Matt Waldman shares his 2018 pre-draft NFL scouting report on 49ers wide receiver Richie James, an impressive rookie with more growth potential than meets the eye.
9. Richie James, Middle Tennessee State (5-10, 183)
Depth of Talent Score: 83.75 = Rotational Starter: Executes at a starter level in a role playing to his strengths.
I believe that good decision-making is a combination of the brain, the heart, and the gut. However, the order and weight given to these three sectors of behaviors differ for everyone. Personally, I arrive at my best decisions by considering my emotions first, logic second, and intuition third. This, by the way, is in reverse order of my strengths.
I do it this way because I want to acknowledge how I feel about a subject and let that emotion take its course. Otherwise, it may cloud my ability to look at the subject matter as logically as I need to.
When I’m ready, I break the question down to as many separate components as possible and try to view it as dispassionately as I can. Does it make sense? What is the standard and does it meet it? How can I categorize this?
Once I’ve exhausted my available means and knowledge to examine the subject in this manner, I like to put the question aside so I’m not consciously thinking about it for a period of time. Depending on the deadline for the decision, it might mean a good night’s sleep, lunch at a favorite spot, or an episode of a favorite television show.
When I return to the matter at hand, I generally have a pretty good gut feeling about the material because I’ve let the logical analysis dispel or confirm whatever emotions I had about the subject. If there’s a gap between the two areas, I’m good with allowing my intuition to take care of the rest.
For those of you with a heavily analytic way of thinking, this will seem alien. For those of you analytical and judgmental, you may find it silly. If you’re in that second group, figure out a way to like yourself more so you’re not projecting your self-loathing on the rest of us.
I’m sharing because I realized, after nearly 15 years of using a process from best-practices evaluation methods that I adapted to football, that mimics a lot of my internal decision-making. I watch a player; I feel whatever I feel about the player; I break his game down into dozens of components that are defined in writing; I look for gaps between what’s on the field and what’s defined, draw upon my available resources to reconcile the gap; and eventually arrive at an overall assessment about the player.
Regardless of whether my future projections are dead-on or a big miss, my aim is to always provide the logical components of the player’s game so you can at least see the cause-and-effect clearly. This gives you a chance to use this information regardless of the order of the player’s ranking or my current assessment of his skills.
I’ m sharing this mini-essay on my decision-making process because I have a strong feeling about Richie James. If you believe that intuition is the confluence of your logic and emotions processing knowledge and experience at a rapid rate, then it would make sense that the longer I do this work, the more likely my intuition will get stronger.
That said, the amount of time I’ve been doing this work is on par with the amount of time a teenager has been living. While that may put me ahead of those with career spans equivalent to the lifetime of a kid in grade school, I thought I’d explain and forewarn you about my overall “take” on James.
After my first round of watching nearly 50 receivers during the summer and early fall, James was the top receiver on my board. Keep in mind, initial rounds of viewing are often incomplete assessments because it sometimes takes a lot more games to earn a complete view of what the player can or cannot do.
James’ high grade may have had more to do with me seeing more from James in a few games that I did from several other players in the same sample size. However, it can also mean that the player is simply that good.
In this case, it took more viewings of other players for me to see as much as I could about their games and their scores rose. Additional viewings of James tempered my assessment of him some but not a lot.
As I sit here writing this profile, I have a feeling that James has the potential to become a much better player than his draft status. Some of the similarities that James and Antonio Brown share at this stage of their careers are intriguing.
Logically speaking, the odds of another player taking the path of Brown in the NFL are low. There was also a healthy gap between the college version of Brown and the NFL version. Projecting another player to make that leap is not a healthy expectation.
However, I am comfortable saying that James is an underrated prospect with skills that will make him a productive NFL contributor and potentially a starter. That’s the logical assessment.
Since James will likely be a Day 3 pick, you may find that you can afford to consider my gut feeling on this matter. That gut feeling is that James paired with a quarterback like Patrick Mahomes, Drew Brees, Matthew Stafford, or Mitchell Trubisky could be a winning combination for those who take a shot on this late-round option.
James played multiple spots at Middle Tennessee State, including the slot, the perimeter, and the backfield. When used outside, he showed a lot of promise against tight man coverage. He could reduce the shoulder from a defender’s reach, chop through contact, or hook the defender to a side and swim over him. I’ve even seen a rip move, but I didn’t judge it effective enough to give him credit. He did a lot of this work with three-step and rocker-step release techniques.
Combine these skills with acceleration and change of direction quickness on par with Brown, and you have a player who can get on top of defenders and win in the vertical game. James’ dimensions and workout metrics are similar to Brown (see the Underrated section of the 2018 Rookie Scouting Portfolio for more)—and the fact he’s already using a variety of moves to get off the line of scrimmage is promising.
James’ greatest opportunity for development is in his route running. His pad level and intensity off the line sells the vertical with his initial stem and he’ll vary pacing to bait defenders into a back pedal.
