How NFL teams evaluate great receivers with bad quarterbacks
INDIANAPOLIS — In 2006, Georgia Tech wide receiver Calvin Johnson caught 76 passes for 1,202 yards and 15 touchdowns, most of which were thrown by quarterback Reggie Ball, who completed 44 percent of his passes and threw 20 touchdowns to 12 interceptions that season. While Johnson went on to a multi-year reign as the NFL's best receiver, Ball tried out at the 2007 scouting combine as a receiver, went undrafted, caught on with the Lions a couple of times and was last seen playing for the Bricktown Brawlers of the Indoor Football League.
Three years later, Georgia Tech's Demaryius Thomas caught 46 passes for 1,154 yards and eight touchdowns. His quarterback that season, Joshua Nesbitt, was as much a rusher as a thrower in the triple-option offense installed the year before by new coach Paul Johnson, completing 46.3 percent of his passes and throwing 10 touchdowns to five interceptions in 2009. While Thomas has flourished as one of the NFL's most effective receivers with Peyton Manning getting him the ball in Denver, Nesbitt went undrafted, caught on with the Bills as a safety prospect, and was out of the NFL before the 2012 season.
This isn't to pick on the Yellow Jackets, who had found considerable success with questionable throwing quarterbacks even before Paul Johnson installed the triple-option offense in 2008. But the success of Georgia Tech receivers at the next level raises a question once again relevant with this year's underwhelming quarterback draft class: How should an NFL-caliber receiver be evaluated when the quarterback who threw to him in college is not nearly good enough to simulate NFL throws?
This year, Arizona State receiver Jaelen Strong caught 82 passes for 1,165 yards and 10 touchdowns in an offense split between two quarterbacks in Taylor Kelly and Mike Bercovici who completed just over 60 percent of their passes between them. On tape, Strong often bails out Kelly and Bercovici, expanding his catch radius over time by pure necessity.
Louisville's Devante Parker, one of the highest-ranked receivers in this draft class, had an adjustment of his own to make when the Cardinals were forced to fill the void left by Teddy Bridgewater with Will Gardner, Reggie Bonnafon and freshman Kyle Bolin. Parker missed the first seven games of 2014 with a broken bone in his foot but still finished with 855 yards and five touchdowns in the first year of a new spread-style offense, even though none of Bridgewater's replacements completed more than 58 percent of their passes in 2014.
"I adapted O.K.," Parker told me Thursday. "We had good quarterbacks after Teddy, but they weren't as good as him. You just have to learn your playbook, run your plays and move around."
How does uneven quarterback play affect what NFL teams see in receivers at the top of the draft and how they grade the position?
"Forget about the ball for a minute," said NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock on a recent conference call. "At the combine, what the scouts and the wide receiver coaches and all are looking for—when DeVante Parker gets up to catch a football from a quarterback he's never seen, they don't really care that much about the football. What they want to see is this guy's explosion coming off the line, and how he gets in and out of breaks. Remember, they're running an NFL route tree—three-step, five-step, and seven-step—so that means short, intermediate and deep routes, so you actually get to see a progression of routes from each receiver. So, don't even worry about the football. That's kind of an afterthought. What these guys want to see are movement skills. What kind of movement skills does a big guy have? Does the little guy get in and out of his breaks the way he should? How about his burst off the line of scrimmage? And finally, when the ball does come, are you a natural hands catcher?"
As Arizona general manager Steve Keim said Wednesday, filling in the blanks is part of the job.
"When you watch these kids coming out of college, there's a lot of projection involved. But that's what we do, we're in a projection-based business. But the receivers have been very, very good the last couple of years, and I think you're seeing guys like Dez Bryant and Demaryius Thomas, players who not only came into the league extremely talented, but they've taken their game to another level.
"You've seen some of these guys come out, particularly some of the guys at Georgia Tech come out over the years in that style of offense where they don't get a lot of opportunities. At the end of the day, you have to have the necessary tools—the size, the speed, the quickness. Guys who can play inside, guys who can play outside. There are so many different aspects to evaluating the wide receiver position. Luckily enough, in Arizona, that's one thing I think we do well. To have someone like [Larry Fitzgerald], who's a tremendous leader, and Michael Floyd, who's emerging himself, and rookie John Brown, who's shown the ability to take the top off a defense."
Chargers general manager Tom Telesco says it's up to the scouts to compensate for the receiver-quarterback talent disconnect based on an understanding of globally valuable skills.
"It may take you a little more time," he said. "You're looking for traits—physical ability, and the traits of what they do. A lot of that's just scouting—route-running, awareness, hands. We evaluate all of that. Every offense is different, and every quarterback and receiver are different, but that's just part of scouting. That's the way it's always been, and that's what our scouts get paid to do."
Frequently, scouts will reward a receiver in a shaky offense for being able to shine in difficult situations. After the Seahawks selected receiver Paul Richardson out of Colorado in the second round of the 2014 draft, area scout Matt Berry mentioned that Richardson's ability to stand out in an offense that had little else going on in the passing game made Seattle wonder what he could do in an offense with more firepower. Richardson caught 82 passes for 1,343 yards and 10 touchdowns in his final season in Boulder with a quarterback tandem that combined for 20 touchdowns and 15 interceptions. For his own part, Richardson also threw a touchdown pass for the Buffaloes in 2013.
"With Paul, his speed and skill set jumped off of the tape," Berry said last May. "It’ll be frustrating because sometimes he would be open and they couldn’t get him the ball. Or he’d be open down the field, and the ball didn’t get there. He’s the guy, every time there is a single high safety you’re hoping they throw it to him. Just to see the electric speed and the playmaking ability."
Richardson's rookie season was limited due to injury, but the impression he left on the Seahawks was clear.
"I think it's hard for receivers here as well [at the combine] because they're not used to all these different [quarterbacks]," Seattle general manager John Schneider said. "Everybody runs their routes in a different manner, and some quarterbacks are a little more accurate than others. It's just about spending more and more time with each of those individuals. If you have a special feeling for one of them, you can watch the way they adjust to the ball, the way they adjust their routes, and whether they have the body control they're going to need at the next level."
Cardinals coach Bruce Arians has dealt with this issue repeatedly during his time as an offensive play-caller, and his preferred solution is common across the NFL. The best thing a team can do is get that receiver out of his clunky college offense and into an environment consistent enough to get an honest evaluation.
"Those guys, normally you try to have a personal workout and you try to have somebody who can throw be there," Arians said. "See how good their hands are, how good their hands and their eyes work together. It’s hard. I’ve done it over the years. Guys wide open all the time and you can never see if they can catch the ball. It’s a shame for them."
With widely varying levels of competition, talent and scheme around college football, receivers with bad quarterbacks can only hope they flash enough potential to earn that personal attention.