Steelers third-rounder Dri Archer's playmaking potential is unquestioned -- if he gets a seam to run through, he's gone. But detractors of the pick point out that, with apparent need at cornerback and no depth at outside linebacker (among other holes), it's a luxury to spend a top-100 pick to select a guy most view as a situational player for whom touches need to be manufactured through gadget plays.
But he's not limited to that. At least not by his size.
In the 2013 draft, with the 101st overall pick, the Jaguars took a slot receiver and return man by the name of Ace Sanders, who had 99 catches for 1,230 yards and 13 TDs in college. Sanders was small, at 5-7 and 173 pounds, with 29 1/2-inch arms.
As a rookie, he was second on the Jaguars in catches and receiving yards, which is no tremendous feat. But 51 catches is indicative of success despite size limitations as a No. 3 receiver playing in the slot. Sanders had 600 offensive snaps in 2013, or 56.8 percent of the Jaguars' total plays.
Now, I don't want to sell Sanders' athleticism short just because he ran a 4.58 40, but Dri Archer rated better almost across the board in physical attributes and combine measurables.
Those 51 catches by Sanders are the same as the best season (2012) by Johnstown native and diminutive slot receiver, the 5-7 3/8, 180-pound Andrew Hawkins, before he cashed in for $3 million a year in free agency. Hawkins missed substantial time to injury in 2013 because a teammate stepped on his ankle during practice, but that's more of a basketball injury, not the result of being too small to take a hit.
At 97th overall, the Steelers paid an Ace Sanders price for a player who, if you evaluate him as an everyday slot receiver, has substantially higher potential than either Sanders or Hawkins.
Archer is listed as a running back, but his totals of 99 catches, 1,194 yards and 12 TDs, basically match Sanders' college production, though Archer played a fraction of the snaps as a receiver that Sanders did.
In Archer's junior year, he also led his team in receptions and receiving yards, and he did so not just on dump-offs and checkdowns out of the backfield, but as the team's go-to slot receiver. And while he ran his share of reverses out of the slot and caught more than a few screen passes, he also ran legitimate downfield routes one would expect from a slot receiver.
Against Ball State, Archer came free on corner routes to both sides of the field for two TDs. Against Rutgers, which would send three defensive backs to the NFL that year, including third-rounders Logan Ryan and Duron Harmon, Archer managed to get wide open twice for two catches on two targets, for 36 yards. Against Northern Illinois, when Kent State's run game was stymied, he put up five catches for 81 yards, both the top marks on the team. The corner-post he ran for a red zone TD against Eastern Michigan involved leaving his feet for the catch. Against Ball State in 2013, he ran a red-zone dig for an easy TD.
Archer can track the ball downfield, as he did for a touchdown against South Alabama in 2013. Of course, that ability was seldom on display in college; Kent State's starting quarterbacks averaged 6.1 yards per attempt in 2012 and 6.2 in 2013, both of which marks would have been lowest in the NFL in 2013. Since his QBs didn't regularly throw deep, the extent to which Archer can stretch the field and still make catches is largely speculation.
He is by no means plug-and-play as a full-time slot receiver, as evidenced by some ugly clanks, particularly against Buffalo. He's still a body catcher who too often lets the ball bounce off of him. His ability to make catches away from his frame is not good at this point. But those liabilities are all things that can be improved upon.
His size, not so much. But the idea that there are physical limitations on what he can do as a receiver in the NFL is an exaggeration.
DeSean Jackson was four pounds lighter on a frame two inches taller. Archer's got as much bulk with a lower center of gravity, making it no easier to bump him off his route than is the case with Jackson. And Jackson hasn't been injury prone, missing nine games in six seasons, averaging more than 1,000 yards per season. Granted, Jackson plays mostly as a flanker and split end, not so much in the slot.
Harry Douglas of the Falcons was just three pounds heavier but 3 1/2 inches taller. He missed all of 2009 with a knee injury, but just one game his other five seasons, including playing 86 percent of the Falcons' snaps in 2013 while putting up more than 1,000 yards as a slot receiver and part-time flanker.
Archer's a short guy, but he's not going to just get manhandled at the line. Archer's 31-inch arms are 1/8-inch shorter than Jackson's and Douglas', meaning he has as much length to help keep opposing hands off his body. In fact, Archer's got the same arm length as Antonio Brown, who needed to get stronger to consistently beat press coverage. Archer's already there. Even though he's not even 5-8, he's longer and stronger up top - 31-inch arms and 20 bench reps - than the corner most associated with the Steelers' first-round pick, Darqueze Dennard, who had 30 1/4-inch arms and did 15 reps.
In 2013, Archer played 10 games on one good leg, which ought to tell you he's no Chris Rainey. When Rainey stepped on the field, the guys in the golf cart gurney probably warmed the engine up. In addition to the ankle injury, Archer was also left without Brian Winters, the round-three guard who had been the team's left tackle in 2012.
Just as with Stephon Tuitt, the Steelers got a post-injury rebate on Archer.
Is he going to be a 1,000-yard receiver like T.Y. Hilton (92nd overall, 2012 draft) for the Colts? Hilton is by no means a giant at 5-9 1/2 and 183 pounds. But all other things being equal, a smaller receiver does shrink the throwing window.
I'd contend, however, that Archer's nonpareil acceleration can enable greater separation, potentially expanding that window. And Ben Roethlisberger's passing precision also enables him to fit the ball into a smaller window than Andrew Luck, at least thus far in Luck's career.
So it's not going to be extra 2 3/4 inches of potential catching radius or the extra 10 pounds Hilton has that keeps Archer from that level of production with the Steelers. It's going to be his hands and route-running, if anything.
If Archer puts in the work under the tutelage of Richard Mann and fellow diminutive receiver and team leader Antonio Brown, there's no reason he can't clean up his route-running and shorten "good hands for a running back" to just "good hands."
Even failing that, stats aren't the only way these guys contribute. Who covers him in the slot? No LB. No safety. Even if he never touches the ball, he already dictates to the other team what personnel they can put out there.
Limited production? Maybe. Limited value? No. He's one of those guys who, if you lose track of him, it's a big play. It's like having Steve Kerr on your basketball team. He's a 1.8-assist-per-game point guard who averaged 6 points per game for his career, yet he's playing half the game for a championship team. Why? He can shoot, and he can run, so you have to devote a reasonably fast defender to follow him out to the perimeter and do nothing. Steve Kerr has five rings in large part because he forced opposing teams to waste a defender. Archer does that whether he improves as a receiver or not.
Simply put, in addition to the value he offers in the return game and as a change-of-pace running back and whatever gadget plays the coaches can dial up, Archer has all the tools to be among the very best of a wave of petite slot receivers ushered in and protected by the same rule changes that haunted the Steelers in recent years.
Steelers players - from Mel Blount to Hines Ward to James Harrison and Ryan Clark - have long been on the wrong end of the "modernization" of the game. Archer could reverse that trend. While a sub-5-8, sub-180-pound receiver might not have been able to find a role as a regular contributor even five years ago, times have changed, and guys just as small with less talent are already important contributors.
Lance Moore will probably limit his snaps in the short term, but the eventual goal should be to get Archer on the field for the majority of the offense's snaps. A pitcher will probably tell you that a good curveball with a release that looks similar to a fastball is going to serve you better than a great curveball with a different release. If Archer's the regular slot receiver, then the gadget plays and the manufactured touches will look the same pre-snap as all the other plays, and they'll be that much more effective for it.