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NFL DRAFT “WHY THEY FAILED”: STEPHEN HILL, WIDE RECEIVER

Posted by Eric Galko on Mar 3, 2015 14:14

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Here in 2015, the wide receiver position is, once again, one of the best positions in the NFL Draft. There are a number of strong prospects that will go in the first round, and the class presents solid depth to mine in the mid to late portions of the draft. With the position being so deep, its paramount to revisit previous years’ draft misses to examine what went wrong along their career path, in order to better scout the current crop of prospects.

The wide receiver position is unique, as the public perception of these players can often times be too heavily influenced by their surroundings. Prospects can be labeled as busts, even though they were just poor fits with the team that drafted them and the quarterback they employed. Not to mention the general uncertainty of personal life complications, and the effect that confidence has on the nature of the wide receiver position.

By: Matt Harmon

However, there are certainly players who failed due to a lack of pro level attributes and projectable traits. For the purpose of this study, we’ll view scouting the wide receiver position through the lens of one player who may just fit into both groups; former New York Jets’ second round pick, Stephen Hill. He is an especially intriguing case subject in the wake of the recently concluded NFL Scouting Combine.

Stephen Hill came to Georgia Tech as a highly touted wide receiver, and a state record-breaking track star. He fit right along the axis of current star NFL wide receivers to come from Georgia Tech, Demaryius Thomas and Calvin Johnson. Much like his predecessors, Hill never amassed the production a player of his physical gifts should, due to his school’s triple option offense. In his three-year playing career, Hill only managed to record 49 catches for 1,248 yards and 9 touchdowns. It was the big plays that contributed to that 25.2 yards per catch average that tantalized evaluators. Perhaps those sparks would ignite a fire when presented with more opportunity in the NFL.

The legend only grew when Hill traveled to the annual Scouting Combine in Indianapolis. Evaluators knew Hill was a high level athlete, but there is always something about seeing it in a quantifiable form. Hill absolutely blew up the event. His 40-yard dash time (4.34) and broad jump distance (11’1”) were in the 96th and 98th percentile amongst wide receivers drafted since 1999, per MockDraftable. Most of his other tests were not far off, and he did all of this after measuring in at 6’4 and 215 pounds. Hill proved he was one of the more physically gifted wideouts to enter the NFL. It was that promise that prompted the playmaker needy Jets to trade up, and select Stephen Hill in the second round of the draft.

Hill’s NFL career could best be described as a failure to launch. He was forced into a starting role, even though the head coach admitted that he was not interested in selecting Hill. Amid Mark Sanchez’s career tanking before New York’s eyes, Hill never made much of an impact. He suffered a similar fate with an ill-prepared rookie in Geno Smith under center during his 2013 campaign. Both of his first two seasons ended with a placement on injured reserve due to knee maladies. His time with the Jets came to an end when he failed to make the final 53-man roster after training camp last season, and was waived. The Carolina Panthers added Stephen Hill to their practice squad soon after. Yet, despite a clear and pressing receiver need, never found a reason to call him up to the active roster.

There is still time for Stephen Hill to alter his career path, but as it stands today, his time in the league has been a failure. A few weeks before Hill’s release from the Jets, Hall of Fame receivers, Michael Irvin and Chris Carter, took opposing viewpoints on what brought the young wideout to this point. Irvin pointed out Hill’s poor surroundings as an uphill battle, saying, “you don’t have a stable quarterback situation, so how can you have a stable offensive system? How can he gain confidence in what he’s doing if there is no confidence in what the quarterback’s doing?” Irvin is correct, and as mentioned earlier, often times a receiver is unfairly labeled a bust when their chances were destroyed due to an ill-fitting plan put in place by their team, or poor play from their quarterback. However, Carter was correct in noting Hill had created his own layer to the failings, “I’m not comfortable with a guy who runs really fast but isn’t comfortable with the ball in his hands. He’s not really good after the catch and he’s not great at catching the ball. So, for me, it’s kind of hard to figure out how he’s going to create his niche. Because that’s what you have to do.”

