Whether a marketing decision or one to placate paranoid franchises [...] most of what (the NFL) shows are such extreme close-ups that it is impenetrable from a strategy perspective. [...]
Unfortunately, the result is that it's impossible to get a sense of what is going on during a play: the quarterback releases the ball, the ball floats magically in the air, and the receiver appears like an apparition out of nowhere to catch it. And the practical questions remain. What coverage were they in? What route did that receiver run? What complementary routes did the other receivers run? [...] It's impossible to tell.
[...] Ironically, too, the NFL, with more money (and likely its intent to market personalities) affixes its camera angles tighter than do college broadcasts.
-Chris Brown talking about TV angles of NFL games.
Perception is the name of the game. Too often our perception of players is forged by one or two anecdotes. We remember Byron Bell being obliterated by Mario Williams, but we never see, or remember his handling of Michael Bennett, or Jason Pierre Paul. Likewise Brandon LaFell's horrible drop on 4th & 2 versus Arizona is seared into memory, where his schooling of Tyrann Mathieu isn't.
On your average play, nobody is watching the #2 WR unless he is the target of a pass, or he comes into frame as a play-side blocker. Do you know what Brandon LaFell is doing all game?
Benjamin Disraeli's famed quote: there are "lies, damned lies, and statistics."
Stats paint a nice picture, but without context, they're nearly worthless. The numbers tell you that Brandon LaFell is a mediocre number two wide receiver, especially in comparison to Randall Cobb or Alshon Jeffery. Cobb's four touchdowns, in six games this year, fall just shy of LaFell's five in 16 starts, while Jeffery's 1,421 receiving yards put LaFell's comparatively meager 627-yards to shame.
Stats don't put into context the differences in the offenses of Carolina, Green Bay, and Chicago. Not just schematically, although that is a factor, but in job descriptions, and strategic preferences. Whereas Green Bay throws the ball far more often, and Alshon Jeffery is by far the number two target on his team, Brandon LaFell plays in the comparatively run heavy, ball-control offense of the Panthers, and is the number three target behind Steve Smith, and Greg Olsen. The passing offense is primarily designed around those two fixtures. LaFell isn't asked to go out and get 100+ yards and/or multiple TDs. That's not his job. That's not the job of the number two wide receiver for the Carolina Panthers.
LaFell, the Panthers third round selection in 2010 out of LSU, and soon to be fifth-year pro, has reached the end of his rookie deal. I think he deserves a new contract. I find the idea that a second or third round pick at WR could outright usurp LaFell silly.
One of the pervading perceptions on LaFell is his supposed inability to separate from man coverage. Week 1 last season the Panthers matched up against the best secondary in the NFL. Below are examples of LaFell beating (and in some cases embarrassing) Kam Chancellor, Byron Maxwell, Walter Thurmond, and of course, the top corner in the NFL, Richard Sherman, all in man coverage.
Here LaFell, running a 9-route, is matched up with Kam Chacellor in man coverage.
LaFell shades his route towards the sideline, drawing Chancellor to that side. It's tough to notice from this elevation, but LaFell does a great job of remaining in his drive-phase, with his shoulder pads over his knees 10+ yards into his route, masking his intentions from Chancellor.
Because he remained in his drive phase as long as he did, Chancellor was forced to turn and run with the WR, and now, as he nears the DB, LaFell makes a hard break, crossing the DB's back.
With inside leverage, LaFell has defeated the safety's man coverage.
Next he faces CB Byron Maxwell.
From the bunch grouping LaFell will run a short out route.
Maxwell is patient; LaFell responds by running the route right into the teeth of the CB's coverage. Maxwell jams LaFell, but without breaking stride the WR is able to parry the incoming blow with a swim move.
After beating the press, LaFell has a couple of steps on Maxwell.
In the second quarter the WR has Walter Thurmond in off-man coverage.
Again, LaFell is running another 9-route.
LaFell pulls the same routine, this time shading his route inside, which brings Thurmond crashing downfield.
The WR plants his foot and changes direction on the CB.
With no other option, Thurmond tries to jam LaFell, in an attempt to slow him down. Once again, LaFell doesn't waste any time or movement, defeating the press with another swim move, and then running through the residual contact.
As a result, Thurmond ends up on the ground, and LaFell, wide open deep.
The cream of the crop, LaFell also had the opportunity to face off against Richard Sherman, a noted critic of 'sorry receivers'.
LaFell runs an intermediate crossing pattern; Sherman in is press coverage.
LaFell doesn't try to avoid Sherman; making him bite on a move at the LOS is fruitless. Before Sherman can initiate contact, LaFell frames Sherman with his right hand, swatting away the CB's arms with his left.
Like a veteran pass rusher, LaFell shrinks his shoulder as he runs past the DB, minimizing the contact point for Sherman; prohibiting the DB from getting into his body and disrupting the route.
As LaFell breaks free, Sherman grabs hold of the WR's jersey, but LaFell simply runs through.
