Slipping Through the Cracks - Who Is the Next Surprise WR?
By Jeff Haseley
June 7th, 2010

Is there a way to determine whether or not a WR will find success in the NFL before he steps onto the field? What skills or characteristics are most important in identifying potential success? I don't have a fool proof answer to that question, however I can tell you what some surprise WRs have in common with each other. We can then take those skills, features and characteristics of rookie WRs and begin to create a grouping of those who fall into the surprise WR category.

Examples of Surprise WRs

In the 2003 NFL Draft, five WRs were selected ahead of Anquan Boldin, an underclassmen from Florida State with promise, but lacking top end speed. Boldin was a success in college, earning second-team All-Conference honors as a Junior. He also led the Seminoles in every receiving category that year with 65 receptions, 1,011 yards and 13 TDs. Perhaps one of the reasons for his slip into the late second round was his injury history. Two years prior, in 2001, Boldin suffered a serious knee injury and missed the entire season. Combine that with his poor 40 times (4.75 at the combine) and teams were looking elsewhere for a top flight WR to target in the 2003 NFL Draft. Boldin later improved his 40 time to 4.59 at his pro day, which may have been the reason why the Arizona Cardinals decided to pull the trigger on him with the 54th pick in the draft.

The scouts nailed all of his positives - He catches the ball away from his frame, which makes it easier to gain yards after the catch. He continuously makes positive plays for the offense and uses his body to shield defenders. He displays focus, timing and concentration, which enables him to adjust to errant throws while still in stride.

The negatives included lacking a second gear to gain separation down field. He is slow off the line of scrimmage and lacks sharpness in running routes. He was projected to be a good possession WR, who can make occasional plays down field. Perhaps a good WR in time, but nothing special like Charles Rogers or Andre Johnson, who went in the first three picks of that draft. Three other WRs were selected before him and thus the goal of proving teams wrong became Boldin's goal.

It didn't take long for his Arizona teammates to recognize his talent, ability and potential. In the first game of the season against the Lions, Boldin proceeded to take the league by storm, catching 10 passes for 217 yards and 2 TDs. The rest is history. Apparently, Boldin's negatives of not running crisp routes, not being quick off the line and not having the speed to separate down field, were either learned, worked around or simply water under the bridge.

What is the lesson here? How did he slip through the cracks? How can we use his immediate rise to fame to predict others?

Let's take a look at Brandon Marshall, who possessed some of the same characteristics (both positive and negative) that Boldin had coming out of college. Marshall was selected by the Broncos in the fourth round, pick 119 of the 2006 NFL Draft. Thirteen WRs were chosen ahead of him, which begs the question, why? What did Marshall not have that others supposedly did?

Like Boldin, Marshall did not have great overall speed and quickness (4.57 40 time) and he was a marginal route runner. Some scouts projected that Marshall would eventually develop into a TE, after all he was 6-foot-4, 229 pounds. He was too small to be a TE out of the gate, yet too slow to be considered a top-flight WR. His future was cloudy at best, according to some scouts.

What most teams overlooked was his other skills that make up the framework for a true WR in today's NFL. Ironically, those are the same skills that Anquan Boldin possesses. Marshall has a physical presence on the field that enables him to out-muscle his opponents to make receptions. Like Boldin, he catches the ball away from his frame, which gives him the ability to use his size to his advantage to gain yards down field after the catch. He focuses well and maintains excellent body control. His concentration and ability to adapt, makes him an excellent target in times of need, such as a third down plays and Red Zone routes.

Other WRs who possess these skills

Anquan Boldin and Brandon Marshall are just two examples of WRs who have risen to stardom despite not having a stellar draft profile. Other WRs, such as Marques Colston, Jerricho Cotchery, Mike Sims-Walker, Miles Austin, Pierre Garcon, etc have also made a name for themselves. All were selected in the second round or later. In most cases, later.

