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Scouting Routes – Part I

How do we find the next big thing at WR? Grind that tape baby! “What am I looking for?” you ask? Let me help you get started.

Scouting players is an important skill that every dynasty player needs. Some of you by now have read about my strategy for scouting running backs. This will be a similar two part series that will with scouting wide receivers. 

If you are like me, you hate wasting draft picks or FAAB/waiver priority. You also can’t stand moving on from an asset too early or waiting too long to make an acquisition. This method of watching receivers is at the basic level, but still it should give you an edge to pick up on hits early like DJ Chark and Michael Gallup this season. We will focus on watching NFL tape because of the availability of the All-22 on GamePass. While the details we are evaluating are the same for college prospects, the process articulated in this short series doesn’t quite fit due to the source of the tape.

If you are reading this then you recognize that the receiver position is much more than speed and athletic ability. As a friend once told me, “it doesn’t matter how fast you are if you aren’t in the right place at the right time.” Route running is an art that we must study to understand a receiver’s capabilities.

Preparation

As with an evaluation, having the right tools and resources available is important to get the best evaluation possible. This includes tape resources, documentation resources, and other ‘accelerators’.

The Tape

First, let’s start with the tape. This is easy for evaluating NFL players because we have NFL GamePass. GamePass blesses us with the All-22 footage, the most complete view of the action on the field. This film ensures that all players remain in the frame from the sideline angle for most of the play. As with any player on any play, context plays an important role in determining the quality of the receiver’s decisions. We will revisit this later when discussing play evaluation.

For college tape this becomes more challenging. There may be a centralized resource for all FCS or FBS games, but I have not found one that offers searchable All-22 film. There are some resources out there, but the security of the sites causes pause. There are, however, other resources offering cutups of prominent players available out there. One resource you should definitely check out is the Dynasty Prospect Film Room! It nicely organizes and presents cutups of college film for us to evaluate. 

Recognize the limitations of any resources you use. Try to prevent your brain from ‘filling in the blanks’ of the things that aren’t on tape. Instead, be sure to document these gaps in information.

Recording Data/Observations

Speaking of documentation, we must have a way of documenting our observations. There is a comprehensive way to document plays as explained in Steve Belichick’s book Football Scouting Methods. The methods described in this text are more about scouting teams than any one specific player, but it could prove valuable to you as an evaluator long term.

We could use spreadsheets, and sometimes I do. Pro Football Reference has the play-by-play logs for each game that can be grabbed as a csv. To get this, click on the game’s “boxscore” link, scroll to the ‘play-by-play’ section, click ‘Share & more’, select ‘Get table as CSV (for Excel), copy and paste into a spreadsheet whether it’s Google Sheets, Excel, or any other spreadsheet program.

Once in your spreadsheet program, we can add columns to track certain information. My process adds columns for coverage, the defender aligned across from the receiver (by jersey number), the defender’s technique/leverage, receiver alignment, route, and pro/con columns. The information to be recorded here is self-explanatory, but use of the pro/con columns will be described later.

Documentation can be augmented by clips. Screen2GIF with FFMpeg has been very useful in my evaluations, writing, and getting another set of eyes on action that catches my attention. With that said, building a network of other talent evaluators or students of the game is critical to a well rounded assessment. As people we can often get married to our own opinions. Personally, I find this practice the quickest way to cap the quality of your overall evaluation.

Necessary Knowledge

There are some overall concepts we need to understand including the route tree, reading coverages, and wide receiver responsibilities. Be sure to read the content linked here. These resources are here for efficiency in sharing knowledge that is already available, and it made more sense to link the quality work rather than try to give you the ‘Cliff Notes’ version.

Route Tree

There are nine basic routes shown here, but the route tree can get much more complicated. To understand the basics, my recommendation is this article on BleacherReport. Reading this also gives you some knowledge on how to read the split of the receiver to determine some of their responsibilities as well as the benefits and limitations of these alignments. 