As Carter notes, Stephen Hill is an athletic specimen, that did not evaporate when he entered the league, and it likely remains true to this day. That has not helped him develop into an acceptable NFL receiver. With that being said, athleticism at the wide receiver position is paramount. Physical gifts and skillsets like Hill’s are often the only thing that can elevate a receiver into the highest levels over his peers at the position. Simply put, these gifts can be the difference between a very good and truly elite player. What trips evaluators and scouts up is a “putting the cart before the horse” effect.

While athleticism is the ingredient that a wide receiver needs to take his game to a stratospheric spectrum, he needs to be at a slightly above baseline level with other skills in order for his athleticism to matter.

A receiver can get by in college football on their physical gifts alone, but those windows get smaller in the NFL. Cornerbacks are bigger, more physical and confident; defensive coordinators are savvier and better prepared to erase them. A professional wide receiver needs a counterpunch when their size, speed and open field moves are mitigated by the acumen of NFL defenders.

One of the harder traits to project from the college to NFL game is a receiver’s route running ability. Most offenses at the collegiate level are stripped down, and do not ask their receivers to run the full route tree. Quick hitting patterns or straight line nine-routes are used frequently, so that these pass catchers can just “out athlete” their competition. Such a system is rare to see in the NFL game. Pro wideouts are, more often than not, asked to master complicated combinations and assignments that ask them to diversify their route responsibilities.

In order to beat man coverage, a receiver must learn the subtle movements it takes to create the sliver of separation from the cornerback in their hip pocket. It starts at the line of scrimmage, where the receiver must avoid becoming entangled with the cornerback’s press attempt. You’ll see unrefined players take a “hop” motion across a corner’s face, and it works well in the college game. That move is easily foiled in the NFL. To properly “gain a release” a receiver must integrate some deception, as well as true foot frequency, into their game.

Once off the line of scrimmage, that deception also must continue into the actual route. A receiver needs to convince a defender he’s going deep when he’s running shallow, and vice-versa. Selling a route, and reading coverage, is how a receiver can put a corner on his heels or put him in position to get turned around. Much of that is done through the deceptive use of a receiver’s eyes, and body positioning. Next, they must have the timing and wherewithal to know when to break off on the stem of routes—be it a comeback, post, etc. Being able to consistently stay on the same page as their quarterback does not come so easy to most receivers.

Then, there is the issue of toughness and concentration. While wide receiver is sometimes thought of as a finesse position, that could not be further from the truth. It takes physical play to separate from man coverage, particularly press at the line. You’ll also notice some receivers who are bothered by contact mid-route. Even if its slight, or legal contact some wideouts are just thrown off when a corner uses technique to disrupt their timing. It introduces another variable and hurdle to cross for the wide receiver during their passing patterns. If the player is already not a natural, or fluid route runner, this additional barrier can render them a nonfactor in the separation game. Marqise Lee was an example of a player with this issue from the 2014 draft.

This lack of toughness and concentration can bleed over into deficiencies at the catch point, and making plays with the ball in your hands. It takes a certain “my ball” mentality to leave your feet, with defenders in your vicinity, and still come down with the pass. Not all receivers have that, or the ability to win after the catch while running in traffic, either. In most cases, the ability or inability to execute in these facets of the game has little to do with just size or speed. They are a mixture of body control, technical proficiency and athleticism, which not every prospect learns to blend.

If a receiver does not possess a slightly above the baseline understanding of how to perform in these advanced sectors of the position, he’ll struggle to ever approach a level where his athleticism is able to shine. Think of it as purchasing a luxury vehicle, but not giving in the proper maintenance. Sure, your car is gorgeous and of high theoretical value, but if you’re not washing it regularly or putting the best oil products in it, what’s the point? It’s the same with receivers. If their technical refinement and advanced execution are not at an above baseline level, their athletic attributes won’t matter much.

The inverse is also true. Athletically deficient receivers can become excellent players by mastering the technical side of the game. It’s why we’ve seen receivers like Julian Edelman go on to be so productive, despite falling short in many physical categories. However, because Edelman lacks the size and athleticism of a Stephen Hill, he’ll always be looking at the proverbial glass ceiling.

So, who are the receivers in that Stephen Hill mold, that have gotten by almost exclusively on their physical gifts, in the 2015 draft class? The two that come to mind immediately are DeVante Parker and Sammie Coates. Pakrer is the more highly touted prospect, and is a consensus top-three wide receiver in this class.