All the WRs mentioned above had remarkably similar tendencies and skill sets

Positives

  1. Good vision and focus when the ball is in the air. Displays good timing and concentration.
  2. Catches the ball well away from his frame and has reliable hands
  3. Good run after the catch ability
  4. Uses his body to shield defenders and protect the ball

Negatives

  1. Lacks top-end speed (Colston is the exception)
  2. Poor to marginal route running skills
  3. Lacks quickness or burst off the line

This is of course not the be all, end all, holy grail to determining which WRs are successful. If it were that easy, we wouldn't be wondering why some WRs excel and others don't. Having said that, I did find it interesting that each of the WRs mentioned that overcame expected odds, happened to possess very similar skill sets and characteristics. Speed is important, but it is arguably not the most important factor. Take for example all of the former track stars that became NFL WRs, that also became busts. Countless WRs and Hall of Famers, including Jerry Rice, have proven to be successful without top end speed. Some WRs, like Andre Johnson and Larry Fitzgerald have the whole package, including speed, but just because a WR doesn't have blazing speed, doesn't mean he can't be successful.

What 2010 draft picks have similar skill sets?

Below are draft profiles and player evaluation excepts from two prominent draft outfits, Scouts Inc and NFLDraftScout.com. I primarily included information pertaining to the characteristics and skills mentioned above. I did not include much regarding a player's speed or route-running abilities.

Here's a look at all 27 WRs from the 2010 NFL Draft class in order by round drafted

Again, we are looking for those who excel in the following categories.

  • Focus, timing, concentration
  • Catches ball away from frame, good run after catch ability
  • Uses body to shield defenders from the ball
  • Displays awareness to help the QB
  • Round 1

  • Demaryius Thomas, 6-foot-3, 224, DEN - Makes a lot of acrobatic catches. Flashes excellent hand-eye coordination and ability to pluck away from his frame. Drops some 'catchable' passes due to lack of focus. Lets the ball get into his body on occasion. Big, strong runner after catch. Does a nice job with the stiff arm and will break attempted arm tackles. Is shiftier than frame would indicate and shows good vision in the open field as a runner. Great competitor when the ball is in the air or in his hands. Does an excellent job of using his body to shield defenders and will fight hard for extra yards after the catch.
  • Dez Bryant, 6-foot-2, 225, DAL - Focus can wane at times and will drop some 'catchable' passes, as a result. But when dialed in, few WR's in the NFL catch the ball as smoothly. Can pluck on the run and high-point the ball like no other in this class. His ability to adjust while elevating and make the acrobatic catch is unique. Strong runner after the catch; will break through attempted arm tackles and will fight for extra yards at the end of the run. Competes like crazy when ball is in the air and when the ball is in his hands.
  • Round 2

  • Arrelious Benn, 6-foot-1, 219, TB - Possesses strong and reliable hands. Catches the ball naturally away from frame. Times jumps well and does a nice job of climbing the ladder to high point the ball. Shows good body control and can make acrobatic catch away from frame. Much more dangerous after the catch than on vertical routes. Strong and shifty runner after the catch. Dangerous with ball in hand and can turn a short catch into a big gain. Attacks the ball well in the air and has ability to win one-on-one jump ball situations.
  • Golden Tate, 5-foot-10, 199, SEA - Displays reliable hands and does a nice job of catching ball away from frame. Times jumps well and despite marginal height can climb the ladder and high point the jump ball. A tough and determined runner with ball in the hand. Shows elusiveness to consistently make first defender miss in the open field. Shows good focus to make catch while absorbing hit.
  • Round 3