To build onto this, it is nice to have a little bit of the passer’s perspective on these routes for context, and Mark Schofield gives us some insight in two writings about the short and intermediate routes. We often hear about passers and receivers not being “on the same page”. With the passer’s perspective we can get a little bit of insight to the quality of the receiver’s mental processing.

Reading Defenses

Receivers must read defenses. It is a frequent occurrence that the assigned route has options based on coverage and the defensive back’s technique. We cannot properly evaluate mental processing if we cannot read the defense. 

One thing that I did wrong early: I tried to read the entire defense. After some time, I learned a concept to speed up this process while eliminating unnecessary information: reading the coverage triangle. This article helped me understand what to read and helped shape what the receiver’s responsibility should be. Understand that if the receiver does something different than expected that it could come down to play design or coaching, so this alone doesn’t warrant docking the receiver for it.

Man vs Zone coverage must be determined so that we can view a snap through the correct lens. The easiest way to identify man vs zone is to look at the defensive back aligned with your receiver. If the defensive back is standing in a more upright stance while looking at the quarterback, then it is an indicator of zone coverage. If the DB’s focus is fixed on the receiver and they have a squatting stance as if they are ready to pounce, then it is likely Man coverage.  

Again, since receivers have to read defenses to be successful then we must read defenses to be successful. With that said, a comprehensive understanding of reading pass defenses can be found here. That article is an in-depth step-by-step process that will help you do this properly. Understanding, where to attack will give insight to understand how the coverage read should be used. A solid book on this subject is Steve Axman’s Attacking Coverages with the Passing Game. Spend some time and study coverages and how to beat them; it will be worth your time and it will eventually speed up your evaluation process. 

Traits to Evaluate

Common Traits

These traits are common across all positions, but we look at them through the lens of evaluating receivers. I like to call these ‘explanatory’ traits, because the quality of these traits often help us understand ‘why’ a receiver may succeed or fail in a receiver specific trait which we discuss later.

Athletic Ability

Athletic ability (AA) captivates many during the draft process, and while it’s important we should treat feats in this area as ‘explanatory’ traits. For example, we may see a receiver have consistency in shaking DBs with double moves. It is apparent that the prospect or player has some ability to run routes, but his separation quickness could be due to either his quickness, explosiveness, or change of direction. 

Several qualities make up the total category:

  • Explosiveness – sudden acceleration in a given direction
  • Speed – focused on long speed
  • Balance – ability to maintain playing posture among various circumstances (in/out of cuts, through contact, etc)
  • Agility – ability to manipulate direction in response to changing circumstances
  • Change of direction – ability to change direction in a planned/intentional fashion
  • Quickness – quick twitch ability

Keep these areas in mind when trying to explain a player succeeds or struggles in a given area of his game.

Mental Processing

This is probably one of the toughest areas to grade because there aren’t typically a lot of indicators on film that can get us in a player’s head. For this trait, context is absolutely essential. As stated above, getting an understanding of the game situation, the coverage, the DB technique, alignments, etc. can help inform us on what a player should be thinking about for his assignment. We must understand that we will not be privy to the specific coaching of a player without connections on the inside. For most of us, this is not accessible from our couch or home office. 

With that said, try to assess this as honestly as possible. Try to answer questions like: 

  • Did the receiver make the right decisions?
  • Did the receiver respond properly to his keys?
  • Did the receiver respond properly to a quarterback scramble?

This is far from comprehensive, but it hits a lot of the major points for an initial evaluation. Two easy indicators of positive mental processing on tape include a receiver settling into a zone void or a receiver presenting themselves as a target on the scramble drill. Even with those easy indicators, your evaluation could be somewhat inconclusive in the area of mental processing. This is not a bad result; it could simply mean you need more tape or you need access to insiders.

Play Speed

The intersection of athletic ability and mental processing. This is not measured or track speed as is the traditional thought when the term ‘speed’ is discussed. Play speed is concerned with the mind-body connection, or how quickly a player can process information on the field and translate that to productive action. Have you ever seen a player’s 40-time at sub-4.4, but the speed somehow doesn’t “translate” to the field? Have you heard evaluators mention how a player “carries their pads”? These all relate to play speed. This is a trait that can improve as the game “slows down” for a player. In fact, this last one is what I believe happened to DJ Chark this offseason.

