WR Josh Gordon: Hands are for more than catching the football

Josh Gordon reminds me of Demaryius Thomas, but I believe Gordon has more physical upside and flashes more technical skill than Thomas at the same point of their careers. Photo by Jeffery Beall.

Warning: Although the video clips illustrating the analysis of this post are more than adequate to get the point across, they are amateurish, at best. Future analysis will likely be in still frames as I’ve used in the past.

Josh Gordon’s current skill and style of play reminds me of a mix between a raw Terrell Owens and Demaryius Thomas. However, his potential could be as limitless as Calvin Johnson. Gordon has a fascinating amalgamation of strengths and weaknesses for a wide receiver and this post will examine the strengths and weaknesses of the former Baylor wide receiver, who is the wildcard of the 2012 NFL Supplemental Draft.

This post will focus on Gordon’s speed, acceleration, and his knowledge and execution of separating from defenders as a receiver and ball carrier. The quick and dirty on Gordon’s skills in this area is that the former Baylor receiver has to speed to be a dangerous deep threat in the NFL, a big-play ball carrier in space, and the strength and quickness to put some toast under a cornerback’s jam and leave the defender standing by himself in the kitchen as his coach turns up the heat.

But Gordon’s sophomore performances against Kansas, Texas Tech, and Illinois are a wonderful illustration why size, speed, and strength are precious commodities, but at the NFL level these characteristics don’t have the same value if the player in possession of these athletic gifts doesn’t learn the craft of his position. If his off-field indiscretions are a thing of the past, I believe Gordon’s on-field performances demonstrate that he was learning the skills of his position and there is a good chance he’ll grow into a strong technician in the NFL.

One of the more important things Gordon will have to improve is his hands, but not how you think. Gordon is a good pass-catcher. He extends his arms to the football and his hand position to catch the ball away from his body is consistently on point. He has soft hands and makes plays with his back to the ball as well as passes thrown away from his body while his momentum his carrying him in the opposite direction of the ball.

What I’m talking about is how he uses his hands at every stage before the ball arrives. This is one of the things that holds Gordon back. With more technique he’d be a great NFL prospect rather than merely a good one with great physical potential. Not much of a difference if Gordon refines his execution, but there’s not much of a difference between a college star and an undrafted free agent, either.

The first two plays demonstrate his athleticism. The rest of the plays demonstrate why athleticism will not mean much in a league full of special athletes if there’s not enough technique and savvy to use it the right way. How Gordon uses his hands (or doesn’t) is the common factor with these plays.

Speed and Separation

What has most people excited about Josh Gordon is the obvious things that jump  off the screen. This 6’3″, 220-pound receiver can fly. If a cornerback covering Gordon gets caught playing the quarterback rather than playing the receiver, it’s all over. His size and speed is rare, but what happens against Kansas in the frames below will be too rare in the NFL for Gordon to see the field if running fast an in a straight line is the only thing he can do.

Baylor liked to use Gordon the same way certain boxers open the fight with an attempt at landing a knockout blow early while his opponent is still in the mode of feeling out the situation. This was the case with Gordon’s first target versus Kansas, which results in a 39-yard touchdown on a 1st and 10 pass from a 2×1 receiver, 11-personnel set with 12:58 in the first quarter.

Quarterback Robert Griffin III is under center and Kansas was in a 4-3 defense with two safeties high. Gordon is the receiver alone on the single side of the formation near the numbers at the near side of the camera angle. The receiver draws single coverage and it initially appears that the corner is going to press Gordon. This poorly made video clip shows the play twice. The first only shows Gordon at the end of the reception, but at the 0:35 mark, there’s a replay that shows the entire route.

At the snap, Kansas runs a corner blitz from the twin-receiver side and the weak side linebacker covers the slot and the free safety accounts for the outside receiver. The old axiom we hear from television analysts is that its often a good idea to throw into the direction of the blitz. In this case, Griffin is looking away from the blitz and the pre snap look of the Kansas defense in conjunction with the offensive play design is the reason. The strong safety’s coverage responsibility is likely the tight end, which means Griffin likely knew that he had Gordon one-on-one with the corner playing tight to the line. Mismatch.

The Baylor quarterback begins with a play fake, which draws the attention of both the strong safety and cornerback. The receiver takes an outside release as the corner watches Robert Griffin execute the fake to the back and because Gordon takes a hard release outside, he’s even with his defender by the time he’s 10 yards down field. As receivers and quarterbacks like to say about getting separation on a defender, “if he’s even, he’s leavin’.”

Griffin finishes his drop at the moment Gordon is even with the corner looking into the backfield rather than his man. The Baylor quarterback knows he’s delivering this pass to his receiver when he sees what we saw. By the time Griffin’s pass was 24 yards down field at the 15, Gordon was at the 5 and three yards behind the corner, tracking the ball over his inside shoulder.