  • Damian Williams, 6-foot-1, 197, TEN - Reliable hands. Usually catches the ball with hands but can allow ball into frame on occasion. Good body control and displays loose hips to make catch outside of strike zone. Does a good job of plucking the ball on the move without breaking stride. Catches ball over head nicely. Times leaps well but lacks strength and size to consistently win in jump ball situations. Fearless working over the middle and shows focus to secure catch while absorbing hits.
  • Brandon LaFell, 6-foot-3, 211, CAR - Does an excellent job of using his body to shield defenders. Can snatch the ball away from his frame. He's a play maker who knows how to use his body and time his jumps to make big plays in the vertical passing game. Can pluck on the run and gets up the field quickly for a bigger receiver. Displays excellent body control for his size. Will bounce off some tackles and gain yards after contact. Not quite as big as former LSU teammate Dwayne Bowe but plays with same physical attitude. Competitive when the ball is in the air and also as a runner after the catch.
  • Emmanuel Sanders, 5-foot-11, 186, PIT - Loses concentration on catchable passes at times when trying to make something happen before the catch. Adequate vertical on jump balls, may not win the strength battles at the next level. A bit of a long strider but flashes the ability to sink his hips, cut inside or outside, and accelerate after the catch.
  • Jordan Shipley, 5-foot-11, 193, CIN - Displays a very good feel for finding soft spots in zone. Will work back to his QB and understands the importance of sight lines. Has outstanding ball skills. Ranks among the nation's best in this department. His focus is excellent . He really looks the ball in and makes the tough catches in traffic. He can pluck on the run and consistently catches the ball thrown over his head. Much more experienced operating after the catch (and in return game) than he is running vertical routes. Shows no fear going over the middle. Does not get 'alligator arms'. Secures the ball, takes the hit and pops right up.
  • Eric Decker, 6-foot-3, 217, DEN - Soft and reliable hands. Body control is top-notch and can make difficult catch look easy. Uses big frame to shield defenders from the ball. Could do a better job of timing jumps and doesn't always high point the ball. Strong runner that can pick up yards after contact and fights for first downs. Reaches top speed quickly and can turn a catch underneath into a home run. Attacks the ball instead of waiting for it to come to him. Fearless going across the middle and can hang onto the ball after taking a big hit. Does an excellent job of working his way back to the QB after initial play breaks down.
  • Andre Roberts, 5-foot-11, 195, ARI - Displays soft and reliable hands and does a nice job of catching the ball away from his frame. Possesses excellent body control and makes tough catch look easy. Excels running after the catch. Extremely elusive in the open field and shows ability to make defenders miss in a confined area. Catches drag or shallow routes without breaking stride and possesses ability to turn a short throw into a big gain.
  • Armanti Edwards, 5-foot-11, 187, CAR - Smooth with ball in hands. Runs with good body control and can make the first defender miss. However, doesn't show great explosiveness coming out of cuts and does not appear capable of turning a short catch into a home run.
  • Taylor Price, 6-foot-1, 204, NE - Shows ability to adjust body and make tough catch on poorly thrown ball. Has strong hands. Makes some acrobatic catches. Has great speed to go the distance if he catches a crease. Shows a second-gear in space. But he doesn't show much wiggle in space. Not a consistent threat to make first defender miss.
  • Round 4

  • Mardy Gilyard, 6-foot-0, 187, STL - Generally does a good job of working back to the quarterback when the protection starts to break down. Snatches balls thrown above his head out of the air and flashes soft hands, but traps too many balls against his frame. His greatest strength by far is his run after the catch abilities. Excellent wiggle and can make multiple defenders miss when he gets into space. Though he may lack breakaway speed he is explosive and still fast enough to turn an underneath catch into a long gain.
  • Mike Williams, 6-foot-2, 221, TB - Sometimes lets the ball get too close to his frame but generally snatches it out of the air. Times jumps well and flashes the ability to high-point the ball. Will take his eye off the ball at times to locate the safety/linebacker when crossing over the middle. Has good leaping ability and shows the acrobatic play making skills to come down with the jump ball. He lacks ideal elusiveness and breakaway speed so is not much of a home run threat after the catch.
  • Marcus Easley, 6-foot-3, 210, BUF - Has above average flexibility extending for the high passes and demonstrates the change of direction agility and body control to gain valid yardage after the catch. Must work on timing his leaps, as there have been some jump ball opportunities he failed to get to, but he has made steady improvement each week, following the flight of the ball well. He has large, natural hands, but must develop better consistency catching outside his frame rather than letting the ball into his body, as he will revert to body catching rather than extending and plucking the pigskin away from his frame.
  • Jacoby Ford, 5-foot-9, 186, OAK - Can snatch the ball out of the air but is inconsistent in this area and traps the ball against his pads at times. Shifty and can make defenders miss. Lacks breakaway speed but is quick and fast enough to pick up big yards when he gets a seam. Not afraid to go over the middle and expose his frame but has some problems holding onto the ball after taking a big hit.
  • Round 5

