Senior Bowl: North Squad WRs Day 1

Oregon State's Wheaton shined on the first day of Senior Bowl practices. Photo by John Martinez Pavliga.
Oregon State Markus Wheaton shined on the first day of Senior Bowl practices. Photo by John Martinez Pavliga.

Every NFL team that conducts a Senior Bowl practice has a different style and process. The Oakland Raiders began and ended with special teams and utilized a lot of scrimmaging in a variety of 1-on-1, 5-on-7, and 11-on-11 situations. The drills I tend to get the most from feature wide receivers and the Raiders practice was no different.

While many people are focused on a receiver’s ability to catch the football in these practices, what has equal if not greater importance is everything a receiver does before the ball arrives. Monday afternoon’s practice included drills to test the craft of each receiver’s ability to establish and maintain separation before the ball arrives:

  • Agility drills to emphasize footwork and hip flexibility.
  • Receiver versus corner drills with an emphasis on releases within a five-yard boundary.
  • One-on-one receiver vs. corner press-man drills with a variety of routes.

None of the receivers I saw on the North squad did anything that altered my assessment of what they have or haven’t shown in their careers. Each of these prospects displayed strengths and weaknesses that I think will ultimately come down to an NFL team’s perception of a player’s fit within the organization and how patient they are with that player to develop. Of course, most of you reading this don’t care about the long view. You want to know who looked good and who struggled.

I don’t blame you. Here’s what I saw with each of the drills listed above and then the 5-on-7 and 11-on-11 scrimmages. Remember, catching the ball in these situations is nice but slightly overrated if the rest of the form, technique, and craft is missing.

This contact takes at least 1-2 steps for Goodwin to recover. He'll have no such leeway against good defenders in the NFL.
As I wrote about last year, this contact takes at least 1-2 steps for Goodwin to recover. He’ll have no such leeway against good defenders in the NFL and he didn’t in Senior Bowl practice.

Agility Drills

Receivers ran through a set of mini cones in a footwork pattern that the coach requested, ending the exercise with a curl inside as the break on the route to catch a pass. The focus of this exercise was to demonstrate fluid hip-turn, precise footwork, quickness, and strong change of direction while keeping the head up and looking down field.

Marquise Goodwin, Texas: Goodwin is a track star with excellent speed, but it was clear from the onset that his hip flexibility needs work. The Raiders coaches gave this feedback about his hips on multiple reps and even pulled Goodwin aside to emphasize the point after his third run through the drill. Goodwin attempted to do what the Raiders staff asked, but his movements were exaggerated and lacked the refined motor movement of someone capable of picking up this technique on the fly.

Aaron Dobson, Marshall: Dobson looked good in this drill. His feet were fluid, his hip turns were sharp for a man of his size (6’2”, 203 pounds), and he demonstrated some explosion making his final break to the football. He isn’t a burner, but he acquitted himself well in this opening exercise.

Chris Harper, Kansas State: The coaching staff asked Harper to pick up his feet during the drill. The 228-pound receiver is quick for his size, but his movement could stand to get sharper. I didn’t see much improvement in subsequent reps after the coach’s feedback.

Markus Wheaton, Oregon State: Wheaton was quick, crisp, and fluid with each rep. He demonstrated quick hips and good control making turns. He also caught the ball well despite some throws that were arriving at awkward windows as he executed his break at the end of each rep.

Denard Robinson, Michigan: They key takeaway from Robinson in this drill was “intent.” Robinson’s movements were careful and intentionally slow to master the precision of the footwork and hip movement with each drill. While I thought this was admirable for a quarterback-turned-receiver, eventually the coaching staff turned up the heat and exhorted Robinson to speed up during the final reps of the exercise. Robinson caught each ball cleanly, but the position is new to him and I’ll be interested to see how much he improves with this drill between now and Wednesday.

Aaron Mellette, Elon: Mellette looked fast and his feet were pretty good, but the hips didn’t move with the alacrity you want to see. He was quick, but the precision was lacking. Mellette caught the ball well and I like the athleticism, but the raw technique on this drill was a preview for the rest of the drills in practice.

Denard Robinson is known for his speed, but naturally this new convert to wide receiver was doing everything in slow motion on Day 1 of Senior Bowl practices. Photo by Adam Glanzman.
Denard Robinson is known for his speed, but naturally this new convert to wide receiver was doing everything in slow motion on Day 1 of Senior Bowl practices. Photo by Adam Glanzman.

Four-Corner Cone Boundaries vs. Cornerbacks

Two pairs of cones demarcated a 10-yard-long x 5-yard-wide boundary. The receivers faced the corners in press-man coverage. The objective for the corners was to force the receivers outside the width of the cones before the receivers reached that 10-yard distance. Lots of hands technique to study in this drill.

Goodwin: Goodwin’s size (5’8”, 179) didn’t do him any favors in this drill. When a corner locked onto Goodwin, the receiver had difficulty working free unless he used a spin move of some type to work loose. The corners repeatedly pushed Goodwin outside the width of the boundary.