He catches the ball with his hands away from his outside shoulder in stride and in the end zone for the score. Effortless, graceful, and and fast. One thing to note is that Gordon reaches for the defender to make contact before he bursts past. This was unnecessary contact and it is a recurring theme you’ll begin to notice with Gordon’s vertical routes. This time it doesn’t bite him.

Gordon’s next target in this game was even more impressive from the standpoint of straight line speed and acceleration. The play was a 1st and 10 bubble screen to the right sideline with 4:22 in the half that Gordon took for a 94-yard touchdown. The play begins with Baylor in 12-personnel twin receiver set. The twin receivers are to the near side of the formation on the weak side of this unbalanced line.

A KU corner and safety are about 7-10 yards off the twin receiver side and you should notice that the strong safety and strong side corner are focused on the tight ends to the opposite side of the field. At the very least, this pre snap alignment indicates that Baylor will have a two-on-two situation for the receivers on this screen play. However, Baylor runs this screen by pulling the right tackle to the flat as a lead blocker, which will make the play a 3-on-2 advantage for the offense.

As soon as the ball is snapped Gordon peels inside to wait on the throw. He catches it with his hands and works between two excellent blocks. The first is from his inside receiver sealing outside corner and the second is a cut block by the right tackle on the corner that was playing a deeper alignment at the first down marker. At this point it Gordon is in a footrace up the sideline against a linebacker coming from the inside.

Even smaller receivers known for their speed and acceleration lack the quickness to beat a backside pursuit up the field on plays like this, but Gordon manages to escape the linebacker’s diving attempt and maintain his balance through the contact to his feet as he gets 12 yards down field. At this point, Gordon is gone. He extends his lead on the safety up the right sideline for touchdown that nearly covers the entire length of the playing field. The big, strong receiver has a waddling gait that reminds me of Olympic Gold Medal 200 meter sprinter Michael Johnson.

A finer side note about this play is Gordon’s ball security. He does a good job carrying the ball with his outside arm and even tightens his grip on the ball through the contact by the linebacker, but he needs to do a better job of getting his elbow tight to his body to make the carriage completely secure. He has such long arms that he’ll need to become more conscious about getting that elbow cinched tight to his frame to prevent punch-outs from backside pursuit.

Flashes of Refined Quickness

On a the 21-yard comeback in this game, Gordon’s first step after the catch had the quickness of a 190-pound receiver, not a 220-pounder. That’s one of the key physical aspects of Gordon that sets him apart from many receiver prospects and something I’ll highlight in more detail with future posts about him. Gordon consistently demonstrates he knows the best angle to turn up field to gain maximum yardage and he makes turns and breaks with excellent suddenness and control for his size.

This is by no means a perfect hard break, but I like how Gordon demonstrate some ability to drop his hips and make a sudden turn. After the catch, he displays decisiveness with his turn to the open field and good stop-start quickness for a man his size.

Why Technique Trumps Athleticism – Part I

Gordon’s second target against Illinois in the 2010 Texas Bowl is a deep streak up the far sideline on a 2nd and 9 play action pass from a 12 personnel set with the QB Griffin from center. This is a similar shot-play as the 39-yard touchdown I highlighted at the beginning of this post.

Gordon has single coverage on the linebacker and both safeties are in the middle of the field looking at the running back and the tight ends. Gordon takes two initial steps outside and releases inside the corner playing tight to the line. The receiver extends his outside arm to the near side shoulder of the corner and accelerates through the contact.

The corner, knowing he was beat because Gordon was the first to establish contact in this situation and had great natural strength and speed, decides to do the smart thing in this situation: hold Gordon and prevent the touchdown. On the surface, this looks like Gordon demonstrated good technical skill against tight bump and run coverage. In my opinion, it’s only half-true, at best.

Gordon demonstrates good strength with his hands on this play, but the placement of his hands to the corner’s shoulder was not good location. Gordon opens his chest to the corner when he extends his arm to the defender’s near shoulder. This actually allows the corner to grab Gordon’s jersey at the chest.

Top-notch athletes are going to use every opening they can to earn an advantage if they are given an opportunity – this includes cheating with the hope of not getting caught. Football players have to learn how to establish position with certain techniques that either prevent an opponent from cheating or force that opponent to cheat so blatantly that the official has to see it. Fortunately for Gordon on this play, the official sees the defensive holding.