  • David Reed, 6-foot-0, 191, BAL - Impressed at the East-West Shrine game. He practices with soft hands and good body control to adjust to the poorly thrown pass. Good extension outside of his frame to snatch the ball out of the air and quickly pull it in. Knows when to allow the ball into his pads to make the controlled reception when the big hit is coming. Good vision and balance. He can absorb the hit and keep his feet. Stronger than he looks. Fights for extra yardage and spins out of tackles.
  • Riley Cooper, 6-foot-4, 222, PHI - Uses frame to box defenders out but could do a better job of working back to the quarterback on comeback routes. Occasionally lets ball get to frame and appears to have some problems fielding passes thrown below waist but generally extends arms and snatches the ball out of the air. Times jumps well and can compete for any jump balls. Not a shifty open field runner and not going to make many defenders miss when gets into space. Isn't going to pick up a lot of yards after contact.
  • Kerry Meier, 6-foot-2, 224, ATL - Big target. Uses size to shield defenders. Not afraid to go over the middle and make the tough catch in traffic. Shows very good focus. Looks the ball in and secures in traffic before working up the field. Excellent body control and concentration, particularly when working the sideline. Can pluck away from his frame and consistently catches the ball thrown over his head. Is a tough runner after the catch. However, he does not explode up the field on quick hitters, he does not show elusiveness to make multiple defenders miss in space, and he lacks a second-gear to run away from defenders if he catches a crease.
  • Round 6

  • Carlton Mitchell, 6-foot3, 215, CLE - Generally looks the ball into hands but can still drop passes he should catch because he traps the ball against frame too much. Tall enough and has the long arms to compete for jump balls but doesn't appear to be a great leaper or time his jumps well on film. Balanced runner and can pick up yards after contact though inconsistent in this area. Takes too long to change speeds/directions and not an elusive open field runner.
  • Dezmon Briscoe, 6-foot2, 207, CIN - Times jumps well and flashes the ability to high-point balls. Can open hips and adjust to passes thrown behind him. Can get hands under lower passes. Can box out defenders and make plays in traffic. Will make the occasional acrobatic catch and shows good concentration on tipped passes. But is inconsistent when it comes to high-pointing the ball. Lets it get into his pads too often and it occasionally leads to drops. Uses long arms and big frame to shield defenders on jump ball. Surprisingly fluid for his size. Turns up field quickly, is able to stop-and-start faster than size indicates and will run through would-be arm tacklers.
  • Antonio Brown, 5-foot-10, 186, PIT - Hands are good but not great. Will allow ball into frame too often instead of catching away from frame. Shows ability to create with ball in hand. Displays quickness and body control to make defender miss in confined area. Can freeze defenders with hesitation and shows above-average start-and-stop skills. Is capable of turning a short throw into a big gain and appears on film to have the extra gear to take it the distance.
  • David Gettis, 6-foot3, 217, CAR - Catches nearly everything thrown his way, but traps the ball against his chest too often; needs to trust his large and strong hands and catch the ball away from his frame. Extends to grab wide throws and reaches above his head to snare high throws, exhibiting good body control in the air. Possesses acceleration and elusiveness not expected of large receivers. Also able to stiff arm and run through smaller would-be tacklers in the secondary.
  • Kyle Williams, 5-foot-10, 188, SF - Has small hands, but is a reliable receiver. Snatches the ball out of the air on high and wide throws, even in traffic. Owns the foot quickness to be a two-way threat from the slot. Stops quickly and gets a good angle on inside routes. Hesitation on stop-go routes freezes defenders and allows him to explode past. Will be a major threat on crossing routes at the next level. Very elusive on the edge on quick screens, using jump step to elude defenders. Vision with the ball is good, not great, will run into blockers.
  • Round 7

