Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Position analysis: Wide receivers

Marvin Harrison in 2007: 20-247-1 receiving
Reggie Wayne in 2007: 104-1510-10 receiving, 1-4-0 rushing
Anthony Gonzalez in 2007: 37-576-3 receiving

Devin Aromashodu in 2007: 7-96-0 receiving
Roy Hall in 2007: 1 special-teams tackle, 1 special-teams assist (1)
Trent Shelton in 2007: None (2)
Onrea Jones in 2007: None (3)
Courtney Roby in 2007: None (4)

Before we get into too much discussion, let's get the important numbers out of the way for the receiver who played last year. The guys in italics aren't on the roster anymore.

The first is catch percentage (catches/how many times he'd been thrown to):

Gonzalez 71.15 (37/52)
Wayne 66.67 (104/156)
Harrison 62.50 (20/32)
Thorpe 60.00 (12/20)
Aromashadu 41.17 (7/17)
Moorehead 36.36 (8/22)

The next is average yards per target (yards/how many times he'd been thrown to):

Gonzalez 11.08 (576/52)
Wayne 9.68 (1510/156)
Harrison 7.72 (247/32)
Aromashadu 5.65 (96/17)
Thorpe 3.50 (70/20)
Moorehead 2.95 (65/22)

Then we have yards after the catch per catch:

Aromashadu 5.57 (39/7)
Gonzalez 4.95 (183/37)
Wayne 3.94 (410/104)
Moorehead 1.50 (12/8)
Thorpe 1.42 (17/12)
Harrison 1.25 (40/32)

On to percentage of first downs per catch:

Gonzalez 72.97 (27/37)
Aromashadu 71.43 (5/7)
Wayne 69.23 (72/104)
Harrison 60.00 (12/20)
Moorehead 50.00 (4/8)
Thorpe 33.33 (4/12)

And, finally, catchable balls per drop (drops + catches/drops):

Thorpe ∞ (12/0)
Harrison 21.00 (21/1)
Wayne 18.33 (110/6)
Aromashadu 8.00 (8/1)
Gonzalez 6.29 (44/7)
Moorehead 5.00 (10/2)

The cuts don't subtract much. Though Craphonso Thorpe showed good hands, (6) he just couldn't get open. Aaron Moorehead was just awful in every aspect of the job.

Sure-fire Hall of Famer Marvin Harrison (5110, 187, 4.27 in 1996) suffered through an injury-plagued season, which caused many to wonder if it's over for him. For more than a decade, Harrison has been using his extraordinary hands, agility, concentration and intelligence to destroy opposing secondaries. Perhaps his best attribute over the years has been his almost telepathic rapport with Peyton Manning. Harrison used to have awesome speed, but is now just so-so in that department. He covers for his lost step with razor-sharp cuts and quickness. Traditionally, the knock against Harrison has been his reluctance to go over the middle and a tendency to avoid contact. Those traits have magnified with age.

As Harrison's star has waned, Reggie Wayne's has risen. A similar player to Harrison, Wayne (6003, 197, 4.44 in 2001) is stronger and tougher, but no more likely to go over the middle. Wayne will drop a few, but is otherwise an outstanding wideout. He is developing a relationship with Manning that is similar to Harrison's and may even be better at adjusting to the inevitable blitzes.

When the Colts drafted Anthony Gonzalez (6000, 193, 4.44 in 2007) first last season, the conventional wisdom was that he would play the slot. (5) But injuries at the position forced him to play more often outside, which many would argue is his more natural role. His outstanding rookie numbers prove that he can be productive at either spot. A very similar player to Wayne, Gonzalez uses razor-sharp route running, deceptive speed and intelligence to get open. Although he could cut down on the drops and did have some nagging injury problems of his own, Gonzalez gave every indication of future stardom.

Injuries also forced Devin Aromashodu (6024, 201, 4.35 in 2006) into the lineup, with mixed results. A size/speed prospect who'd been hanging onto the practice squad for a while, Aromashodu has awesome deep speed, nice burst and runs surprisingly sharp routes with good awareness. But he's not a natural receiver — catching with his body and dropping way too many easy balls in college — and he is said to lack the focus and perhaps toughness necessary to be a NFL star.

Last year, Roy Hall (6020, 229, 4.41 in 2007) was a surprise fifth-round draft pick. It was a surprise because he was the fifth-best receiver not in his draft year, not in his conference, but on his team. In fact, before his explosive performance at the combine, Hall was best known for injuring teammate Ted Ginn Jr. in an end zone celebration. But his physical attributes were just too strong for the Colts to resist. Not surprisingly, he did little in his rookie year. His supporters will point out that he caught a team-leading 11 passes in the preseason, but it should be kept in mind they threw 24 at him and he netted just 88 yards. At this point, he’s still more athlete than football player. He doesn’t have natural hands and he needs to work on route-running and reading defenses. For all his speed, Hall doesn’t seem to play all that fast and his blocking is subpar, even for the position. At this point, he appears to be more of a development prospect, though he has had some flashes on special teams.