Play Strength

Play strength is an underrated aspect for receivers in my opinion, so don’t overlook this area of a player’s game. Receivers that dominate in college often don’t see a lot of physical corners, especially NFL-caliber corners. Strong physical corners can jam to disrupt timing or they can reroute receivers off their line or crowd them to the boundary. Excellent play strength overcomes the defensive back’s attempts to use physicality to affect the receiver’s route or battle them at the catch point.  

Competitive Toughness

A lot of these traits are connected. As mentioned earlier, play speed is connected to mental processing and athletic ability while competitive toughness and play strength also overlap. The ‘will to win’, the desire to overcome the adversary, the “fight”, “playing through the whistle”, these are all things we want our receiver to exhibit. Do they wither when challenged? If so, by who? A current example of competitive toughness that concerns me is Nelson Agholor in 2019, while an example of a player who excites in this area is Michael Gallup in the same season. Watch these players in contested catch situations to see the difference, but this is only one area where competitive toughness is tested and demonstrated. As we work through the phases of watching tape, the areas to find this trait will be identified.

Receiver-specific Traits

This is where the rubber meets the road for receivers. Each of these will have elements of the previous five that contribute the total assessment. These elements while not comprehensive will get you started in receiver evaluation. A resource that was super useful in understanding what certain techniques were supposed to look like is a Riley-Kolste Football article called The Art of Route Running

Release

Source Image: Sportsnaut.com

One area where college receivers tend to struggle when transitioning to the NFL is dealing with press coverage and the jam. One reason for that is their college competition utilized it less. Also, the quality of the athlete and the press technique they use is not NFL caliber either. How a receiver handles this area will determine how easily a defense can take the player out of the play, especially in offenses with a heavy emphasis on timing in the passing game.

Vs the Jam and Press 

via GIPHY

What are we looking for in a player’s release? Against the Jam, we want to watch two things : their hands and their footwork. They must have multiple moves with which they can succeed and they must be fluid to approach an ‘elite’ grade in their release. This will tie into the AA traits of balance, change of direction, quickness, and to some degree, their play strength. The goal is to minimize the impact or straight up defeat any attempt of the DB to manipulate the receiver’s route with physicality.

via GIPHY

Against Press coverage, the DB is simply trying to utilize their leverage and play strength to re-route the receiver. The receiver will need to show they have a plan to deal with the DBs leverage such that they can get even field depth with them within a few steps off the line (similar to the previous clip of Hopkins). If they can stack (put the DB in a training position) quickly on a consistent basis against the majority of competition, you might have someone special in this area. 

Here is another example of elite receiver play against press:

Vs Off Coverage or Bail

When the DB is Off or utilizes a bail technique (where they may start in a press/soft press situation, but turn their hips downfield to gain depth before the ball is snapped) we are looking for some very different things. We want to look at closing distance and how they attack leverage.

First we want to see the receiver’s closing distance. A receiver that can quickly close the cushion may be able to manipulate the DBs hips more easily prior to the break point at the top of the route. It is easier to evaluate this against a DB who plays Off rather than bails. How quickly does an Off DB go from backpedaling to turning his hips upfield? A DB turning upfield when the receiver is 2 yards away versus 5 yards away is a huge difference especially on Dig, Out, Curls, and Comebacks. 

Closing speed is still useful to evaluate against bail, but watching how they attack leverage is important from the release, through the route stem, and up to the break point. Attacking leverage is a tool that can help convince a DB they have an advantageous position or to manipulate their hips or widen them to get them out of position or create space. In reps against bail, see if they are attacking the blind spot consistently. This shows awareness and positive signs for mental processing. 

Separation

Separation is ‘king’ in a receiver’s life! Separation comes down to technique and how that technique is used in the context of the play, the coverage, the strengths/weaknesses of the receiver and DB. This is often a determining factor in whether or not the receiver is targeted second to passer progression. If you can’t separate it makes life very difficult for a QB; just ask Carson Wentz in 2016 and 2019. 

