Wide Receiver Evaluation Process: Part 2

In Part I of this “series” on skill player evaluation (TFB: WR Evaluation Part 1), I discussed five aspects of a wide receiver’s skill set I look for when watching film:

1. Wasted Movement
2. Aggressiveness
3. Purpose
4. Precision
5. Ready Hands

In discussing those five aspects, I mentioned that much of how I evaluate a player parallels how I coached wide receivers when I was still in the coaching fraternity. I do, however, believe that you can talk to many coaches and they will tell you they value those five things at a high level even if the semantics are different.

In Part II, I want to touch on a very obvious skill wide receivers should possess when they have hopes of playing at a high level of college football. It goes hand-in-hand, no pun intended, with #5 from Part I:

#1 Hands – Catch Points

When discussing “ready hands”, I mentioned the importance of a receiver keeping his hands in a position to catch a football when coming out of his routes. When a receiver drops his hands below his waist, it is sometimes just a mental lapse; often, however, it is a bad habit that needs to be phased out of his game. Once a player has that muscle memory ingrained and his hands are always in a position to catch the football, I then begin to look at how he catches the football.

If you played football at any level and were a skill player, you should have been coached to catch the ball away from your body. Sometimes, this skill comes naturally to a young man. Often times, it is foreign. Catching the ball with your hands is a no-brainer, and receivers the University of Oklahoma is evaluating almost certainly do this, but there are still a few things I look for within this particular skill.

The first piece of evaluation is how a receiver catches a football thrown when he has momentum toward the football. For example, tunnel screens, slant routes, and digs (a dig route, in my terminology, is sprint 12 yards, plant outside foot, then work your way inside and flat at 15 yards)

Catching with your hands, and where you catch it with your hands, are pivotal to the success of these plays.

During the 2008 season when I was coaching at a high school in Arkansas, we had a young man, a sophomore, who was the fastest player on our team. He played the “X” receiver spot in the offense, which meant he was our “homerun hitter”. I had to work very hard with him to soften up his hands. He had been brought up to be a guy who would run a quick hitch or curl, cradle a pass into his body, and then “turn and burn”. When he got to the high school level, we needed him to run those tunnel screens, slants, and digs across the middle.

Why were soft hands so important? During his sophomore season, he had a two-time all-state quarterback throwing him passes who could really zing it and placed a football pretty much wherever he wanted. So many times during the early development of this skill, the football would bounce off the receiver’s chest, and shoulder pads, ricochet out in front of him, and put the ball in danger of being intercepted from the guys who were pursuing inside-out. His hands were “ready,” they just were not to a point where he had good “catch points”, meaning he did not have the development to use his hands to softly secure a catch into his body, especially when running full speed toward an oncoming pass. That was problem number one.

Problem number two occurred when he realized he must use his hands to play receiver for me, and he began getting his hands up when the pass arrived and…stoning the football up into the air, once again putting us in a bad position to have an accurate pass intercepted. When I say “stoning,” think putting up two cast iron frying pans and trying to catch the ball. As a matter of fact, I called him “Skillet” until he figured it all out.

So, using Ol’ Skillet’s development, and thinking about that kind of receiver, I am always looking at two things on film:

1. WHERE does the receiver catch the ball?
2. HOW does the receiver catch (transition) the ball?

Most of the guys I watch on film are running 4.4 – 4.5 40-yard dashes. They have speed to burn (more on speed in Part III). That speed, however, is useless without a secure reception. Let’s look at question number one a bit closer.

WHERE does the receiver catch the ball? I want to see if his hands are able to locate the pass. That may sound elementary to you, but does he consistently display an ability to snag “bad passes” out of the air that are above his head, below his knees, etc. Just about anyone who is a high school football starting wide receiver can catch a pass that comes right between the numbers; I want to see the guy who takes his hands and puts them all over the place to make a catch.

A drill I used with my receivers every single day during practice (remember Part I when I discussed EDDs?) involved them coming at me in a straight line and I would fire a pass at them. We went through seven catch points: between the eyes, above the head, up and to the right, up and to the left, down and to the right, down and to the left, down and in the middle. I wanted to SEE them use their hands and I did not want to HEAR the ball make contact with their hands. If I could hear the ball make contact, it was not a soft reception and they would have issues completing their purpose of turning a catch up field for positive yardage. At least, that was my train of thought.

We also did a drill that involved the receivers going out and away, fading deep, and across the middle when I would place the football in those seven positions. If a young man will get in the habit of using his hands, making them soft, he will have success at the wide receiver position unless you need a sun dial to time his 40-yard-dash.

When looking at film, I want to see space between the receiver’s hands and his body when contact is made hand-to-leather. There are times when a quarterback has to release a football sooner than he wants (which sometimes is a terrible thing to do and he should just take a sack) and the receiver is caught by surprise with the timing; those passes can sometimes get “into” the body. Those are not the receiver’s fault, and can even serve as a good evaluation tool if he is somehow able to secure those catches or minimize the damage by knocking the ball down.

For guys who are current Sooners, I was super impressed by the examples in CeeDee Lamb’s and Charleston Rambo’s film. These guys displayed remarkable ability to catch the ball with their hands no matter where the ball was thrown.

The second question I ask myself plays into the first…

HOW does the receiver catch the ball? You may be asking what in the world this means. A receiver either catches the ball or he doesn’t, right? Well, yes but what happens once I see WHERE he makes the catch?

The truly effective wide receivers make seamless transitions from WHERE they catch to the ball to HOW they catch the ball. What does this mean? Simply put, when a guy softly catches the ball in his hands, HOW does he secure it, and HOW does he transition into the remainder of his purpose? His initial purpose was to run a precise and accurate route, right? Then, his purpose shifts to putting his eyes to the trajectory of the pass (if it is delivered to him). After, his purpose is that soft catch. Finally, his purpose is taking the football, securing it, and, in seemingly the same motion, moving downfield to score. It should seriously look effortless and be in sync with everything else.

Everyone remembers the 2015 game versus Tennessee in Knoxville. Watch Sterling Sheppard on these two key receptions. Watch WHERE he catches the ball and HOW he transitions:

Hands are obviously very important when evaluating a wide receiver. It is not, however, as obvious as “does he catch the ball?”. I want to see how he catches the ball when the throw is not perfect. I want to observe how quickly and effectively he transitions a clean catch into his purpose of moving downfield.

Part III will discuss speed and quickness. Get ready.