Great Expectations: Can the Young Wide Receivers Really Replace Boldin?
At this point in the off-season, local fans have been mostly very supportive of the moves that the Ravens have made to their roster. But the move that has been questioned the most is trading away Anquan Boldin, especially since no natural replacement was sought via the draft or free agency. Therefore, entering training camp, the most heated roster battle will be at the WR2/3 position. Is there a young Boldin on the team? Can these receivers replace his production in the aggregate? I looked at every 2011/12 snap of the five young receivers most likely to step in this season in an attempt to answer these questions.
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A lot has been (and will be) made of the five Ravens receivers vying for the #3 position on the WR depth chart. My plan was to dig into their tape, describe their strengths/weaknesses, and break down a play that exemplifies these traits. My goal here, however, was not to show highlights.
Reed is the elder statesman of this group as he was drafted in the fifth round in 2010. Reed was a difficult evaluation because he only took 111 regular season snaps during the years since All-22 film has been available (2011/12) and was targeted only eight times including five receptions. In fact, he only has 123 career snaps so he is very much an unknown quantity. Nevertheless, certain aspects of his game stood out on tape.
David Reed showed quickness out of his stance and evaded press coverage using his hands in conjunction with his release to avoid being rerouted. This is a good sign considering his frame wouldn’t be considered large (6’0, 190lbs) by today’s standards. It was disappointing, however, to see lack of acceleration and long vertical speed. Once he gains leverage on a defender, he is often caught up to.
In his patterns, Reed showed signs of excellent combination route-running. He often has good spacing as a part of 2- (Smash, Mesh) or 3-man (Spot, Tare) routes but his duties were rarely as the primary receiver and he was therefore very seldom targeted. Combination route running is Reed’s niche, as he did not excel in isolation routes in his first couple seasons. His stride lacks fluidity and he rounds off or “bananas” routes far too often allowing defenders to recover and drive toward the ball. However, this element of his game did show signs of improvement which can be something Reed can build on:
David Reed is aligned across from a likely Hall of Fame cornerback at the top of the screen. His deep out route is in isolation.
Reed’s quick release elicits a false-step from Bailey (Image #1) but Reed’s less than stellar speed allows Bailey the opportunity to catch up (Image #2). Importantly, Reed uses his outside arm (Image #2) to shove Bailey past him while making his out-cut. Moments after Image #3, Bailey has fallen down and the ball is in Reed’s hands. Reed makes a leaping tip-toe catch on the sideline (after Image #4) but simply running in stride and catching the ball with his hands would have been ideal here.
Overall I think David Reed is a highly intelligent receiver who can fit in the WR3/4 spot where he can contribute in the slot as a part of Caldwell’s short-to-intermediate route combinations. Reed needs to put on a bit of weight to compete with linebackers and safeties over the middle in my opinion, and he is no natural Boldin replacement, but provided he still contributes on Special Teams, he has a place on this roster.
Williams’ analysis, like Reed’s, should be taken with a grain of salt as he has 138 career snaps and only four receptions on 12 targets (all in 2011). However, I was able to look at some of his preseason film to increase the sample pool.
Williams is a very athletic player but noticeably raw in the art of playing the WR position. Williams struggles at the line of scrimmage, especially against press coverage. It appears that he has not yet mastered using his hands and feet to avoid being pressed as he often tries to run around corners by taking flat steps first before gaining depth. His struggles in routes continue at break-point as well. He doesn’t show natural cutting and opts to banana routes on combinations designed for squared-off patterns.
Williams is called upon to run a slant to achieve a first-down and keep Baltimore’s lead intact. The red line shows the actual path he took which is subtly meandering rather than straight and consistent.
It is difficult to show Williams’ discomfort in running this route with stills, but one can still note his short stride from his release (Image #1), his focus on his feet (Image #2), as well as the reaction by CB Donald Strickland in Image #2 as he knows the route before Williams’ break. Despite Strickland’s drive to the ball, Williams makes a nice, athletic grab on a contested ball to solidify the first-down.
Theoretically, all of his above weaknesses can be coached. When teams scout players, they often say that the one trait that cannot be coached is athleticism. Williams is bursting with natural athleticism as evidenced by his ability to accelerate in the vertical plane, evade tacklers in open space, and catch throws in traffic.
Williams clearly has a lot of room for improvement, but his agility and speed can be utilized best in short crossing routes, smoke screens, or end-arounds. If Williams can continue to learn his craft and continue to catch tough passes (while cutting down on dropping easy passes), he can become a contributing receiver.
