Equanimeous St. Brown: Expectations and Projection

[dt_divider style=”thick” /]Equanimeous St. Brown perplexes me. The Notre Dame wideout exhibits an impressive stature with excellent height at 6’4” and a lanky frame that could stand to add weight to the 205 pounds he currently carries. Based off size alone he’s an intriguing prospect for NFL teams and evaluators. However, after turning to his production you can’t help but be mildly disappointed.

St. Brown finished his Junior season (2017) by catching 33 passes for 515 yards and four touchdowns. It was a drastic decline from his previous totals of 58 receptions, 961 yards and nine touchdowns during his sophomore season in 2016. The transition at quarterback for Notre Dame from DeShone Kizer to Brandon Wimbush was the cause of the decline and it’s evident when studying the tape that the change negatively impacted St. Brown’s totals.

Yet, after acknowledging that St. Brown lacked quality QB play I remained a skeptic on how successful his transition to the NFL will be. Despite the traits I liked about him – like his smooth and fluid movements that guide his route running ability and burst in the open field – I was concerned about him succeeding with his current skill set. Mainly, I wasn’t thrilled how often he didn’t win contested catches for a receiver of his size; a trait that is normally associated with big bodied receivers. This also signals that his play strength may be lacking. I then expressed concern with how well Stanford CB Quenton Meeks defended him – especially in man coverage during Notre Dame’s contest with Stanford this past season. That game in particular raised red flags for his ability to separate against a higher level of competition. The majority of his five catches for 111 yards that day came against defenders not named Meeks. Lastly, his hand technique on catches can be improved. St. Brown fights the ball on passes within his frame, letting them get into his body, but shows a good ability to extend for passes above his head. This is a consistency issue that is fixable, but a potential concern nonetheless.

Hands, contested catch and separation concerns against top competition sounds like a recipe for disaster for an X receiver. However, I mistakenly wasn’t evaluating what St. Brown was, instead I was comparing him to the skill sets of receivers he’s physically modeled like. It became clear after a brief exchange with my colleague Ted Nguyen that my interpretation of what a receiver of St. Brown’s stature “should be” affected my overall evaluation of the player. In behavioral economics this is called expectations. Expectations make up a part of the cognitive biases that we as humans project out into the world and affect our ability to make rational decisions by clouding our judgement.

I’m currently reading Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions by Dan Ariely. Chapter 10 covers, “The Effect of Expectations.” In this chapter Ariely states, “Expectations also shape stereotypes. A stereotype, after all, is a way of categorizing information, in the hope of predicting experiences. The brain cannot start from scratch at every new situation. It must build on what it has seen before” (Ariely 212).

In the case of St. Brown I came to realize the disappointment I felt was with the level of his contested catch ability for a player with his physical profile. Based off my past experiences with receivers of St. Brown’s physique I type casted him to be a very good contested catch receiver. With his size and long arms it makes sense to have high expectations for him in that area at first glance.

And this is where another element of behavioral economic expectations plays a role in the evaluation process. Earlier in the chapter Ariely noted that, “When we believe beforehand that something will be good, therefore, it generally will be good — and when we think it will be bad, it will be bad” (Ariely 204). I wholeheartedly agree with the notion that expectations can shape our decisions and experiences, but where Ariely and I differ is that I also believe high expectations can have the opposite effect, depending on the context. Sometimes having high expectations, like I had with St. Brown’s contested catch ability, can result in disappointing results. The results ultimately diminished what I thought of St. Brown as a player and were disproportionately weighed against him.

After taking some time to reevaluate St. Brown, a good majority of my notes were consistent with what I had down originally. While reconsidering my initial evaluation I came to the conclusion of what type of player St. Brown actually is. That being a highly athletic and talented receiver who possesses physical abilities unlike the majority of X receivers in this draft. However, he’ll need to refine and develop areas of his game if he wants to reach his maximum potential.

St. Brown’s evaluation requires a good amount of projection. Words like “raw”, “high upside” and “high ceiling” are often used to describe St. Brown’s NFL prospects, and for good reason. Projection proves to be a quandary for all evaluators as it isn’t an exact science. We’re dealing with human beings after all. The best we can do is evaluate the traits and how they translate to the NFL game. St. Brown’s fluidity in and out of his breaks project him to become an excellent route runner for someone his size. His thin frame is certainly capable of adding muscle leading up to the season. This should improve his play strength and areas that play strength affects like contested catches, releasing against press coverage, fighting through contact at the point of attack, blocking, etc.