When he breaks, he snaps his turns and gets his head around to look for the ball. James finds the soft areas of the zone and will work to an open area when his quarterback doesn’t immediately target him. He’ll also have to expand his range of routes to develop into a starter on the perimeter.
Whether it’s as a return specialist or receiver, James tracks the ball well over his shoulder. He has numerous difficult catches in his film portfolio, which is a testament to his hand-eye coordination, body control, and overall technique. James will sell out for the ball at the boundary, over the middle, or over a defender to make the play.
When he drops the ball, it’s typically because he turns up-field too soon and fails to look the ball into his body after the initial catch. There were also isolated targets where James didn’t anticipate the timing of the target and it arrived much hotter than he expected.
James also uses underhand position to catch fade routes, relying on good timing of his 35.5-inch vertical to get over his opponent. While that’s part of the equation, James has to use active hands technique, so he has more range and control to attack the ball and pull the ball away from his opponent’s reach.
His boundary awareness and execution are strong and can get stronger. James tightropes the sideline effectively and will toe-tap the boundary. He must learn to drag his feet to stretch for the ball without leaping. This will help him on targets where he’s shoved towards the boundary as he secures the ball.
These are all correctable issues and, when one examines James’ portfolio it’s difficult to ignore the number of things he’s doing correctly to earn the top tier as a pass catcher. We often intuitively presume that the top tier of performance is perfection when it’s actually an abundance of positive traits.
The fact that he’s already in the top tier of the receiving category in the RSP’s Skill Breakdowns yet has room to improve is a promising sign. As he focuses on the details of the technique he lacks and the demands of competition, he’ll get even better.
After the catch, James is one of the best in this class. Middle Tennessee State often featured him from the backfield between the tackles despite the fact that he’s 5-10, 183 pounds—and likely was a little shorter and lighter when he began his college career.
James understands how to run gap plays and sets up blocks patiently with zone concepts. Like many good full-time runners, James also squeezes yards from small creases and anticipates blocks opening even when they appear non-existent upon approach.
He’ll defeat direct angles of pursuit with his quickness and footwork, and he’ll run through glancing shots and wraps to his knees and lower legs. James finishes runs like a running back, using low pads and keeps his legs moving. He won’t push piles on his own near the line of scrimmage, but he maintains leverage until help arrives.
On the other hand, I’ve seen James work into NFL linebacker Reggie Ragland and get a push in the open field. He may be small, but he picks his spots well and knows when to push and when to get under contact.
In the open field, James excels at making tight, quick turns and accelerating through them, beating angles that seem favorable to defenders nearby. His willingness to split defenders often gets him into the secondary, especially when a defensive back goes for the bit hit, fails to wrap, and bounces off James’ pads and knees. James balance-touches through contact and he’s a smart, aggressive, and physical runner for his size.
He has an effective array of jump cuts, lateral moves, and jab steps. He’s one of those phone booth runners who can turn what looks like a short loss on a screen pass into a seven-yard play. Earlier in his career, James often carried the ball under his left arm regardless of the side of the field he was working. As his career progressed, there is more evidence of him using the appropriate arm away from the pursuit.
Among the reasons James reminds me of a young Brown is that I’m long familiar with the Steelers’ mentality for players. Pittsburgh wants players who can give and take physical contact—tough athletes who play with intensity.
James is an aggressive blocker. He’s willing to throw his hands, generate a push, and turn his opponents. When he can peel back and deliver a hard shot to a defender’s chest, he’ll make Hines Ward sit up in his chair.
He’s also a consistent and capable cut blocker in the open field and at the edge of the defense as a lead blocker on run plays. The only thing missing from James’ repertoire is a technically sound punch.
If my gut is correct about James and he lands on a team with a gifted improviser under center and a skilled coordinator that will use James as the versatile playmaker he is, the path to a starting role is promising. If he ends up with a task-oriented quarterback and a coaching mind that recognizes James’ potential but either lacks the skill to fully integrate into the scheme or doesn’t address his shortcomings, James’ career arc may look more like Albert Wilson’s in Kansas City.
I’m thinking there’s place in between these two poles and, based on the more dispassionate look at the components of James’ game, I’m leaning closer to the positive end of that range but not Brown territory.
Think of James as an aspiring Doug Baldwin. Again, aspirations generally aren’t met, but if he gets close, he’ll be a capable starter as a big-play secondary starter or high-volume slot option who will wind up worth his RSP pre-draft value.
Pre-NFL Draft Fantasy Advice: Yet another value play well below the top of most fantasy owners’ draft radar for receivers, James will be a good player to consider in the 4th-5th round before the NFL Draft— maybe even at the end of fantasy drafts.
This analysis of James is only the beginning of what you’ll find every year in the Rookie Scouting Portfolio publication. For most in-depth analysis of skill players available, get the 2018 Rookie Scouting Portfolio. If you’re a fantasy owner the Post-Draft Add-on comes with the 2012 – 2018 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 each. You can pre-order the 2019 RSP beginning in December.