In Scouting 3, NFL Draft analyst John Vogel breaks down the wide receiver position and what is quickly becoming the most desired trait in wide receivers.
The Scouting series is designed to talk about some of the game’s intricacies that aren’t often spoken about in the media but are common knowledge in NFL circles. In Scouting 3, we want to talk about the evolving position of wide receivers and what the NFL wants in them.
When I was with the Brawl Network (RIP), I wrote a detailed article about the wide receiver position to experience a profound drop in value for trades, contracts, and draft picks. In that article, I described the similarities to the running back position and how that evolved into what it is today. Now, with most offenses running three-receiver sets consistently, it’s an excellent opportunity to get into the position and talk about its evolving nature.
Talking across the league with respected analysts and scouts, I’ve found that answer.
Scouting 3: NFL offenses are changing
NFL offenses are changing drastically as we speak. Influences from the college spread and air raid have found success in the NFL and concepts such as the run-pass option (RPO) and other quick decision plays.
The most significant change in the NFL has been the rise of the Kyle Shanahan/Sean McVay style of perimeter-centric offense. This offense utilizes a lot of quick reaction plays that constantly stretch the ball to the perimeter or other areas of the field. The philosophy is to quickly get the ball out of the quarterback’s hands until the defense cheats up and surrenders the back end. Once that happens, the play call usually is a play-action deep ball shot.
Just three years ago, only the San Francisco 49ers and the Los Angeles Rams were running these types of schemes. However, their disciples have begun to spread across the NFL, bringing this style of offense to other teams. 25% of the league runs offenses that offer the same basic philosophies and concepts.
Over the last several years, it’s been an effective offense but requires a capable quarterback to perform it. Typically, a quick-reaction quarterback can make accurate pre-snap reads and throw the ball quickly. The receivers, though, are usually players capable of making big things happen in space. The object of the offense is to create pockets of space.
Mastering the basics of the position.
A tremendous wide receiver has to balance the fundamentals of the position with particular traits that separate him from the rest of the crowd. The basics are pretty simple – speed, the ability to catch the football consistently, and create separation.
“For me,” a former NFL general manager told me, “you have to be able to separate from tight coverage and that entails several detailed skillsets, i.e., pad level, feet, and body control, just to name a couple.” These are some of the several details when looking at prospects run routes – all of those factors combining to be better at turning defenders and creating space. In the future, we will have a scouting article that goes deeper into the technique and traits of route running.
“Also,” he continued, “players have to be able to extend to catch while being covered because they all get covered in this league.” This is another essential factor for NFL teams to consider, extending defensive backs in coverage to make crucial catches. Sometimes, when the quarterback throws a 50/50 ball, a wide receiver has to have the extension to make the catch.
Scouting 3: Honing in on the biggest factor for NFL teams
Outside of those qualities, the position is very vast in terms of what NFL teams want. However, the one connecting factor across all of these schemes is run-after-catch ability. “Versatility is huge,” one former NFL Scout told me, “but I’d say that the biggest thing teams are looking for right now is RAC. Deebo (Samuel)-type running back running ability.”
Football is becoming a sport of efficiency. Drives must be sustained by the quarterback making smart, quick decisions and executing good throws. The passing game is often an extension of the run game, throwing to receivers in space and allowing them to make something happen after the catch. The easier the throws are for the quarterback, the more efficient the offense can be.
Being able to throw the ball to a receiver on the boundary with a running back’s build and athletic ability is a massive part of extending the run game into the passing scheme. It’s essentially creating a “dual-threat” for the defense to defend on the perimeter. The double threat is having to work down through blocks at the perimeter to shut down a screen or dropping back into deep coverage. The stress that puts, especially in man coverage, is substantial on a secondary.
Specifying the run-after-catch factor
There are a couple of different styles of run-after-catch ability that we should specify for this article. The first is the speed in space – a guy who uses his speed and athleticism to break pursuit angles and bust into more room. This is nice to have on offense – but it’s rare. Think of players currently in the league like Tyreek Hill and Rondale Moore.
However, speed isn’t the only factor in RAC ability. It’s not even the biggest one that most NFL teams are looking for. “[The] number one RAC trait is ‘being able to break an arm tackle after the catch,'” a former NFL general manager told me. “That’s why Cooper Kupp is so good, even though he’s not fast. He’s a punt returner playing slot and can always break arm tackles.”
If you look at the aforementioned Deebo Samuel, he has the rare combination of speed and breaking tackles. The build of a running back typically comes in at around 3 lbs per inch of height. That means that the expected build for a running back at the height of Deebo Samuel (5’11”) is about 213 lbs. Deebo weighs in at 215.
Traditionally, receivers have been leaner to allow for more speed. That’s not even the most valuable trait anymore. Now, it’s the ability to force missed tackles and make things happen after the catch downfield.
Scouting 3: Looking at recent draft results (2019)
Let’s take a moment to look at the receivers taken in the first two rounds of the 2019 NFL Draft.
|1-25||Marquise Brown (BAL)||5’9″||180||2.61||N/A||Speedster||Inconsistent Playmaker|
|1-32||N’Keal Harry (NE)||6’4″||225||2.96||4.53||Jump Ball||Little factor|
|2-36||Deebo Samuel (SF)||5’11”||215||3.03||4.48||RAC||Star|
|2-51||AJ Brown (TEN)||6’1″||226||3.10||4.49||RAC||Star|
|2-56||Mecole Hardman (KC)||5’10”||187||2.67||4.33||Speedster||Efficient Playmaker|
|2-57||JJ Arcega-Whiteside (PHI)||6’2″||225||3.04||N/A||Jump Ball||Nonfactor|
|2-59||Parris Campbell (IND)||6’0″||208||2.88||4.31||Speedster||Efficient Playmaker|
|2-62||Andy Isabella (ARI)||5’9″||188||2.72||4.31||Slot||Nonfactor|
|2-64||DK Metcalf (SEA)||6’4″||235||3.09||4.33||Physical||Star|
As you can see from the table, the most successful players in this lineup have been the players built bigger. They had the combination of speed and size to be essentially running backs being sent around the field. The players who weren’t successful? The guys who couldn’t separate and offer limited RAC ability.
Don’t expect a bunch of slot receivers to be highly valued by the league again
In the last NFL Draft, the positional rankings were very different than most analysts could have predicted. “There is no league-wide profile,” a former NFL personnel director told me. “This past draft, we saw a bunch of speedy little guys get picked high. That doesn’t mean it’s going to get repeated every year.”
The players being referred to are rookies Kadarius Toney, Elijah Moore, Dwayne Eskridge, Amari Rodgers, and Rondale Moore. These guys were elite slot prospects and heard their names called before the end of the second day of the draft.
In a future scouting article, we will discuss the changes being made to the slot position – that’s another topic for another time. However, for now, don’t expect this to be commonplace moving forward.
Concluding Scouting 3
It’s clear that with the modern NFL game, RAC is the trait that NFL teams want more than any. It’s a game-changer for most squads. The stress that it creates on defense and the opportunities it can open up downfield is invaluable in this pass-centric league. The sport has evolved this way, and it’s for the better.
As a scout, you have a system in place to grade players for their overall skillsets. You should probably well consider raising the RAC factor and value. At the very least, if there are two receivers on a similar level, RAC ability should be the tiebreaker. It certainly is in the NFL.
Beating NFL cornerbacks is a difficult thing to do. In Scouting 4, we will be talking about the different coverage styles that a cornerback plays in man coverage.