Selling a vertical route starts with the first few steps off the line. See why this is so important with successful route running.
It’s hard not to like Louisville wide receiver DeVante Parker as an NFL prospect. He’s tall, fast, and has a quick first-step with the ball in his hands. I also like his feel for the open zone when working underneath a defense and his willingness to work back to the quarterback when a play breaks down.
Like most receiver prospects, Parker is not a finished product. This post will profile an aspect of route running that is often overlooked when studying receiver play, but Parker — and many college receivers entering the NFL — will need to address if he wants to maximize separation on one of the most potent routes in pro football: the stop-fade.
Parker’s failed fade route against Miami last year is a great fit for the Boiler Room Series — my attempt to capture the state of an NFL prospect’s development into a single play. A comprehensive evaluation in a single play is an impossible task, but what if you have a limited number of plays to state your case about a prospect to the leadership team within an NFL organization?
If you’ve done thorough research on the play player, a cut-up of choice plays with a short presentation can provide a decent assessment of strengths, weaknesses, and potential fit for the team. You can read the rest of my Boiler Room Series here.
The play in question for Parker is a 1st and 10 route with 1:45 in the half from a 1×3 receiver, 10 personnel pistol set. The Cardinals have the ball at the left hash of the Louisville 40 and Parker is the single left receiver at the numbers and he’s set up at the line of scrimmage. The cornerback is playing a yard off and shaded a step to the inside of Parker.
The inside shade should give Parker the advantage when running a back-shoulder fade, because in theory he’ll be able to turn towards the sideline, shield the defender with his back, and make a play on the ball. However, Parker turns inside and gives the cornerback room to attack the target and defend the pass.
But the turn inside rather than outside isn’t the root cause of Parker’s failure to win the ball on this play. The real issue begins with Parker’s initial release from the line of scrimmage.
The Louisville receiver uses a three-step pattern to set up an outside release against the corner. It’s a quick three steps and more notably, three short steps. It’s the length of these three steps that hurt Parker’s chances to succeed with this route more than anything he does during the rest of the play.
To understand why, think about the story that a successful stop-fade tells: It’s designed to get the cornerback to bite on a deep route only to overrun the break point on what is a shorter route. The success of this route is to make the vertical route believable and time it so the quarterback is throwing to a spot based on timing rather than eyeballing the receiver.
It means that Parker has to sell the vertical route as early as possible. Three short steps with an outside release does not achieve this objective as you can see below.
The cornerback is still facing Parker heads-up. If he was sold on a vertical route, he would have turned his hips and run down field. Instead, he’s sitting on the route due to Parker’s shallow three steps. What Parker should have done is taken three longer strides off the line of scrimmage to get into the body of the defender and then used a dip to “stack” the defender (get butt to butt with him) and use either a swim, rip, chop, or dip of the shoulder to work through any contact while continuing to drive down field and force the defender to turn his hips and run.
However, Parker attempts the path of least resistance — avoiding contact at all costs. This is a common thing I saw from Parker (and many college receivers) when facing man coverage when he should be the aggressor, take the action to the corner, and force the defender to turn his hips.
By the time Parker gets the corner to turn his hips, the defender still has two steps on the receiver and has the luxury of turning his body towards the receiver while running down hill. In essence, Parker’s poor release technique gives the corner room to hedge on the possibility of a short route.
If Parker took three large steps and worked into the defender’s body and then used his footwork and hands to stack and shed the defender to the inside with an outside release, the corner would either be behind Parker or running step for step. In this scenario the corner wouldn’t have his chest turned towards the sideline.
Instead, the defender would be 100 percent focused on staying step for step with Parker and his body would be pointed down field. If Parker hit the brakes in this scenario, the defender will overrun the route and it’s an easy catch regardless of the direction Parker makes his turn.
When I first watched this play and saw this release, I sent the clip to Brian Flinn, Villanova’s wide receiver coach, for confirmation of what I noticed. Here’s his take via Twitter:
“[Parker] wants to keep contact and show a vertical release then once he gets the defensive back’s hips locked away from the route, throw the defensive back by. [Parker] is not fast enough off the line and not violent enough with his hands at the breaking point. Go too wide and you have no room to work.”
Two points Flinn makes here. The first is the root issue — not threatening the corner with the vertical route. The next is this outside release that doesn’t give Parker enough room to maneuver after the break point. I didn’t discuss this with Flinn, but I’m almost certain that if Parker does an adequate job getting the defender to turn, the outside release where he veers to the sideline wouldn’t be as troublesome, even if he should clean this up, too.
When Parker returns from injury this fall, I’ll be looking for him to show improvement with his footwork and mindset with his releases where he needs to sell the vertical routes against tight coverage. The sooner he can do this successfully, the more likely he’ll have early success against NFL defensive backs.
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