Rookie Wide Receivers at the Quarter Pole

[Editor’s Note: This article was published before the start of the Sunday Week 5 games.]

If you needed further evidence that the National Football League is a “passing league,” examine what positions dominated the first round of the 2014 NFL draft. On April 8, 2014, five offensive tackles, five defensive backs, four outside linebackers and five wide receivers were selected in the first round. Once the three quarterbacks are included, 22 of the 32 selections directly involved either assisting the passer or attacking him. Of the five wide receivers drafted in the opening round, four were opening day starters – the fifth, Odell Beckham Jr., is expected to make his first NFL start on Sunday after a hamstring injury.

We reviewed film on these four players – Sammy Watkins, Brandin Cooks, Mike Evans and Kelvin Benjamin – to evaluate how these rookies have fared through the first quarter of their rookie seasons.

Kelvin Benjamin

While many people had already broken their New Year’s resolutions, Benjamin began his 2014 by securing the game-winning touchdown reception for Florida State in the 2014 BCS Championship Game. He declared for the NFL draft shortly thereafter, and heard his name called by the Carolina Panthers with the 28th overall pick. Benjamin is a massive target, standing 6’ 5” and weighing 240 pounds. With his combination of size, strength and hands it is no surprise the Panthers utilize the rookie both over the middle in traffic and deep on the edges when he draws single coverage.

On this play from Week 1, Benjamin is the outside receiver in the trips to the left of the offense. The Buccaneers show Cover 1 in the secondary, but roll their defensive backs to Tampa 2 simultaneous with the snap. The Panthers have a nice play design to attack the Tampa 2 out of this trips formation:

The inside receiver runs a deep route at the safety shadowed towards the trips, which opens up room in that zone for Benjamin on an in cut. Derek Anderson’s throw is high, but the rookie goes up in traffic to secure the catch and absorbs a shot from the linebacker.

In Week 2, the Panthers were clinging to a six point lead early in the 4th quarter, and faced 2nd and 10. Benjamin ran a simple go route along the left sideline. Cam Newton’s throw was off-the-mark, but that didn’t matter to the rook:

If you want to earn the trust of your veteran quarterback, make catches like this in a big situation.

Given his size, Benjamin is often tasked with running routes over-the-middle and making tough catches in traffic. The rookie has flourished in this role. Here against Pittsburgh in Week 2, Benjamin will run a deep in route against Cover 2 on 3rd and 6:

Benjamin will enter the screen from the left, and, despite having a cornerback draped across his shoulders, he secures the reception while, for good measure, absorbing a shot from Troy Polamalu (who is – shockingly – out of position on the play). His willingness to go over-the-middle and make catches knowing he will take a pop is a good sign for his future in the NFL.

His size also helps him when matched up with a physical cornerback. Here in Week 4 against Baltimore, Benjamin is lined split wide to the left with Jimmy Smith in his face in press coverage. Smith tries to get a solid jam on Benjamin off the snap, but the rookie uses his size and strength to gain separation on his route:

With his size and strength, Benjamin is a valuable target for the Panthers. His ability to fight for the ball in traffic and to make the difficult catch down the field portends a great future for the receiver, and for the Carolina offense as well.

Brandin Cooks

Selected 20th overall, the former Oregon State wide receiver turned heads at the NFL Combine, posting a 4.31 40-yard dash time. While at Oregon State, Cooks was a standout on both the track and the football field. In his junior year he hauled in 128 passes for 1,730 yards and 16 touchdowns; the latter two marks set new Pac-12 records. On draft night, the Saints traded up seven spots in the first round to select the speedy receiver.

When watching Cooks on tape, his speed and explosiveness are impossible to miss. New Orleans has utilized his abilities in two distinct ways: as a runner and as a receiver in space.

In Week 1, Saints’ head coach Sean Peyton got his young receiver involved in the offense early. After a few receptions in the 1st quarter, Cooks opened up the 2nd quarter with this run on 1st and 10:

New Orleans has 21 personnel on the field in an offset i formation. Atlanta counters with their base 3-4 defense. After the snap, Cooks comes deep into the backfield from his flanker position and takes a handoff from Drew Brees at the 36 yard line. The rookie explodes around left and with a burst of speed picks up 18 yards before the Falcons’ defense knows what hit them.

Brees and the offense employed a similar concept in Week 2 against the Browns, handing Cooks the ball on the jet sweep play.

Just across the 50 yard line, the Saints have Brees under center with 11 personnel on the field. Cleveland responds with a sub package, showing Cover 2 in the secondary. Cooks comes in motion from the right and the ball is snapped with him just behind Brees. The quarterback hands the ball to the receiver and Cooks continues around left end. The safety to that side of the field falls for the fake handoff to the running back, but notice how Cooks simply runs away from Jabaal Sheard, the linebacker lined up in a defensive end alignment.

More than a runner, Cooks’ speed make him a threat downfield. An accomplished route-runner, the rookie’s quickness allows him to gain separation on many defensive backs. In Week 3 against Minnesota, Cooks put on a bit of a show with his footwork and his hands. Here, the Saints face 3rd and 10 deep in their own territory, and the rookie is split wide to the right:

The receiver runs a simple out-route, but his move to the sidelines ties cornerback Josh Robinson into knots. After gaining depth downfield, Cooks utilizes a single hard step to the inside and Robinson bites on the cut. The receiver then breaks out past the first down marker and is open for his quarterback. Cooks secures the reception and earns New Orleans a fresh set of downs.

