Listening to The Whispers: Changes to The RSP — WRs and TEs

Does Jordy Nelson look "undersized" to you? This was one of the worst answers of the contest. Note to contestant: I'm laughing with you buddy, not at you. Plus, you can laugh at the guy that gave Mohamed Sanu as an answer. Photo by Elvis Kennedy.
Jordy Nelson runs a mean route or two. Photo by Elvis Kennedy.

Matt profiles changes to his TE/WR checklists and how his process encourages an interplay between logic and insight.

I have spent the offseason reviewing and updating my evaluation criteria and scoring values for the Rookie Scouting Portfolio publication. I covered quarterbacks and running backs last week. Today it’s the wide receivers and tight ends.

The majority of my changes to my RSP evaluations were applied to these two positions. A reader asked me last week if I apply my new criteria to past results to see if the changes would make the old rankings more accurate. It’s a logical question.

However, something that many of you may not realize is that my primary goal isn’t to have “more accurate rankings.”

I want to be accurate with how I describe a player’s skills, what he has to learn, and the conditions where he can either succeed, develop further, and/or struggle. To me, “accuracy” is  how I describe a player’s skills and not where I rank him at the end of the day. The readers that get the most from my book read the analysis and understand that ranking is (maybe) secondary.

If I apply my new information to rankings then I’m trying to match that information to other factors that no one has a predictable method for understanding — character.  Work ethic, personality, willingness to change, performance under pressure, skill at handling adversity, and the maturity and skill to organize one’s life as a profession are all aspects of a prospect’s character.

This one area  is such a significant part of a player’s career and it’s the great unknown of scouting. Even professional teams have difficulty with this area and they spend a great deal of time and resources on investigating character.  Applying my changes to look at my old rankings seems logical, but the actual undertaking would not.

Most of the changes that happen come from my evaluation process. If you’ve bought the Rookie Scouting Portfolio in the past then you know that I evaluate players by watching film. Specifically, I watch each play of a game, write down what I saw with each play:

  • Offensive/defensive alignments
  • Contributions of surrounding talent to aid or hurt the outcome of the play
  • The prospect’s techniques, athleticism, and decision-making that helps/hurts the outcome of the play

I note this information and I also grade the player on a 100-point scale with a position-specific checklist of defined criteria. The benefit of having a defined list of criteria and an open-ended, but rigorous note-taking process is that I notice plays, players, or trends where what I’m observing doesn’t dovetail with the definitions of my checklist criteria.

There were times where I’ve noted that the checklist wasn’t specific enough and I’ve seen how I could have scored the point “Yes” or “No.” There have been times where I technically had to award “Yes,” but there were minor points that could have fit within that criteria and would have been scored “No.”

Sometimes I’ve noted players that have been successful in their systems and project to be successful in the NFL but lack the refinement of skills that I’ve given a higher value of importance. In contrast, I’ve seen players with average athleticism display skills that great athletes didn’t and these lesser athletes had better careers.

Most people presume that the checklist and the defined criteria is the “active ingredient” in the success of the RSP, but it’s only half of the equation. Journalist Steve Volk wrote a (highly recommended) book called Fring-ology that profiles several unexplainable things in life: near-death experiences, UFOs, and the paranormal. But one of the most important things I’m getting from Volk’s work is how fringe subjects force us to contemplate how we think.

In Volk’s book, the author writes about flashes of insight (pages 125-126):

A lot of great thinkers are on the record with the observation that the sudden flash of insight, the gut hunch, and the creative leap are what truly push science, and humanity, forward. Edward de Bono has spent the past twenty-odd years, in fact, traveling to fifty-two different countries and consulting with some of the world’s largest corporations, including IBM and DuPont, teaching his concept of lateral thinking. Perhaps the foremost expert on the topic of creative thought…De Bono argues that the West’s tradition of settling disagreement by debate or argument is an example of overreliance on a logic. In debate, the best debater wins. In argument, the person whose case best fits the rules of logic and the current evidence wins. And yet, scientists report that their best discoveries often don’t come when they are slumped over a pen and paper, poring over data, thinking oh-so-logically. They come, as neuroscientist Terry Sejnowski put it in chapter 3, when they’re in the shower. Or brushing their teeth. Or sleeping. Biochemst Albert Szent-Gyorgyi said science depends on “seeing what everyone has seen and thinking what nobody as thought.”