Trent Shelton (5117, 210, 4.58 in 2007) isn’t big or fast like Hall, but was much more productive in college, and showed some real ability to get open in the preseason. Blessed with natural hands, Shelton also plays much faster than he times. He played particularly well as a coverage-teams gunner in the preseason.

If Hall and Shelton have little in common, Onrea Jones (5111, 202, 4.50 in 2007) is somewhere in between them. He works out better than Shelton, but not as well as Hall. He was more productive in college than Hall, but not quite as much as Shelton. So far, the book on Jones is that he’s more of a chain-moving possession guy than a deep threat, and that he still needs developing. The definitive maybe-he-will-maybe-he-won’t guy, Jones has already been with four teams in the NFL despite being out of school only one year.

Unlike the other prospects, Courtney Roby (6001, 189, 4.41 in 2005) has proven he can play in the NFL. A third-round draft pick of the Tennessee Titans in 2005, he caught 23-317-1, rushed 3-19-0 and returned kicks 22-495-0 for them in two seasons. He didn’t really fit into offensive coordinator Norm Chow’s system and was a surprise cut. He wound up with the Bengals last season after Tab Perry landed on injured reserve, but didn’t get a chance to play. Roby is considered a fast receiver with good hands who can help on specials, but isn’t tough and could use some help with his route running.

What I'd do
Two factors will decide what happens with the Colts' wide receiving corps. The first is the health of Marvin Harrison. If he can come back at anything near full-strength, it would be a boon, but even the most optimistic Colts fans realize he probably only has a season or two left in his battered body. The Colts have an effective replacement for Harrison in-house in Gonzalez, but that makes one wonder who will replace Gonzalez. He was drafted with the intention of playing the slot (which is basically a starting role in the Colts' offense), but if he's playing outside it leaves the spot open.

Since the end of the Stokley era, the Colts have leaned heavily on starting tight end Dallas Clark to play the slot — in fact, he took more snaps split last year than he did tight. While he excels in the role, his presence there weakens the tight end corps severely, and the situation is more dire now than ever because his backups, Ben Utecht and Bryan Fletcher, are free agents. (7)

The other question is how ready Hall will be. I'm not worried about his injury, but about his ability. When I saw him last year, I thought he played very well on specials — his downed punt was a thing of beauty — but he looked lost as a receiver, even in preseason when he was playing against a bunch of nobodies and the Colts' offense seemed built around getting him the ball. If the team thinks he can handle the slot, then they have no problem. But if he is, as I fear, still far from able to start in the NFL, there's a problem.

If you look at the other receivers currently on the roster, you'll see some talent, (8) but you'll also see a bunch of long-striders who are short on real football toughness and would never think of venturing between the hash marks. (9)

So, unless Hall steps up, I'd invest a third-, fourth- or perhaps fifth-round pick in a wide receiver who could play the slot right away. (10) The perfect player would Kansas' Jordy Nelson (6025, 217, 4.51 in 2008), but I really think he'll be drafted in the second round. More justifiable options include Louisville's small but reliable Harry Douglas (5112, 176, 4.51 in 2008), or Utah State's Kevin Robinson (5112, 202, 4.69 in 2008) who posted a horrible 40 at the combine but was an explosive playmaker in college and dominated at the Shrine Game. But my favorite is New Mexico's Marcus Smith (6013, 221, 4.51 in 2008). Although very productive, Smith ran poor routes and was a bit of a baby for most of his college career. But when his mom died in his senior season, Smith toughened up, found his maturity and played like a man possessed. Perhaps more important, he's a big kid with huge soft hands and he catches everything around him. He's also a severe blocker who will play special teams, can return kicks and is even a threat on the old end-around.

1. Caught 11-88-0 in the preseason
2. Caught 10-117-1 in the preseason
3. He spent the preseason with the Chargers, but didn't record any stats
4. No preseason stats, he was active for one regular-season game with Cincinnati, but didn't see the field.
5. For those who haven't been paying attention, the Colts' offense was awesome when Brandon Stokley, a real-live deep threat, was playing the slot. After he got hurt (and eventually left through free agency), the Colts struggled to find a solution, plugging in starting tight end Dallas Clark, among other options. It works, but not as well having a real slot man.
6. And some return ability
7. Restricted free agents they may be, but both receiver low tenders than would result in no compensation for the Colts if they signed elsewhere. Utecht is already actively shopping his services and is likely to land elsewhere.
8. Roby has a good chance to make the team.
9. Maybe Shelton, but he doesn't inspire me with all that much confidence yet.
10. Why a wideout and not a tight end? It's an awesome class for wide receivers, not so hot for tight ends.

No comments: