the Stanford quarterback. It’s about learning to project a player’s potential by his errors.
Failures often reveal more about a prospect’s upside than his successes. Fans and evaluators alike (present company included) often fail to discern the difference between a correctable error and a deficiency that requires more serious work and may never improve. Based on my six years of extensive film study, I’m going to share with you lessons I’ve begun to learn that will help you develop a more critical eye.
Concentration Lapses: A.J. Green
What do Jerry Rice, Terrell Owens, and A.J. Green have in common? All three dropped the football a troubling amount as rookies. Rice finished an up and down rookie year where he was named NFC Offensive Rookie of the Year, but he also dropped a lot of off passes culminating with some untimely errors against the New York Giants in a 17-3 playoff loss. If you remember Eddie Brown, the Bengals draft pick in 1985 who was selected ahead of Rice and won the NFL Rookie of the Year Award, I bet you there were a share of 49ers fans that wished Brown fell to them instead of the receiver who became arguably the greatest offensive player in league history.
Terrell Owens also dropped the ball a great deal as a rookie and they didn’t go away after those first 16 games. Those drops kept coming throughout Owens’ career, but he also caught enough timely passes to earn six Pro Bowls and five selections as a first-team All Pro. The well-traveled T.O. won’t win popularity contests with his outspoken nature, but there is no doubt that from both a physical and technical standpoint he was capable of performing like an elite receiver.
A.J. Green has a lot to prove and a whole career in front of him before he can belong in the class of Rice or Owens. However, he is experiencing similar ups and downs that we saw from Rice and Owens early in their careers. In practices, Green has drawn raves from coaches and players that he was an upgrade to Owens and Chad Ochocinco. In preseason games, Green has dropped passes. And I anticipate that he’ll continue to have some embarrassing drops throughout his rookie year.
However, the problem isn’t that Green can’t catch the football. He’s experiencing lapses in concentration. There are three reasons that I can say with confidence that Green is committing errors rather than revealing a deficiency in his game:
- Green’s track record in college catching the football.
- The way Green catches the football.
- The adjustments Green is making in the NFL.
Green caught the ball at Georgia with an exceptional level of skill. He caught passes in traffic, he hung onto the ball after contact from defenders, and he made circus catches at every angle imaginable – and some just beyond the realm of what the average fan can conjure in his mind.
But what’s most important is the technique with which Green caught the football. On a consistent basis Green attacked the football. What I mean is that the Bengals’ first-round pick didn’t wait for the ball to come to his body.
Green often (not always) extended his arms away from his body to the football and plucked it from the air. When a receiver makes the effort to catch the ball at the furthest point from his body he’s demonstrating the ability to control his body and optimize his chances to control the football (see the highlights at 1:26 and 2:42 into the video compilation above). He’s anticipating the arrival of the football and if his hands initially fail him, the ball is still far enough away for him to have a strong chance to make a second attempt to secure the pass.
But it’s also important to note that Green often understands when to let the ball come to him and catch the ball close to his body rather than extend his arms into an area of traffic with multiple defenders. On the play 3:04 in to the highlight reel Green still catches the ball with his hands, but he’s aware of the oncoming defender and allows the ball closer to his body so he can use his frame to shield the ball from his opponents and absorb the blows to minimize the risk of losing control of the reception.
A common problem rookie receivers initially experience in the NFL is drops brought on by concentration lapses. These happen when a player is thinking too much much about what he was supposed to do, what he should be doing, or what he’s going to do next. The mind gets distracted and the motor skills follow.
The classic example is the receiver turning up field before he secures the ball and loses control of what looked like a simple catch. You’ll spot a veteran receiver or runner do this at least once a game. Frequently this concentration lapse is induced by a cornerback mistiming his attack of a route and jumping the pass too early, leaving a huge swath of open field ahead of the receiver and the receiver knows it. He’s so distracted by the free real estate ahead of him he forgets to look the ball into his hands and as a result his hands begin to retract towards his body as if he’s securing the ball. The problem is that he forgot look the ball all the way into his hands, first!
Another example is a receiver thinking about his route adjustment and hesitating long enough that he’s late into his break just enough that he has to make a tough attempt on the ball. Meanwhile he’s still thinking about his mistake as the ball arrives and he drops the pass. Yet another is when the receiver is bumped at the line and he didn’t expect to have this kind of opposition and arrives to the ball late.
Even if he handles the press coverage well enough, he might be so new to using these hand techniques or fakes to get off the line that he’s still absorbed in what he just executed to concentrate on the ball. This is often a common problem of rookie prospects that played in spread offenses from the slot and never saw press coverage. It doesn’t mean they lack good hands . They are experiencing the growing pains of learning other techniques and its causing the to temporarily lose concentration with what were more ingrained skills sets.
Am I over thinking it? See for yourself. If you have a young child in your family who has never tried to pat his head while rubbing his stomach watch him or her struggle to do it correctly despite that fact that they can do each of these skills separately as if it were second nature. Although receivers aren’t defeating the jam and catching the ball at the same time, the fluidity involved makes the analogy an effective one.
Deficiencies: Craig “Buster” Davis and Robert Meachem
The San Diego Chargers spent the 30th pick in the first round on Davis, but he was cut this summer after four years where he never developed into an NFL-caliber receiver. The reason was what the Chargers discovered too late was a deficiency with catching the football. Whereas A.J. Green mostly caught the ball with good hands techniques, Buster Davis rarely caught the football with good technique at LSU.
Davis consistently tried to trap the ball to his body at every opportunity regardless of the situation. When a receiver tries to trap the ball when he’s wide open, running upright down the field, or facing the quarterback without a defender in the area, this is a sign that the receiver will at least have some severe struggles holding onto the football early in his career.
I couldn’t find YouTube highlights to show you of Davis at LSU, but here’s an NFL low light of Davis doing what was normal for him: trying to trap the ball to his body rather than use his hands.
Some players get better catching the football with their hands when they didn’t have these basic techniques learned at the college level. However, they are generally exceptions to the rule. The Vikings Jake Reed was a notable case.
Robert Meachem body-caught passes at Tennessee until his final season and I vividly remember him dropping several passes in the first half of a game against the JaMarcus Russell-led LSU Tigers because the Vols receiver was trying to use the proper hands techniques and they still weren’t second nature to him. He actually reverted back to body catching the ball in this game because he was more comfortable.
Only then did he begin looking like the player the Vols were counting on. Although Meachem caught passes with his hands at the Combine, I knew that the film showed he was still a newbie at learning these techniques and it was going to take some time for him to develop into the pass catcher that matched his athleticism. If you think about it, Meachem still isn’t the player most expected him to become and Jake Reed only had a limited number of good years before drops plagued him again.
In the coming weeks, I’m going to highlight more techniques where you can begin to discern correctable errors from more glaring deficiencies.