Tee Higgins Brings the Old School Possession Receiver-Type to the Modern Game
The NFL’s approach to the wide receiver position in recent years has altered the course of prospects coming into the league.
On the one hand, the popularity of three-wide sets as the base offense for the majority of teams brings more opportunity. More players on the field for more snaps increase the need for healthy bodies and options on the roster. Additionally, receivers can be deployed in more creative ways across the formations with spread sets increasing the space on the field.
The change has also brought on a remaking of the old typology we deployed for receivers. That classic possession No. 2 guy has gone by the wayside a bit in favor of players with a bit more flair, or at the very least versatility to line up across the formation. Growing up a Carolina Panthers fan, I always think Muhsin Muhammad when it comes to this type.
Clemson’s Tee Higgins is almost a throwback but with just the right amount of modern taste to make him a top-10 receiver in the 2020 NFL Draft. He’s a fun prospect to study, especially if you love wideouts who play the ball well in contested spaces.
Tee Higgins enters the NFL Draft process coming off two strong seasons with the Clemson Tigers. He hovered between 18 to 19 percent of the team’s targets in 2018 and 2019 and snagged 59 passes in both years. With 25 combined touchdowns, he has a proven track record as a threat.
Last season saw him take another step as a deep threat. Higgins collected 815 air yards in 2019 and posted a 14.6 average depth of target, per Sports Info Solutions. All told, he averaged over 19 yards per reception.
Not all vertical threats win in the same way. Obviously, Higgins is quite different from a downfield speedster like Henry Ruggs. It’s how he plays in the deep game and the ways in which it may or may not translate that make Higgins a fascinating prospect study.
The first thing you notice when watching Higgins from a route-running perspective is the craftiness. You love his ability to sift and work through zones. Understanding coverages and secondary tendencies are key, and a bevy of receivers coming into the NFL in any given year don’t have that skill anywhere close to mastery level. At a bare minimum, Higgins is well on his way.
Combined with his reliable hands and comfort in tight spaces, the skill to flash open in zone coverage is going to make him a desirable target for his next quarterback. Those abilities will be heightened in money situations, such as third down and in the red zone.
Just as clear as his biggest strength, his area lacking the most refinement was just as easily noticeable. Higgins simply must get better at releasing from the line against press coverage if he’s going to stick as an outside X-receiver, the spot he played for Clemson.
Make no mistake, Higgins has the foot fire to get off the line with quickness. But that is way too often his go-to and only move. Quick shuffling of your feet at the line is a key part of defeating press coverage but it needs to be just one tool in the arsenal. A receiver needs to marry his feet with strong, decisive hands to chop away a corner’s incoming arms on the jam. Higgins does not engage in this enough, and even when he does, it often comes too late.
That will be problematic at the NFL level but it is a weakness that can be schemed around. Plenty of receivers that struggle with press coverage, to varying degrees, have found roles that accentuate their strengths and hide those weaknesses. D.J. Moore, JuJu Smith-Schuster and Cooper Kupp fall into this group. In fact, because Higgins does show an ability to use his feet quite well to elude corners in press, even if his upper body needs work, he might be better off than some of those other players mentioned when they came into the league simply in terms of working off the line.
The routes Higgins will struggle with most of his current work against press stays at a static level will be on the shorter end of the tree. You need to engage and win the hand fight to quickly get into your routes on curls in order to break back to the quarterback before the play has reached a point of no return and to flash open on slants. Even if this weakness persists, and there’s no reason it absolutely has to if he works at it, we can still expect Higgins to perform well on intermediate and deep routes. As he’s comfortable with a corner in his hip pocket and possesses great boundary awareness, he’ll work open on slower developing routes.
When observing Tee Higgins’ strengths and weakness as a route runner, a discounted version of Adam Thielen continued to pop into my head. It’s against the mainstream stance but Thielen has never profiled as an elite separator across the route tree in Reception Perception. He’s a big wide receiver who wins on vertical routes from the slot but has his issues off the line and in the short to intermediate game.
Vikings have the most dynamic WR duo in the NFL and now they’re both paid to reflect it.
Adam Thielen a unique vertical threat from the slot. Stefon Diggs one of the game’s truly elite separators.
— Matt Harmon (@MattHarmon_BYB) April 12, 2019
Even in Thielen’s peak 2017 and 2018 seasons, he finished between 57th and 44th percentile in success rate vs. man coverage and 51st and 47th percentile against press coverage. Not bad by any means but far from excellent.
Higgins strikes me as a player who would benefit from all the spoils Thielen has enjoyed during his rise as a Vikings receiver. He’d thrive if placed across from an elite-coverage dictating separator like Thielen used to have in Stefon Diggs and a role that allows him to move around from the flanker and slot positions. The two already share strengths as zone coverage beaters and contested-catch specialists.
If Higgins is to fulfill this comparison, he’ll need to truly hone his contested catch ability from excellent to elite. Thielen is one of the best wideouts in the game when it comes to adjusting in tight spaces and embarrassing corners at the catch point. Higgins has a lot of those same skills but could add two more skills to make that leap.
First, similarly to how he needs to engage in more hand fighting at the line, we need to see him not get disrupted by arm contact when looking to leap in the vertical game. Secondly, timing. There are some instances when Higgins can start to track the ball too early, signaling to the defensive back when the pass is about to arrive, thus sacrificing the receiver’s natural advantage here.
Again, these critiques are nitpicking into Tee Higgins’ greatest strength but this is about sharpening the iron to the point where he’s one of the best receivers in the league on contested catches. That’s how Thielen became the player he is today, and how Higgins can become even a discount version of the Vikings receiver.
Tee Higgins has a rather straight-forward evaluation, with clear strengths and weaknesses. When deciding how to rate him as a prospect, it really depends on how a specific evaluator, and more importantly each individual team values those abilities.
The Clemson product carries so many appealing traits we long associated with the reliable No. 2 possession wideout. Every quarterback loves a tough, badass receiver they can count on to win a 50/50 ball in a key situation or find the perfect opening in a well-crafted zone defense. In today’s NFL, those players are also afforded the ability to be schemed open by their deployment in the slot or loose coverage in the flanker position. Higgins can combine some of those old school traits with modern zest to build a long career as a contributor in a receiver corps.
If Higgins ends up as strictly this type of player, we’ll look at him as a better NFL than fantasy receiver. Still, if he ends up in a strong passing offense known for flooding the field with receivers, he has a chance to offer big weeks in spots as a WR3 should he stick around for five or more seasons.