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Thursday
Jun162005

On wide receivers

Larry Fitzgerald was overrated.

Ok, got that off my chest.  Here is why---many of the skills attributed to him simply weren't accurate.  People said he was blazing fast, that he had great hands, was the greatest at getting open, that he ran great routes, and that he was a downfield threat and could run with the ball.

Ugh.

What he was, was a guy who was fast enough, who had a great knack for making plays in the air, and had the physical size and enough catching ability to become that player.  Few guys have those such skills.  But he was given superman status, credited for being far more than he was.

If you get a chance, look at old highlights of his.  Fitz rarely if ever broke any tackles, and rarely caught the ball on the run.  Basically, he wasn't fast enough and physical enough to get very open.  He prayed on a host of terrible Big East defensive backs and even worse MAC backs.  That said, credit goes to him for doing what he did.  This isn't some rant against the guy, but I want to point out some of the mindless hype that happens and what junk is sold to the college football public.

When Fitzgerald went up against Miami's Antrel Rolle, he was held to 3 catches for I believe 24 yards.  That's less than 10 Yards/reception, when the guy averaged over 20 on the season.  Rolle is a bigger, more physical corner and flat out dominated Fitz off the line.  Most fans thought that was Rolle just getting the best of the great receiver, but in reality it was revalatory in assessing Fitz's skills.

As I said earlier, he was a uniquely skilled player who was/is at his best going in the air and bringing balls down.  It's a knack, he has a little magic to him.  But it's not like he ever ran by anyone (too slow) for a touchdown, or bulldozed defensive backs off the line (not very physical), or ever broke any tackles for long runs, or even caught balls in space (not a great route runner).  That simply wasn't his game.  But a good percentage of the national media to this day believe that, and thus much of the college football fandom does, too.

I remember discussing this topic with a friend and he told he how he reads the NFL's midseason scouting reports at places like The Sporting News to get a more realistic assessment of NFL rookies' skills.  Lo and behold, he noticed last year a blurb about how Arizona Cardinals insiders were frustrated with Fitzgerald's lack of development as a route runner, and need to bulk up.

If you were paying any attention to what he was billed as, that blurb was certain to raise all kinds of red flags.  If you had believed what was told to you, and had not come at it with an independent mind, how could you not feel like you had been lied to, sold a worthless bill of goods?  Why be duped again?

Anyway, now that my Fitzgerald rant is over, I do want to talk about a few more receivers, briefly.

First up, USC receiver Dwayne Jarrett.  He caught 13 touchdown passes last year as a true freshman.  Look for just as many this year.  Here's a guy who is much faster than Fitzgerald (thus, you actually saw him make a long touchdown catch in the Orange Bowl, outrunning a swift Oklahoma secondary), yet is also skilled at going up in the air to retrieve wayward passes.  He can run a little in space, and besides an early case of stone hands, has caught everything that came his way.  Great receiver.

But, he is no Mike Williams.  This is why comparisons get goofy.  Williams never, never, never went up in the air for balls.  For the most part, he ran a lot of shorter routes, using his physical strength to create space and then dominate the first wave of defensive backs for a bunch of screens or 5-yard catches becoming 15-yarders.  He also could run in space a bit, but wasn't much of a downfield threat.  He ran a 4.5 at the NFL combine, and for his size he's ridiculously fast, but to really be a downfield threat nowadays you have to be a burner.  I can understand comparing the statistical accomplishments of the two, but as receivers they're fairly different, as Jarrett is a much less physical, but speedier, more athletic player.

One player who I've only had brief glimpses of and think may become a great college receiver is Florida freshman David Nelson.  It sounds like Urban Meyer plans on redshirting most of his incoming freshman class, so we may have to wait a year for Nelson's appearance.  I saw him running around in the Army All-America game and thought he had great presence along the sidelines, and terrific speed for a guy his size (around 6'5").  We'll see if that brief assessment rings true, and how he'll fit into the Florida offense.