This first example addresses both the dysfunctional QB play St. Brown dealt with in 2017 and flashes his ability to create separation against higher levels of competition – Stanford CB Quenton Meeks (#24). For the most part, Meeks got the best of St. Brown that day. This was one of the few opportunities St. Brown had that his QB couldn’t capitalize on. But you can see why there’s promise even on a play where the ball is never thrown in St. Brown’s direction.

After the snap, St. Brown releases to the boundary towards Meeks’ outside shoulder. The Stanford CB attempts to jam St. Brown at the line of scrimmage, but St. Brown extends his long arm into Meeks’ inside shoulder. St. Brown continues to fight through contact, displaying good play strength with a rip move through the defender’s inside shoulder to gain inside leverage. The push from St. Brown was enough to cause Meeks to lose his balance, resulting in the CB trailing the Notre Dame WR on the corner route to the boundary.

Yet, Wimbush (#7) is not able to recognize the separation St. Brown has created. Instead the QB’s internal flight sensor goes off when Stanford ILB Mustafa Branch (#31) blitzes the B gap. OG Quenton Nelson (#56) uses his play strength to cut off Branch’s angle and eliminates the leverage for the blitzing ILB. Wimbush already believes he’s in an escape situation and makes the mistake of not keeping his eyes downfield.

This is blurry, but St. Brown and Meeks are circled in red near the top left of the screen. St. Brown appears to have a good amount of separation and horizontal real estate for his QB to throw the intermediate corner route if he had kept his eyes downfield. In the context of the college game this isn’t an easy throw by any means. Wimbush is in a situation where he senses pressure and then has to throw a ball with good anticipation to the boundary from the opposite hash. From the context of the NFL, however, St. Brown would be given the opportunity to make this play.

Later in that same game on 3rd and 10 with roughly five minutes remaining Notre Dame was down 38-20. St. Brown is aligned in the slot on this example, facing off coverage.

At the snap St. Brown releases into his stem and breaks to the inside while varying his pace on a slant and go route accompanied by a pump fake from his QB. Malik Antoine (#3) reacts to the slant and freezes on the fake, allowing St. Brown to display very good burst and acceleration into the go route portion of the double move.

St. Brown has the slot CB beat easily and has the speed to beat the safety’s angle to the back corner of the end zone. However, Wimbush ball placement is poor and he lacks anticipation on this pass, as he throws the ball well short of where it needed it be. Instead of an easy touchdown the play resulted in an interception by the safety as St. Brown’s momentum took him out of range to attempt to break up the play. The issue with this play is that St. Brown is tracking the ball’s trajectory in the air and doesn’t slow himself down in time to work back to the ball. The potential lack of effort makes you question if he’s frustrated with the QB play at this point in the season, as this game was Notre Dame’s final one before their bowl game against LSU.

With Kizer playing QB in 2016 St. Brown made more plays like these…

St. Brown runs a 15 yard dig route with the CB playing off in zone coverage. He maintains a straight line before slowing down and sinking his hips into the in breaking route. The CB slips, giving St. Brown more of a cushion to make the catch in the middle of the field. Kizer throws a well placed ball into the frame of his receiver. As St. Brown turns upfield he displays his run after catch skills with very good burst and long strides to split the safeties en route to an early touchdown.

The replay provides a better angle of St. Brown’s release, fluidity into his break, hands and run after catch ability.

St. Brown shows good early acceleration into his release against off coverage before slowing down with one long step as he effortlessly sinks his hips into his break. This is followed by two shorter steps to slow himself down as he turns inside. St. Brown makes the catch, but his technique can be improved. He extends for the ball, which is good, but he has wide hand positioning and allows the ball into his body. You can notice he has to gather the ball as he fully secures it for a catch. Like I mentioned at the beginning of this piece – this is more of a consistency problem because he does show an ability to extend above his head for catches. He’ll need to be more disciplined in his catch technique in the NFL if he wants to prevent drops from occurring. Once he secures the ball in his hands St. Brown eyes the safety on the right side of the field and flips it into his next gear. It erases any angles the defender had of tackling him while also brushing the other DB’s attempted high tackle off.

Cognitive biases affect our evaluations with our preconceptions. We as humans all have different preferences and expectations based on what we’ve been previously exposed to. A player like St. Brown is not for the risk averse, but he has plenty of translatable traits that can ease your concerns when projecting him to have success in the NFL.

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