- Over the past three drafts, the 13 first-round wideouts have produced one Pro Bowler, and nine players who have never caught 40 passes in a season. From terminology, to routes, to how they’re taught to catch the ball, a look at why so many first-round receivers are becoming busts
It’s the first day of organized activities and the quarterback enters the huddle with a play call: Twins right, scat right, fake zoom, seam 678 Y flat drag.
For a coach working with rookie wide receivers, it’s a thrilling moment to see a new dimension in the offense. It’s also a common frustration to see them bailing out after the first section of the first play call.
“They’re sitting there going, ‘What the hell is that?’” says Ricky Proehl, a 17-year NFL wideout and Panthers position coach from 2011-16, who currently trains college prospects. “They’re sitting there, they heard twins right and are still trying to line up. First thing they say: Twins right? O.K., I’m the Z, so I line up on the right. They didn’t hear any of the other s--- because they’re trying to figure out, ‘Where do I line up?’”
Proehl is definitely buying into the theory that the wide receiver position is in a bit of a crisis at the college level. It’s hard to believe, just four years removed from the Sammy Watins/Mike Evans/Odell Beckham Jr./Brandin Cooks/Kelvin Benjamin class, we are entering a draft that may only contain one or two first-round picks at the position. Since 2014, only Amari Cooper has been picked in the first round and gone on to a Pro Bowl. Kevin White, DeVante Parker, Breshad Perriman, Nelson Agholor, Phillip Dorsett, Corey Coleman, Will Fuller, Josh Doctson, Laquon Treadwell, Corey Davis, Mike Williams and John Ross have all been slowed by injuries or slow to lift off.
The reasons are three-pronged, and could be why some of your favorite NFL teams are drafting receivers specifically out of the few pro-style offenses remaining in college, like Alabama, Georgia, LSU and Florida State (under Jimbo Fisher, who took the Texas A&M job last winter).
1. Collegiate offenses reduce wideouts to one side of the ball with limited responsibilities.
“They say hey, you’re going to be the A receiver. The A receiver lines up on the left. The B receiver lines up on the right. And then this receiver lines up slot right because the tight end is on the left,” Proehl says.
The issues at play: The receiver is often in his own world. He splits out and checks with his coordinator or position coach, who reads the coverages for him, and then directs the receiver to one of a few routes that correlate.
“They don’t worry about motion,” Proehl says. “They don’t worry about snap count. They don’t hear anything else and the coach holds the board up and they know I got one of five plays where I’m running a go, post, slant or a comeback. That’s all they’re running. If he’s off I’m running a hitch. Man, I’m running a go.”
2. Coaches are starting to teach routes differently, and perhaps less effectively.
Take one of the most basic components of the NFL route tree: the curl. For years, the receiver was taught to run 12 yards, plant hard and work back to the quarterback at a 45-degree angle. This allows the quarterback to throw a split-second early—like when the receiver digs his heel in to turn.
Now, receivers are coming out of school running the curl as a continuous semicircle, which creates myriad problems at the next level.
“When you’re running a semicircle, you’re keeping your arms moving and chopping, some coaches think its great because you’re playing fast, you’re not stopping,” Proehl says. “But a guy running a semicircle, if I’m running it and a guy like Kelvin Benjamin is running it, our circles are going to be different. The quarterback has to wait for you to come out and square your shoulders. That takes more time.”
That extra time means defensive backs have a window to undercut the route.
“When you come to him, plant your foot in the ground and come back at an angle, you’re boxing him out. He’s behind you. You create and maintain separation with your angle coming back to the QB.”
3. The use of the ‘fingertip method’
Proehl says some receivers are now taught to catch the ball with their fingertips, or are at least enamored by the prospects of it—the silent woosh, the aesthetic of it.
The problem is that there is little strength in those muscles, which could cause a batted pass from a defender or an outright drop. Proehl, who now works with agencies like powerhouse Rep 1 sports to prepare their draft-eligible wideouts and maintains a stable of NFL clients at his PSP training facility in North Carolina, prefers an attacking method.
