Fat camp: WR technique and the capacity to learn

Happy Tuesday, friends.  I’m still feeling good after the Broncos blew out the Raiders, and I’ve been thinking about ideas on defending the Patriots.  Expect some words and maybe pictures on that topic later in the week. 

For today, I wanted to talk generally about route-running technique.  Every receiver who gets drafted into the NFL is within a certain range in the areas of size, speed, quickness, and catching ability.  There’s a range of variance on talent, but it’s not really all that wide.  What really separates receivers in the NFL, when you look at their ability to affect an overall game, is technique.

In my last job, I was a controller for a business within Xerox that sold custom learning solutions to large businesses.  A lot of the people I worked with had Master’s degrees and PhD’s in the area of adult learning.  There’s a lot of research done, and theories derived, and models built in the service of understanding how adults learn, and how to best improve their performance.

I believe that being a great NFL receiver is mostly mental, and that the skills it takes to be one are learned, repeated, and translated into success on the field.  It’s great to be able to run by somebody, but the great ones are creating separation through subtle things that they’re doing with their head, or hands, or shoulders.  They’re fooling a CB who is trained not to be fooled.

Now, I have to put something out there that’s going to make some of you feel uncomfortable.  Most NFL receivers are black.  Can we agree on that fact?  Good.  Now, historically the African cohort has been perceived in this country as possessing lower intelligence than other cohorts.  In the realm of athletics, black athletes are viewed as possessing greater athleticism than other cohorts, and that thought is often followed through as a counterbalance to the perception of greater intelligence and work ethic in white athletes.  The homie Jesus made black people fast and explosive and strong, but he made white people smart and gritty and hard working.  Which set of “gifts” will prevail?

Nobody comes out and says this, but that’s the way athletes of the black and white cohorts are usually portrayed.  With few exceptions, the fact is that nobody who is successful in the NFL is stupid.  The mental demands of the game are so great that a dumb person just isn’t going to be able to meet them.

If I had to list the top 20 WRs in the NFL, my list would be something like this, in no particular order:

  • A.J. Green
  • Calvin Johnson
  • Victor Cruz
  • Hakeem Nicks
  • Wes Welker
  • Brandon Lloyd
  • DeSean Jackson
  • Torrey Smith
  • Larry Fitzgerald
  • Andre Johnson
  • Steve Smith
  • Percy Harvin
  • Jordy Nelson
  • Greg Jennings
  • Brandon Marshall
  • Roddy White
  • Julio Jones
  • Marques Colston
  • Vincent Jackson
  • Dwayne Bowe

Guys like our own Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker have strong cases for inclusion, and Brian Hartline is really emerging for the Dolphins.  Stevie Johnson is unique and effective for the Bills.  Miles Austin and Dez Bryant have solid cases too, though there’s something a bit cockamamie about both, and veteran guys like Reggie Wayne and Anquan Boldin shouldn’t be forgotten either.  The Steelers have two guys, Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown, who haven’t played great yet in 2012, but are good players.  The second tier of good slot guys includes Danny Amendola and Davone Bess too, and both are putting up big numbers this year.

I just named 30 wide receivers, and any of them can play well enough, and accumulate enough statistics in the right situation, to be a Pro Bowl player.  I’ve heard virtually all of them speak before, and you’ve probably heard most of them yourself.  My question is, who among them strikes you as a dumb person?

I know some of you are thinking that so-and-so doesn’t speak proper English, but ignore that, because it’s meaningless to the question – people speak the way they’re raised to speak, and it’s more an indication of culture than cognitive ability.  Is the guy intelligent?  Do his spoken thoughts make sense?  Does his behavior make sense?

The only player on this 30-man list who strikes me as maybe having below-average intelligence is Dez Bryant.  He’s so physically talented that he mostly gets away with not being a good technician, and often not recognizing defenses and making sight adjustments.  For every time he fails to break off a route against the blitz, and Tony Romo throws a pick-six, Bryant can also dominate lesser athletes, and positively affect a game.  He’s probably just always going to be a guy where you’re measuring the debits against the credits, and you’ll work with him as long as the debits win.

For the other 29 guys, though, I think that they have the capacity to learn and develop, and the evidence of that is that they’ve grown up to be reasonably intelligent and productive adults.  For the older guys on the list, in every case, they have grown and developed as players.  Calvin Johnson is a much better player now than he was as a rookie, and his progress has been pretty steady.  The same is true of Larry Fitzgerald, Andre Johnson, and whoever you want to name.

Players who are going to be good go through something approximating the product life cycle.  Their talent (the inherent merit of the product) gets them started, and they grow from there.  Eventually they mature, and they have their greatest impact for a period of time, and then they begin to decline.

I bring this up because Decker and Thomas are clearly in the growth phase of their individual cycles.  Through four weeks, Thomas is 13th in the NFL with 325 receiving yards, and Decker is 14th with 322.  They’re both on pace for 1,300-yard seasons, and I think they’re only scratching the surface.

Decker has noticeably improved his route running technique over last season, particularly on crossing routes.  I think he’s best working from the slot, with a two-way go.  I like that Decker seems to be able to play from a lot of different alignments, and positively affect the game. 

Thomas really hasn’t developed as quickly, but he was starting from a really limited route tree in college, and I think the Tebow scheme probably stunted his growth in 2011.  He’s good at running a 9 route, and what I’ve been seeing is that he’s exceptional at selling the smoke route.

Thomas really explodes off the line and eats up a couple yards of cushion, before jumping back quickly to make himself available for the pass.  His route work on that play is indicative of his comfort from running it in college, and it’s probably the biggest reason that the play has been so devastating this year.  The mobile linemen and the accurate on-time throw help, but Thomas is really selling that play well.

The other downfield routes still need some work.  I think some near-term ones to really work on are the slant, the out, and the fade.  A guy as big and strong as Thomas should be destroying cornerbacks on the slant, but Demaryius’s technique is really inconsistent on it.  If he can develop a better outside shoulder fake, it will really help him get across a pressing CB's face more effectively.

The out is a difficult route to run precisely, especially for a bigger guy; but if Demaryius can start running it with consistent depth and timing, it’s another route that should be gaining big yards.  It also makes the stick-and-go available, and that’s the new back-shoulder fade as the route that teams are going to frequently this year.

I think that Thomas should be devastating on the fade and the back-shoulder fade too, but I haven’t seen him show a lot of feel for either route yet.  On the fade, the trick is to subtly angle the initial release to the inside, and then obliquely and explosively break to the sideline.  It can actually involve getting across a cornerback’s face twice on the same route, if the guy is playing outside-press.

On the back-shoulder fade, the name of the game is to run a regular vertical stem, slightly angled in if possible, and then stop and turn to the outside on time for the ball.  As big and fast as Thomas is, if he can get the timing down, he should be dominating on this route, with his natural ability to shield a receiver.

I could have written an article today positing that Decker and Thomas are top-15 guys, and it would be at least defensible.  I don’t think they are yet, but if they keep improving and developing, they have the ability to be top-notch NFL receivers.  We can only hope that WR coach Tyke Tolbert is attuned to how both players learn, and that he’s teaching them their craft in the most effective way possible.  Another thing to watch for is Peyton Manning's perfectionism and attention to detail paying dividends.  In both cases, I think there's a lot of room to improve for both players, and that has to been as an exciting thing for Broncos fans.

1.  I’m not in the arguing business, I’m in the saying what I think business.
2.  I get my information from my eyes.

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