When I started working as a scout for the Seattle Seahawks in the early 2000s, I had a crafty offensive coordinator (Gil Haskell) tell me to pay close attention to receivers with exceptional return ability. Haskell said polished wideouts who shine in the return game typically possess the running skills to excel in West Coast offenses, given the catch-and-run demands of a passing game built on slants, crossing routes and digs.
This confirmed what I had seen as a player under Haskell, when he was serving as wide receivers coach for the Green Bay Packers in the mid-1990s. Haskell and head coach Mike Holmgren routinely used young receivers as returners -- to enhance their running skills in traffic -- before placing them in prominent offensive roles on the perimeter. I saw teammates Robert Brooks and Antonio Freeman serve in this capacity before becoming key contributors for the Packers during Brett Favre's remarkable MVP three-peat. While Favre was clearly on top of his game at that point, he certainly enjoyed the luxury of making quick-rhythm throws to a pair of explosive playmakers.
Looking at the 2014 draft class, there are several polished receivers with explosive return skills. Clemson's Sammy Watkins, USC's Marqise Lee and Oregon State's Brandin Cooks are two-phase dynamos with tremendous talent and potential -- all three can be breathtaking with the ball in their hands. But there's something about watching LSU's Odell Beckham on tape that makes me believe he will be a superstar at the next level.
The 5-foot-11, 198-pounder is an explosive playmaker with the speed and elusiveness to produce fireworks at the drop of a hat. He broke LSU's single-season all-purpose yardage record in 2013 (2,315), while earning first-team All-SEC honors. Beckham finished his collegiate career with 15 total touchdowns, including seven that covered 50-plus yards. With a 100-yard return of a missed field goal and an 89-yard punt return on his résumé, there's no disputing his ability to put the ball in the paint from anywhere on the field.
As a receiver, Beckham is a smooth, fluid route runner with fantastic balance, body control and burst. He easily gets in and out of breaks, while exhibiting an impeccable sense of timing and patience at the top of his routes. He routinely lulls defenders to sleep by changing his tempo or using hard head-and-shoulder fakes before exploding out of his breaks to create separation. As noted in the video at the top of this piece, Beckham's precise route-running skills and savvy are reminiscent of the tools Victor Cruz has utilized to rise to stardom with the New York Giants.
From a pass-catching standpoint, Beckham shows strong hands and impressive ball skills. He snatches the ball out of the air with his big mitts, showcasing splendid upper-body strength and concentration. Beckham also has the ability to come down with contested catches, allowing quarterbacks to float 50/50 ball in his direction on key downs. This is a huge asset for teams viewing Beckham as a potential slot receiver because he expands the strike zone for the QB over the middle of the field.
Beckham is fast enough to run away from defenders on the perimeter -- as evidenced by his official 4.43 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine -- yet displays the power and toughness to run through arm tackles in traffic. Thus, he regularly turns short passes into big gains on bubble screens, slants and crossing routes. Not to mention, he's a home-run hitter on vertical routes.
Given the impact potential Beckham brings to the table as one of the most dynamic receiver/returners in this class, I believe he could fly up the charts on draft day. Here are five teams that could make a play for the LSU standout, with current first-round positions listed as reference points:
New York Jets (No. 18 overall pick)
The Jets added Eric Decker in free agency to give Geno Smith and/or Michael Vick a dependable target in the passing game, but Gang Green still needs a dynamic playmaker on the perimeter in order to compete with the offensive juggernauts dominating the AFC. Beckham's the full package: He can beat a defense in a catch-and-run capacity or he can burn you deep. With the LSU standout also possessing the ball skills and route-running ability to be an effective No. 1 receiver in Marty Mornhinweg's version of the West Coast offense, Beckham should hold a lofty position on the Jets' draft board.
Philadelphia Eagles (No. 22)
The Eagles led the league in explosive passing plays (20-plus yards) during Chip Kelly's first season, but the decision to release DeSean Jackson robs the passing game of its most explosive player. Thus, the Eagles will enter draft weekend intent on finding a suitable replacement on the perimeter to enhance a lineup that features a dependable pass-catching tandem (Jeremy Maclin and Riley Cooper), two interchangeable tight ends (Zach Ertz and Brent Celek) and a pair of dangerous running backs (LeSean McCoy and Darren Sproles). Although it's unlikely Beckham will be able to immediately match Jackson's big-play production as a rookie, he is a better route runner than the veteran and has the potential to develop into a true No. 1 receiver in Kelly's offense.
Kansas City Chiefs (No. 23)
Andy Reid guided the Chiefs to the playoffs in his debut campaign, but he undoubtedly recognizes the need to upgrade the speed and potency on the perimeter to continue competing with the AFC's elite teams. Beckham could be the big-play threat Kansas City needs. He capably blows the top off coverage on vertical routes, yet boasts the balance and body control to separate on short and intermediate stuff. Adding Beckham to the lineup would provide some sizzle for a Chiefs passing offense that ranked 24th in 2013. Alex Smith needs more weapons outside. Last season, running back Jamaal Charles led the team in receptions and receiving yards. Kansas City only had one wide receiver crack 600 receiving yards (Dwayne Bowe, with 673).
Carolina Panthers (No. 28)
The unceremonious dismissal of five-time Pro Bowler (and face of the franchise) Steve Smith leaves a huge hole in the Panthers' offensive lineup. Just ask DeAngelo Williams. The team lacks a dependable No. 1 receiver and, really, has just one established playmaker in the passing game (tight end Greg Olsen). While it's tough to ask a rookie to carry an aerial attack, Beckham displays all of the traits to be a top dog in a vertical passing game. From his polished route running to his knack for producing big plays, Beckham is the kind of game changer that the Panthers desperately need to stay atop the NFC South in 2014. With general manager Dave Gettleman facing enormous pressure from the fan base to replace the best player in franchise history, Carolina could go all-in to acquire the LSU standout on draft day.
San Francisco 49ers (No. 30)
A wideout tandem of Anquan Boldin and Michael Crabtree is certainly nothing to scoff at, but the receiving corps lacks an explosive threat. Beckham is the ideal candidate to fill this role, with his outstanding speed, quickness and acceleration. He would create room for the 49ers' big-bodied veterans (Boldin and Crabtree) to operate between the hashes, while providing Colin Kaepernick with a speedster to target on downfield throws. The 49ers' chief rival -- their toughest competition in the division and conference races -- is the defending Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks, who boast the best secondary in football. I won't be surprised if San Francisco GM Trent Baalke drafts a potent wideout to give the passing attack some more juice.