The Option Route: Pierre Garcon

When I first began this series back in July, the main reason was to highlight wide receivers who can and have been easily overlooked, and not just by the average fan of the game. In a time where the quality of NFL wide receivers that suit up every week may well be the deepest and best we’ve seen, it’s easy to overlook some quality players.

Pierre Garcon is one of those wide receivers, so it made sense to feature him next in this series. The 10 year veteran is in his first season with the San Francisco 49ers after the spending the previous 5 years with the Washington Redskins. While the 49ers currently sit at 0-6 at time of writing, Garcon once again is putting up solid numbers to start this season and showing us all why he is clearly WR1 in San Francisco.

For first year head coach Kyle Shanahan having someone reliable like Garcon in the passing game is ideal to begin building an offense. Shanahan is familiar with what Garcon brings to the table, as they were together in 2012 and 2013 when Shanahan was the offensive coordinator in Washington while Garcon was there.  

Player Profile

Garcon was drafted in the sixth round of the 2008 NFL draft, 205th overall by the Indianapolis Colts. He spent his college career at Division 3 Norwich University and Mount Union, where he averaged over 60 catches, 1000 yards and 15 touchdowns. He also helped the Purple Raiders to two consecutive division 3 National Championships.

His rookie season with the Colts got off to an incredibly slow start as he didn’t notch his first reception until Week 10 against the Pittsburgh Steelers, ending the year with 4 catches for 23 yards. Coming from a small school and being drafted in the sixth round, the expectations would have been low for Garcon. That certainly is not the case today.

Clearly ahead of Marquise Goodwin and Trent Taylor on the 49ers wide receiver depth chart, expectations are now sky high and he is more than living up those expectations. At the time of writing this he is leading all 49ers receivers in targets (56), catches (33) and yards (434).

By the Numbers

Per Pro Football Reference, of all the wide receivers also selected in the sixth round of the NFL draft since Garcon was drafted in 2008 only one other receiver has more career catches, yards and touchdowns than Garcon (592/7447/37). That of course being Antonio Brown (672/8922/51). Only two other receivers have more than 200 career receptions in that time – but not more than 250 – those being Brandon Gibson and Josh Morgan.

Heading into this season, Garcon averaged four touchdowns a season throughout his career, with a career high of six set in 2010, 2011 and 2015. While not considered a huge threat to reach the end zone (has yet to reach the endzone in 6 contests so far this season) Garcon has put up solid reception numbers in his career, having caught more than 66 balls in six of his nine years in the league with a career best of 113 in 2013 with the Redskins.

As we approach the midway point in the season, Garcon is heading towards yet another solid year despite being on a team yet to win in 2017. While the 49ers are currently 20th in the league in passing yards per game averaging 226.5, this highlights how important Garcon is to the passing attack and offense in San Francisco. Without him they could well be in the bottom 3 in the league.

Film Breakdown

Before this season began, Garcon came to San Francisco after 5 successful years with the Washington Redskins. In 2016 Garcon had one of the best years of his career statistically hauling in 79 catches for 1,041 yards and 3 TD’s, so going back a little to his 2016 film as I am about to is certainly worthwhile.

Working the sidelines and toughness

These sets of plays highlight how good Garcon is at working the sideline and the toughness he exemplifies by trying to avoiding being pushed out of bounds, looking to gain extra yards on each play.

Here, against the Arizona Cardinals in 2016, it’s 3rd down and 5 on the Redskins 30 yard line with 2:54 left in the 3rd quarter and the Redskins down 17-13. Garcon is lined up to boundary side to the left of the formation so he has slightly less room to work with as he runs an out route towards the sideline. He’ll be facing man coverage from Cardinals CB Marcus Cooper (#41).

Garcon gets a nice release initially here and is able to fight his way to the outside to complete the route. He then does a nice job once he catches the pass of working up the sideline and instead of running out of bounds, cuts inside slightly and invites contact to gain those extra yards. Overall he gains 28 yards on the play, converts a big third down and gets the ball into Cardinals territory.

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This next play is perhaps a better of example of not only Garcon working towards the sideline, but also what he does once he receives the ball that’s so impressive. In a 2016 game against the New York Giants, the Redskins are down 10-0 with 5:04 left in the third quarter. The Redskins are lined up in 11 personnel with Garcon split to the left along with Jamison Crowder (#80).