Another incoming receiver who is destined for stardom is USC freshman Patrick Turner.  The Trojans pulled him out of Tennessee, and unlike Jarrett, his comparisons to Mike Williams are warranted.  Turner is very tall (nearly 6'6"), and has great great great speed for a big receiver.  His immediate impact is likely to be far less than Williams', as he is playing behind two All-America candidates in Steve Smith and the aforementioned Jarrett, but by the end of the year it's likely he will have broken into the regular rotation and begun what should be a great career.  I was blown away by his recruiting video, in that he plays a lot like Mike Williams, overpowering defensive backs on the shorter routes.  But where he separates himself is that he has true downfield speed, something Williams lacked, as well as what appears to be sound route running skills.  Basically the sky is the limit for this kid, using what our eyes have told us.  Think Williams, but finding ways to get open not 5 yards downfield, but 20, but also having the same strength and frame.

Or I could be completely wrong on this.  Time will tell.

One last receiver of note, BYU's Todd Watkins.  We LOVE this guy.  To me, he's like a fast Larry Fitzgerald.  Watkins averaged over 20/catch last year, at around 6'3"/215.  He gets open, plays in a passing offense, and has both great leaping ability and pure speed.  He torched several teams for long touchdown catches, including USC, and also made some amazing leaping grabs, notably against Notre Dame.  Very Fitzgerald-esque, but with wheels.


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Reader Comments (2)

As a preface, I think this site is a terrific boutique for finding pathways to the necessary resources every knowledgeable college football fan should have. Keep up the great work.

Now, onto some stuff about Larry Fitzgerald. I hope the following enhances the discussion of Fitzgerald, but there's an equal chance it becomes tangential. Either way, it'll become more textual clutter on the internet, and in the end, that's the most important thing.

Perception is a dangerous thing, especially when those that craft perception overuse superlatives. I think Fitzgerald has become a victim of his own collegiate greatness and the subsequent effect it had on his media/analyst-created caricature.

As a collegian, Fitzgerald was an incredibly productive receiving target as his pass receiver ratings indicate. (Pass receiver ratings are a method of quantifying production much in the same way passer ratings are used by the NFL.) The numbers speak for themselves:

2003 - 140.2194
2002 - 91.44545
Career - 116.1568

For comparison, Mike Williams (USC) only generated a 115.4156 rating in 2003 and Marvin Harrison (SU) never topped the 100 mark while running routes in the Carrier Dome.

When a player creates as much offensive production as Fitzgerald did at Pittsburgh, it's not a far stretch of the imagination to believe that scouts and analysts would confuse skill attributes with production. These are mutually exclusive categories for the most part, and when they are improperly woven together, a Fitzgerald perception mistake is inevitable.

Just to illustrate the prior point a little more about production versus skill set, one must only look at the stable of passers and receivers coming out of the Texas Tech system. When one aspect of characterization overlaps the other, misperception may occur. This was Fitzgerald's problem - he was a terrific producer and had the look/feel of a top-flight physical specimen. However, his actual physical attributes were remedial to what he was able to do on the football field.

This isn't to say that Fitzgerald won't become a terrific NFL receiver or that his pre-draft characterizations were ultimately wrong. When able to exploit his talents, there was nobody better in the college game. His nose for the ball is unmatched, and when he does get the ball in his grasp, he knows what to do with it. As a maturing receiver, things like route running, blocking, and strength are teachable aspects of the game.

Unfortunately, Dennis Green was blinded by numbers and improperly grafted them onto a skill attribute analysis and his expectations were a bit askew.

Ultimately, Fitzgerald could become every bit of the receiver he has been projected to be. Until then, however, he will still have to shake the mantra imposed upon him by others who failed to reasonably assess what Fitzgerald could and could not do as of April 2004.
June 18, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterMatt Glaude
Matt, thank you for the praise, first off.

Second, great follow-up analysis. I think Fitz's limitations in some of the departments I addressed will hamper his pro ceiling, but we also can't ignore what he does bring and what he did do in college.

June 18, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterResource Admin

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