In sum, logic is partner to freer, associative thinking. Logic can help define the contours of a problem, but sometimes, in order to find a solution, we have to go beyond such strictures to find the unseen path.

In a sense, the RSP’s active ingredient is the interplay between the logic involved with defining the problem (checklist) and routinely exploring beyond the structure (note taking of what I saw and only how it fits within the checklist) to generate new thoughts and ideas about what I’m studying.

The interplay of established knowledge and insight and logic and intuition are often at work in a game like fantasy football. You’ll often see these topics come to the surface during Twitter debates among writers. As you know, I’ve waded into those waters in recent months.

While I begin my swim, take a look at the changes I’ve made to receivers and tight ends — there are a lot, but most of them are redefining one broad concept into specific components that will provide a clearer description of a player’s skills and gaps of knowledge.

  • “Separation” is now “Releases” – I have added seven criteria points to this section and deleted two. “Uses hands/feet effectively to release from press” were too vague.
    • Added “Reduces shoulder through jam.” 
    • Added “Effective three and four-step release techniques w/feet.” – These releases include Out-In-Out footwork and In-Out-In footwork versus press and off man.
    • Added “Effective Shake” – Foot chatter and movement is used to set up a good RIP Release.
    • Added “Effective Stack” – Footwork and body positioning technique designed to get the receiver in an optimal position to clear a press defender.
    • Added “Effective RIP Release” – A hands/feet technique to swat the forearm or upper arm of the defender and avoid press with the use of the inside arm ripping upward.   
    • Added “Effective CHOP Release” – A hands/feet technique to swat the forearm or upper arm of the defender and then shoot the inside arm over top to clear the opponent.
    • Added “Hook-Plant-Swim” –  A hands/feet technique that sets up a swim move to work through the defender. 
  • Deleted “Sinks Hips Into Breaks” – Not all breaks are hard breaks that require the receiver to drop his hips. I adjusted this criteria to read “Sinks Hips Into Hard Breaks.”
  • Added “Drives Off Line of Scrimmage w/Low Pads-Intensity – Receivers and tight ends need to sell the vertical threat at the beginning of many routes or at least demonstrate intensity that forces defenders to adopt a high tempo that increases the potential for mistakes.
  • Added “Stem Length” – This is the portion of the route setting up the break. Proper stem length sets up a route of the proper depth so it matches the timing of the throw.
  • Added “Stem Pace” – The way the receiver runs the stem has to demonstrate expertise with pacing for the timing of the throw and/or fool the defender.
  • Altered “Sets up Breaks” with “Sets up Breaks w/Stem” – Does the receiver bend the route before the break to influence the opponent to make the sale of a different route believable?
  • Added “One Step Before Hard Break” – The cliché “if you can stop, you can get open” applies to executing a break with minimal steps between the top of your stop and the turn. One step into a break is ideal for a hard break.
  • Added “Suddenness w/Head and Body During Break” – An effective break also includes a fast turn that accompanies a sudden stop. Tony Gonzalez is a great example of a route runner with excellent suddenness during his breaks. He was much slower at the end of his career, but his breaks were still among the quickest in the league.
  • Deleted “Adjusts Body to The Football” – I added two categories in its place.
    • “Adjusts to high targets”
    • “Adjusts to low targets” 
  • Added “Catches Ball w/Proper Hands Technique According to Target Location” – You’d be surprised how many touted prospects drop passes because they haven’t mastered this skill.
    • Targets above the waist require the fingers to be pointing upward
    • Targets below the waist require the fingers to be pointed downward
    • Fingers on should be angled towards the point of the ball.
  • Tight Ends Only: Added “Maintains Base/Doesn’t Overextend (Blocking) – Footwork and body position when setting and delivering a punch are essential to a well-executed block.

Now that’s done, it’s time to start applying them . . .

For analysis of skill players in this year’s draft class, download the 2014 Rookie Scouting Portfolio – available now. 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. 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.


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