Distance between defender and receiver is common and solid objective indicator of separation, but limiting yourself to this definition can limit some very good prospects in your evaluations. Look at separation as the ability to create a throwing area that the passer can trust their receiver to come down with the pass. An example of where you might not see space between receiver and defender, but there is still an area to throw would be Alshon Jeffrey in his prime. Player’s like him with a basketball background are able to use their body position and size to box out defenders thus separating them from a chance to make a play on the ball.

With that said, we want to answer the following questions:

  • Do they make themselves a viable target consistently (do they win)?
  • How are they doing it? Quickness? Explosiveness? Strong head/body fakes? Play strength?
  • Do they transition well in/out of break with proper technique and minimal impact on their speed?

Evaluating separation is easier on some routes than others. For me, I love Curls and Comebacks for all receivers. The ‘X’ and ‘Z’ receivers can be evaluated on the quality of their Dig and Out routes in addition. For slot receivers who frequently deal with underneath zone coverage and/or less agile defenders, look at those option routes or even the whip and pivot routes (these are beautiful when executed well).

Manipulation of receivers with the route stem and upper/lower body fakes is one thing, but more often than not receivers are going to deal with defenders in close proximity at the break point. This will invite some physical contact as receiver and DB vie for positional leverage. We want to assess a receiver’s balance through contact at the break point as well as the techniques used when the DB has leverage at this point. Play strength is going to be huge here, but I really want to see the mental choice of technique used to increase separation even if it’s just a half yard. The ‘Chicken Wing’ and ‘Push-By’ (described in The Art of Route Running) are excellent techniques to watch and evaluate.

I firmly believe that a receiver should be playing ‘chess’ when they are facing man coverage. We should look to see if a receiver is setting up DBs over the course of the game. Compare the Bam Step and the Rocker Step and just think how one could be used to set up the other.

Separation can also be created with the brain. This typically occurs versus zone coverage where the receiver finds the soft spots in various coverages. On many occasions the coverage will change from a ‘Man’ look to a ‘Zone’ look after the snap. In these situations, the QB and the receiver should know the adjustments to be made in the route to hit that soft spot. I love seeing receivers in these areas especially after a well disguised coverage has changed. Guys that use their mind to make themselves an available target will last a while in the league.

Hands

Source Image: Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

The quality of hands are going to be critical to the trust a passer has in a receiver over time. Sure we could look at the numbers to some degree with an equation like “receptions /(targets – uncatchable passes)”, but again we want to know the ‘why’ or identify the qualities that help project consistency of a receiver moving forward. This is especially true for evaluation of draft prospects.

Coming down with the ball is good, but I love receptions in traffic (concentration), with impending contact over the middle (concentration, competitive toughness), through physical contact (balance, play strength, concentration), or that require significant body manipulation (flexibility, body control). Consistency in these areas are the mark of good hands.

Success in those situations above will require that a receiver is looking the ball into their hands. Typically, I want receivers to catch with ‘Active’ hands, meaning that fingers are up and thumbs are pointing toward each other. This only applies when they are facing the incoming ball and it is at or above their shoulders. Many throws could call for an underhand technique like deep bombs and low throws, but with any of these we want to see the receiver catch them at the furthest point from their body because it increases the distance the defender has to overcome to make a play. Highpointing the ball or plucking it out of the air is something to look for beyond the reception itself.

Speaking of plucking the ball out of the air, we want to look at their catch radius. Catch radius effectively reduces the necessity for QB accuracy. This is truly evident in Allen Robinson’s breakout year when turned in a Pro Bowl season with the notoriously inaccurate Blake Bortles. Determining how well the receiver can extend the catch radius all around their frame will contribute to the ‘hands’ grade. Be sure to note any limitations (ex. Can’t catch low passes) and determine the root cause of the limitation (balance, flexibility, etc.). 

What about body catches? Well if they can catch consistently that way, great! However, if using the body to catch gives undue opportunity to defenders then it is something to consider. There are situations where a body catch can be useful like in heavy traffic areas like the shallow middle of the field or near the goal line. Each situation is unique, and we must evaluate the merits of the chosen technique based on the context in that play.

