2014 NFL Draft: Wide receivers as ball-carriers

Jonathan Daniel

A brief look at a few NFL Draft prospects as ball-carriers

In this unusually deep WR draft class there are many players who could develop into high quality starting wide receivers. Most of the offseason has been spent analyzing their ability as wide receivers, in this post we look at a few traits which differentiate a skilled ball-carrier from your ordinary athlete.

This first play comes from Odell Beckham Jr. of LSU, returning a kick versus TCU.

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Beckham advances the ball to the 25-yard line before first encountering contact. The WR does a very good job of initiating the contact with his free hand, stiff-arming the defender, which allows him to alter the hit, instead of reacting to it.

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Running through the residual contact, Beckham is faced with another defender. With the sideline acting as a boundary, there is no opportunity to dance around the Horned Frog, or his teammates in pursuit.

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The WR squares his shoulder pads downfield, and lowers his pad level to meet that of the defender. Beckham also keeps his feet moving, and his knees high, which enable him to run through the hit.

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Beckham picks up another three-yards before going out of bounds, roughly 13-yards after contact.

Another excellent ball carrier, likely the best in the class, Sammy Watkins is not afraid to mete out contact when appropriate.

"We make corners tackle. They're as shitty as tacklers in our league as they are in yours."

-Alex Gibbs

After making the catch, Watkins immediately turns up field. Watkins doesn't slow to a stop, or try to run away from the defensive back. Rather, the WR accelerates, squares his pads downfield, and runs through Georgia CB Swann's poor angle.

Touted by some as a slightly larger/slower Tavon Austin, or the next coming of Steve Smith, Brandin Cooks led the nation in receiving yards last season, also taking home the Biletnikoff Trophy. But for his 1730 receiving yards, and impressive agility, Cooks was fairly mediocre after the catch. Looking at Greg Peshek's invaluable numbers, Cooks only averaged 5.24 yards after the catch per reception, despite 26.23% of his receptions coming from screens (over four times as many as Beckham, who notched 5.6 YAC). Perhaps some of this blame can be shifted to the Oregon State Offense, but Cooks is not the ball carrier some portend.

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On this play Cooks catches the ball. The Beaver allows the ball into his body instead of extending his arms for the pass, eliminating any possibility of an interception. But that's a different problem entirely.

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The DB misses the tackle. The only thing between Cooks and the end zone is a foot race with a linebacker. But instead of turning up field, Cooks retreats.

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Moving backwards, the WR now has three defenders locked in on him. A golden opportunity is wasted.

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#5 is the first Bronco to engage Cooks, but he too takes a poor angle. However, before the defender even touches him, Cooks leaves his feet, diving forwards, capitulating any chance at broken play.

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In the same vein as the Eli Manning-self sack, Cooks goes down with only glancing contact from the defender.

Steve Smith on the other hand:

Of course, it's unfair to compare a prospect to a potential Hall of Famer, but Cooks' game does not resemble that of Steve Smith.

Marqise Lee is also lauded as a "YAC" Monster, although he too leaves something to be desired after the catch. Lee is a serial offender of running backwards with the ball.

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Receiving the ball on a crossing pattern, Lee at once decides to run away from the trailing Rainbow Warriors.

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Not a brief retreat, Lee runs back across the fifty-yard line.

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Lee probably runs over 20-yards after the catch, but actually nets -1-yard.

With superior athletes in the NFL, running backwards will be much more problematic for Lee in the pros.

Later in the contest Lee catches a screen.

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With a nice move, Lee is able to dispatch one DB at the LOS before accelerating into the secondary. As he hits the 10-yard line, a defender with an angle appears.

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Unlike Beckham and Watkins before him, Lee doesn't lower his shoulders, or square his pads downfield. Worse still, he pulls out of his drive phase, ands stops moving his feet in anticipation of the hit.

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Brought down short of the goal line, Lee is carried forward by the momentum of the trailing defender.

Lee and Cooks aren't bad ball-carriers. But they're not the same caliber as colleagues Beckham and Watkins. Comfort level with physicality doesn't typically improve once you enter the NFL. Too many people equate speed and agility with ability to gain YAC. After all, Jerry Rice, and his renowned 4.62 40-yard dash, hold the all time record for yards after the catch. YAC is not about reckless abandon, but the measured application of violence, knowledge of angles, and momentum befitting a larger gain.

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