With Sherman trailing, LaFell makes a nice break, and cuts across the middle of the field.
LaFell is again wide open, while Sherman too is brought to his knees. LaFell made the All-Pro look like a JV player going up against the varsity squad.
The flip side of that is when you can't separate from Sherman's physicality, as we saw in the Superbowl.
Ten-yards into his route Demariyus Thomas still hasn't shook Sherman; the DB got his hands inside the WR's shoulder pads, and Thomas couldn't execute a proper countermove.
But why didn't LaFell get a target on any of these routes? He's almost never one of Newton's primary reads. The first play? The pocket crumbled, and Cam was forced to scramble. Plays two and four saw Smith separate from a DB, and play three had Newton check down in the flat to Olsen. He doesn't play a big role in the offense. I'd estimate that about 50% of LaFell's routes run come from three routes: the 9-route, a shallow cross, or a comeback.
Even so, LaFell's game is not without blemishes. When running comeback routes LaFell often 'bangs the drums' tapping his feet as he goes into his break. Here is a fantastic video of Michael Irvin teaching AJ Green and Greg Little how to run a comeback route among other things.
This play occurs in the first matchup with San Francisco. LaFell runs a 6-route against zone coverage.
Per usual LaFell runs his route with great pad level, keeping the DB retreating, and not revealing his route.
Not inherently visible with a still image, LaFell 'bangs the drums', padding his feet as he plants. Banging the drums won't always end up in the nightmare scenario it does here, but it gives the CB a chance to recover, and diminishes explosion coming out of the route.
LaFell loses his footing coming out of the break, and stumbles as Newton releases; the pass sails out of bounds.
It's not a chronic problem, but it does show up on LaFell's tape, as well as dozens of other receivers.
The former Tiger also struggles with concentration drops, of which we saw a couple this past season, most notably the aforementioned fourth-and-two against Arizona.
LaFell is the lone wideout.
The WR does a good job of finding a hole in the Cardinals zone, and Newton sees him.
I chose to highlight this play because it is a bit of an irregularity in LaFell's game. Usually very good about extending his arms, and catching the ball with his hands before bringing it to his body, here the pressure gets to LaFell. His absolute priority being to make the catch, LaFell traps the ball with his body, using his torso as a third contact point for the ball, also making the catch with improper hand placement; his fingers should be pointing upwards.
Another lapse in judgement, LaFell looks to run with the ball before he's secured the catch.
And the ball falls to the turf.
My biggest gripe with LaFell is, I don't think laziness is the right word, but a lack of urgency you'll see in some of his routes.
Later in the game versus Arizona, LaFell is tasked with running what I believe to be a skinny post.
About five-yards into his route LaFell has already pulled out of his drive phase.
Still working the stem of his route, LaFell has actually turned sideways to look back to his quarterback.
And while Newton still has the ball in his hand, LaFell has slowed basically to a walk.
I think this lack of urgency stems from the fact that LaFell knows pre-snap, by reading the coverage, that he's not going to see the ball this play. And while you'll see this out of Steve Smith and Olsen too, it comes too often from a player of LaFell's standing.
In all, I think Brandon LaFell is a solid starting wide receiver. In addition to his great run-blocking, which we didn't even touch on, LaFell is an accomplished route runner, and is more than capable of beating man coverage. For what Carolina wants out of a number two wide receiver, Brandon LaFell is a great fit. If he were to move to a Green Bay, New Orleans, or New England, teams with elite veteran quarterbacks, and a willingness to air the ball out, LaFell could undoubtably put up bigger numbers and garner more notoriety.
But the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.
In what now seems like a bit of a non-sequiter, we'll take a look at Jordan Matthews, a player many Panthers fans fancy in or around the second round of the upcoming draft.
On this play from his junior year versus Georgia, Matthews is running a 9-route.
First off, notice Matthews' positioning on the field compared to the start of the play. Matthews has run his route towards the sideline, taking away a good five-yards of real-estate that could have been very useful. In addition, the WR hasn't framed his separation, allowing the CB, Branden Smith, a UDFA this year, cut by Tampa Bay in Training Camp, to get his hands into Matthews' body.
In college Matthews could get away with this every so often, bullying smaller, and weaker defensive backs, but DB's in the NFL are much stronger. An aside, Captain Munnerlyn can bench press over 400 pounds.
I nearly did a spit take here. They're dancing! As the ball descends, Matthews can't separate from the CB. It's anybody's ball.
Smith is able to intercept the pass.
Later in the game Matthews is running another 9-route, this time against WR Malcolm Mitchell, who was forced to play CB because of injury.
Again Matthews, unmolested, shades his route past the hashes, giving away valuable real estate, which, this time, comes back to haunt him.
Here Matthews does make a weak attempt to frame his separation, by slapping Mitchell's facemask, which is not necessarily legal.
As the pass arives, Matthews has roughly no space to make the catch. There might be one-yard between him and the sideline.
