print Breaking Down The Wide Receiver Position

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by Greg Cosell, NFL Analyst

Published, 8/4/11

Note: Check out Cosell’s previous articles on the
QB and RB position from previous years.  

It is now an act of faith that the NFL is a passing league. It is no longer open to discussion. The objective is not to reduce the field with a physical approach, however effective that may be, but rather to expand the field with athletic skill players who can quickly accumulate yards and points. The term “explosive plays” has become the new mantra, the “holy grail” of offensive football. It’s expressed with a passion and a fervor that rivals Sunday morning preachers exhorting the gospel or Republicans blindly reciting “no new taxes.”
 
We know this focus on the passing game as the search for truth has elevated the quarterback position to the level of deity. Organizations pursue “franchise” quarterbacks with an infatuation and obsession that bring to mind man’s (or college boys’) quest for the perfect “10.” There’s a hope and a yearning that borders on fanaticism. We saw it again in the 2011 NFL Draft, with four quarterbacks (none worthy) selected in the top 12. We’ll save a dialogue on the game’s most important position for another time.
 
What I find most surprising is that this dual emphasis on the passing game and the quarterback has not meaningfully impacted the perception of the wide receiver position. That would seem to be a philosophical disconnect. I’m familiar with the arguments, two of which are most often presented: Scheme and route combinations (in other words, coaching) can create open receivers, and high level quarterback play, with its timing, anticipation, and accuracy, can raise the level of play of lesser receivers.
 
Certainly, there is some truth to that. I have always been a strong believer that exceptional offensive coaches can positively manipulate the play of both the quarterback and the passing game overall. Two prime examples are Bill Walsh and Joe Montana with the San Francisco 49ers in the 1980s, and Mike Martz and Kurt Warner with the “Greatest Show on Turf” in St. Louis.
 
But make no mistake; it is almost impossible to have an outstanding passing game over time without excellent receivers. Think about it this way: Complete wide receivers, those who can stretch defenses vertically and run precise intermediate routes, dictate coverage schemes. And coverage schemes must coordinate with front concepts for the defense to be properly balanced. Therefore, elite wide receivers determine the overall defensive approach. There is no greater impact than that. 
 
In addition, the more the NFL incorporates spread principles, with 3 and 4 wide receivers on the field, the more important the position becomes. One thing I am seeing defensively in response to the evolving spread concepts is more man coverage schemes. It may not be pure man, with no safety help over the top, but it’s still man, with corners asked to match up.
 
The bottom line then for wide receivers is that they must be able to defeat man coverage. If they can’t, they will have a limited shelf life in the NFL. It’s a litmus test that can’t be cheated. I always come back to what Troy Aikman told me years ago. He said if your passing game is not functioning against man coverage because your receivers are always covered closely, and as a result the quarterback is making throws that appear forced, then you need new receivers, not a new quarterback. That puts it in its proper perspective.
 
One of the best man route runners in the league over the last decade has been (Carolina’s) Steve Smith. Smith is an explosive combination of lateral quickness, physical strength, competitiveness, and vertical acceleration. He has been hampered by inconsistent (I’m being kind) quarterback play in Carolina the past few years, but Smith is a dynamic man beater with great run-after-the-catch ability.
 
Another excellent man-to-man route runner is Chad Ochocinco. His game has always been about lateral explosiveness, with the ability to change direction quickly. That attribute is what it takes to defeat man coverage. It will be very interesting to follow Chad in New England. The Patriots pass game concepts differ fairly significantly from the Bengals’. Cincinnati’s base approach, particularly at the intermediate levels, was based on timing and anticipation. More often than not, Carson Palmer delivered the football well before Ochocinco made his break. That put the premium on precise timing. The Patriots, with Tom Brady, are a little different. Their core philosophy relies less on anticipation and more on reading and reacting to coverage on the move. The route concepts primarily attack the shorter areas of the defense, with the receivers working off the leverage of the coverage.
 
Based on my film study over the last couple of seasons, I believe the top 5 wide receivers in the NFL are Andre Johnson (incredibly special), Calvin Johnson, Greg Jennings, Larry Fitzgerald and Santonio Holmes. Roddy White, with his combination of size and movement, was difficult to leave out. His quickness always seems to surprise me when I watch tape. Numbers and statistics are not the barometer by which to measure receiver play (I know they are for fantasy players but as we know, there are always reasons why some players produce big numbers and others don’t. One could easily argue that C. Johnson, if fortunate enough to play in a pass heavy offense with a top level quarterback, would catch over 100 passes on a yearly basis).
 