Tandon Doss has been a Raven since 2011 when he was drafted in the fourth round and has the most in-season experience out of all of these five candidates (255 total snaps, 20 targets, 7 receptions). Going into this piece, I was most intrigued by what I’d find on Doss’ tape. After studying him, I was left feeling a bit disappointed in his consistency.
Doss clearly has experience in playing the position but comes across as overwhelmed physically at times. He showed flashes of using his hands against press corners and often ran by the defender using hip fakes, but he was stifled at the line whenever a corner got his hands on him. This weakness did show signs of improvement throughout 2012, however.
What holds Doss back in my opinion is how he runs routes. He was often called upon to execute comeback routes on the outside or hitches closer to the hashes but rarely came back to the ball when it was in the air. It made for a lot of difficult catches as shown below:
Doss was given a 13-yard curl route to run. CB Antoine Cason is playing a deep third zone out of San Diego’s Cover-3 look. Doss runs far enough vertical for the match-up to effectively be man coverage.
Doss will eventually break his route at the Chargers 45 yardline (red X) but as seen in Image #2, Doss begins to look back at Joe Flacco around the 50 yardline. Even though Cason has deep responsibility, he is able to drive toward Doss 5 yards before Doss makes his eventual break. In Image #3, the ball is in the air and Cason is driving to get in front of Doss. At Image #4, Cason gets his hand on the ball but Doss makes the strong-handed catch.
Doss does not have the physical attributes to overcome poor route-running. Tipping off his routes, not driving back to the ball, and rounding off routes will hamper his growth and limit his integration into the Ravens scheme. His hands, as many remember from the playoffs, are inconsistent as well. Without improvement in these areas, Doss will be relegated to decoy duty or no less than 3rd in progression reads throughout 2013.
Deonte Thompson’s role after being drafted in the 2012 season was minimal due to injury. He only played during the two Cincinnati games, combining for 89 snaps, 6 targets, and 5 receptions. Luckily, he played a good deal during the preseason to show the coaching staff (and now me) some of his traits.
Thompson made the most out the few snaps he did take last year. Thompson is an impressive athlete who has explosive speed and can jump well enough to catch well-thrown balls over the average corner. Additionally, he struck me as ahead of the curve in terms of route understanding:
St. Louis is running a passive but generally effective zone defense, Tampa-2. Thompson is aligned in the slot.
The route combination calls for Thompson to run a skinny post and catch the ball between the two deep safeties. The above image shows Thompson breaking his route behind the outside linebacker (rather than in front of him), forcing the linebacker to disregard Thompson’s route. Thompson angles his route so that the ball will come between the dropping middle linebacker (orange zone) and the Strong Safety Daniels.
(As an aside, readers of mine have seen this exact offensive playcall vs. the exact defensive playcall here)
Thompson catches the ball with the safety all over him. A good, strong-handed catch. The route combination was designed to beat a Tampa-2 defense, and Thompson did everything right on this play. It was a very impressive effort, which even made the announcers jump out of their boredom that comes from calling the 4th Quarter of the final preseason game.
Projections for Thompson are difficult with such a small number of plays to work with, but he showed consistent hands and a general understanding of how to run pro routes. This area still needs improvement, though. Thompson was slowly squeezed to the sideline on a go-route and eventually ran out of space near the boundary in a regular season game this past season.
Provided Thompson can stay healthy, he can become a dynamic receiving threat in this offense either opposite Torrey Smith or underneath to utilize his vision in space.
I don’t feel comfortable analyzing Streeter as the only tape I have to go off of is the TV Copy of 3 preseason games. I can say that he is an imposing player who towers over corners at 6’5, 220lbs. He used this large frame to both keep defenders from pressing into his chest off the line of scrimmage and shield the ball when catching passes over the middle. At the current moment he can play the role of Plaxico Burress in the redzone by catching fades in the back of the endzone using his length and jumping ability.
As I’ve mentioned before, there is no natural replacement for Anquan Boldin on this roster. I can certainly see the Ravens replacing Boldin’s production in the aggregate by integrating Dennis Pitta, Ed Dickson, and Jacoby Jones in a number of interesting route combinations. As far as the receivers at hand, my rankings for production in the coming season are as follows:
- Deonte Thompson
- David Reed
- Tandon Doss
- LaQuan Williams
- Tommy Streeter
A few extra notes to this article. Route running under Cam Cameron was different than many other systems. He taught “speed cuts” referring to the rounding of routes instead of squaring them off. A quote about this topic is at the bottom of this excellent but unrelated article. Speed cuts often appear to be lazy cuts especially on deep out routes. This clouds my judgement on route running for these players a bit. However, Anquan Boldin often executed similar out and comeback routes without speed cuts which leads me to err on the side of blaming the receivers rather than the system when a cut is sloppy.