“Try and hold a ball with your fingertips and see how easy it is to strip out of your hand,” Proehl says. “Put your whole surface of your palm and your fingers on the ball. That’s how you catch a ball. Every part of your hand. The more of your hand you have on the ball, the more you have to maintain an attack from a DB when he tries to strip it.
“Fingertips? There are 10 little points on the ball. Guys say it’s so cool. Man, I want my guys to be aggressive.”
One more damning comment…
I asked Proehl if, before he left the Panthers after the 2016 season, there was a sense among NFL scouts and coaches that receivers were diminishing in value, at least enough to invest serious draft capital. His answer:
“We heard that more with running backs at the time, that they’re a dime a dozen, that you don’t take them in the first round. When I was coaching, there were classes with Julio Jones, A.J. Green, Odell Beckham. That never came up before, but I have heard that this year. The receivers coming out just didn’t impress at the combine—no true route runners, and there may not be a whole lot [going in the first round].”
So who might gamble on a first-round receiver this year?
Keep your eyes on the Cardinals, who visited privately with Texas A&M wideout Christian Kirk; the Seahawks, who are in geographical proximity to Washington’s Dante Pettis; and the Saints, who have had multiple connections with fringe first-round prospects throughout the pre-draft process. The Bears might have no choice but to keep swinging and have had contact with consensus No. 1 receiver Calvin Ridley out of Alabama. But the Cowboys might be the safest bet. With Dez Bryant in decline, they spoke with Ridley and Maryland’s D.J. Moore at the combine. Their local pro day also provides access to a ton of talent, including Courtland Sutton from SMU.
That Kyle Lauletta-Jimmy Garoppolo Comparison
In a draft cycle with four potential star—some might even argue generational—talents at quarterback, it’s hard for a prospect like Richmond’s Kyle Lauletta to stand out.
However, this is also a draft cycle where a ton of teams need quarterbacks. Lauletta happens to be the son of a Naval Academy quarterback and, like Jimmy Garoppolo in 2013 and Carson Wentz in ’16, is the star of the Football Championship Subdivision. Is Lauletta the next Garoppolo, or are we just nearing that point in the draft where anything thrown against the wall that sticks is halfway interesting?
We reached out to Towson University head coach Rob Ambrose for assistance. Ambrose and the Tigers beat Garoppolo in an epic FCS semifinal back in 2013 and fell to Lauletta and the Spiders this season. He had both of his scouting reports queued up for the afternoon.
“I think Jimmy might be a little bit better, his release is quicker and he has the ability to be accurate from multiple release points,” Ambrose said by phone this week. “Jimmy is like a 2-guard in basketball. He is truly a pure shooter and ungodly talented.
“Kyle is a great passer and his release is still quick, but with Kyle, he’s as fundamentally sound as I’ve seen anyone play the position in college. Tremendous student, and that’s what I know for sure.
“The one thing that is the same about both of them is who they are. As famous as both of them became during their careers, they’re just as humble as two guys could be.”
Ambrose said that Lauletta’s strength is in dissecting defenses. His belief—which is something I’ve heard about Lauletta during the pre-draft process—is that he’ll be able to climb up draft boards during the visit phase (despite our insistence that risers are largely a myth). His knowledge of each of the four—four!—offenses he played in at Richmond is “encyclopedic,” and he'll be able to play white board games with coordinators and coaches.
This season, Ambrose created a few defenses specifically to trip up Lauletta, presenting bluff coverages or blitzes on third downs, then sending something different after the snap. It took just one rep for Lauletta to counter it the next down.
“He’s still physically talented, but he is a surgeon mentally… he’s so efficient. Look at the gaudy numbers of all the (FBS) quarterbacks have. They also have draftable wide receivers. These guys don’t have that. They don’t have three guys going to the combine. When you’re a 1-A guy, all you have to do is get it near these guys. What Kyle has is incredible accuracy.
“You take any tough ballplayers who are extremely accurate, that’s what matters.”
