I'm not sure about you, but I'm feeling pretty tired of all the draft talk. Rather than writing about a prospect, who, by this time next week, will likely be on another team, or focusing on a specific draft concern, I felt like exploring something else, or multiple somethings else. So this article is a medley of topics: the recently acquired WR Domenik Hixon, a brief look at the Panthers deep passing attack in 2012, and, not to leave the draftniks unsatisfied, a couple of prospects to whet your whistle.
Starting with Hixon (6'2" 197 lbs.), formerly of the NY Giants, the 28 year old amassed 567 yards and two touchdowns on 39 receptions, with three starts, in 2012. In what turned about to be a swap, the Panthers signed Hixon after former Panthers WR Louis Murphy signed with the Giants. It seems natural that the proven Hixon would assume Murphy's role as the #3 WR, and perhaps as the deep threat.
Hixon is a fairly all-purpose wide receiver: he can run fine routes, and he can be a factor in the deep, intermediate, and short range passing attacks.
Here is a play from the Giants contest in Philadelphia.
On this play, Hixon (located under the red triangle), will be running a 9 route, or a go route, or a fly route, depending on your preference. Hixon is facing man coverage from Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, with no safety help overtop.
Hixon parries Cromartie's initial attempt at a jam, and runs with fine pad level; his shoulders are over his knees.
Nearly 20 yards downfield, Hixon turns his head to locate the ball. The WR does a great job of maintaining his positioning, not allowing the CB to funnel him towards the sideline. Hixon has given himself a nice buffer between the sideline and himself, so that he has room to adjust to the pass.
Hixon does a great job of tracking the ball in the air, and adjusting to the pass.
Laying out to make the catch, Hixon makes a phenomenal effort, and holds onto the ball as he falls to the ground.
Here is Hixon running a deep out route in the Giants game versus the 49ers.
Just outside of the redzone, Hixon is facing off zone coverage from the San Fran CB. Hixon will make his cut at about the 8 yard line.
Again, Hixon employs solid pad level as he runs his route.
As Hixon makes his cut, he demonstrates good bend in his hips.
Coming out of his break, Hixon does a superb job of shielding the CB away from an incoming pass. QB Eli Manning has already released the ball as Hixon finishes the stem of his route.
Hixon makes the tough catch and touches both feet inbounds with the CB draped on his back.
In this play from the Giants loss to Atlanta, Hixon will be running a skinny post, or 'bang 8'.
The design of this play has Hixon running the skinny post to occupy, or scrape, the coverage of the CB and/or Safety while the TE, Martellus Bennett runs a quick out route to the sideline, hopefully wide open.
Facing man coverage from the Atlanta CB, Hixon fights off the jam by dipping his left shoulder into the press, minimizing the contact surface for the CB, and using what appears to be a swim move to disengage.
As Hixon breaks free from the CB, and makes his break inwards, he has garnered himself two steps of separation from the CB; Manning recognizes this.
Manning fits the pass in, and Hixon makes the catch with ease, picking up a solid chunk of YAC, which puts New York well into field goal range.
Hixon projects well as a third wide receiver. Even if the Panthers should select a first or second round wide receiver, don't look for them to surpass Hixon, and Lafell for that matter.
Unlike Murphy, Hixon does not possess top flight 4.3 speed; he isn't going to be beating CB's on speed alone. However, in my opinion, Hixon is a more reliable receiver that presents another veteren presence in the WR Room. The former UDFA and Super Bowl Champion, Hixon has been there and done that.
Now for the draft...
Two prospects that the Panthers have had in for visits, and at least figure to have on their radar, are DB Sanders Commings (6'0" 216 lbs.) and OT/OG DJ Fluker (6'5" 339 lbs.).
The ex-Bulldog CB, Commings started every game for Georgia over the past two seasons, last year amassing 3 interceptions. Not bereft of intelligence either, Commings was listed as a Dean's List student in 2009. As it stands right now, Commings' stock is anywhere from rounds 2-5. For the sake of expediency, I only have two plays from Georgia's matchup versus Alabama in the SEC Championship game.
Here Commings is in man coverage against Alabama WR Kevin Norwood, who will be running a drag route.
At the snap, Commings allows the TE to pass, and demonstrates great route recognition. Already he has body pointed towards a point to intercede Norwood.
Commings is right on Norwood's tail; the Alabama WR has no separation. Commings has his head in the backfield watching QB AJ McCarron, who is about to release a pass.
Although I've done a horrible job taking this screenshot, Commings tracks the pass perfectly, and extends his right arm to break up the attempt.
Later in the game:
Here Commings is matched up with one of my personal faves, true freshman WR Amari Cooper, in man coverage. Cooper will run a comeback, or 5 route.
Commings jams Cooper at the LOS, funneling him outside; Cooper defeats the press.
Cooper fools Commings by staying in his 'drive phase', with his shoulders pads over his knees, right until he makes the break on his comeback route. Commings makes a last second play at Cooper in an attempt to disrupt the route, but to no avail.
Commings momentum carries him further downfield. Cooper has generated a good four yards of separation.
In all, I think that Commings has the skill set to be a good CB. Physically speaking, he has the size and speed necessary to perform at a high level. As he develops, and as he gains experience, he won't fall for the techniques employed by Cooper, and NFL caliber WR's.
