Chark Attack: The NFL’s Most Improved Player?

Is anyone in the NFL more improved than Jacksonville Jaguars receiver DJ Chark? A second-round pick in the 2018 draft, Chark caught only 14 of his 32 targets as a rookie for 174 yards and zero touchdowns. He nearly eclipsed those totals in Week 1 this year, tallying 146 yards and a score in a loss to the Kansas City Chiefs. He‘s kept up the production, and through Jacksonville’s bye week Chark is on pace for 74 catches, 1230 yards, and 11 touchdowns.

Chark entered the draft with a boom-or-bust profile. At 6’3”, 199 pounds, he ran a 4.34 40 while showcasing dominant explosive traits. He didn’t always translate those physical qualities into on-field production, however, scoring just six receiving touchdowns in his LSU career and topping out a solid-but-not-special 874 yards as a senior in 2017. Chark was an upside gamble, and one that didn’t look like it would pay off after his rookie season.

But Chark has sustained his performance long enough to suggest it’s no fluke. It’s worth examining the areas where he’s shown skill—and the areas where he can improve even further.

Late Hands

Chark’s size and speed suggest a threat in the vertical game, and he’s certainly got the explosive traits to win separation deep and make big plays. But another more subtle quality appears on tape, too: late hands.

In the first quarter of the season-opener, Chark (#17) catches his first career touchdown pass. He aligns as the middle player in a bunch, up on the line of scrimmage, and runs a fade against cornerback Kendall Fuller (#92). Fuller does a nice job in coverage and hounds Chark all the way down the field, staying in the receiver’s hip pocket.

But because of where Fuller and Chark started, Fuller’s back is to the quarterback, and he can’t turn around without the risk of “losing” Chark. His best bet is to play through Chark’s hands and try to dislodge the ball as it lands. But Chark does an excellent job disguising his intentions. Here he is the end zone view freeze-framed just before the ball arrives:

Chark’s late hands prevent Fuller from making a play even though the coverage is tight. This is the kind of subtle quality that can elevate a receiver with quality traits into a legitimate NFL deep threat.

He’s Got Moves

Chark is more than just a deep ball specialist, however. Some tall players with vertical speed don’t have good change-of-direction ability, but Chark shows the ability to win separation with his movement skills. The Jaguars will often line him up in the slot or in a reduced or “nasty” split to present the threat of a cut in either direction. Paired with his vertical speed that must be respected, Chark away from the sideline presents quite the coverage dilemma for defensive backs.

Against the New York Jets in Week 8, Chark aligns in a reduced split right, working against cornerback Nate Hairston (#21). He attacks Hairston and then makes a sharp cut to the outside as the defensive back flips his hips. He’s so open that he wins some space to work with, and he’s able to wrestle out of Hairston’s grip long enough to convert a first down.

Aside from these kind of speed outs, Jacksonville likes to use Chark on quick slants and hitches. They’ll also send him on double moves when they need a big play deep. These routes are all made possible by Chark’s unusual moves for a big receiver.

After the Catch

Chark shows his movement skills with the ball in his hands, too. He might not be Golden Tate after the catch, but Chark has good shiftiness for a big guy. He’s averaging 4.7 yards after catch (YAC) in 2019, an above-average mark. The Jaguars run the occasional tunnel screen or jet sweep his way, but their favorite means of getting Chark the ball in space is an old Gary Kubiak staple, a tunnel or flat route route parallel to a quarterback bootleg:

Chark lines up in a stack on the right side, tight to the formation. He initially moves in as if to help chip on New Orleans Saints edge rusher Cameron Jordan (#94), but then veers out to the right flat. Quarterback Gardner Minshew (#15) fakes a handoff to Leonard Fournette (#27), who runs towards off-tackle left. Minshew then bootlegs back right, mirroring Chark’s motion. He flips a short pass to Chark, who catches the ball at about the line of scrimmage and turns upfield. He’s able to elude Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore (#23) long enough to gain 12 yards and a first down.

Versus Press

As evident in these examples, Jaguars offensive coordinator John DeFilippo likes to move Chark around, putting him in stacks and bunches, aligning him outside or in the slot, even using him as an H-back at times. From a variety of alignments, Chark can use his size, speed, movement skills, and YAC ability to make plays.

Moving Chark around not only helps him capitalize on his strengths, it minimizes a weakness: his struggles against press coverage. Like many receivers, Chark faced little press in college and entered the league with an unrefined skill set to combat aggressive cornerback play at the line of scrimmage.

Here Chark is working against Houston Texans cornerback Aaron Colvin (#22). Colvin presses up at the line of scrimmage and Chark runs a fade against him, a common adjustment to press. Chark briefly feints inside, but Colvin doesn’t bite and rides the receiver up the sideline as he releases. Chark doesn’t vary his stride or show an ability to hand-fight away from the press coverage. He’s unable to win any separation. Ultimately he shoves Colvin by and catches a backshoulder throw, but the field judge sees the push and flags Chark for offensive pass interference.

Chark’s struggles against press coverage may be a weakness in his game, but this deficiency also presents an opportunity to improve as he develops. He’s on pace for a terrific season, and he can still get better. Not bad for a player whose rookie season looked on a very different trajectory.

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