Jennings and Holmes are 2 receivers I love on film. They are both smooth and fluid, with outstanding lateral explosion. They both have excellent ground control (the ability to play fast and balanced at the same time as they run their routes) and body control. They both can change direction with one step and get in-and-out of breaks with precision and quickness. And what really stands out: They do not give away their routes off the line of scrimmage. Their initial steps and vertical stem almost always look the same. This is a decisive attribute that often separates the consistently good receivers from the inconsistent ones, even if the skill levels are similar. It is one of the characteristics of route running that defensive backs always talk about when evaluating receivers. The reason: It makes it very difficult for them to read and to anticipate their routes.
 
Fitzgerald is a virtuoso tactician at the position. He is not unlike the grand master chess champion who commands the board and is always 3 or 4 moves ahead of the opponent. He understands the subtle nuances of alignment, splits, and route running, against both man and zone, better than any receiver in the NFL. All NFL pass games are predicated on receiver distribution and location. Distribution is the number of receivers to one side of the formation. Location annotates which receivers they are. For instance, in a 3x1 set, with 3 receivers to one side of the formation, those receivers could be 3 wide receivers, 2 wide receivers and a tight end, 1 wide receiver and 1 tight end and 1 back. By the way, receiver distribution and location dictates how defenses match up in terms of coverage.
 
Within the context of distribution, splits are critical. That refers to the exact spot in which the receivers are aligned. It is not random, and it is based on singular routes and route combinations. Fitzgerald is a maestro at utilizing splits and releases to gain an advantage, and most important, to make certain that he is where he needs to be when he needs to be there. That is perhaps the true essence of route running: All routes coordinate (or sync up) with the drop of the quarterback, whether it be 3 step, 5 step or 7 step. It is the receiver’s responsibility to be where he is supposed to be at the right time. Few, if any, do it better than Fitzgerald.
 
Two young receivers whom I find particularly intriguing are Hakeem Nicksof the Giants, and the Buccaneers’ Mike Williams. Nicks has surprised me; I did not see the kind of movement when I studied him at North Carolina that he has exhibited in the NFL. Nicks is an ideal case study of how a team’s offensive concepts complement the skill set of a wide receiver. The Giants foundation is the run game, out of base personnel. Nicks is the “x,” or weak side receiver (the same position Plaxico Burress played). Almost all defenses match up by getting a safety (the 8th defender) involved in the run game, more often than not on the strong side. That leaves Nicks, a big and physical receiver, one-on-one on the perimeter. He’s a difficult cover.
 
I will follow Williams closely in 2011. He’s tall and lanky, a long strider with deceptive vertical speed. He’s not laterally explosive as a change-of-direction route runner. He won’t throttle down and then separate with quickness and burst. He’s more of a speed cut route runner with excellent body control and the ability to cover ground swiftly. What stood out in his rookie season was his competitiveness in attacking the ball in the air. He is clearly the Bucs’ number one receiver, and he has a chance with his skill set to develop into a consistent big-play receiver.
 
So we’re back to where we started: explosive plays. It’s what drives offensive football in the NFL. It’s the primary reason (but as we’ve seen, not the only reason) the wide receiver position is one of the most important in the league. Its significance cannot be underestimated or undervalued.
 
WR Comparison Chart
Here are Greg Cosell’s grades for the league’s RBs in a variety of categories discussed in this article. Keep in mind that a high score in certain categories does not necessarily correlate to being a great RB. For instance, a player such as Donald Driver grades out very highly, yet he’s clearly on the downside of his career. These grades are more for reference and do not necessarily present an accurate portrait of the WRs.
 
