Bruce Ellington is like a Swiss Army knife equipped with a butane lighter that doubles as a jet pack.
A couple weeks ago, I was a guest on Elise Woodward’s show on 950 KJR Seattle talking Seattle wide receivers and the NFL Draft. Woodward asked me which receivers I think the Seahawks might take in the first couple of rounds if the team parts ways with either Sidney Rice or Golden Tate. She also asked me to consider my answer with the knowledge that Seattle has a penchant for surprising the general public with “reaching” for players they like earlier than the dictates of conventional wisdom.
By the way, the true definition of conventional wisdom is a gathering spot for lots of folks who are about to look foolish.
My projected picks for Seattle in this hypothetical on-air game were Martavis Bryant as the replacement for Rice and Bruce Ellington as the replacement for Tate. Woodward, who is one of my favorite sports radio hosts around, immediately sparred with me on that choice – and rightfully so.
“But he’s FIVE-NINE . . . FIVE-NINE!!! The Seahawks already have smaller guys like Baldwin . . . ”
Fast forward to today. What the public knows now is that Ellington runs a 4.3-40. He’s as fast as any of the top receiving prospects in this class.
What I don’t think a lot of the public knows is that the 5’9″, 196-pound Ellington is the type of prospect I’m drooling over. If I were building an offense and wanted a scheme that would allow my quarterback to look over the defense and then shift 2-3 players to alter the alignment and change the match-up advantage against the opposition (think Patriots with Rob Gronkowski, Shane Vereen, and – in theory – Aaron Hernandez), Ellington would be one of my targets.
The two-sport star from South Carolina is one of the more impressive open-field ball carriers at his position and the excellent often appears on the smallest gains. Moreover, Ellington is an intermediate and deep threat, who I believe will make the transition to a more physical bump-and-run NFL game.
The reason is his basketball skill. Conventional wisdom – there they go again in that meeting space dreaming up stupidity dressed in a logical suit – always worries that former basketball players-turned football players aren’t used to the physical play of the gridiron.
As blockers, I agree. However, basketball players are facing tight, physical coverage catching passes and driving lanes. Earning separation against tight man or zone defense is a fundamental part of basketball.
Tony Gonzalez, Jimmy Graham, and Antonio Gates are great examples of basketball players who have been among the best tight-coverage receivers at the position and changed the game. Terrell Owens and Randy Moss were pretty good basketball players. Both were excellent in tight coverage.
Don’t just think of Bruce Ellington playing football when watching these highlights below, imagine him driving a lane or working free of a defender in tight coverage on the court to receiving a pass. The fact Ellington has the raw athleticism (speed, quickness, and strength) and conceptual athleticism (when and how to move) is a product of playing both games at a high level.
Scraping Blocks and Setting Up Creases
The play below is a 2nd and 4 with 1:23 in the first quarter from a 1×3 receiver 10 personnel shotgun. Ellington is the middle trips man with the ball the right hash at the 33 versus a 3-3-5 defensive look. The play will be a bubble screen to the left flat where Ellington will catch the ball three yards behind the line of scrimmage.
The NFL has adopted this play enough that Ellington should have an immediate opportunity to earn a small set of plays in an offense with the potential for a big impact. Think Andrew Hawkins for the Bengals before he got hurt.
Ellington makes the catch, tucks the ball under his left arm and works to the inside shoulder of his teammate in the slot before sliding behind the back of he defender to press and cut through that hole his two receiver teammates open. I call this tight work behind the back of a blocker “scraping a block.”
It’s not a technical term from football, but the act of working in close proximity of blocks without colliding with blockers is a useful way to use a lack of height and loads of quickness to one’s advantage as a ball carrier.
Ellington reads the outside corner making his approach inside and slides to his outside receiver, setting up a cutback to the inside. This setup fakes out the defensive back working past the outside receiver. The result of these moves helps Ellington split the defense, get the first down, and reach the 20. He finishes after contact to gain a few more to the 17.
