Matt Waldman’s RSP Boiler explains what makes a football player a good tracker of the football through an examination of two plays from 2021 NFL Draft prospect Kadarius Toney, a WR/PR from the University of Florida.
What makes a good ball-tracker? Why is this different than hand-eye coordination? How can we tell if a player has confidence in his tracking?
There are all lessons Sammie Coates and an NFL scout reinforced exactly six years ago.
I was at the 2015 Senior Bowl, watching Coates and several other promising receivers, when a scout that had been a subscriber of the RSP since 2007, sent me this text.
If I were one of these coaches on the field today, I’d run a quick catching drill where I’d have the receivers track the ball over their head with passes of different lengths. It would take all of five minutes to learn that Sammie Coates cannot track the ball well and it would save some teams money.
The Steelers took a shot on Coates in the third round as a top-100 pick (87th overall) and the 13th receiver off the board. And open-field weapon blessed with excellent speed and physicality, Coates could win the ball in the air as long as he was facing the football.
When he had to track the football while running away from the quarterback, that’s when things got iffy. Ask the Steelers.
There are dozens of things that football demands of the wide receiver position, but a football team doesn’t usually expect one receiver to have mastery of everything. Many successful NFL wide receivers only possess a range of these skills.
Still, if a receiver’s “thing” is restricted to a specific set of talents, say, a big-play threat with speed and strength, he better have skills that complement each other. If a receiver is a great open-field runner, defenses will expect him to earn the ball in the shallow zones and with quick-hitting targets and play coverage to stop it until that receiver proves he has the complementary skill to beat them deep and force a more balanced coverage strategy.
If that receiver can’t track the football over his shoulder and can’t get time his hands to meet the target, he’s not going to scare opponents with his vertical routes. If that receiver leaves his feet to catch targets that he can otherwise catch in stride, it’s a sign that he’s not confident in how he’s tracking the trajectory of the ball. It’s also a sign that he’s not confident with his techniques for addressing the target.
A receiver with great yards-after-catch (YAC) skills who has to leave his feet to catch targets that don’t call for a leap is like chaining anchors to the wings of a bird.
Fortunately, receiver Kadarius Toney has none of these problems. A YAC talent from the University of Florida, Toney is a dynamic open-field player who complements his game with excellent ball-tracking. These two plays below are examples of catches that a bad ball-tracker cannot consistently make.
If Toney acclimates to the NFL environment and develops his route skills to match his tracking, he can have a long career as an NFL receiver. Think Golden Tate but with a superior technique when comparing how they use their hands to address the ball.
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