Recognition, route-running can trump raw speed

The Minnesota Vikings are more than likely going to use one of their top picks in this year's draft on a wide receiver. They should be careful when selecting, though, as the transition will be easier for some and more difficult for others.

The Minnesota Vikings are expected to select a wide receiver in the first few rounds of the NFL draft later this month. There are a select group of guys whose names have become fan favorites for the Vikings to select because of what they did in college and what they did at the NFL Scouting Combine. It is not always that easy to evaluate these players, though. 

The game of football is vastly different between the college level and the NFL, and it is important to remember that when watching these players. Most of the rules are the same, but the way the game is played and what the players are asked to do on any given play changes drastically. 

Wide receiver is a good position to discuss when it comes to the transition because when watching tape it does not look as though it should be a difficult transition, when in reality it is a transition that some players are not able to make.

ESPN NFL analyst Merril Hoge discussed the transition these players go through when entering into the NFL during a Tuesday conference call, and how the mental part of the game often plays a bigger role than the physical part. 

“This is a problem across the board and it applies to every player,” he said. “We don’t show this on tape, but this is why these interviews are important. This is why the investigating work is important. You’ve got to be smart to transition into the NFL and if you’re not and if you’re struggling with concepts and things, whatever athletic skill set you have or football build is neutralized because of the thought process and all the things you’re consumed with mentally. Leading to that, oftentimes you get ruined mentally way before you get ruined physically.”

When watching tape of receivers in college, it is always clear to see who the athletically superior players are. They put up big numbers, make circus catches and seem to just be all-around better than the cornerbacks they are facing. The problem, though, is that they are not really doing anything other than running a simple route and then beating the player in front of them.

Sure, sometimes in the NFL all a receiver has to do is beat the player in front of them. The problem, though, is that cornerbacks in the NFL are the best in the world and oftentimes better than what a receiver in college is used to going up against. That is why it is important for them to develop a recognition of what coverage a defense is running and develop a complex route tree versus the one or two routes they might have run in college.

At times, a receiver getting open and coming down with a completion is dependent on the receiver and the quarterback recognizing what a defense is doing at the same time. But if the rookie receiver does not pick up what the quarterback sees, it could lead to mistakes and missed opportunities.

“You have to identify – and here is one of the transitional issues we have in the spread. These wide receivers don’t even know coverage. They have no idea what coverage is. They run a couple routes and that’s it,” Hoge explained. “Now you come to the NFL and you’re like, ‘We have to teach them and they don’t know how to run routes, we have two issues.’ One, you don’t even know how to read coverage or identify things and whatever conceptual thoughts or things you saw in college are so vanilla and they’re going to multiply on every down, so we have to teach you that. Visually, you have to see that. Now we have to teach you to run routes, lets say you’re not a good route-runner. Well, all of that learning is so enormous, and then you’ve got a (quarterback) demanding you respond immediately based on what he saw, you’ve got to see it, that’s hard and very difficult.”

People always get hung up with the numbers players – especially skill-position players – post during the combine and during their pro day workouts. They believe that a 40-yard dash time can show how successful a player will be at the next level.

It is always helpful to be faster than the opponent, but almost every player in an offensive or defensive skill position playing in the NFL will be fast. So receivers have to bring more to the table if they hope to be successful.

“You can go, ‘I run the 4.4 and this guy runs a 4.6.’ Do you really know the difference at the finish line of a 40-yard dash between a 4.4 and a 4.6? I mean it’s the blink of an eye,” Hoges said. “So that’s insignificant, especially if you can’t run routes. I’ll take a guy who runs a 4.6, runs routes, identifies the coverage, gets in and out of breaks and is going to have instincts for me way over a guy who runs a 4.3 and all he can do is run a go route. I will take that. He’ll help my offense; he’s going to transition better and quicker for me.”

When people talk about the top receiving prospects in the draft this season, they often refer to Laquon Treadwell, Josh Doctson, Corey Coleman, Will Fuller and Michael Thomas. All of those players had great college careers, but fans often hear experts talk about them not being asked to do too much. They were given simple route concepts and would just be told to go out and beat the guy lined up in front of them.

Hoges does not think that bodes well for the teams drafting those guys if they hope the players will transition quickly. Instead, he would want to take a player who already has a solid understanding of the intricacies of wide receiver, Pittsburgh’s Tyler Boyd.

“When you watch him he looks like a pro,” Hoges said of Boyd.

Boyd is not the fastest receiver in this year’s draft. He recorded a 4.58-second 40 at the combine and a 4.50-second one at his pro day. Both times are average and that speed will not create separation by itself. What will create separation is the understanding of route concepts that Boyd seems to possess. 

The Vikings should be wary of drafting a wide receiver in the first round solely based on his athleticism. A few years ago they traded back into the first round to select Cordarrelle Patterson, an athletic freak.

Patterson, however, was a very raw prospect coming out of college and did not have a good understanding of the ins and outs of the receiver position. He has struggled at the professional level since being drafted and a lot of the problems have been linked to his inability to get a grasp on the complicated routes he is asked to run and coverages he has to diagnose.

The details have to be so precise that it is often difficult for players to pick up on and that is why the Vikings should be careful when drafting a receiver this offseason. If they aren’t, they may not get the type of production that they are hoping for.

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