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All-22 Analysis

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T.Y. Hilton, Antonio Brown leading rise of small receivers in NFL

It looks like the "small" receiver is back en vogue.

The NFL is a copycat league, with coaches and scouts feverishly scouring tape from previous seasons for the next trend that will help their teams win. And after reviewing the All-22 Coaches Film from last season, I see more teams relying on shorter receivers to anchor their passing games going forward.

I'm sure fans of Calvin Johnson (6-foot-5), Dez Bryant (6-2) and Demaryius Thomas (6-3) would dispute this notion. But consider that eight of the top 15 receivers in 2014 measured 6-foot or shorter. With smaller rookie pass catchers like Amari Cooper (6-1), Nelson Agholor (6-0) and Phillip Dorsett (5-10) expected to make an impact, the trend should continue this season. Here are three reasons why:

1) Offensive coordinators need "escape artists" to defeat bump-and-run coverage.

With more NFL defenses utilizing press coverage to disrupt the rhythm of the passing game, coaches and scouts are placing a greater emphasis on acquiring slippery receivers with the speed, quickness and burst to escape the clutches of physical corners on the perimeter. Long, rangy corners routinely struggle to shadow shifty receivers at the line of scrimmage; thus, pass catchers with electric moves and polished route-running skills can often create big-play opportunities on slants and fades.

Studying the All-22 Coaches Film from last season, I found plenty of examples of smaller receivers whipping big-bodied corners with a variety of clever maneuvers on the edge. Using traditional speed releases, various stutter-steps and double moves at the line, small receivers were able to slip past defenders and gain enough separation to give the quarterback room to fit in a pinpoint throw.

In the play depicted below, from the Colts' Week 14 win over the Browns, Indy's T.Y. Hilton (5-9, 178 pounds) shows his elusiveness and burst on a fade route against Pro Bowl cornerback Joe Haden (5-11, 195). Hilton uses a quick stutter-step move at the line of scrimmage to get Haden on his heels and attempts to stack Haden after the release. Quarterback Andrew Luck intentionally underthrows Hilton on the vertical route, due to Haden's hip-pocket positioning. The diminutive pass catcher quickly adjusts to the back-shoulder throw, makes the reception and waltzes into the end zone for a touchdown. (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):

In the play depicted below, from Super Bowl XLIX, Patriots receiver Julian Edelman (5-10, 200) uses his exceptional stop-start quickness and burst to punish the Seattle Seahawks, taking advantage of Tharold Simon (6-3, 202) on a whip route in the red zone. Edelman explodes inside on what appears to be a crossing route before sticking his foot in the ground and quickly re-directing to the outside. The sudden maneuver catches Simon by surprise, leading to an easy "pitch-and-catch" score for the Patriots. (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):

The recent trend of defenses playing more aggressive coverage on the perimeter has given rise to a need for more explosive receivers on the perimeter, leading more coaches to feature diminutive pass catchers prominently in the passing game.

2) Elite offenses must have at least one big play threat on the perimeter.

For all the value big-bodied receivers bring to the table, particularly in the red zone, it is hard to find a mammoth receiver with the speed and quickness to generate explosive plays in the passing game (receptions that cover at least 25 yards). Offensive coordinators covet pass catchers who can deliver big gains on vertical routes or catch-and-run plays, and most receivers who excel in that area are speedsters with exceptional burst and acceleration. They blow past defenders on an assortment of downfield routes (go-route, post-route and stutter-go), yet also have the ability to turn a crossing route into a big gain.

Defenses that want to neutralize the effectiveness of such receivers must account for their whereabouts and keep a safety over the top. Despite their efforts, defensive coordinators can struggle to keep big-play threats under wraps in today's game. The rules restricting contact allow speedsters to run on the outside, and the lack of an MOF (middle of the field) enforcer encourages teams to get the ball to their top playmakers on the move.

It's no coincidence that the leaders in explosive receptions are receivers who skew small. Washington Redskins receiver DeSean Jackson (5-10, 178) has been the NFL's most explosive receiving threat since he entered the league in 2008, having tallied 48 career receptions of 40-plus yards, including an NFL-best 13 in 2014. That's remarkable production for someone who was regarded as too small for the position by some scouts in the pre-draft process.