And although I didn't expound upon these traits, I think Commings has the potential to translate into a zone corner, as he has demonstrated exceptional route recognition, a good understanding of coverage schemes, an ability to read the QB, and the talent to make plays on the ball. Commings would be a fantastic pickup in the fourth round, but I'm not sure he'll be around.
The behemoth, former Alabama RT DJ Fluker arrived at Tuscaloosa as the #3 overall high school player in the nation per Rivals. Fluker would go onto make 35 career starts at RT for the Crimson Tide, and would accrue a second team All-America nod during his junior season. Currently Fluker is listed as a potential first round pick.
Again, for the sake of expediency, I've only included two plays. Fluker's ability as a run blocker is already well documented; for this breakdown, I've highlighted some of the holes in his pass blocking.
I've already covered this play in a piece on Jarvis Jones, but it is worth reshowing.
Look at each of the Alabama OL. In comparison to the neutral stances of his linemates, Fluker is demonstratively higher in his stance in order to compensate for his poor foot speed. On first down and ten, a team as potent as Alabama can either run or pass with ease. With his elevated stance, Fluker gives away the play call to the Georgia front seven, or at the bare minimum, Jarvis Jones. Over the course of his career, this has been a chronic problem for Fluker.
Jones, now aware that the play is a pass, is able to empty the proverbial kitchen sink on a speed rush. With a certain violence and desperation, Fluker maneuvers himself in front of Jones, and has his hands up.
The comparatively minute Jones swats aside Fluker's hands and continues his rush. As he turns the corner, Jones does a great job of dipping his shoulder and minimizing the contact surface for Fluker to strike.
Turning the corner, Jones has beaten Fluker. In desperation, Fluker grabs the facemask of Jones and brings the Bulldog pass rusher to the ground; what should have resulted in a potentially drive killing fifteen yard penalty.
This play occurs in the 2012 matchup of Alabama and LSU.
Although the play call is a little more obvious, being third down and eight, Fluker is again much higher in his stance. In this instance Fluker will be matched up with Barkevious Mingo, who also visited with the Panthers.
Mingo has a good first step; Fluker is practically standing up as he executes his kick step.
As Mingo engages Fluker, his pads are lower than the RT's, and he strikes quicker, achieving optimal hand positioning. Height/size isn't the fault behind Fluker's pad level here; Fluker at 6'5" is only one inch taller than Mingo at 6'4".
Despite the roughly 100 lbs. difference in weight, Mingo opts to bull rush Fluker.
The svelte Mingo drives Fluker back into the precipice of the pocket. Note the width between Fluker's legs; the RT is about to do the splits. Mingo disrupts McCarron's throwing lane, helping to cause the Tide QB to throw an inaccurate pass out of bounds.
At the #14 pick, Fluker does not present good value. In the NFL Fluker will be facing much more talented pass rushers, capable of delivering salvoes of pass rushing moves with power and speed. Even if Fluker masters the technique of an offensive tackle, it is doubtful he'll ever become an All-Pro RT. And if pressed into immediate service at RT, against the likes of Jason Pierre-Paul and Aldon Smith (both of whom are on the schedule), it could spell doom for his career.
While yes it is possible that Fluker could make a successful transition to RG, it would be risky to draft a player to play a position he has never played before, and while there could conceivably be better OG's still on the board.
The Deep Ball:
One of the strengths of Carolina's Air Coryell, vertical passing game, has been the homerun hitting effect of the deep ball. Football is truly a game of inches; this tenet is magnified when it comes to the deep ball. Every inch of positioning and fraction of a second is vitally important, and can result in the difference between a game breaking play, and an incompletion.
Here is a successful, albeit imperfect, manifestation of the Panthers deep ball attack in 2012. This play occurring Week 4 at Atlanta.
Here the Panthers are operating out of 12 personnel (1 RB & 2 TE's) 2x1 formation, with TE Greg Olsen split out wide at the bottom of the picture. Atlanta counters with a 3-4 look, but with only one high safety shaded away from Olsen and Gary Barnidge. Cam Newton reads this look, and knows that Olsen will receive a one-on-one matchup with the CB. Olsen will be running a 9 route.
As Olsen runs his route, he does a good job of keeping a nice buffer between himself and the sideline, which, as we discussed above, allows him greater freedom to adjust to the pass. Newton, having recognized this matchup in the all important pre-snap reads of the defense, makes Olsen his first read. As soon as a defender turns his face away from the QB, it is imperative that the QB releases the pass. Generally speaking, Newton does a great job of releasing the ball on time for his receivers, something that some QB's, i.e. Joey Harrington, have/had trouble with.
Newton places the ball perfectly over the shoulder of Olsen, who tracks the pass and catches it on his way to a 36 yard gain.
Now lets take a look at the endzone view which gives us a better look at the pocket.
The pocket collapsing with pressure from the interior and off the edge, Newton generates power by turning his hips, and releases the ball at an appropriate point.
A mechanical flaw that is fairly typical in Cam's game, Newton does not step into his throw, though in this case it is due to the collapsing pocket. Stepping into the throw helps the passer control the trajectory and power of a pass. Most of the power from from this throw comes from pure arm strength, which is one quality (among many) that sets Newton apart from an average, run-of-the-mill, QB.