Again, if you are a rookie and you want to earn the trust of your veteran quarterback, the easiest way to accomplish this task is to bail him out when he makes a poor throw.

Cooks runs a deep route over the middle, from the left of the screen. He is wide open, but Brees’s throw is behind the receiver. Cooks makes an acrobatic catch for a big play. Already an explosive offense, New Orleans can now put more pressure on opposing defenses thanks to the skill-set of their rookie wide receiver.

Mike Evans

Two Texas A&M offensive skill players were selected in the first round of the 2014 NFL Draft. While Johnny Manziel steals all the headlines, wide receiver Mike Evans may have a brighter future in the NFL. A redshirt sophomore in 2013, Evans hauled in 69 passes for 1,397 yards and 12 touchdowns. His efforts earned AP All-American honors and Tampa Bay selected the former basketball player seventh overall.

Like Benjamin, Evans is another big target, standing 6’ 5” and weighing 231 pounds; however, the former high school triple-jumper has better speed, as demonstrated by the 4.48 40-yard dash he posted at the Combine. This combination of size and speed makes the rookie a threat both underneath and deep.

In Week 1, Evans made a number of underneath receptions in traffic. On this 1st down and 10 play in the 4th quarter, the rookie runs a simple five-yard in route against Cover 1:

He does a great job of hauling in the high throw with his hands and then securing the ball before absorbing a tackle from the cornerback and linebacker Luke Kuechly. Later in the game Evans runs the same route, now against Cover 2:

Again, Evans does a great job of securing the ball in traffic, knowing he will take a shot from the linebacker.

Evans also does a great job of throttling down on routes when he finds a soft zone, giving his quarterback a nice big target down the field. In Tampa Bay’s Week 2 game against St. Louis, he demonstrated his ability to settle down against the Rams’ Tampa 2 coverage:

In this Tampa 2 scheme, the middle linebacker drops deep downfield. From his alignment in the stack to the right, Evans runs a slant route over the middle. The rookie recognizes the underneath zone coverage and rather than continuing across the field, he throttles down and occupies the soft zone vacated by the middle linebacker. He makes himself a big target for his quarterback for a seven-yard gain.

Before injuring his groin in Week 4, Evans showed what he could do in the vertical passing game. Here the rookie is split wide to the left, and he runs a deep route against Cover 3 using a double move:

His hesitation move draws the cornerback in a few steps, allowing Evans to use pure speed to gain a step on the defender and get open for his quarterback. When Evans makes his move to the inside at the 38 yard-line, the cornerback is standing at the 32 yard-line. Notice how quickly Evans overcomes this cushion. The rookie does an even better job at the end of the play, turning his body to secure the ball while managing to get both feet down in-bounds.

Evans suffered a groin injury near the conclusion of the Pittsburgh game and is likely sidelined for a few weeks. When he returns to the lineup, though, Tampa Bay can again use his combination of size and speed for big plays in the passing game.

Sammy Watkins

Watkins capped off a stellar career at Clemson University by securing MVP honors in the 2014 Orange Bowl, a game in which the junior hauled in 16 passes for 227 yards. At the combine, he measured 6’1” and 205 pounds and was timed in the 40-yard dash at 4.43 seconds. The Buffalo Bills traded up with Cleveland, selecting him with the fourth overall pick in the draft.

Even with E.J. Manuel throwing him the ball, Watkins has displayed tremendous talent so far in his rookie season. On this play from Week 2, the rookie is the inside receiver in the slot to Manuel’s right and runs a simple post route in the red zone against Cover 0. Watch how his quick fake to the outside turns the defensive back:

With a better throw Waktins would have kept that ball as a token to remember his first NFL touchdown.

The rookie did secure his first touchdown later in the game against Miami. On this 3rd and 6 situation in the red zone, Watkins runs a shallow crossing route:

He does a great job of weaving through the underneath traffic to find open space. Once he makes the reception, he puts his head down and heads straight for the pylon, flashing that 4.43 speed.

Not just fast, Watkins showed both toughness and strength last week against Houston on this goal-line play. Split wide to the right, the rookie runs a quick slant for Buffalo:

He uses a quick first step to the outside to simulate the fade route, turning the cornerback’s hips. This allows him to gain inside leverage on the slant route. He goes up for the high throw and manages to haul in the reception before the safety breaks on the pass. Now that Buffalo has made the change at quarterback to Kyle Orton – a change Watkins seems to welcome – expect the rookie to have more of an impact on the field for the Bills.

Conclusion

Through four games, these four receivers have each demonstrated the reasons why general managers saw fit to select them in the first round of the NFL draft. These receivers have all exhibited combinations of size, speed, quickness and athleticism that keeps defensive coordinators in the film room drawing up more complex coverage schemes in an attempt to counteract their ability. As these players gain more experience, look for each of them to continue to provide thrills for their fans and quarterbacks alike.

Follow Mark on Twitter @MarkSchofield.

Mark Schofield has always loved football. He breaks down film, scouts prospects, and explains the passing game for Inside the Pylon.

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