Commentary

Schemes, team needs play large role in wide receiver decisions

What's the best way to evaluate a wide receiver? Floyd Reese looks at five questions teams must ask themselves before they sign or draft a receiver.

Originally Published: March 25, 2008
By Floyd Reese | ESPN.com

Scouting and, more importantly, drafting or signing a wide receiver are among the biggest NFL crapshoots. A quality group of receivers will improve a team's running game, its quarterback's effectiveness and ultimately the win-loss record.

The hard part for NFL teams is figuring out exactly which players are right for their systems. The evaluation process involves much more than height, weight, speed, hands, character and production.

Here are five questions teams must ask themselves while scouting wide receivers:

1. Does the receiver fit the scheme and/or coaching needs?
Everyone wants to bring in a receiver with ideal size, speed and hands. Unfortunately, this guy comes along once or twice every draft and seldom reaches the free-agent market. Therefore, the single best link to success is bringing in someone who fits in with your coaches and schemes.

The receiver who is Hall of Fame-caliber in the West Coast offense may not be able to play in a vertical, spread-type of scheme. The slot receiver who is unstoppable negotiating space may not be able to beat man-to-man coverage. The deep threat, big-play star may become unreliable catching the ball in traffic. Your coaching staff has to be versatile and mature enough to adjust the scheme to suit a quality player's strengths.

During the early stages of Derrick Mason's career, an offensive coach on the Titans' staff was upset about having to use a receiver roster spot on Mason. He felt Mason should count only as a returner. Of course, Mason has gone on to have a long and productive career. This is an example of the importance of adjusting to, or for, a quality player.

2. Does the player fit your position profile?
A strongside receiver is different than a weakside receiver, who is different from a slot receiver. Being able to understand position needs and filling those needs solidifies not only each spot but also the group as a whole. Drafting only one type of receiver (Jacksonville is known for drafting "size" receivers) is as ineffective as indiscriminately drafting players based only on measurables.

Part of the reason middle- or late-round draft choices and even undrafted free agents can make NFL rosters is because of the position's diverse needs. You don't have to be a first-round draft choice to have a career.

3. Can he come down with a contested ball?
Whether a receiver can come down with the contested ball is a key characteristic. Regardless of the type of route, the corner often arrives to the ball at the same time as the receiver. If a receiver doesn't have the ability to outmuscle or outjump a defensive back, his upside is severely limited.

4. Is the receiver reliable?
On Monday night during the NFL season, ESPN highlights the weekend's biggest hits. Seven or eight of those clips involve a receiver being hit by a corner, safety, linebacker or sometimes all three. Receivers may not get hit every snap, but each reception opens them up to NFL analyst Tom Jackson's scrutiny.

Reliability in this instance involves three elements: courage, toughness and durability. Receivers use elusiveness, instincts, size or the turf as their ally, but each one will be involved in a train wreck at some point. They need the courage to venture inside and then line up and take the same hit again. They must have the durability to endure these collisions week in and week out. Short arming a ball in traffic, taking one hit and leaving the game, or playing one week and missing the next three are all unacceptable.

5. Can he create yards after the catch?
Joe Montana and Steve Young got a lot of credit for 50-yard passes that were really 10-yard slants that Jerry Rice carried for 40 yards. As time goes on, the premium on yards after the catch continues to grow.

Using size, strength, speed or run skills, a receiver can turn one broken tackle into a big gain or a touchdown. Yearly, teams that top the passing categories will have one or two receivers who rank high in receiving yards primarily because of their ability to gain yards after the catch.

Former Tennessee Titans general manager Floyd Reese contributes to ESPN.com.

Former Tennessee Titans general manager Floyd Reese contributes frequently to ESPN.com.