Rookie Scouting Portfolio contributor J Moyer examines what makes an intuitive wide receiver and how to evaluate it.
In 2019, NFL decision-makers have made scouting wide receivers astonishingly simple:
“We played a lot of teams, really good offenses, this year. I had a chance to sit up in the press box and watch some of these offenses, and one of the main common denominators is speed.”
-Ravens General Manager Eric DeCosta
“We were looking at the board and, again, you’re never going to pass up speed. When you looked at the wideouts, there were still a lot of good wideouts left, but none that ran a 4.27″
-Chiefs General Manager Brett Veach
“It was really important going in. That was the number one thing, we wanted to get fast, make sure we can complement the stuff, like running down the field, take advantage of Russell’s ability to throw the ball down the field, which is awesome.”
-Seahawks Head Coach Pete Carroll
Faster seems better.
On the surface, this makes sense. However, we can evaluate the soundness of this approach by examining the recent draft history.
Between 2011 and 2017, 130 receivers ran a 40-yard dash at the combine and were selected during the first five rounds of the NFL draft. The average official time was 4.48 seconds. Of those players, 26 have become every-week starters in the NFL.
Their average 40-time? 4.48 seconds.
On the other hand, 55 of those players have never seen meaningful snaps. Their average time? You guessed it, 4.48 seconds.
Further, of the players in the fastest quartile (sub-4.42 sec), 24 percent have become regular starters. The slowest quartile (4.55 sec or more)? 23 percent have become regular starters.
Finally, the slowest player in this group, Jarvis Landry (4.77 sec), is a Pro-Bowl-caliber receiver. The fastest player is 2017’s ninth overall pick John Ross, thus far a disappointing producer despite running a blistering 4.22 seconds.
Clearly, faster is not necessarily better.
How can we identify receivers that will turn into excellent pros? Do Hall of Fame wide receivers like Randy Moss, Jerry Rice, Calvin Johnson, Larry Fitzgerald, and Antonio Brown actually have anything in common?
Several months ago, I was listening to Matt Waldman, discussing the value on what he termed “intuitive play,” during his RSP Cast. The conversation was focused on the playing style and resultant success of Patrick Mahomes.
I found Matt’s premise was in harmony with a philosophy I developed back in my coaching days. I had come to appreciate that guys who “get it” or are “just ball players” tended to transcend the development curve of even those most physically gifted players who did not.
In fact, I became convinced that this was one of the most important factors for predicting improvement and eventual athletic success. Interestingly, until hearing Matt discuss the idea in his terms, I had never heard a draft analyst describe a prospect through this lens, let alone mention it as something to consciously study during the evaluation process.
You hear about production, measurables, and technique. You even hear about intangibles such as being a “good leader” or a “coach on the field.” But those descriptors fall short of encompassing what it means to be intuitive.
Intuitive players observe, learn, adapt and problem solve without being told what to do. They learn from other players’ corrections, pick things up from their own reps without being explicitly coached, and never have to be told the same thing twice (a trait Andy Reid specifically mentioned when discussing Mahomes on multiple occasions during the 2018 offseason). Essentially, intuitiveness, as I apply it, reflects the ability of a player to improve.
While the intuitive trait is important across the positional board, its value in receiver play is magnified. A wideout is faced with nearly infinite possible scenarios when you consider the number of variables on each given play.
If you are trying to remember what your coach has told you to do on a fade route, you will fail to do anything at all when the defense rotates to a Cloud Cover 3 with a corner blitz after showing quarters pre-snap and the ball is arriving back-shoulder and slightly errant towards the sideline with the safety bearing down.
If you can find individuals who are intuitive players, you will find players who will reach or even outperform reasonable expectations for themselves–breaking the fabled ceiling! So how can we effectively evaluate and identify the intuitive wide receiver?
As the intuitive trait enables a player to learn and improve at quicker rates, intuitive players also tend to do the little things necessary to overcome challenging situations—minuscule things:
- Rotating the body five degrees to protect the ball during a contested catch.
- Adjusting the pace of a route stem by a half-beat because the corner is playing Cover 3.
- Slightly adjusting the body angle to allow a toe-drag on the sideline.
You have to watch the player to see these meaningful details. It won’t show up directly in a box score, or any charting system, or even statistical predictors of NFL success. And while you are watching, you have to deliberately evaluate intuitive playmaking.
Can the player overcome disadvantageous coverage schemes?
Does he adjust his routes to manipulate defensive backs at multiple levels?
What does he do when the scheme breaks down?
How does the player attack the ball when defenders are near?
How does he manage the sideline while airborne attacking a contested back-shoulder fade?
If the NFL increasingly drafts for a single physical trait (speed), history tells us the approach will not succeed. Accordingly, I recommend deliberate identification of the intuitive trait in your player evaluations.
Irrespective of any physical trait, previous production, or even having a polished press release, integrating and executing fine details of positional play indicates a player who will continue to improve, and eventually reach or even outperform expectations.
So, when you’re deciding between drafting DK Metcalf or Hollywood Brown this offseason, watch the film and, above all else, ask yourself: is this guy intuitive? If you can accurately assess that trait, I believe you’ll be ahead of the game.
J Moyer has seven years of experience as a high school coach. He’s in the process of becoming a general surgeon in northern California. Follow J on Twitter @JMoyerFB and his YouTube Channel, Skill Films.
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