(Field Yates, a former Chiefs scouting assistant under general manager Scott Pioli, continues a month-long series offering insight into how teams scout for players at each position.)
POSITION: Wide Receiver
OVERVIEW: Much like running backs, the physical profile of a receiver can vary significantly. The NFL’s two leading pass catchers in 2011, Wes Welker and Calvin Johnson, represent about as drastic a physical discrepancy as you can find in the NFL, but both are supremely effective for their respective teams. Another debate closely associated with receivers is to what degree their production is a manifestation of the system they are in. It’s something pundits have talked about in regards to Welker, whose numbers have soared since arriving in New England’s pass-heavy offense. Both the player and the system must be evaluated when determining a receiver’s value, as well as a number of position-specific traits.
DESIRED TRAITS: No matter the alignment of a receiver, his physical build or the system he plays in, there are two key aspects to his game: generating separation and catching the football. That may sound oversimplified, but an inability to do so can keep even the most talented receivers off the field.
What goes into separation? A number of factors, starting with a receiver’s release at the line of scrimmage. How a receiver makes his first move against a defender is important to note: Does he win with speed, quickness, his size, leverage, or even his intelligence?
Next, how effectively can a receiver run routes? This involves precision, crafty footwork and the ability to transition his weight in and out of movements. Welker’s mastery of underneath routes through his release and route running has helped him rack up so many catches in recent seasons.
Ultimately, a receiver’s job is to catch the football, but it isn’t a simple task. A receiver must show he can locate the ball, adjust his frame to put himself in a position to make a catch, corral the front of the football with his hands, and secure it into his body. Beyond that, one must decipher if a receiver has the ability to track footballs thrown outside of his frame (Randy Moss was sensational at this), how tough he is to make catches in traffic (Troy Brown was fearless with defenders around him) and how he reacts in competitive catch situations.
The alignment of a receiver cannot be ignored either, as that will dictate, to a degree, specific skills a player must have. For slot receivers, quickness and change of direction skills are placed at a premium, while outside receivers usually need to have the ability to stretch the field vertically. In Brandon Lloyd, the Patriots appear to have upgraded their perimeter receiving game.
SPECIAL TEAMS ANGLE: Receivers are sort of a grab bag when it comes to special teams, because you find that some – like Matthew Slater
– rank among the best on the roster at special teams, while others do not contribute at all on special teams (Lloyd and Jabar Gaffney don’t look likely to play a special teams role in 2012).
Bigger, tougher receivers can contribute on core special teams as coverage/hold-up players, while faster receivers are often candidates to return punts and kicks. A typical fourth or fifth receiver on an NFL roster has a major role on special teams, as Julian Edelman did in 2011 (as well as on defense).
PATRIOTS TAKE: We’ve reviewed the Patriots receiving corps many times over this offseason, and it’s an area of major strength. Welker is an ideal slot receiver, while Lloyd appears ready to stretch the field as a perimeter target. Add in Gaffney and Deion Branch, and the team already has four reliable targets. Edelman provides depth in the slot, and Donte' Stallworth is a speedster who looked sharp in offseason work. Include youngsters such as draft pick Jeremy Ebert and 2011 practice squad member Britt Davis and the competition looks to be a major storyline in training camp. One final factor in the receiving core not to be lost is the role of Aaron Hernandez, a tight end by trade but a guy who is used all over the alignment. Tom Brady has no shortage of weapons.