However, Gordon should have extended his arm across the body of the corner and aim for the defender’s far shoulder. If he does this, the receiver’s arm because a natural barrier that makes it much more difficult for the cornerback to get his hands into Gordon’s body. The receiver then has a much better chance to run past the defender, get his back to his opponent and control where the defender can get position. The defender is then left with only two choices: hang onto Gordon’s arm so blatantly that the official has to call a penalty or run through Gordon’s back to reach the ball an draw a pass interference call.

Because Gordon establishes contact at the near shoulder, he has difficulty dipping under and through the corner, which slows his progress up field. While the penalty might be a consolation prize, Gordon still got open and two steps of separation outside the defender to the sideline and had a real shot to catch this pass for a touchdown.  However, Gordon’s unrefined technique versus the jam is the reason the corner is able to grab the receiver’s jersey, turn Gordon around and alter the timing between the Baylor receiver and one of the best deep ball throwers in the college game. This prevents Gordon from reaching the ball.

Some people might say Gordon made a good play to draw the penalty. As a developing player in the college game, I’d be apt to agree. As a pro wide receiver, he has to show better skill with how to use his hands and limit a defender’s opportunity to cheat and get away with it.

Tracking the Football: Why Randy Moss and Larry Fitzgerald are both great deep threats, but they are the receiving equivalents of the tortoise and the hare.

In this Texas Bowl match up, Gordon is targeted on 1st and 10 with 10:25 in the third quarter from a 1×2 receiver, 11-personnel shotgun. Gordon is the single receiver on the far side of the field outside the numbers and has the cornerback playing five yards off him and shaded to the inside. The safety is 10 yards off the line and at the hash. Both Gordon and Griffin identify the single coverage and run a deep sideline fade.

Gordon outruns the corner, but I think he fades to the sideline too early. His hands come up too early while he’s tracking the ball. This act not only slows the receiver’s stride, but it gives the defender a chance to engage Gordon and slow the receiver’s path to the ball. The result is Gordon misjudging the pass and never getting to it.

On the surface, this might appear to be an overthrown pass, but if Gordon keeps his arms moving while running down field and continues his burst past the defender with the goal of getting his back to his opponent, this play would have ended with a touchdown. One of the most important things I’ve seen from a coaching session for wide receivers was Sterling Sharpe coaching Dez Bryant and the Oklahoma State receivers on getting position on a defender early and then reaching for the ball.

Gordon reaches for the ball before he gets position, but it is clear to me that he had the burst to finish separating from the corner before he looked for the ball. He just got impatient.

Larry Fitzgerald wouldn’t beat Randy Moss in a footrace unless Moss had a battleship anchor strapped to his ass. Even then it might be a photo finish. However, like Moss, Fitzgerald has mastered the skill of gaining position on a defender in various stages of a route to maximize the athleticism he has. Combined with his skill at tracking the ball with his eyes and not reaching for the pass until it’s on top of him, Fitzgerald is one of the best vertical players in the game despite being as slow as an anchored Moss.

Cornerbacks look for tells when they have to play the man rather than the ball. A receiver extending his arms for the ball is a huge tell and an invitation for the defensive back to slow the route and earn better position on the pass. Eliminate that bad habit and a receiver with size and speed has a huge advantage on vertical routes. It also gives a receiver like Gordon the chance to earn better position on the defender and control that defender’s path to the ball.

The same issue occurred earlier in the year versus Texas Tech. Gordon is targeted on 1st and 10 with 6:46 in the third quarter from a 2×2 receiver, 10-personnel pistol set as the outside receiver on the near side of the field. The cornerback plays five yards off the line and Gordon runs a deep post.

Gordon tries to use a jab step outside and then dip his outside shoulder under the defensive back who has his back to the sideline. However Gordon self-destructs his advantage on this play by initiating contact with the defender by extending his arm toward the defender’s body. This slows Gordon’s progress a step.

While it knocks the corner off balance, the contact costs Gordon a step to the ball and the pass arrives at the spot where Gordon could have been if he simply focused on running past the defender and getting position rather than moving the defender with his arm. Gordon now has to reach high and away for the ball and can only manage a hand on the ball.

While he has good hands as a pass catcher, these plays are evidence that he has to develop good hands as a route runner. Once Gordon learns when and how to use his hands at each phase of a route, he’ll become a much-improved receiver.

For more analysis like this at every skill position (sans amateur video), purchase the Rookie Scouting Portfolio.  Order the 2012 RSP and get the 2012 RSP Post-Draft Analysis at no charge. Past RSPs (2006-2011) also available for download here.

3 responses to “WR Josh Gordon: Hands are for more than catching the football”

  1. […] analyst Matt Waldman was one of Gordon’s most vociferous early proponents, describing him as “a raw Terrell Owens and Demaryius Thomas” and that “his potential could be as limitless as Ca….  Thus there was a divide between those intoxicated by Gordon’s physical prowess and those who […]

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