The last time critics watched Cal’s Keenan Allen run routes and catch a football was more than five months ago, on Oct. 27. There’s reason to be skeptical of what kind of shape he’s in and what the receiver’s health is looking like, but there’s also reason to be optimistic if you’re a general manager on draft day.
Injured players tend to fall on selection day, and Allen could if he doesn’t work out well on April 9. Sometimes that works out for the best. Paraag Marathe, the San Francisco 49ers’ chief operating officer, once said at an MIT Sloan Conference that one of the best things to happened to his team was Michael Crabtree injuring his foot and slipping to No. 10 in the 2010 draft. Granted, if anyone else besides Al Davis was picking for the Oakland Raiders at No. 7, Crabtree might have been a star receiver in Oakland.
Allen is not expected to go in the top 10 or top 20 later this month; he might not even go in the top 30 if things don’t go smoothly at the said workout. But he does have the talent to go in the top 20. It’s just that he’s been hampered by several issues in the last 12 months, including his health (ankle, knee) and poor quarterback play. No disrespect to Cal quarterback Zach Maynard, but watching him throw the football reminded me of old Georgia Tech passer Reggie Ball. That’s not a ringing endorsement.
Maynard’s inaccuracy and the lack of imagination in offensive design was detrimental to the exposure of Allen’s talent. Allen is a well-sized (6’2″, 206 pounds) and versatile receiver who can catch the ball at its peak and then pick up yards after the catch. The latter skill has been a constant critique in his game, though, with many citing the fact that he simply doesn’t pick up many yards following a reception. That’s not entirely true.
He does acquire additional real estate following a catch, but he hasn’t been given the chance to do it much. For starters, the routes he has run are frequently facing the quarterback, which means his back is facing downfield. That’s not a recipe for YAC. And when he has gotten the chance to run ideal routes — such as slants and shallow crosses — the ball placement from his QB hasn’t been proper.
Here’s an example. The Golden Bears are in the red zone, and Allen is in the slot (the perimeter receiver is not pictured). He’s set to run a three-step slant pattern under a vertical release from the No. 3 receiver (black route). When the third receiver runs his outside breaking route, he creates a “rub” or “pick” against the defensive back across from Allen. That disrupts the defense’s man coverage and allows Allen to run free into the end zone.
When the play begins, the routes are run as planned. The No. 3 receiver runs in between the two defensive backs, thus drawing their attention, and Allen runs the slant afterwards. When he breaks open across the goal-line, Maynard throws the football. It’s supposed to be placed in front of the receiver for an easy reception and touchdown run. Maynard doesn’t place it like that, though. He throws it a bit high and behind the receiver, forcing the receiver to not only leave his feet, but also adjust to it and then change direction and run.
Here’s an example of a better-thrown ball against Washington State. It’s another three-step slant route with a vertical release clearing the near defenders. Allen makes a sharper cut this time and separates from the defensive back. The throw is on the receiver’s inside shoulder — slightly behind, but a good throw — which gives him the chance to pick up yards after the catch. Allen doesn’t disappoint, as one can see at the 6:50 mark at the video below courtesy of draftbreakdown.com.
Earlier this year, I compared Allen to Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Miles Austin on Twitter. The two are very similar in their style of play. They excel at inside-breaking routes that penetrate the middle of the field and can rise up to catch the ball. Like Austin, Allen should be used in situations where he is able to catch the ball and run. He’s not a dynamic YAC receiver, but he has the potential to be a solid one, which is good enough considering all the other traits he brings, including his versatility.
In addition to the above, Allen — like Austin — has the ability to slide inside to the slot receiver alignment and effectively run routes. This could be a problem against linebackers and slot cornerbacks because of his size and quickness. He should be able to catch the ball over the shorter and slower defenders with ease and do what he’s been critiqued about the most: gain yards after the catch.
One team that may have interest in the Cal receiver is the Minnesota Vikings. They recently dealt Percy Harvin to the Seattle Seahawks, and are devoid of talent at the position. Although Allen is not as dynamic as Harvin with the ball in his hands, he has the potential to be a quality receiver in the pros, provided he stays healthy.