Matt Waldman’s RSP NFL Scouting Glossary: Tracking Directly Overhead with Larry Fitzgerald

Matt Waldman uses a pair of masterful receptions from Larry Fitzgerald’s college tape to illustrate the value of receivers who can track the ball directly over their head. .

Not All Receivers Are Good Ball Trackers

This post features Larry Fitzgerald, but it begins with a player finishing up his career in the CFL.  Whenever I think about tracking the football I think of this one-time NFL prospect with an early-round contract. For NFL fans, the receiver is a recent punchline.

It’s not meant to be. This player is good enough to get paid to play football, which is better than most people who’ve ever donned a helmet and pads.

It’s vital to have this perspective about evaluating football talent because fans and media are too quick to react to the extremes with information. Media corporations generate a lot of revenue by fostering environments that encourage reactionary thinking.

“Best or worst” thinking is a plague of our present society but it’s profitable.

This receiver was an elite NFL athlete with promising production at a good SEC program. It led to a healthy amount of pre-draft buzz for him that reached its peak during his week at the Senior Bowl.

While watching this player on the practice field, I got a text from a veteran scout and analytics professional with a lot of consulting projects for most of the NFL GMs in the league.

“If the South Squad spent five minutes with the drill where a receiver’s back is to the thrower and the ball arrives over his head, the coaches would learn fast that [the player not mentioned here] has difficulty tracking the ball.”

When I got back to my office, I pulled clips of as many vertical targets as I could find from this player’s games. There were plenty of targets where he tracked the ball over his shoulder — enough for highlight packages on YouTube.

If you went deeper, this receiver was often facing the quarterback when he caught a vertical target and his wins over the shoulder had some technical flaws.

Tracking difficulties were a notable part of this receiver’s struggles in the NFL.

The bigger question is why players earn early-round picks and significant playing time only to wash out because of a flaw that, as a scout mentioned to me, would take five minutes to uncover.

It comes back to the law of supply and demand.

The top college programs draw elite athletes with promising receiving skills. Most college programs have to make a choice:

  • Recruit a strong athlete and hope he becomes a technically good receiver.
  • Recruit a strong technician and hope he becomes a better athlete.

Sometimes players from both categories improve on these hopes to the extent that they can become successful professionals. More often than not, the NFL is evaluating prospects who became an elite athletes and gained marginally better technique or elite technicians and gained marginally better athletic ability.

There are also physical skills that don’t always earn the focus they should. Tracking the football is one of the common ones.

It’s assumed that if you play wide receiver, you’re inherently a good ball tracker. However, as the demands of the game increase with the level of play, the required skills for tracking the football become far more demanding.

There Are Layers to Tracking the Ball

The simplest definition for Tracking the Ball is the act of finding the ball in the air and looking it into your hands. This is enough for teaching a kid to play catch. There’s a lot more involved with receiver play:

  • Identifying the trajectory of the ball: Simply finding the ball in the air can be more difficult for some routes than others.
  • Gauging the trajectory of the target and reacting with the optimal hand position to attack it.
    • Attacking targets with a sub-optimal hand position lowers the odds of winning and/or protecting the target from a defender.
  • Gauging the trajectory of the target and positioning the body to maximize the catch opportunity.
    • Leaving one’s feet to attack targets that don’t require a leap is a symptom of a player not properly gauging the target’s trajectory and gives coverage time and space to defend the target.
    • Leaving one’s feet to attack targets that don’t require a leap can also reduce the chances of optimizing the potential yardage available after the catch based on the route and coverage.
    • Tracking the ball over the shoulder or directly overhead in order to sustain separation from coverage and force the coverage to play through your body in order to attack the ball.

Future RSP Scouting Glossary episodes will feature these layers of ball tracking. The most difficult of these, Tracking Directly over the Head, is the subject of this post.

Masterful Tracking by Larry Fitzgerald

Many receivers have difficulty tracking targets over their shoulder. They may be better at tracking over one side than another or the entire concept is hard for them.

Although not 100 percent a telltale indicator that a receiving prospect can track the ball well over their shoulder, a receiver who can track the ball at a full sprint directly over their head is often a top ball tracker in a variety of target scenarios.

The reason is the hand-eye-feet coordination to maintain eye contact with the ball with a less comfortable position for the head and neck while adjusting one’s speed to the flight of the target. Few receivers do this well. You may only see a handful of plays where a receiver makes this type of catch all year.

Larry Fitzgerald did it repeatedly during his college career. It was indicative of his skill for winning targets throughout his pro career.

While not always the case, if you observe a receiver track the ball Willie Mayes-Fred Biletnikoff style (there’s a reason the top college award for the position was named in Fred’s honor), there’s a strong chance that the receiver possesses NFL-caliber hand-eye coordination.

You can also find more detail on this concept on my YouTube Channel, Matt Waldman’s RSP Film Room, and in the RSP Cast below.

And of course, if you want to know about the rookies from this draft class, you will find the most in-depth analysis of offensive skill players available (QB, RB, WR, and TE), with the 2022 Rookie Scouting Portfolio for $21.95. 

Matt’s new RSP Dynasty Rankings and Two-Year Projections Package is available for $24.95

If you’re a fantasy owner and interested in purchasing past publications for $9.95 each, the 2012-2020 RSPs also have a Post-Draft Add-on that’s included at no additional charge.  

If you’re a fantasy owner and interested in purchasing past publications for $9.95 each, the 2012-2020 RSPs also have a Post-Draft Add-on that’s included at no additional charge.  

Best yet, proceeds from sales are set aside for a year-end donation to Darkness to Light to combat sexual abuse of children. 


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