With noted exceptions, there’s a difference between “open” in college and pro football.
In the NFL, there’s at least one play a game where the quarterback leans on his primary wide receiver to win the ball against tight coverage. It doesn’t sound like a lot but consider the urgency that accompanies most moments football games.
One play can constitute as much as 25-30 percent of receiver’s targets for the day and possibly account for 50 percent of his potential yardage output. Because many of these tight coverage targets occur at or near the end zone, and points are often on the line.
Competent professionals get open, withstand a moderate amount of contact from the defender, and catch the ball. Good NFL starters work through or around obstacles that we otherwise might label good defense or an uncalled penalty.
Pro prospects often display a knack for this skill even if they run a limited route tree and lack the advanced skills at the position. These situations are strong indicators of focus, courage, hand-eye coordination, flexibility, motor intelligence, and competitiveness.
These three plays epitomize these qualities for me:
But none of these plays fully illustrate what tight coverage looks like the way we often see it in the NFL. The best one I can find underscores the point better than any target I could post that features Fitzgerald, Green, or mammoths like Kelvin Benjamin and Mike Evans.
Because the one I found features T.Y. Hilton. There’s no denying that size has value in scouting wide receiver prospects. It’s a physical dimension that can augment the value of actual skills at the position.
But the absence of size doesn’t diminish or negate focus, courage, hand-eye coordination, physical and mental flexibility, leaping ability, motor intelligence, or competitiveness. Hilton demonstrates all of these qualities on this back-shoulder route against Kevin Johnson.
The Texas’ corner is a physical, savvy press defender that does a lot of little things to foul-up a play. Here’s Johnson in action earlier in the game against Phillip Dorsett on a slant.
Dorsett tries to chop past Johnson’s reach, but Johnson uses that move to hook Dorsett’s arm. What makes it a great play is how fast Johnson closes the gap so he’s not called for a hold. Then he further legitimizes the move by playing through Dorsett’s front shoulder to the ball.
Hilton faces Johnson later in the game on this back-shoulder fade and it’s one of the best illustrations you’ll find of a smaller receiver boxing out a physical defender and making one of the more underrated adjustments on the ball that you’ll see.
Hilton initially earns position to turn inside Johnson for the ball, but Johnson reaches across the receiver and pins Hilton’s outside arm to the receiver’s torso.
Instead of reacting to Johnson’s arm to bait a penalty that may never be called or resist the contact, Hilton leans into it with his front shoulder. Because he leans into the wrap, he’s now the only one in position to catch the ball.
It’s also a fantastic catch near his back hip with his hands despite only one arm and hand being fully mobile. He might as well have one arm shackled to a post as he’s forced to adjust to a target that’s high enough that he has to leap for it–thanks to Johnson–if he wants to get both hands on the ball.
Because it’s not a play that shows off his Combine vitals, it doesn’t draw the same intense admiration of a the examples I shared with Fitzgerald and Green. Nonetheless, it’s a textbook example of the things I expect to see from a receiver against tight coverage if I’m going to project him as a future primary threat in the NFL.
Here’s OU’s Dede Westbrook, a small pro prospect, displaying some of this ability.