I asked Ambrose, who called Garoppolo the best quarterback he’s ever faced, if he got a similar feeling from his matchup with Lauletta back in October.
His response: “Oh God, yeah.”
So where could Lauletta end up? The Patriots connection is thrown around because of their investment in Garoppolo, but there is a lot of interest around the league in Lauletta. He’ll end up getting drafted by a team that prioritizes quick decision-making, fast release and defensive recognition. To me, that would put the Giants and Cardinals in the mix, and I would put the New Orleans Saints as a serious suitor. (The Giants and Cardinals, by the way, have come up multiple times when asking around about second- and third-round quarterbacks.)
Lauletta, I’m told, is in the middle of the “Tier 2” section. So if you think about Sam Darnold, Josh Rosen, Josh Allen, Baker Mayfield, Lamar Jackson and Mason Rudolph as Tier 1 quarterbacks, Lauletta is in the mix with Washington State’s Luke Falk and Western Kentucky’s Mike White.
Why does that matter? Backup quarterbacks and developmental second- to third-round quarterbacks are a crucial part of a team’s foundation. The free agent market is outrageously expensive, and netting a passer who could develop into a capable starter—or even a trustworthy No. 2—while on his rookie deal is a significant score.
MORE FCS QB LOVE…
In case Lauletta isn’t far enough off the radar for you: Princeton’s Chad Kanoff (6' 4", 215), has already visited with the Patriots in Foxboro and had about a half-dozen on-campus workouts. The quarterback-needy Cardinals and Giants were both at the Tigers’ pro day.
That pro day was during a Nor’easter back in early March—the same day as Rutgers’ pro day workouts, which sent scouts scrambling all over South Jersey in bad weather. Princeton and Rutgers were supposed to combine their efforts, but Rutgers needed room for 300 guests, which exceeded the fire code in Princeton’s indoor bubble. The Scarlet Knights went to Florham Park (the Jets’s facility) and the Tigers were left to show off for the diehards.
Princeton head coach Bob Surace is a former Bengals assistant and one of the brightest minds in college football. His offensive meeting room is a laboratory, a history that includes a three-quarterback system (that’s right) and a dual-quarterback system that switched passers inside both 20-yard lines.
In 2016, Kanoff handed the ball off to another, more mobile passer inside the 20 and compiled just 1,741 yards, six touchdowns and six INTs. In 2017, after taking control of the Tigers’ offense, he logged 3,474 yards, 29 touchdowns and nine interceptions—the best statistical season for an Ivy League QB in conference history (better than Harvard’s Ryan Fitzpatrick, Dartmouth’s Jay Fiedler or fellow Princeton alum Jason Garrett ever had).
“In 2016 some scouts didn’t give him a grade, and when you don’t give a guy a grade, they often refuse to change it [the next year],” Surace told me. “They’re afraid their [college scouting director] is going to be like, ‘Did you even talk to that school?’”
“Watch Jared Goff. Watch his pro day. It was outstanding. Watch our guy and tell me—the body type, the athletic ability, the accuracy, the arm strength—that you’re not seeing a similar guy. Jared Goff is one of the best in the league, I’m not knocking Goff, but I’m saying Chad, when you watch these things, they’re similar. If teams just close their eyes and think, ‘Oh, we’re at Ohio State,’ at worst, he’s a second-day pick.
“He was challenged here. And he graduated in January, so all he’s done is live, eat, sleep and breathe football.”
Here’s one thing to keep in mind about Surace: I understand that some reading this column will think “Oh, a college coach talking up his QB, what a surprise.” But these are the things Surace has been telling NFL teams, and as a former NFL coach, he knows not to bang the table for someone that is going to waste a coach’s time at the next level. That’s not how an Ivy League coach (or FCS coach, or mid-major coach) gets players drafted. He did the same for linebacker Mike Catapano in 2013 (seventh-round pick of the Chiefs), Caraun Reid in 2014 (fifth round, Lions; now with the Colts) and Seth DeValve in 2016 (fourth round, Browns). All ended up getting drafted.
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