Inches and milliseconds separate good college players from quality starters in the pros. Two plays illustrate how close (and far) Crowder might be from the NFL.
A series I started last spring at this blog is The Boiler Room. One of the challenges involved with player analysis is to be succinct with delivering the goods. As the author of an annual tome, I’m often a spectacular failure in this respect.
Even so, I will study a prospect and see a play unfold that does a great job of encapsulating that player’s skills. When I witness these moments, I try to imagine if I would include this play as part of a cut-up of highlights for a draft show at a major network or an NFL organization if I was working for a personnel director. Unlike the No-Huddle Series, The Boiler Room is often focused on prospects I expect to be drafted, and often before the fourth round.
After watching Duke receiver Jamison Crowder, I’m not optimistic about him earning a draft grade that places him in a tier earlier than the fourth round. The 5-9, 175-pound receiver has a similar, if not smaller build as several NFL options with varying amounts of pro success: Deon Butler, Doug Baldwin, Deion Branch, Taylor Gabriel, Andrew Hawkins, Eddie Royal, DeSean Jackson, Santana Moss, Marvin Harrison, Isaac Bruce, Wes Welker, Antonio Brown, and Steve Smith.
Play the odds, and the safe decision is to avoid smaller wide receivers in terms of the height-weight combination if you’re seeking a primary perimeter option. However, the small, light, explosive athlete at receiver is an established and productive archetype for the NFL.
Most prospects have enough flaws that scheme fit matters more than what’s discussed. Although on the opposite end of the slot receiver archetype, Jordan Matthews and Marques Colston would not consistently win on the outside against top corners. This is why both players were taken by teams seeking to use their height and hands in the middle of the field.
There’s no shame in or slight to players on either side of the spectrum. As Josh Norris says, it’s finding where a player wins that’s most important.
The smaller a receiver is, the more exceptional his athleticism, technique, and conceptual skill for the position must be to compensate for falling below the height-weight “sweet spot” of an NFL pass catcher. In order for a player of Crowder’s size to earn consideration earlier than the fourth round, his ability to win down field or generate big plays in the open field needs to be dynamic.
The Blue Devils receiver has the speed and burst to run past cornerbacks and the vision to earn yards in the open field, but I’m still determining if he falls into a tier where his explosion and vision is rare. If I had to answer this in late September, I’d tell an NFL team that his propensity for explosive plays is good, but not special.
Sometimes part of finding where prospect wins means exploring the limits of his ability. The first of two plays I’m sharing in this week’s Boiler Room on Crowder is an example of Crowder’s skill to earn separation on a well-executed vertical play. This initial example is to establish the fact that Crowder can make plays in the vertical passing game.
However it’s the second play, a bad-ball situation, that is the true Boiler Room play. It’s a scenario that separates the potentially special option capable of transcending his height/weight limitations as a starter on the perimeter and merely a good small receiver with the ability to contribute as a role player in the NFL.
Beating Safeties With Speed And Technique: A Fundamentally Sound Vertical Route
This 59-yard score is the kind of match-up from the slot that should be to the receiver’s advantage. Crowder is slot right at the numbers of the flat from this 2×2 receiver 10 personnel shotgun set at the Duke 41. The shallow defensive back is four yards off the line of scrimmage playing inside Crowder. The safety is eight yards deep over the top.
Crowder takes an outside release against the shallow defender while selling the vertical concept to the safety. By the time Crowder reaches the A&M 27 he has three yards on the deep man and tracks the ball over his inside shoulder. Speed, ball tracking, and hands technique are all on display here, but it’s the route and release through contact that are most notable. Watch the replay of the touchdown and focus on Crowder’s work against the safety.
Crowder make a nice head fake to the post at the top of his stem, which forces the safety to react. The receiver then follows with a chop to the defender’s forearm with his inside hand. This move earns Crowder his separation and it’s all executed in one fluid display. That sharp, little flick of his helmet inside sells the post so well. Big, flashy moves on deep routes can slow down a receiver, so finding an economical way to force a defender to bite is optimal.
This route and catch aren’t special, but the successful elements of Crowder’s execution indicate some refinement on top of his athleticism.
Bad-Ball Targets: Separating The Big-Timers Among The Small Fries
Want to start in the NFL despite a smaller frame? You better have some combination of vertical prowess, timing, comfort with physicality, and excellent hand-eye coordination to win the bad-ball route. Doug Baldwin displayed it at Stanford despite not getting drafted and he’s still showing it as a valued role player in Seattle. So did former Seahawks teammates Deion Branch and Deon Butler (add Paul Richardson and you see a team in Seattle that has researched this prototype).
Eddie Royal and Santana Moss have this propensity, although Moss was better equipped to use his skills in tight coverage at the NFL level. DeSean Jackson has his detractors, but he makes some difficult grabs downfield with a defender draped over him.
Then there’s football’s One Man Gang. Even at age 35, the mighty mite is throwing cornerbacks around and making difficult grabs in tight coverage. Methinks the Panthers got rid of Smith for three reasons:
- They didn’t want to pay a 35-year-old receiver the type of money the 5-time Pro-Bowl receiver might command.
- Carolina wanted to part ways and provide Cam Newton a younger primary target to grow with and establish Newton as the leader of this offense.
- Cam Newton’s inaccuracies err on the high side. Smith was once great at this aspect of the game, but now here’s merely very good. Combined with his age and salary demands, time to move on.
Smith has a knack for creating and sustaining position on a defensive back with the ball in the air and the hand-eye coordination and toughness to win the target. If I see a play from a small receiver that approaches the spectrum of what we’ve seen from Smith for over a decade, it’s a sign that prospect has the compensatory skills to out-play his frame. Paul Richardson fit the bill on multiple plays.
This first-quarter deep post off a flea-flicker is not a successful play, but it’s one of the more impressive “drops” I’ve seen from a receiver. The reason I’d put this play onto a highlight reel to share with a personnel director, head coach, and position coach is because there’s a chance they see potential something more.
If the staff takes a more simplistic approach, Crowder might earn a lesser evaluation. However, some staffs will combine this type of film study with observations from practices and workouts that could tip the scales in the opposite direction. At this point, truly don’t know if Crowder has this extra ability, but he’s awfully close if he doesn’t have it — and that’s intriguing to someone like me.
Crowder is split right at the numbers of the flat versus A&M’s 43 defense playing 0 coverage (no safety deep). Crowder runs the deep post to the right hash as the ball arrives at the 14. Crowder had at least a step on his opponent after his initial break, but the trajectory of the throw inadvertently gives the corner better position than Crowder.
Now the receiver has to fight for position, using his left arm to brace the defender glued to Crowder’s chest while making a play on the ball with the right hand. Crowder nearly traps the ball to his chest. Some may point to the trap as a problem, but few receivers have the hands of DeAndre Hopkins to grab the fat part of he ball with one hand in an off-balanced position on a ball traveling 55 yards in the air.
But Crowder, unlike Hopkins on the play above, is being held and grabbed throughout the arrival of the target. If he gets his left arm on the ball in time to secure it, he has an incredible catch. In this game of inches and milliseconds, the corner makes enough contact with Crowder before the receiver’s left hand gets around.
It’s these types of reactions in the span of inches and milliseconds that separation good college players from excellent pros. It’s why making precise projections on talent is no easy task.
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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