Dobson: Dobson had a lot of success with this drill and the coaches praised him for playing big. The Marshall receiver used his hands well in this drill. He often bulled through the jam, or deflected the defenders’ arms and then used his size and quickness to get on top of his opponent.

Harper: Harper got coached up after getting knocked down during his first rep and his subsequent reps incrementally improved. He performed better when he played to his size, but there were moments where he tried to be use quickness to get on top of the corner and it failed. I’ll be interested in seeing if he makes the adjustment to his natural strengths in subsequent practices.

Mellette:  Multiple defenders got the best of Mellette in this drill, but has he started to use his 216-pound frame, his reps improved to the point that he began to win some of the action. Mellette is one of those players who might tease an organization because the natural ability is there, but can he accelerate his learning curve to develop into an NFL-caliber receiver. This will be the big question.

Wheaton: Wheaton was the most fluid of the receivers in this drill. He was the best at integrating his hands and footwork, using his hands adeptly to swat away the jam and position his feet to create angles so he could accelerate past the defenders with every rep. He is the most polished receiver of the North squad and there were further illustrations of this fact later in practice.

Robinson: Once again, slow motion was the theme of Robinson’s performances in the drill. I have no notes of him winning these battles. He wasn’t pushed aside as much as held up too long and unable to get on top of the defender.

1-on-1’s, 5-on-7’s, and 11-on-11’s vs. Corners with a Variety of Routes

Dobson: I continued to notice precision and fluid movement from Dobson, who demonstrated a nice mix of physical play and quickness. I watched Dobson integrate his footwork and hands well to get open on a deep fade, but the quarterback underthrew the pass and the cornerback tipped the ball away. The one thing the coaches notice that was a repeat issue came at the end of routes as the ball arrived: Dobson had a tendency to lean back towards the ball rather than attack the ball after his break. I hope to see a more aggressive finish to his routes in subsequent practices.

Goodwin: When Goodwin got a free release, he made defenders pay with his speed. However, he had a lot of wasted, imprecise movement off the line versus quality press coverage. I want to see him make incremental improvement versus press coverage. One of his best plays of the day was a crossing route with a sharp break and good catch in the thick of zone coverage. He did a nice job reaching for the ball over his head, making the grab, and turning up field.

Mellette: The most notable issue with the Elon receiver came in these drills. He had difficulty gaining position to shield the defender from the pass after his break. I like his size and quickness, but his hands technique and the depth and angle of his breaks were lacking.

Harper: He did a strong job of selling some two-move routes although I thought each of these instances the second move into his break was a little ragged and something he’ll need to sharpen. His breaks at the end of routes weren’t as sharp or as quick as the early portion of his patterns. At the same time, he’s decisive and has a nice size-speed combo that allowed him to keep defenders guessing about the tact he’d take with each rep. I did notice that he was a little better when he didn’t have to deal with contact despite the fact he’s the biggest receiver of this group. He beat a corner by two steps on a deep sideline fade up the right sideline, but Syracuse quarterback Ryan Nassib was either late on the throw or simply underthrew the ball by 3-5 yards.

Wheaton: The Beavers receiver worked well back to the football and he did a good job versus off-man technique as well as press coverage. He ran the best fade route of the North practice, gaining early separation with an outside move, slipping inside the defender to get his back to the defender and also buying real estate away from the sideline to make the quarterback’s job easier by giving the passer room to target the receiver at the sideline. Although the quarterback overthrew Wheaton, this was a textbook sideline fade that a receiver like Mario Manningham still doesn’t run consistently as well. On one route, a 12-yard out that looked like the beginning of a double move, Wheaton got the best of the corner so early into the route that the defender had no other choice but pull the receiver to the turf so he wasn’t beaten.  Wheaton’s best catch was at the end of 11-on-11’s when he beat his man on a streak up the left flat and made a turning, leaping catch behind coverage on a late, underthrown ball. If Miami quarterback Zac Dysert demonstrates better anticipation, Wheaton has a 50-yard touchdown that he catches in stride.

For more analysis of skill players, download the 2013 Rookie Scouting Portfolio available April 1. Prepayment is available now. Better yet, if you’re a fantasy owner the 56-page Post-Draft Add-on comes with the 2013 RSP at no additional charge. Best, yet, 10 percent of every sale is donated to Darkness to Light to combat sexual abuse. You can purchase past editions of the Rookie Scouting Portfolio for just $9.95 apiece.

7 responses to “Senior Bowl: North Squad WRs Day 1”

  1. Matt as always great article. You are THE most thorough guy out there, but man you need a copy editor, Last sentence last paragraph.

  2. Hey Matt, really enjoyed the write ups…I remember the very first time I saw Marcus Wheaton in practice as a freshman…it was like watching a young two year old thoroughbred get taken around the track the first time and EVERYBODY stops to watch. This guy showed up with a full jar of pickles and it as been nothing but fun watching him develop. Somebody is going to get a fabulous wide out…

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