Thursday, October 13, 2016

Dawn of the Planet of the Receivers

Every NFL position has changed dramatically over the past decade: Quarterbacks are more involved than ever; offensive linemen face a harder college-to-pro leap; middle linebackers may be phasing out of the game completely.

But no position has evolved more than wide receiver, which, thanks to a long list of converging forces, has become perhaps the most talent-stacked group in sports. That’s been palpable in this young NFL season, with dominant pass catchers buoying many top teams: Julio Jones delivered a 300-yard performance two weeks ago for the now 4–1 Falcons; Antonio Brown already has 447 yards and five touchdowns for the 4–1 Steelers; A.J. Green has been a rare bright spot for the flailing Bengals; and the list goes on.

Saying that we’re in a golden generation of wide receivers would be a gross understatement. We’re firmly in an era when, from the youth football level on up, nearly every trend in the past decade has favored receivers. And there’s no evidence that the talent gap between wideouts and other positions will close anytime soon. (...)

“There’s no doubt the game started changing in the early 2000s,” said Todd Watson, Julio Jones’s former coach at Alabama’s Foley High School and the current director of football operations at Troy University. “The game shifted from ground-and-pound to spread.” Every kid, Watson said, went from wanting to play running back in youth football to wanting to be involved in the passing game.

Watson, who arrived at Foley in 2005 after Jones’s freshman season, witnessed this firsthand: Jones was playing safety and running back when he started his high school career. Watson said that if Jones had played in an earlier era, he may have been instructed to bulk up and play defensive end. High school and youth football teams used to be based on the running game and defense, and a 6-foot-3, 220-pound athlete like Jones could excel at so many important positions that he rarely made it to the world of receiving, but that position gained importance due to schematic changes in the game. The proliferation of the spread offense, which began in the 1990s and exploded in the next decade, created a world where, for the first time, most high school teams needed a dominant receiver — and opted to put their best athletes there.

The explosion of that offense coincided with a change in routine, Watson said: “Kids in a small towns in America were working all summer. But during Julio’s time, it became the norm to train year-round.”

Shortly after the spread took off, spring and summer leagues boomed at the high school level, with seven players facing off on each side of the ball. Watson said players were looking for more ways to compete in the off months, and these 7-on-7 camps filled a big need. Powerhouse high schools like Hoover High School in Alabama hosted tournaments. Players traveled their regions to find leagues, some of which are run by high schools, some by independent companies. All have one thing in common: Their reliance on passing helps receivers improve.

The 7-on-7 concept is fairly straightforward: a 40-yard field, no tackling, no pads, and very little live-football action. There’s no pressure on quarterbacks. Defenses can’t tackle, lay a hit to break up a pass, or shed blockers. Receiver is, by far, the position with the 7-on-7 skill set that most closely resembles what those players will eventually need to succeed in a game. In a confined space, receivers aren’t able to rely as fully on their natural speed, forcing them to work on their ball skills, learn to adjust to the pass, and catch in dozens of different ways. The end result: Receivers get literally thousands more productive reps than players at any other position by the time they reach college football.

"Catch radius” is the area in which a QB can throw the ball and confidently expect his receiver to snag it, and in recent years, the only thing that’s grown faster than the term’s buzzword status is receivers’ actual catch radius, which now seems to be the entire field.

The 7-on-7 generation entered the league with advanced pass-catching abilities, and now they’re using NFL training methods to enhance their already well-oiled skills and take their acrobatics to new heights. Nate Burleson, a 1,000-yard receiver in 2004 who played alongside Randy Moss and Calvin Johnson and is now an NFL Network analyst, said that in his day, everyone but the game’s elite was dissuaded by coaches from showing flair while catching, especially in practice. Practicing for unusual situations like one-handed catches or catches from the ground was not part of the routine. Now, players are so advanced when they hit the pros that coaches expect, and encourage, the exceptional.

“Guys are practicing every scenario — catching the ball jumping up and down, laying on the ground and trying to catch it,” Burleson said. He mentioned that in practice, Pittsburgh’s Brown catches the ball while a trainer “aggressively yanks on his arm. He’s simulating the moment when you have to go up to catch when one of your arms is restricted. So that when it happens, you’ll be confident. In the past, receivers would have walked away, and you’d tell the coach, ‘I didn’t have my other hand,’ and the coach would say, ‘All right, cool.’ Now, you do that to a wide receiver coach and he’ll say, ‘I don’t care, you should have caught it.’”

by Kevin Clark, The Ringer |  Read more:
Image: Doug Baldwin,