Every year, the draft is littered with college playmaking wide receivers. Usually teams fall in love with at least one of them and select them early, which results in a wasted pick the majority of the time. Wide receivers, in general, are the most prone to being “busts” in the NFL because they face the steepest learning curve outside of the quarterback position.
A receiver’s first duty in the pros is to get off the line of scrimmage, a very difficult aspect of the game for most to grasp. They need to have two or three of what I call “win” moves at the line that enable them to get past a pressing corner. Next, they need to understand leverage, and how a cornerback is playing. Many times one can tell before the snap what an entire defense is doing by looking at the cornerback’s hip angles. But in the NFL, after the snap is vital as well.
In the pros, there’s a lot of late rotation by the safeties that must be accounted for. That’s what tells the receiver which route he’ll run once he makes a “sight adjustment”. Running routes is very difficult and it’s something that Tennessee wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson, an expected first round selection, needs to work on. A lot.
Patterson wasn’t asked to run many complicated routes at Tennessee, mostly sticking to smoke, hitch, slant and shallow routes. They were used to get the ball into his hands as quickly as possible because of his deadly vision after the catch. He simply made most of his plays by weaving through defenses and making hard, ankle-breaking cuts. However, he’ll have less of a chance to do that in the NFL, so his route-running has to be better. A lot better.
One example of his concerning route-running came on a simple fade route. That’s one of the most common routes in the NFL, particularly on short down and distances and in the red zone. Coaches teach receivers that they must get off the line of scrimmage if pressed, and they absolutely have to create space between themselves and the sideline. The width can vary, but it’s generally taught that five yards is sufficient. Keeping all of this in mind, let’s look at Patterson’s fade route against Florida this past season.
Patterson is split out left into the boundary side of the field against what’s going to amount to a three deep set by the Gators defense. This means he has reduced space to work with, making it important that he beats the cornerback in the first five yards and creates space down the sideline.
As soon as Patterson leaves the line of scrimmage, the cornerback puts his outside arm on him and reroutes him as the two are running downfield. This is the first issue that the Vols receiver runs into. He struggles to overcome the physicality of the cornerback because he doesn’t use his hands. He lets the corner ride him out toward the sideline, thus eliminating room for Patterson to use any sort of technique to create separation for himself and making it more difficult for the quarterback to place the football.
At the top of the route, Patterson has nowhere to go. That’s a huge problem, and it makes the throw extremely difficult for the quarterback. Fortunately, his quarterback made a brilliant throw to the back shoulder and the cornerback was too aggressive, taking himself out of the play. The pass ended up being caught, but not without difficulty. The space between Patterson and the sideline is suffocating, and will not be good enough at the next level regardless of his physical talent. In this case, the passer will throw the ball out of bounds more often than not.
If Patterson plans on being an elite receiver at the next level, he’s going to have to improve his route-running. He won’t be able to make a living running quick routes that get him out in space because when it’s third-and-long, he’ll have to make a big play 12 to 15 yards downfield. Running poor routes won’t allow him to make any plays, and a franchise could once again be faced with a high selection bust at the position.