Adjust/Body Control

via GIPHY

Some of the most amazing receptions in the NFL come from extreme body control. We see receivers like Hopkins and O’dell Beckham Jr. showing up on highlight reels consistently due to feats in this area. This dovetails closely with catch radius, because it increases the capability to make plays on off target passes or those passes that create a chance at a play while eliminating the possibility of a turnover.

You are probably imagining Adjust/Body Control as those crazy acrobatic plays we see from Hopkins and OBJ, but let’s start with some basics. Jumping catches should be evaluated, first from the mental processing standpoint of necessity, and then we want to determine how much they needed to gather themselves before elevation. To approach ‘elite’ elevation we want to find those guys that seem to elevate instantly where very little gathering was needed when it is necessary to make the play. Similar to jumping are those catches requiring the body sacrifice of laying out for the ball.

via GIPHY

We can evaluate back shoulder throws as well which often involves a 180 degree turn to see and adjust to the ball to make the catch. These often happen along the sideline making sideline awareness critical which includes those crazy toe-drag receptions. Even more impressive are catches along the sideline where the receiver is able to tight rope for a few additional yards after the catch.

One final example by Nelson Agholor of body control, adjustment, concentration, competitive toughness, and hands. I just wish he was more consistent in doing this:

YAC

Yards after the catch (YAC) is everything after the reception is completed. Is the receiver to add to the damage they have already inflicted on the defense. This is the point where we want the receiver to turn into a running back to utilize vision, quickness, elusiveness, burst, home run speed, and power (if necessary) to gain additional yards. What we don’t want to see is excessive dancing, inefficient lateral movement, and poor ball security. We want to see the receiver make the first defender miss and/or immediate movement downfield. D.J. Moore (9th in 2019 YAC as of this writing) was touted for his YAC ability coming out of Maryland.

Blocking

For receivers, like running backs, can earn snaps earlier in their careers with their ability to block. It isn’t as critical a skill to have developed when compared to the expectations of RBs, but receivers that can help block on the perimeter can open up massive gains on outside runs. Watching run blocking reps is typically the last step in my evaluations, and it will make sense why at the end. The elements we can assess here pertain to play strength and competitive toughness mostly.

Traits Overlap

Before moving forward, here is a table that shows how some of the common traits align with the main receiver specific traits. Allow this to help as a reference to help you think through the ‘why’ of success and failure. Now onto the tape!

Receiver Specific TraitCommon Traits
ReleaseQuickness, Balance, Play Speed, Play Strength, Competitive Toughness
SeparationQuickness, Agility, Explosiveness, Change of Direction, Play Speed, Mental Processing, Play Strength, Competitive Toughness
HandsPlay Strength, Competitive Toughness, Balance, Flexibility, Quickness
Adjust/Body ControlAgility, Balance, Flexibility, Mental Processing
YACMental Processing, Agility, Change of Direction, Quickness, Explosiveness, Play Speed, Play Strength

Next, Watch Tape!

Before we move into the next step, I urge you to take some time and soak in the information discussed here along with the content at the linked resources. Additionally, Billy McMullen’s Youtube page is another resource helpful in getting visuals and understanding of elements of a receivers overall game.

Our goal is to not only identify what a receiver can or cannot do, but also identify the root cause of success or failure. For example, looking at DJ Chark from 2018 to 2019, he had all the physical tools you wanted coming into the NFL, but he was missing play speed due to mental processing speed. His combine indicated he had deep speed, but he simply wasn’t applying that speed in a way where it was useful to consistently separate in 2018. Though he flashed occasionally on tape, he did not have the consistency to be a true fantasy asset. 

Determining his hang up to be a mental processing speed deficiency allowed room for me to believe that he could take a leap if he was dedicated to learning. Reading training camp reports indicated he was taking steps to improve and thus gave me confidence in taking a chance to acquire him is startups or via trades. 

Grasping the concepts we have discussed in this part will assist when we come back for part II where we will look at the steps I use for watching NFL tape. Until then!

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