Matthews is able to catch the ball, with his body, but is only able to get one foot in bounds. A catch in the NCAA, but not in the NFL. Additionally, a more seasoned CB is liable to drive him further to the sideline, not by his own volition.
Matthews' biggest flaw isn't that lack of awareness, but rather how he catches the ball. Like we saw above with LaFell's drop in Arizona, Matthews catches just about every ball with his body, not just improper hand placement, but the Vandy standout routinely uses his body as a third contact point for the football.
Every pass above the waistline should be caught with your hands, away from your body, and with your fingertips pointed skywards. Preferably with your arms fully extended, which can help eliminate a defenders angle at the ball.
Here's an extreme example which goes to show how deep this malady goes.
Again Matthews is against Georgia, and Branden Smith.
This rendition has Matthews running a corner route.
This should have been a simple gain of 20+ yards. The pass is neck high. You can act it out right now to feel how physically awkward this is: Matthews lets the pass first hit his chest, and then uses his hands to trap it, palms skyward, as if he were making a basket.
Smith, who never should have sniffed the ball on this play, is able to get a hand on the ball, and rips it free from Matthews.
The pass falls incomplete.
Seemingly anything under the chin, Matthews will let the pass come into his body, passively trying to receive the ball, rather than attempting to catch it at the first opportunity.
This is especially troublesome with impending contact.
Here Matthews is in the slot, running a shallow comeback route.
Matthews bangs the drums, which, as we talked about with LaFell, gives the defender an opportunity to catch up, to reduce the separation.
Matthews doesn't extend his arms, and again, body attempts to catch the ball with his body. The problem being, the crashing linebacker jars the ball loose with his hit; another drop for Matthews.
As a comparison, here's LaFell running the exact same route Week 11 versus New England.
LaFell is up against LB Rob Ninkovich, who outweighs the WR by 50 pounds according the NFL listing.
It's much harder to see, but LaFell fully extends both his arms, and is able to hold on to the pass despite the simultaneous hit from Ninkovich, because he's caught the ball before he brings it to his body.
This another example of the perils of passive reception.
Matthews has Loucheiz Purifoy in zone coverage, and runs another comeback route.
The WR doesn't comeback for the ball, nor does he extend his arms. Thus Purifoy has a clean angle to the ball. And if he had read the play one fraction of a second sooner, this would have been a pick six.
Matthews isn't a very polished route runner either.
3rd & 6, Matthews is faced with zone coverage from Jaylen Watkins. The WR will run a comeback route.
The stem of his route, Matthews doesn't exhibit good pad level here, telegraphing he's about to make his break. This is a signal veteran CB's will pick on; giving them the green light to break on the route.
Something that pops up a lot in his game if you watch for it, Matthews compounds that error by not even making a break, he just turns around. Now Watkins has caught up.
Matthews couldn't separate from Watkins. The WR really being his only read, the QB has nowhere to go with the football, and takes a sack, bringing on the Vanderbilt punt team.
This last play sees a coalescence of the previous few problems in Matthews' game.
This play occurs in Matthews' final collegiate game against Houston. Third and goal, Matthews is running a comeback route.
A few yards into his route Matthews has pulled out of his drive phase, deceiving his intentions.
Matthews again pivots back to the QB, rather than making a break.
The senior doesn't extend his arms, although, since the pass is at face level, we do see his hands in proper position. Because he doesn't extend, or come back to the pass (he couldn't have because of the quality of his route), the DB is able to step in front of the pass and break up what would have been a touchdown.
All things considered, Matthews isn't a bad prospect. One doesn't lead the SEC in receiving without talent. But he's not the player Brandon LaFell is. Not yet. I see Matthews as a project. He could grow into a starting quality receiver, but he's not there yet. But then again, it all comes back to perception. I've only seen of Jordan Matthews what websites like Draft Breakdown (they're fantastic by the way; this isn't a dig against them) think relevant. Coaches and professional scouts have access to every snap Matthews has played in his collegiate career, in addition to interviews and workouts with the prospect and his coaches. Maybe Matthews is flashing better technique and such, but we as fans don't have the access. That being said, we can only make evaluations on what we've seen. And from what I've seen, I'm fairly confident in saying Jordan Matthews won't be the best player on the board at #60.
When push comes to shove, the Panthers don't need to replace Brandon LaFell. They need to replace Steve Smith. Carolina needs to wean a new number one receiver. Now I'm not advocating complacency; if there's a better player available than LaFell, for less capital, go and pick him up. I don't see that as a likely scenario. In my opinion, Sammy Watkins is the only WR in the draft class that offers an immediate upgrade over LaFell. That's not a slight against the class; I think it's an excellent crop of receivers on the whole, with a lot of room to grow.
He's never going to be that "bad boy", to quote Michael Irvin from the linked video above, that X WR commanding double coverage every snap, but Brandon LaFell is a capable starting wide receiver.