The receiver position in the NFL has changed significantly in the last number of years. With the proliferation of multiple receiver sets and the alignment versatility of tight ends, the passing game has expanded considerably. More three-receiver personnel groupings, tight ends who can split wide and threaten all areas of the field, backs who can run vertical routes against overmatched linebackers — the NFL has evolved into a matchup league, deriving principally from passing concepts.
This has enhanced the value of wide receivers. The conventional wisdom that existed for many years — and still applies in some NFL precincts — held that wide receivers, in order to be drafted in the first round, needed to work on the outside, with the ability to win isolation routes against quality corners. If they couldn’t do that, they were seen as marginal prospects, players with minimal upside and limited utility. As recently as the 2006 draft, Marques Colston was selected in the seventh round, the 252nd player chosen. Here’s what one respected draft analyst said about Colston before that draft: “Lacks burst. … Is not going to beat NFL defensive backs with his speed. … Has size to develop into a possession receiver.” It was the right evaluation in 2006, and it remains fair in 2012.
Colston, of course, has produced five 1000-yard receiving seasons over six years in New Orleans. (He only started six games in 2008 due to injury, and therefore finished with a career-low 760 yards.) Sean Payton recognized Colston’s strengths, and more importantly, his limitations, and utilized him accordingly in his multiple personnel and formation offense. Colston primarily aligns inside the numbers, in the slot, and works the short to intermediate areas of the field against slot corners, linebackers and safeties.
Colston is one of many reflective of the larger trend of greater wide receiver production as a function of scheme and design. If Colston, with what we know now, was in the 2012 draft, where would he be selected? Would his limitations lead to a third- or fourth-round grade? It’s a fascinating philosophical question, and one that leads me to Justin Blackmon and Michael Floyd.
Blackmon, by all accounts, is the best receiver in this draft, maybe a top-five pick. Floyd seems to be the consensus second-best wide receiver, but in the eyes of most, not the equal of Blackmon.
I have watched numerous games of both receivers, dating back to 2010. Always keep in mind when evaluating receivers that college production is secondary to physical attributes. The objective is to transition the player to the NFL, and there are two (not the only two, of course) defining factors that must be acknowledged when making that projection. One is the sizeable difference in the hash marks between college and NFL football. In college, there is a defined wide side of the field; that accounts for many easy catches and yards, and says very little about the receiver’s skill set. The second factor is the lack of relative quality at the corner position in college football. It’s rarely discussed, but it must be recognized and conceded.
Blackmon aligned both outside and in the slot in Oklahoma State’s offense. He is smooth and fluid as a route runner. He’s big — 6-foot-1, 207 pounds — and that size shows in his stride length. He has strong hands and a wide catching radius, comfortably snatching passes that are thrown outside of his body frame. He displays very good body control and flexibility to adjust to poorly thrown balls. With the ball in his hands, he is deceptively quick, displaying the run-after-catch ability you want to see.
Yet I had a number of concerns the more tape I studied, and this is where the transition to the NFL becomes interesting. Blackmon did not consistently explode out of his breaks at the intermediate level. That was the result of a tendency to run too upright on his vertical stem. That can certainly be coached, and it’s always important to remember that no player entering the NFL is a finished product. One thing I’m not sure can be coached, though, is Blackmon’s lack of vertical explosiveness. He did not show a second gear on tape. He was a measured, methodical, one-speed receiver.
That speaks to the thesis I posed at the beginning of the column. How will Blackmon best fit in the NFL? Is he more like Colston, or can he win isolation routes on the outside? Is Hakeem Nicks a valid comparison? They are similar in size, and Nicks has certainly demonstrated the ability to beat NFL corners at all three levels: short, intermediate and deep. I’ve seen comparisons of Blackmon to Michael Irvin. It’s always a stretch to compare a player who has never played an NFL down to a Hall of Famer. Based on my film study, I certainly don’t feel confident saying that about Blackmon.
Floyd exhibited many of the same traits as Blackmon. He has strong hands, a wide catching radius, the ability to make contested catches, and he plays fast with the ball in his hands. Floyd’s a bigger man — 6-2 1/2, 220 pounds. Like Blackmon, he did not always explode out of his breaks. In fact, he had a tendency to round off his cuts. But there was one critical difference on film: Floyd was naturally quicker — there was a little more snap to his movement. There was a more explosive element to his game. A second distinction that stood out: Floyd showed a burst with the ball in the air. It was noticeable on vertical routes, and that’s important as he transitions to the NFL. I’ve said this before, and I believe it to be a fair comparison: Floyd reminds me of Dwayne Bowe. They are almost identical in size and skill set.
Floyd vs. Blackmon: A fascinating and compelling study. Many will disagree, but I see Floyd as the more complete prospect. The film tells me he has more ability to line up on the outside and win one-on-one. Blackmon’s success will be more a function of scheme, and how he’s utilized in the context of a multi-dimensional passing offense.
For more thoughts from Greg Cosell, follow him on Twitter at @gregcosell.