Vaunted wide receiver prospects Jaelen Strong and Ty Montgomery demonstrate that when it comes to the a craft of playing the position, a slow mind negates size, strength, and speed.
Wide receiver is a deceptive position by nature — both from the standpoint of how it’s played and scouting NFL prospects. There are always great athletes that enter the professional ranks with limited technique and conceptual mastery of the position who still make enough great plays from these wunderkinds early enough in their careers that fans see the potential trajectory leading to excellence and never express doubt that the player will get there.
Julio Jones is a good example of a player who is not a technical wizard, but the Falcon’s otherworldly athleticism allows him to be a top producer despite the fact that teammate Roddy White is a far more complete receiver. It’s a great illustration why a complete player isn’t always the more productive player. As my colleague Josh Norris likes to say, what’s most important is where a player wins. It’s often as valuable to have depth of skill as breadth of skill — sometimes more so.
Contrary to the annual hyperbole to earn your eyes and ears, we don’t see athletes like Julio Jones come along every year at the receiver position. His athleticism may have afforded him extra time to refine some techniques or even have lapses that others can’t get away with, but even in Jones’ case he’s not an athletic savant. Yet compared to most top prospects, it may not seem like a stretch to classify Jones as such.
Top pass catchers like Arizona State’s Jaelen Strong and Stanford’s Ty Montgomery are fine athletes capable of excellent feats of strength, speed, and grace, but because they lack Julio Jones or Calvin Johnson’s holy trinity of rare athletic gifts they’ll need to address their technical and conceptual shortcomings sooner than later if they want to see the field on Sundays.
This is where the other context for deception comes into play. Route running and receiving is a lot like a magic trick and creating separation and winning the football against an opponent requires telling a believable story with pacing that is fast enough to fool the defender, but not too fast to lose control of the situation.
There are several points in this story where a receiver can tip his hand to his opponent and the illusion is lost. Here are two examples from Strong and Montgomery where their stories fail.
Strong? Yes . . . But Sudden? Not Enough
This is a 3rd and 10 from a 3×1 receiver 10 personnel shotgun set at the 23 of Notre Dame last year. Strong is the single left receiver facing a cornerback who is two yards off the line of scrimmage. Strong will execute a three-step release that ends with a dip outside the defender on what will be a back shoulder fade. The defensive back wins the battle for position and forces the incomplete pass. Strong’s slow pace with the details of his route tip-off the defender.
Strong’s first failure with pacing takes place when he turns too early to look for the ball. Either he didn’t time his break correctly with the quarterback or the quarterback threw the ball late. However, Strong could have done more to make up for his lack of timing if he was more sudden with his hands and his turn. A big receiver known for winning these type of routes, Strong has to execute this rip and turn with greater force and speed. If he did so on this play, he would have earned room to work to the football rather than retreat towards the sideline and step out-of-bounds while allowing the target into his body and he is giving his opponent amply opportunity to rip the pass loose.
None of Strong’s errors were due to a lack of physical skill; it’s all mental and something he can address. If Strong looks good in an NFL camp as a rookie, it will be due to crisp execution of details that were too slow on this play.
Note: After more study of Montgomery, one of his major issues is tracking the football. If you can’t track the football well on a consistent basis, you’re value as a vertical target diminishes greatly. This is one of my concerns about Montgomery’s potential role in the NFL.
The receiver from Stanford is an even better athlete than Strong. In fact, Montgomery has the speed and strength of a running back as ball carrier in the open field. At 6’1″, 213 pounds, he’s built a lot like Dallas running back DeMarco Murray (although Murray is a few inches shorter if Montgomery’s listed height is correct) even if he’s not as agile as the Cowboys’ starter.
However, Montgomery must learn to maximize his speed by disguising his intentions. This 1st and 10 pass from a 21 personnel strong side I-formation set with 5:04 in the half from the Stanford 44 could have resulted in a 56-yard touchdown strike if Montgomery displayed more savvy.
The Stanford receiver was a few steps inside the left hash with the cornerback playing outside shade and three yards off the line of scrimmage on what would be a deep seam route. Respecting Montgomery’s speed, the corner begins his retreat from the line before the snap. The target arrives at Montgomery’s inside shoulder at the Oregon 15, which is closer to the cornerback than the receiver. Despite this fact, Montgomery compounds the problem because he has extended his arms four steps before the ball’s arrival.
While the ball is so far inside that Montgomery has to reach across the chest of the corner to get just one hand near the ball, the fact that the receiver extends his arms and turns his hips to the ball so early limits his options. If Montgomery continued running down field without extending his arms, the defensive back does not raise his arms or turn back to the ball and the receiver has the time, space, and option to make one of two moves:
1. Make a sudden stop so he’s no longer ahead of the defender and then leap behind the defender to win the ball
Montgomery might have to extend a little higher on this target to match what Vincent Jackson does in the second clip, but it wouldn’t be the first time I’ve seen Montgomery use his excellent vertical skills to win a ball.
2. Cut off the defender with an inside break and make a play on the target. (Audio NSFW)
Note how late Smith waits before he extends his arms. He cuts off the defender’s path first and because he’s not extending his arms, he’s able to use them to aid his last-second acceleration to cut off the defender, get into position, and he then extend for the ball.
When a receiver telegraphs his intentions it slows him mentally and physically and limits his options for playing the football. It’s a common issue for college prospects. Kelvin Benjamin had some of these issues last year and he has tightened up his game during his first off season as a pro. If he doesn’t have many lapses in this area during the season he’ll be another fine example of a player with a discernible physical edge, but he’s not winning on athleticism alone.
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