My first and last experience as a football player came at the wide receiver position. Playing at a small 1A High School in Missouri, we all had to play offense, defense and usually special teams. Needless to say, I was a split end in an option offense, we rarely threw the ball. At the time I felt like I knew a lot about playing wide receiver, and defensive back for that matter. Since graduating and devoting my time to learning the game, I’ve been shocked at how little I actually knew in my teens.
Playing wide receiver is about more than being fast or athletic. It is not about who can run the fastest in a straight line, or who can jump the highest to get the ball. My own personal strength at the position was my speed, which was slightly above average for a small high school. What I learned after high school was that to be a complete wide receiver you must have amazing balance, agility and flexibility.
In coaching the position for a few years, those are the three things I try to stress. In scouting college and pro players, those are the three keys that begin my evaluation with every “skill” player. I’ll take a look at these and other characteristics here, but would like to point out that of the many scouts I’ve met in my few years, not many agree on the most accurate way to scout a wide receiver. This position maybe more than any other produces more headaches and busts out of every draft. For every Jerry Rice, there is a Charles Rogers. For every Rod Smith, a Rashaun Woods.
Balance- I may overrate the need for balance at the wide receiver position, but I feel this ability separates the track stars from the good receivers. Being able to run a crisp route depends not only on footwork and speed, but on balance. Being able to come off press coverage and remain in line on your route is all attributed to balance. Being a fluid player is very important to the wide receiver position. I’ll talk about this more later, but the first 3-5 yards of every route should look identical as far as steps and body position. This is where balance and flexibility make a huge difference in a receiver’s ability to beat a cornerback.
Scouting points: This is a great trait to scout live at the Combine. My favorite drill is “The Gauntlet” where the receivers run horizontally across the field, catching a pass every 5-7 yards. This drill shows me not only their speed and hands, but their ability to control their balance by running full speed and adjusting to passes. We also like to watch a player workout. Does he jump rope well? Does he have the leg strength to stand on one leg and perform drills. I have seen workouts where a team will ask a player to do numerous workouts, such as a balance beem, to judge a player’s ability in this area.
Agility- Agility is the backbone to so much of scouting a football player. Agility alone is not much to judge, but when you tie it in to balance and footwork, it makes the player. Being an agile receiver is more important in my mind than being a fast player. Being able to consistently get in and out of your cuts beats being able to run a 4.3 40. Can the player move well enough to beat a defender, and does he show the ability to get in and out of every break? Those are two important questions that must be asked of every receiver.
Scouting points: Agility can of course be scouted in the three-cone and pro agility drills. The three cone drill, or “L” drill, is the staple for scouting agility. There is more to agility than a timed speed in workouts. It is important to watch a player in pads to see if he moves as well with a helmet and shoulder pads on. Agility can make or break a player when it comes to draft position, but many scouts will look at timed speed and equate that to good agility. To me, the real test comes from studying game film and watching the player execute his breaks and how well he moves in the open field with the football.
Flexibility- Flexibility is so important to me at this position. I’ve seen many receivers that come into the league and are built like bodybuilders, and they end up getting hurt. Being flexible not only prevents injury, but it allows you to do more with your body. Being able to stretch for a poorly thrown ball, or make adjustments in the open field, are all because of flexibility. While there is no way to “scout” this, we do take note of it. You can tell a lot about this by the way a player moves. Does he look oversized and bulky? Does he get full leg extension (hips rolling, knees up) when he runs? There is an infatuation with big, muscled receivers in the NFL today, but when you look at the Marvin Harrison’s of the world, being flexible is just as important.
Speed- Of course speed is very important to the position, and the game overall. Being able to outrun your man to the ball or the endzone will win 99% of the battles in the NFL. At the receiver position you must be able to get open and then separate from the defender. Most cornerbacks in the NFL are running sub-4.55 in the 40-yard dash. Receivers are getting faster and faster, with most elite runners timing under a 4.42. It is becoming more and more important for speed on the outside, as more teams go to one-back sets and spread the field.
Scouting points: This may be overly obvious, but you can tell so much from the infamous 40-yard dash with receivers. A wide receiver is more likely to run 40 yards in a straight line than any other player in football. In fact he may do it once a game. The league standard that I was taught was a 4.6. Anything over that and the player is most likely not going to make it. There are expections, and injuries do happen. I’ve seen some very good receivers run a 4.7 and still make the league, but it will hurt your draft stock quite a bit. We can also look for “game speed”. How fast is a player in pads? Is he quicker with the ball than without it? Does he run his routes at full speed, never slowing down? These are three things to look for, especially if speed has been questioned about a certain player. One thing to remember is that this aspect alone does not make or break a football player. Speed is only a piece of the overall puzzle.
