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On Being An NFL Wide Receiver, And Other Links

Posted by Matt Terl on January 12, 2011 – 11:30 am

Anthony Armstrong wasn’t the flashiest success story on the 2010 Redskins roster — that would have to be Brandon Banks, who gets attention for being both blazingly fast and exceedingly small — but he might’ve been the most impressive. Armstrong finished the season with 44 catches for 871 yards — that’s nearly 20 yards a catch, third in the NFL in that category for players with more than 40 catches — and three touchdowns. I don’t think anyone expected that kind of production from an undrafted practice squad guy, but Armstrong worked hard, watched extra film, and was rewarded with increased playing time — and, by extension, that impressive stat line.

Former Redskins receiver Devin Thomas’ story in Washington was almost exactly the opposite of Armstrong’s. After being selected in the second round of the 2008 draft, Thomas was expected to provide size and speed at the wide receiver position. Over the course of two seasons, he showed flashes of spectacular ability, but could never seem to make it all come together. Four games into the 2010 season, Thomas was cut.

Talking about the decision to release the young wide receiver, head coach Mike Shanahan said that he offered Thomas some advice to help his NFL future. “You’re a big kid, you’re strong, you’ve got a lot of speed,” Shanahan told Thomas. “You want to get to the next level, you’ve got to get in a heck of an offseason program and be the best you can be. If you want to be good, you’re gonna be good. But you’ve got to make a total commitment. In this league it’s not based on talent, it’s based on people working extremely hard.”

Fan response to Shanahan’s decision was mixed, to say the least. People questioned whether Thomas was released because of his offseason modeling and acting endeavors, or because Banks tweeted a picture allegedly showing Thomas asleep in a meeting. And one question that I kept hearing from people upset by the decision was, essentially, What was he not working extremely hard on? The subtext — and I freely admit that I’m reading in to other people’s thoughts here — seemed to be Hey, just run straight and catch ball, or run ten yards and turn around, or whatever. How tough is that?

Former NFL wide receiver Nate Jackson wrote a piece for Slate yesterday that I think does terrific job of answering that subtextual question. (There’s a little bit of foul language in the link, but it’s a piece that’s really worth reading.)

Here, according to Jackson, are the things that an NFL wide receiver might be required to keep in mind during A SINGLE PLAY:

If he plays man coverage with inside leverage, jab hard with your inside foot to threaten his technique, dip your shoulder, and release into your route. Man coverage, outside leverage: Jab step at him and bring your hands with you, deliver a blow and try to get on top of him so you can push your route vertical before breaking it off. Push up to your proper depth, and sink your hips at your break point. Keep your nose over your toes and don’t drop your arms, keep them pumping. Get out of that break at a sharp angle, don’t fade up the field. Come straight across at a 90 degree angle, otherwise the cornerback will come underneath and pick off our quarterback. But pay attention at the line of scrimmage-if we get a Cover 2 with a zone-dog, you sit in that zone, but you have to break it down a few yards short to account for the blitz. We may not have enough men to block that look, so get your head around. If they don’t bring the zone-dog blitz and they’re still in Cover 2, push your normal depth but understand the triangle between the corner, the safety, and that linebacker, and sit down in that throwing lane for your quarterback. Oh, and the snap count is on two.

That’s a lot of stuff to keep in mind, and there are plenty of variations on it that a receiver would have to keep in mind for other plays. Jackson goes on to explain exactly how closely the coaches pay attention to every step of it (very closely) and how well failure at any portion is received (poorly).

I don’t know for sure, but it seems likely that those sort of details are the kinds of things Mike Shanahan meant when he referred to “a total commitment” — the sort of details that Anthony Armstrong was able to master, and that Devin Thomas (for all his remarkable athleticism) never quite got, at least at this stop in his career. (It seems doubly likely given that Jackson spent five years playing in Denver under — you guessed it — Mike Shanahan. That five years represents the bulk of Jackson’s career, and has to have formed much of his impression of NFL coaching.)

This approach, Jackson argues, sucks all of the fun out of the game for the player (which seems likely) and is, further, a reason that many college players fail to make a successful transition to the NFL. It’s a good piece and worth a read for fans of the NFL in general, but I found especially illuminating in light of those two disparate stories about two wide receivers who started 2010 with the Redskins — and where they each finished up.

Here’s a few other links that are worth your time….

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