Watching Parker dominate at the catch point, and effortlessly fly by cornerbacks deep, it’s easy to get caught up in the appeal. However, there are major holes in his game most evaluators are overlooking. Parker is an unrefined technician, especially when it comes to selling routes, timing his breaks and spatial awareness on the football field. If he doesn’t pick things up quickly in his first offseason, it could take Parker a few years to ever translate his athleticism to the field.

Coates is a rocked up, and fast receiver, but his issues run even deeper than Parker’s. He is a bit stiff in-route, and despite great speed, is a 50/50 or worse bet playing the deep ball. He cannot track the ball well, so he’s often not in position or does not leave the ground when he needs to make a reception. Coates’ hands are also often times out of sync with each other, which leads to drops. It’s fair to wonder whether Coates can ever iron out these, often instinctual, bad habits.

Of course, DeVante Parker and Sammie Coates are not doomed to failure just because they primarily win by being able to “out athlete” the opposition. Both players can develop in the technical aspect of the position. If they do, their newly learned nuances combined with their physical attributes will see them launched into the highest ranks of NFL wide receivers. However, there is just as much of a chance that may never happen, and as we’ve seen with Stephen Hill, there is usually not much of a middle ground on this type of receiver’s range of outcomes.

Even for Stephen Hill, the story is not over yet, although the pages are hanging to the book spine by tattered threads. As Michael Irvin asserted when airing his thoughts on Hill, perhaps it was the situation and quarterback tornado in New York that prevented the young receiver from developing into a technically proficient player, and deadly threat. Perhaps that happens now that he’s entering his second season in what appears to be a Carolina Panthers’ developmental program for him. Maybe the conclusion we can draw from Hill’s short NFL career is that situation and fit with his team is more paramount to a receiver’s development, and therefore public perception, than his individual skills.

However, the tealeaves are plainly telling us that Stephen Hill is most likely to go down as one of the athletic receivers who failed because they never approached a baseline of acceptability in the nuanced technical aspects of the position. Hill is both a warning on judging a receiver so poorly matched with a team and quarterback, while also providing a caution to evaluators looking to boost prospects solely based off their dimensions and athleticism.

Are you interested in more wide receiver analysis? Be sure to become familiar with Reception Perception, the upcoming publication, and follow the #ReceptionPerceptionhashtag on Twitter to keep up with all featured receivers (including draft prospects).

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Good article, and to think Hill came out of the gates pretty well.  Didn't he score two tds in his 1st game?

I believe it was 2 TD's and over 100 yards receiving. He was looking like a beast. Granted, it was against the Bills and it was Week 1 where Rex shines

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Wow, talk about speaking too early. I heard that once Rex seen him on the field he wasnt impressed.

Rex didn't want to draft a receiver in the 2nd and allegedly sulked about it. I always thought he forced Hill into the lineup to embarrass Tannenbaum and the scouting staff. In Collision Low Crossers, there's an anecdote about how badly Rex pissed off the personnel department by demanding the selection of Scotty McKnight, whom absolutely nobody thought was draftable. Not hard to believe that it resulted in a schism.

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Rex didn't want to draft a receiver in the 2nd and allegedky sulked about it. I always thought he forced Hill into the lineup to embarrass Tannenbaum and the scouting staff. In Collision Low Crossers, there's an anecdote about how badly Rex pissed off the personnel department by demanding the selection of Scotty McKnight, whom absolutely nobody thought was draftable. Not hard to believe that it resulted in a schism.

I can believe that. He did request to draft Tajh Boyd on some suspect reasons I heard as well. Something about speaking to his son. 

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I am surprised about Parker being mentioned in the same company as Hill. Coates I can agree has bust potential written all over him but I think Parker is light years ahead of where Hill was coming out of college.

Exactly. Sammie Coates I have absolutely no belief in and can be put in that Stephen Hill category. 

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I heard that no one in the war room wanted to draft Hill at that spot and that it was all Tannenbaum.

The former Jets scout Joe Bommarito tweeted out a few times that Stephen Hill was a popular pick among the staff. He used the words, "We knew what we were doing."

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