Cosell: The Wide Receiver Transformation
by Greg Cosell
The spotlight in the upcoming NFL draft has been on quarterbacks, notably Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III, with increased attention on Ryan Tannehill and Brock Osweiler. That’s understandable. It’s the most important position in the game.
Here’s the follow-up question, one rarely scrutinized: In a passing league, how do we now evaluate the players on the receiving end of the quarterback’s throws?
The transformation in the NFL game over the past decade has been widely documented. The expansion of three-wide receiver personnel has been the most visible change. I did not chart every snap this past season, but I believe, as I have said before, that a fair estimate would be 55-60 percent of the plays league-wide included three wide receivers. That’s been the clear trend over time.
There’s more when you dig deeper. It’s not just the number of wide receivers, it’s how they are utilized — i.e. Where do they line up in the formation? What kind of routes do they run? In what areas of the field do they predominantly run those routes? This is where the concepts of receiver distribution and location are important. Distribution is the number of receivers on each side of the formation (for example, in a 3-by-1 set, there are three receivers to one side and one receiver to the other). Location specifically defines which positions those pass catchers actually play. You could have three receivers to the three-receiver side; or two wide receivers and a tight end; or a wide receiver, a tight end and a running back.
With the increased emphasis on the passing game, and the resulting multiplicity in receiver distribution and location, it makes sense that the wide receiver position has undergone some dramatic changes, as well. When teams primarily lined up with two wide receivers (third-and-long being the exception), a certain set of attributes were needed, the most critical being the ability to win one-on-one isolation routes on the outside against quality corners. In addition, there was greater weight placed on vertical routes. Whether it was a function of speed or savvy route running, wide receivers at times needed to run past corners.
This was the NFL’s conventional wisdom, which resisted change. Just think: Wes Welker did not get drafted. Marques Colston was a seventh-round pick. Their “value” as NFL players was marginalized because they did not fit the accepted gospel preached over decades. Both have been highly productive while playing almost exclusively in the slot, working between the numbers, a function of multiple-receiver personnel and creative use of distribution and location. Neither could line up on the outside consistently and win one-on-one matchups.
Where would Welker and Colston be drafted in 2012? It’s a great question — one, of course, that is unanswerable. Yet its larger context will significantly impact some of the wide receivers on this year’s board. Let’s be clear: Wide receivers who can line up on the outside and win against man-to-man coverage at the short, intermediate and deeper levels (Andre Johnson and Calvin Johnson come to mind), always have more value. That’s inarguable.
What about Alshon Jeffery of South Carolina? He will be a polarizing player for many teams. Given his measurements — 6-foot-3, 216 pounds — he fits the Colston profile. Jeffery’s best attributes are his size and his hands. He has very strong hands with a wide catching radius. He has shown the ability to make contested catches both at the intermediate and deeper levels. Jeffery is a great example of a wide receiver whose 40-yard-dash time is irrelevant. He’s not vertically explosive. At his best, he’s a long strider with some build-up speed. He will not tilt coverage (i.e. force a safety to play over the top) or dictate double teams. The question then becomes: How is he best utilized in the NFL? Can he line up outside and win? Is he ultimately a Colston-type inside receiver who can effectively use his big body to maximum advantage against nickel backs, linebackers and safeties? The answer to that question will determine where he is drafted.
Another receiver who fits this conceptual template is Mohamed Sanu. Sanu is 6-1 1/2 and 211 pounds. He often played out of the slot at Rutgers, so he has meaningful experience in that role. He was outstanding between the numbers, consistently making difficult catches in traffic. Sanu’s 40 time is also not important to the evaluation process. He’s a short-to-intermediate route runner who relies more on working in confined areas where subtle moves and change of direction are at a premium. Sanu is a smoother, naturally quicker athlete than Jeffery. If the consensus is Jeffery cannot align outside and win, then Sanu is a more valuable and functional NFL prospect. At this point, Sanu is a more effective slot receiver.
A big wide receiver who I believe can align on the outside and run the complete route tree is LSU’s Rueben Randle (6-3, 210). The more games I watch, the more I like Randle. He is smooth and athletic, with better acceleration off the ball than either Jeffery or Sanu. In some ways, he reminds me of the New York Giants’ Hakeem Nicks, who was not drafted until the 29th pick in the first round in 2009. Nicks was the fifth wide receiver selected that year (after Darrius Heyward-Bey, Michael Crabtree, Jeremy Maclin and Percy Harvin), but he’s clearly been the most productive of the bunch. Where Nicks has been very effective — and I project Randle playing a similar role — is at “x iso”, the single receiver to one side of the formation. When you’re aligned at “x,” you must be able to win versus man coverage.
The larger point is this: With the increased emphasis on multiplicity of formations and personnel utilization, the framework for evaluating wide receivers has been amended — and expanded. We will see in a few weeks how that impacts where players like Randle, Sanu and Jeffery are chosen in the 2012 NFL Draft.