 
Player
Tm
Speed
Lateral Agility
Quicks
Routes
Hands
Release off line
Physicality
Red Zone effectiveness
Total
Andre Johnson
HOU
9
9
8
9
8
9
10
10
72
Calvin Johnson
DET
9
8
8
8
9
9
10
10
71
Larry Fitzgerald
ARI
6
7
7
10
10
9
9
9
67
Roddy White
ATL
8
8
8
8
9
9
9
8
67
Reggie Wayne
IND
7
7
7
10
9
9
9
8
66
Santonio Holmes
NYJ
8
10
9
9
9
8
6
7
66
Greg Jennings
GB
8
9
9
9
9
8
6
7
65
Steve Smith
CAR
9
9
9
7
8
8
9
5
64
Marques Colston
NO
6
7
7
9
9
8
9
9
64
Dwayne Bowe
KC
6
7
7
8
8
9
9
9
63
Vincent Jackson
SD
7
7
7
8
8
8
9
9
63
Donald Driver
GB
6
8
7
9
9
8
8
7
62
Brandon Marshall
MIA
7
8
8
7
6
8
9
9
62
Percy Harvin
MIN
9
9
9
6
7
8
8
6
62
Wes Welker
NE
5
9
9
9
9
9
5
7
62
Hines Ward
PIT
5
6
6
9
9
9
10
8
62
Anquan Boldin
BAL
5
6
6
9
9
9
9
8
61
Miles Austin
DAL
7
7
7
7
8
8
9
8
61
Hakeem Nicks
NYG
7
7
7
7
7
8
9
9
61
Malcom Floyd
SD
8
7
7
7
8
7
9
8
61
A.J. Green
CIN
9
9
8
7
7
6
6
8
60
Dez Bryant
DAL
8
8
8
6
7
7
8
8
60
Brandon Lloyd
DEN
8
8
8
8
8
8
6
6
60
Eddie Royal
DEN
8
8
8
8
7
7
7
7
60
Julio Jones ®
ATL
7
7
7
7
7
7
9
8
59
Jordy Nelson
GB
7
7
7
8
8
7
8
7
59
Sidney Rice
MIN
7
6
7
7
8
7
8
9
59
Steven Smith
NYG
6
8
7
9
9
8
6
6
59
Jeremy Maclin
PHI
8
7
8
7
7
7
8
7
59
Mike Williams
TB
8
7
8
6
8
7
7
8
59
Lee Evans
BUF
8
7
8
8
8
7
6
6
58
David Gettis
CAR
7
7
7
7
8
7
8
7
58
Pierre Garcon
IND
8
7
7
7
6
7
8
8
58
Mike Thomas
JAC
7
8
8
8
8
7
6
6
58
Louis Murphy
OAK
8
7
7
7
7
7
8
7
58
DeSean Jackson
PHI
10
9
9
6
8
6
5
5
58
Mike Wallace
PIT
10
7
8
7
7
7
6
6
58
Michael Crabtree
SF
7
7
8
7
8
7
8
6
58
Kenny Britt
TEN
7
7
7
6
8
7
8
8
58
Steve Johnson
BUF
7
7
7
7
7
7
8
7
57
Jacoby Jones
HOU
8
7
7
7
7
7
7
7
57
Austin Collie
IND
6
8
8
8
9
8
5
5
57
Braylon Edwards
NYJ
8
7
7
7
5
7
8
8
57
Danario Alexander
STL
7
6
6
7
7
7
9
8
57
Steve Breaston
ARI
8
8
8
7
7
6
6
6
56
Jerome Simpson
CIN
9
7
7
7
7
7
6
6
56
Mike Sims-Walker
JAC
6
7
7
8
8
7
7
6
56
Davone Bess
MIA
6
8
8
8
8
7
6
5
56
Lance Moore
NO
6
7
7
8
8
7
6
7
56
Santana Moss
WAS
8
8
8
7
7
7
5
6
56
Jordan Shipley
CIN
7
8
8
8
8
6
5
5
55
Jonathan Baldwin ®
KC
7
6
6
7
8
6
7
8
55
Deion Branch
NE
6
7
8
8
8
7
6
5
55
Jacoby Ford
OAK
9
8
9
6
7
6
5
5
55
Josh Morgan
SF
6
6
6
7
8
7
8
7
55
Danny Amendola
STL
6
8
8
8
8
7
5
5
55
Greg Little ®
CLE
6
6
6
6
7
7
8
8
54
Randall Cobb ®
GB
8
8
8
6
8
6
5
5
54
Vincent Brown ®
SD
7
7
7
8
8
7
5
5
54
Chad Ochocinco
CIN
7
8
8
7
7
7
4
5
53
Denarius Moore ®
OAK
9
6
6
6
7
6
7
6
53
Robert Meachem
NO
9
6
6
6
6
6
7
6
52
Michael Williams
SEA
4
5
5
6
8
8
8
8
52
Leonard Hankerson ®
WAS
7
6
6
6
7
6
7
7
52
Johnny Knox
CHI
9
9
9
6
6
5
3
4
51
James Jones
GB
6
6
6
7
5
7
7
7
51
Mario Manningham
NYG
8
8
8
6
6
5
5
5
51
Golden Tate
SEA
7
5
6
5
6
6
8
6
49
Brandon Tate
NE
8
6
6
5
6
5
6
6
48
 

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