Dexter McCluster is no Bruce Ellington. What I mean is that the average fan might think of a 5’9″ receiver and associate him with a player like McCluster, who is a fine football player capable of withstanding physical play, but not one who will be returning the favor on opponents.
Ellington is more along the spectrum of a faster Hines Ward. Not as physical, but he has enough physicality to block like a running back. This 1st-and-goal with 0:43 int he first quarter form a 12 personnel twin-left shotgun set at the three of Vanderbilt is a good example.
The slot receiver begins the alignment at the left hash with a defensive back five yards off. The Gamecocks send Ellington in motion across the right end offset the tight end. At the snap, Ellington works inside-out, delivering a strong punch to the defensive back to clear the lane for the quarterback sneak for the score.
Ellington may be short, but at 196-pounds he’s mighty and physical. Moreover, he does a fine job of setting up his position on the defensive back to make the play. Thank a basketball education on setting position.
I also like that Ellington can cut-block. It’s a craft that many receivers and backs fail at miserably. I watched Andre Williams attempt six cut blocks in a game against Florida State this year. He executed one with good technique and with the desired end result of knocking the defender off his feet.
The other five? Williams either didn’t use the proper technique to work across the defender’s frame, didn’t drive through the defender, or telegraphed his intentions. Ellington has no such problem on this screen pass where he opens the field for his teammate to earn the first down.
Layers Of Moves
Here’s another bubble screen from a 1×3 receiver, 10 personnel shotgun set with the ball at the left hash of the 30. Ellington is the middle trips man facing a nickel look. He catches the ball with his hands close to his body and turns up field from the 27 as his two blockers engage the slot defensive back and the cornerback.
Ellington displays another fine understanding of press-and-cutback technique by working inside the slot man before cutting outside. However, there’s another layer to this cutback that dazzles me and that’s how he combines the outside cut with an outside spin to work behind the cornerback and reach the 32.
It’s not a huge gain, but the movement in tight space is impressive. It’s a small hint of something exciting that many will ignore. However, I bet we’ll see a lot more of it in the NFL and it will earn him far more yards.
More Than Bubble Wrap
Bubble screens are like bubble wrap. They have a use and they’re fun to play with, but it wears thin fast. Ellington’s game is far more than the bubble screen.
Here is a 10 personnel shotgun set with receivers 2×2 on 3rd and 8 with 11:48 in the half from the South Carolina 33 and facing a 3-3-5 look with two safeties deep. Ellington is the slot right receiver at the right hash with a defender playing four yards off Ellington and inside the hash.
The receiver works past the defensive back with an outside release, catches the fade a step past the defender as the ball arrives over his inside shoulder a the Vandy 39 and turns up the right sideline of the 35. Ellington does an especially good job of using his inside arm to frame separation after he earned separation from the defender.
Ellington runs through a wrap to his arm by raising his inside arm to ward off the contact at the 33 and stays in-bounds another 4 yards. The result is a 28-yard catch and 38 yards total on the play. Although there’s a small juggle of the ball after making a catch close to his chest, this is not indicative of Ellington’s game.
Making a catch into the teeth of the defense with a hit on the way is what I call the Money Catch. It’s why Anquan Boldin is about to make more money at an advanced age for a wide receiver.
Here’s a 3rd and 7 with 10:13 in the half from a 1×2 receiver, 20 personnel shotgun set. Ellington is at the left hash at the slot man facing a nickel back that is playing four yards deep and shaded outside. The ball is at the right hash of the Vandy 31.
Ellington runs a post route between the defensive backs in the red zone, making the catch over his inside shoulder, and taking a hit in the process.
For analysis of skill players in this year’s draft class, download the 2014 Rookie Scouting Portfolio – available to pre-order now. The 2014 RSP will available for download April 1. Better yet, if you’re a fantasy owner the 56-page Post-Draft Add-on comes with the 2012 – 2014 RSPs at no additional charge and available for download within a week after the NFL Draft. 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.