Some have it, some don't. Beyond those with unmistakable and wide-ranging gifts, wideouts seeking early rewards in the NFL have specific attributes that help them gain separation. Scouts often pinpoint the receivers who have an inherent ability to create it.
Typically, they're large, smart or football-schooled players who have demonstrable power or burst and use it to create an advantage at the line of scrimmage. Or, they're small, heady players who boast dazzling speed or quickness, often honed in the return game. Analysis of what it takes beyond supreme ability begins with players like them.
When size matters
"Big" is a relative term, so for argument's sake, we'll define "big" as at least 6-foot-2 and more than 210 pounds. Big receivers, especially those not blessed with top-end speed, often must use their size and strength to achieve separation. This is no surprise, although possessing both doesn't mean it's a given; players have to employ that combo.
The scouting report on Williams (6-foot-3, 211 pounds): It's nearly impossible to jam him. The 2004 seventh overall pick's leverage makes him a handful. Despite little help, he performed admirably as a deep threat - when he was on the field.
Some just "play big." Boldin (6-foot-1, 217 pounds) is extremely physical, a beast. He's not fast, but he's remarkably quick and a hard worker. The Arizona Cardinals had little to work with besides the Florida State product, so he had every opportunity to excel.
Bowe (6-foot-2, 221 pounds) has some speed. More importantly, scouting reports were quick to point out how strong he was and how commandingly he gained separation. Another case in which a draftee joined a team with little to work with at wideout: The Kansas City Chiefs' only viable receiving threat was the inimitable Tony Gonzalez.
Clayton (6-foot-4, 215 pounds), like Bowe a Louisiana State product, stood out as a rook in then-Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Jon Gruden's WCO. After his initial explosion, he underwent offseason arthroscopic knee surgery and gained a rep for laziness; it appears he hasn't recovered, and there have been questions about his work ethic.
Colston (6-foot-4, 225 pounds), a virtual unknown as a seventh-rounder from Hofstra, is not exactly fleet of foot but was labeled "project" - as well as "physical"; some expected him to be converted to tight end given his "limitations."
Despite the lack of pedigree, Colston had his shot thanks to first-year head coach Sean Payton. Payton was installing a high-flying offense and didn't play favorites. Colston, a very bright player, took advantage, with strong offseason workouts and an impressive training camp. It was obvious to Payton that defenders would have trouble chucking him.
Tangential lesson: Players, including youngsters, who consistently - consistently - stand out in training camp are usually on the right path. (Not necessarily the preseason; Colston reined in a combined eight passes for 84 yards in his first four exhibition contests.) Coaches often blow smoke, but when they blow smoke constantly, check for fire.
In small packages
If it's not already, it should become clear that diminutive receivers need elite speed or quickness in order to produce in the NFL. Let's define small as less than 6 feet and less than 200 pounds.
Evans (5-foot-10, 197 pounds) is somewhat of a rarity in his class: He's also quite physical. He's compact and very strong, in addition to having outstanding deep speed. At the University of Wisconsin, he played in an offense that contained pro fundamentals, with the foundation of a power running attack. He recorded a 27 on the Wonderlic, according to reports.
The Badgers utilized Evans, the 13th overall choice in 2004, as a deep threat, something that was innate for him. Buffalo, with Mike Mularkey directing the vertical attack, did nothing to alter that. Although other factors (quarterback play, lack of assistance) have held him back, he has done well in that role.
Ginn (5-foot-11, 180 pounds), on the other hand, is more representative of his dimensional brethren. The ninth overall pick in 2007 tasted pro-style parts of the Buckeyes' offense before hitting the NFL, where he was still a bit raw. Then-first-year head coach Cam Cameron's offense didn't favor rookies with steep learning curves.
Nonetheless, Ginn had other factors working for him. He's a coach's son, with a distinct understanding of the game. He's faster than lightning, too. In 2008, Cameron was gone, offensive coordinator Dan Henning ran a simple pro-style offense (save for the Wildcat formations), and Ginn was a year wiser. The 'Fins took advantage of his unique skills then.
What stands out about Ginn and many others in his class? Their experience and proficiency on special teams.
Royal (5-foot-10, 182 pounds) and Jackson (5-foot-10, 175 pounds) earned starting spots in training camp. They did so with adept offenses, increasing their chances to contribute. Poor quarterback play at Virginia Tech held Royal back as a receiver. Jackson is notably weak, and Philly takes measures to ensure that he avoids jams.
Royal's steep decline in 2009 was a product of his lack of a rapport with Kyle Orton and some trouble grasping his role in Josh McDaniels' system. He spent the offseason working extensively to correct that and learning how to play in the slot in it. The reported results are extremely encouraging.
Holmes (5-foot-11, 192 pounds) and Avery (5-foot-11, 184 pounds) didn't receive significant playing time right away. The sturdy Holmes lacked the maturity to adapt quickly to NFL life. Avery was injured. However, they gained it eventually. Each was an exceptional return man in college (and may be or has been at times in the NFL).
The attributes that make them dangerous returners - quickness, lateral speed, fluidity in the hips - make them effective in small spaces. They can turn on a dime, away from a defensive back. They can take a 3-yard hitch or a pass in the flat, step away from a defender and turn it into a big gain.
Miami's Bess (5-foot-10, 190 pounds), an undrafted free agent in 2008, performed well when his role increased. He was a quality return man at Hawaii. Other factors limit his potential, though he's a solid performer. Bess is a run 'n' shoot product and can find space even more easily when teammates, like Brandon Marshall, attract attention.
Clayton (5-foot-10, 190 pounds) hasn't completely delivered on his first-round promise. He returned kicks in college, but that wasn't his strength. His speed and quickness allow him to gain separation, but he operates as more of a deep threat. It seems as though his conflicting identity keeps him from reaching the heights of others in his genus. Now, he's lower on the totem pole.
Jennings (5-foot-11, 197 pounds), like Evans, is more of an exception. He thrilled Green Bay Packers staffers with his potential in minicamps and training camp and ended up starting for a large portion of his rookie season. The Western Michigan product was raised in an offense with pro-style facets.
Jennings' ability to avoid jams at the line of scrimmage stood out to scouts. He returned punts for his alma mater occasionally, but he has incredible quickness and a slew of moves in his arsenal that suggest he could perform there regularly. Like Evans, Jennings is a threat to take it to the house every time. Unlike Evans, Jennings' unique skill set makes him ideal for turning a quick slant into a 75-yard TD. He's a perfect fit for the Pack.
In any case
Randy Moss, Larry Fitzgerald, Andre Johnson, Calvin Johnson ... these players come along every so often. Every fantasy football player wants them. Often those from the rare breed are considerable sources of fantasy points early on. That is, unless the Oakland Raiders drafted him.
It's usually the players beyond this group who require scrutiny. Many fantasy football players fall in love with rookies - sometimes, with good reason. Oftentimes, though, they do it without a serious look at a receiver's skill set and circumstances. Assess each to unearth worthwhile investments....
About Nicholas Minnix
Minnix is baseball editor and a fantasy football analyst at KFFL. He plays in LABR and Tout Wars and won the FSWA Baseball Industry Insiders League in 2010.
The University of Delaware alum is a regular guest on SiriusXM Fantasy Sports Radio and Baltimore's WNST AM 1570. Follow @NicholasMinnix
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