  • Terrence Austin, 5-foot-10, 165, WAS - Rare body control to make the spectacular leaping grab, but is prone to lapses in concentration and drops of easy passes. Competitive and can make the tough grab in traffic, but gets bounced around due to his lack of bulk. Running after the catch is his best attribute. Good agility to elude defenders after the catch and an explosive acceleration to get through gaps in the defense or as a returner. Good vision to set up blocks. Has the straight-line speed to score from any point on the field.
  • Marc Mariani, 6-foot-0, 185, TEN - Soft, reliable hands. Catches the ball away from his frame and quickly secures it. Has enough speed to challenge the defender deep. Sinks his hips and has good foot quickness, balance and body control to run crisp routes. Consistently able to generate separation from better overall athletes. Naturally elusive player with lateral agility, balance and quickness to elude. His good vision to locate the seams and follow his blocks is evident after the catch and as a returner.
  • Timothy Toone, 5-foot-10, 185, DET - Mr. Irrelevant. Soft hands. Is able to extend and pluck the ball. Has some legitimate run-after-the-catch ability. Can elude defenders in tight quarters. Good vision. Experienced returner.
  • Undrafted

  • Blair White, 6-foot-2, 209, IND - Reliable receiver who can adjust to low, wide and high throws, but he double-catches and traps the ball against his body too often and will drop contested throws that he must make at the next level. Solid and smart route runner who can find openings in the defense to exploit. Tough runner after the catch, displaying good balance to stay upright after contact and keep moving down field. Does not have great vision or burst and is not really elusive.
  • Conclusion

    The comments and opinions above speak for themselves, but comparing them with the skill sets we are looking for, the following WRs jump out to me.

  • Dez Bryant, DAL - Appears to have it all. He was passed by a lot of teams, but he still was drafted in the first round, so he's not exactly a surprise WR. He has the tools and skills to be an immediate impact WR.
  • Jordan Shipley, CIN - May not be a deep threat, but he has great focus and run after the catch ability. He also possesses the ability to adapt to his QB, which wasn't noticed in a lot of WRs in this class.
  • Brandon LaFell, CAR - Uses his body to shield defenders, which will come in handy in clutch situations. He runs well after the catch for his size and he's an aggressive receiver. Not mentioned, LaFell is an excellent blocker, which will get him on the field and keep him there.
  • Eric Decker, DEN - Appears to have positive comments in all areas of what this study is looking for. He even has the history of coming back from a serious injury, like Anquan Boldin. The Broncos don't have a lot of experience at the WR position. Decker could emerge as a productive WR for Denver.
  • Kerry Meier, ATL - A very intriguing WR prospect from Kansas. He possesses a lot of the skills this study is looking for. Perhaps someone to watch out for, especially because there is no lock on who the WR2 will be in Atlanta.
  • Dezmon Briscoe, CIN - Another Kansas WR with promise. His draft stock fell due to character issues and poor combine numbers. He didn't sell himself well enough and the off-field issues were a concern for teams, so they passed. He has second, even first round talent, but he fell all the way to the sixth round. If he can get past the issues that affected his draft stock, he could surprise.
  • I am convinced that speed and poor route running is overrated when filtering potential success in WRs. Several surprise WRs in the NFL have overcome this deficiency through coaching and learning the right techniques. Speed is important for out-running defenders and streaking down the sidelines, but there are far many more passing plays that feature shorter or intermediate routes, where other, more important skills are required. It's the shorter and medium ranged routes that make or break a WR, in my opinion. Are they reliable in the clutch on a 3rd and long or in the Red Zone when defenders step it up another notch? Can they adjust their route to cater to their QB's needs? Are they physical enough to shield defenders away from the ball? Do they have the ability to concentrate on the task at hand and then gain extra yards after securing the catch? All the following skills will increase a players ability to get receptions and gain yards down field. In my opinion, this is what we should be looking for when targeting new WRs.

    Determining a player's potential success is critical in fantasy football. If you can determine a player's worth before it's apparent to others, you have a clear advantage over opponents in your league, especially in dynasty leagues. It's not fool proof, but history suggests, it is an integral piece to the puzzle for determining WR success.

    Questions, suggestions and comments are always welcome to haseley@footballguys.com.