In the play depicted below, taken from the Redskins' Week 16 showdown with the Eagles, Jackson shows that speed and explosiveness are more essential to delivering big gains than size and strength. He is aligned on the left against Bradley Fletcher (6-0, 200). Jackson will run a go-route against one-on-one coverage. Notice how quickly he eats up Fletcher's cushion on the way to running past him on the vertical route. Quarterback Robert Griffin III delivers a perfect pass to Jackson near the boundary for a 55-yard gain. (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):

It didn't take Odell Beckham Jr. long to make his mark in the NFL as a rookie, despite his small stature (5-11, 198). The Pro Bowler torched defenders across the NFL with his exceptional combination of speed, quickness, balance and body control. As a home-run hitter with top-notch route-running skills and savvy, he's a true find. He can blow past defenders on vertical routes or use a set of tricks and maneuvers to get open on short or intermediate plays. Thus, he is an ideal WR1 for any offense -- but he's an especially good fit for a Giants attack that mixes in a variety of quick-rhythm and vertical concepts to help the quarterback play at a high efficiency rate.

In the play depicted below, from the Giants' Week 15 matchup against the Washington Redskins, Beckham showcases his skills as a playmaker on a simple slant route over the middle. Positioned on the right, he executes a slant behind a bubble screen. The schematic design of the play creates a window for Beckham, and quarterback Eli Manning delivers a dart. Beckham runs through the middle of the secondary, exhibiting exceptional burst with the ball in his hands. With few defenders capable of matching his speed and acceleration in the open field, the Giants are able to generate explosive plays on cleverly designed high-percentage passes. (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):

3) The emphasis on "RAC" has created roles for catch-and-run specialists.

NFL teams' gradual incorporation of concepts from the spread offense has led offensive coordinators to build around dependable pass catchers with dynamic running skills. Teams are increasingly leaning on WR screens, pop passes and short crossing routes to generate production in the passing game. As a result, the NFL has seen a number of former punt- or kick-return specialists emerge as elite players at the position. Remember, guys like the Ravens' Steve Smith (5-9, 195), the Packers' Randall Cobb (5-10, 192), the Steelers' Antonio Brown (5-10, 186) and the Lions' Golden Tate (5-10, 195) initially made their marks in the NFL as returners.

When I worked as a scout for the Seattle Seahawks under Mike Holmgren, I was encouraged to look for wide receivers with return skills, because the presence of such skills suggested these players would blossom as catch-and-run specialists, what with their toughness, running ability and instincts. Former returners are adept at weaving through traffic and running through minimal contact, which is critical to picking up extra yardage on short passes. Thus, teams utilizing quick-rhythm passing games (see: the Green Bay Packers, New York Giants, New England Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers) are prone to grooming ex-returners for big roles in the offense.

Having reviewed the All-22 Coaches Film on Brown, I'm not surprised he quickly became one of the NFL's top receivers. He's an explosive jitterbug with remarkable stop-start quickness and top-end speed. Brown can run every route in the book with precision -- and he also displays the wiggle and burst to evade defenders in the open field. The Steelers frequently showcase Brown's running skills by getting him the ball quickly on "now" screens, and they also look to target him on fades and vertical throws whenever he attracts one-on-one coverage on the outside. Throw in a few crossing routes, and it is easy to see how the Steelers get their top playmaker in position to deliver big plays.

In the play depicted below, from the Steelers' faceoff with the Panthersin Week 3, Brown is positioned on the left, in a stack formation. He'll run a short crossing route across the field, to take advantage of his superior speed and quickness. With the Panthers falling back into a zone, leaving plenty of voids over the middle of the field, Brown simply has to run into the open area and take the pass from quarterback Ben Roethlisberger for an easy walk-in score. (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):

Tate is another diminutive pass catcher climbing up the ranks as a standout playmaker. The Pro Bowler just put up the best season of his career while exhibiting the same traits (running ability and ball skills) that made him a marquee free agent during the 2014 offseason. Tate amassed 1,331 receiving yards on 99 receptions, displaying extraordinary skills with the ball in his hands. He carried the Lions' offense during Calvin Johnson's midseason absence, showing observers that a catch-and-run playmaker could anchor a passing game as a primary option.

In the play depicted below, from the Lions' Week 15 matchup against the Minnesota Vikings, the Lions take advantage of Tate's electric running skills by getting him the ball quickly on a "crunch" screen. Tate is positioned as the WR3 in the Lions' trips formation. He will run a 1-yard flat behind a pair of blockers on the outside. Quarterback Matthew Stafford quickly delivers the ball to Tate following the snap, and the explosive runner follows his blockers to the outside to score a nifty 7-yard touchdown. (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):

With more offensive coordinators willing to feature their WR1s as primary players on catch-and-run concepts, the explosive production of the small receiver is a trend that will continue in 2015.

Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.

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