Crowder runs a short out route to the flat while Garcon (#88) runs a corner route towards the sideline. But it’s how he is able to control his feet and stop his momentum from taking him out of bounds, cut back inside while avoiding a tackle, and work his way up and towards the middle of the field that makes this a big play and a gain of 49 yards. The route, the body control and yards after the catch is just a joy to watch.

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The next play is very similar to the last. Against the Dallas Cowboys the Redskins are again lined up in 11 personnel and Garcon is once again split to the left with Jamison Crowder (#80). This time however it’s Garcon who runs the out route and Crowder the corner route on this 3rd down and 2 with the Redskins down 10-3 with 6:35 to go in the 2nd quarter. As Garcon catches this ball he is immediately looking to get upfield instead of out of bounds.

We see here that even before the ball gets to Garcon he twists his hips forward, giving him the head start he needs to work his way upfield along the sideline and away from Cowboys CB Brandon Carr (#39), for a gain of 27 yards.

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Each of these plays were big third down catches with the Redskins trailing. Garcon’s unwillingness to go out of bounds is the toughness you want to see on every play from the wide receiver position. If wide receivers were graded on sheer competitive and toughness alone, then Garcon is right near the top.

Man Coverage and the Comeback route

Another strength to Garcon’s game is how effective he can be when facing man coverage. No matter who is lined up opposite him he demonstrates that he can make a play when it counts. At 6-1 and 211lbs Garcon has the ideal size but also great body control and toughness that allows him to find a way to get open.

Now we get to see Garcon (#15) in his new colors against the Carolina Panthers. It’s 2nd and 10 with San Francisco down 10-0 and 3:16 left in the 2nd quarter. The 49ers are lined up in 11 personnel with Garcon split wide to the right directly opposite Panthers CB James Bradberry (#24).

On the snap of the ball Garcon gets a good release as he pushes hard up the field to sell a deep route, but instantly cuts back for the ball on a comeback route and again shows excellent body control to avoid the tackle from Bradberry and work his way upfield for a 21 yard gain.

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In the same game against the Panthers it’s the 3rd quarter with the 49ers down 23-0 on a 4th and 3 with 1:20 left. The 49ers are once again in 11 personnel with Garcon split to the left on the boundary side. This time Panthers CB Daryl Worley (#26) is tasked with keeping the ball away from Garcon, a task he ultimately fails to complete as again Garcon sells the deep route by working to the outside on his release.

Worley works to the inside of Garcon on his right shoulder but the body control used by Garcon to cut back towards his QB forces Worley around to Garcon’s left shoulder and ultimately behind Garcon, allowing him to shield Worley away from the ball on his comeback route, making the catch a relatively easy one. But Garcon is not done, as he is able to work back inside and find some running room for a gain of 22 yards.

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Now we see Garcon work against a quality opponent in the form of Seattle Seahawks CB Richard Sherman (#25). The game is tied at 6 in the 3rd quarter with 3:50 left on a 1st and 10 at the 49ers 13 yard line.

Garcon is split wide to the right, again on the boundary side, this time working against Sherman. Similar to the previous play, Garcon does an excellent job of selling the deeper route on release and the quickness on the comeback to the inside is so good here that he gives himself a 4-5 yard cushion on Sherman. This not only allows him to make the catch easily, but also cut inside and upfield for a gain of 11 yards and a 1st down.

An interesting to note on this play that at the very end there is six Seahawks players all swarming towards Garcon. They’re a little too late to prevent the first down, which highlights the fact Garcon can be extremely quick on his routes from start to finish. He pulls it off here perfectly and while not a huge gain, it’s an effective one.

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While Garcon consistently shows the traits to be both an extremely effective outside receiver as well as being able to work the middle of the field to great effect, he has yet to find the endzone as we head into Week 7.

This perhaps should not be surprising given that Garcon has never caught more than 6 touchdowns in any one season in his career. However he leads the league in targets without a single touchdown so far.

In spite of this, Garcon has had a strong start to the season in 2017 and has been a very good receiver in the league for a long time. He shows no signs of slowing down at 31 years old and we should expect, and enjoy, Garcon’s production for a few more years yet.

Follow Justin on Twitter @JustinTwell78. Check out his work here, including on how the Detroit Lions will fare without Megatron, the elite Minnesota Vikings’ linebacker corps, the Mitchell Trubisky pick, and a breakdown of Chicago Bears WR Cameron Meredith.

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