Note: Since I no longer have access to the necessary college film to chart prospects and their Reception Perception samples, I’ll be taking RP data from the NFL level and using it to frame what we can expect from these incoming rookies and their best role as pro receivers. You can get access to Reception Perception data on the Top 50 NFL receivers in the 2019 Ultimate Draft Kit.

In an NFL offensive landscape that’s almost unrecognizable from what we saw from the game even just five years ago, more doors have opened for players that may have struggled to translate into our old models. This reality is especially true at the wide receiver position where spread offenses and multiplicity with interposition deployment has opened up a variety of new roles.

We’re seeing teams attempt to maximize the slot receiver position by lining up players inside who go beyond the “small, quick-twitch” archetype. Taking receivers who profile as big X-receiver but have discernable weaknesses that would hamper success on the outside and moving them into the slot has opened the door for a variety of new players to thrive. Receivers who may not have passed traditional thresholds now have new possibilities open for them.

Prospect Profile

The new reality of this position should come into effect with Arizona State’s N’Keal Harry. The Arizona State product enters the draft with a strong resume. He collected 2,889 yards and 22 touchdowns on 213 catches over his three years with the Sun Devils.

Harry boasts excellent ability to bring in dazzling high-degree of difficulty contested receptions in addition to strong after the catch prowess. It was not uncommon to see Harry be fed designed touches on screens and other layup routes, in addition to rush attempts (23 over three seasons). All that combined made him the clear engine of his team’s passing game and a player with a beefy highlight reel. Again, an impressive resume, to say the least.  

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From a physical perspective, Harry’s 6-foot-2 and 228-pound frame fits the mold of an outside X-receiver. You’ll typically see him projected as one simply based on his size. When analyzed in that lens, what will follow is a stern evaluation of his flaws. While universally praised for his clear strengths as a dominator in tight coverage and strong ability after the catch, you’ll routinely see Harry dinged for poor play speed and separation concerns.

No one can honestly make the argument that separation concerns are not a major worry for a receiver’s ceiling at the NFL level. The best wide receivers in the game consistently get open on a route-by-route basis. However, lack of elite play speed and separation concerns are not death blows to a wideout’s pro prospects, not with the game as it is today. There are ways to mitigate those flaws.

Success vs. Coverage

In my evaluation of N’Keal Harry, I did note instances when he struggled to get open against outside man coverage. Particularly, he could use work against press coverage was particularly lacking. It isn’t out of the ordinary to see Harry get tied up early in-route when facing press, forcing low probability down the field throws outside the numbers.

Equally as apparent was how Harry typically finds himself with miles of space when running routes over the middle of the field. His route depth and timing are strong assets when finding the open spots in zone coverage. Finding himself in positions to utilize those skills won’t be as uncommon as you might think at the NFL level.

Data collected for Reception Perception since 2014 shows that receivers who line up either in the slot or outside but off the line of scrimmage (as a flanker or Z-receiver) are statistically far less likely to see man or press coverage.

The percentage of routes where a receiver faces press coverage against their percentage of snaps taken off the line has a -0.64 correlation coefficient. It’s -0.58 for percentage of snaps taken in the slot.

The percentage of routes where a receiver faces man coverage against their percentage of snaps taken off the line has a -0.51 correlation coefficient. It’s -0.53 for the percentage of snaps taken in the slot.

NFL Comparison

Slot receivers and flankers often avoid the higher degree of difficult situations with tight man coverage and double teams that their X-receiver counterparts routinely face. An X-receiver like A.J. Green or DeAndre Hopkins should expect to see press at the line on over 50 percent of their routes and man coverage on over 70 percent. That’s not the type of position we should want to pigeon hole a receiver like N’Keal Harry into as a pro.

The good news is that the NFL currently has several receivers to look to as Harry’s next team models a usage pattern for the incoming rookie. An easy example resides in the state Harry played college ball.

Once one of the top outside receivers in the game sporting a 6-foot-3, 218-pound frame, Larry Fitzgerald has undergone a role change in the latter stage of his career. When Bruce Arians arrived in Arizona, he convinced the veteran receiver that a move to a big slot/flanker hybrid role would extend his career as his play speed and ability to separate waned. In each of the last two seasons charted for Reception Perception, Fitzgerald took over 75 percent of his charted snaps off the line of scrimmage while lining up in the slot on over 50 percent. That deployment help Fitzgerald face press coverage on fewer routes than many of his peers.

Using N’Keal Harry in this fashion would allow for his strengths as a route runner against zone coverage and playmaker in the open field to shine through. While there are real concerns about Harry’s film that might not make him a fit as an outside X-receiver, harping on those issues too much without considering the upside he holds in a different role would be foolish. His profile is too clean and his strengths too tantalizing.

I made the mistake of not being more imaginative with a similar prospect two classes back in JuJu Smith-Schuster. There were real concerns in Smith-Schuster’s Reception Perception profile, most notably his 33rd percentile success rate vs. man coverage. However, he had clearly defined strengths and a pristine production and age-based profile. The Steelers have done a tremendous job designing an NFL role for Smith-Schuster to the point where his weaknesses, which have not changed in his Reception Perception data as a pro player, almost don’t matter.

Despite lining up in the slot on just 13.5 percent of his charted college snaps for Reception Perception, Smith-Schuster has been one of the shining examples of the new possibilities for NFL receivers in the modern era who move to the hybrid flanker/big slot role. Smith-Shuster has lined up inside on 56 percent of his charted snaps over his first two seasons in the NFL. He was deployed off the line on 64 percent of his snaps in 2017 and 59.7 percent last year. Thanks to this role, he faced press coverage on fewer than 30 percent of his routes in each of the last two seasons and sees zones more than the typical receiver.

Conclusion

As long as N’Keal Harry finds his way to a creative NFL coaching staff that is willing to look beyond his size and more into the details of his game, it should be easy for his next team to find his optimal role. We’ve seen a receiver like Smith-Schuster piling up stunning production despite carrying similar concerns as Harry to the NFL. Harry could have a similar fast start to his career in the right location.

I’ve made the mistake of emphasizing weaknesses over the strengths of a talented young receiver with layers of plus attributes and a clean profile before. Seeing Reception Perception data at the NFL level with more clarity now that we have almost five full seasons logged, my imagination is a bit broader now. It’s with that in mind that I believe N’Keal Harry should find himself in a clearly defined role as a big slot receiver in a few months and as long as that’s the case, he has a great chance to shine.


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