Hands/Hand size- This is becoming looked at more and more each year. At the Combine we obviously measure the hand size of every player that comes through. There is a direct correlation between drops and hand size. The smaller hand obviously will struggle more.
As far as “hands” go, a player must be able to catch the ball consistently on various routes. We not only test for this, but catches and drops are charted when scouting a game. It’s as simple as setting up a simple “T” chart on a piece of paper and tallying drops vs catches. Be fair to the player though and do not count over or underthrown passes against them.
Scouting points: Obviously this is very easy to scout. If the player cannot catch, he most likely will not be playing at a major college, nor will we be evaluating him for the NFL. One thing that does need scouted is the player’s ability to catch consistently. Does the player try for every pass? Does he catch low and high passes, or give up on them? How does the player react when going across the middle? A lot of publicity has been given to Terrell Owens for his inability to give extra effort when catching the ball. He is a fair example of what “not” to do when going over the middle or tracking an overthrown pass.
Release- This may be my favorite thing to scout for. A player should be able to beat press coverage, which is becoming very popular due to cover 2 schemes. If the receiver cannot beat the jam, he will not get into his route on time. The player should also be able to explode off of the line of scrimmage. We prefer that our players be at full speed within 5-7 yards of the snap. Getting a clean and explosive release sets up the entire route, as well as the timing of the pass. The receiver must run his routes the same way every time to develop chemistry with the quarterback. This is very important to watch for and to coach.
Scouting points: To do this on film, you really need to be able to slow down the frames and have a good notebook ready. I like to watch a player run a few routes, hopefully a short route, an intermediate and a fade/go. Watch the players first three steps and chart what he does. Does he take a back step (a big “no-no”)? Is his head down (we want them staring right at the CB)? Where are his arms (down, up to break the press or in a running motion) when running? The receiver must look identical within the first 5-7 yards on every route. You will hear many coaches talk about counting steps, and this is why. We want the receiver to be the same on every route within the first 5-7 yards. A short in should look the same as a fly until the receiver breaks on the pass. Jerry Rice was a perfect example of this and can be studied for learning scouts. Rice looked identical on every break, and was rarely held up at the line of scrimmage because of his agility and strength.
Size- Size is an important part of the receiver. Being tall enough to get to a jump ball or out-reach a cornerback is a valuable asset to have. We also like our receivers to be big enough in frame to handle hard hits and press coverage. A big wide receiver can also get inside position better in the endzone and on crossing routes. There is no industry standard on size, and it is not a perfect indicator of success, but when two players grade alike in traits the bigger of the two will generally be the choice.
Acceleration- Being able to accelerate away from defenders ties very much into speed, but I wanted to touch on this separately. A key to being a productive offensive player is the ability to accelerate with the ball. Receivers must be able to also accelerate without the ball. A player must be able to explode off the line of scrimmage and into and out of his cuts. A good way to scout this is to watch the player on film. Does he hit a second gear when coming out of his break? Does he routinely run away from defenders with and without the ball?
Vision- Being able to see the open field is a key ingredient to being a productive player. Receivers must be able to see the defenders when running zone routes and when running with the ball. Knowing where the defender is will also aid you in making the right adjustments when trying to catch the ball. Vision can be tough to scout, but watch for a player that is aware of his surroundings. Does he sit well in a window against zone defenses? Does he make the right adjustments when running with the ball?
Footwork/Stride- Having quick feet will enable the receiver to cover more ground and make more precise cuts. Cutting is all about balance and footwork. A player must be able to make a hard cut on both feet and have the ability to quickly change direction. A receiver does not want to make long strides in his routes. Naturally tall players will have a longer stride, but we want quick up-and-down feet instead of long, lumbering strides. This can be corrected with coaching, but is something to watch for and note.
Route running- More than any other skill, this will be changed from day one in the NFL. College players are expected to come in to the NFL with a basic understanding of a passing tree and how to effectively run each route with consistency. Once a player is drafted, he will learn the different routes of the scheme being used by his NFL team. I have never been sold on scouting how well a player runs his routes, as this can be coached and will be changed. It is important for the player to have a good understanding of routes and why counting your steps is important, but this technique will be re-taught and refined at the NFL level.
Blocking- Like I mentioned with both the running backs and fullbacks, this is all about willingness. A good blocking wide receiver will open up the outside running game for every team. A receiver must be able to stock block, which his to lock-up and drive his defender away from the ball carrier. Most receivers would prefer to “run off” his man by faking a deep route. Look for aggressive receivers that enjoy blocking. It is something every player must learn, but few excel at.