The saying "it takes three to four seasons" is usually the baseline that is set when evaluating a draft pick or class for each team. In certain instances, on a case-by-case basis, some picks take longer to evaluate than others. In today’s day and age though, the three-to-four-year timeframe is hardly ever allowed to play out because of the pressure on front offices to win within a certain amount of time.
Having been officially in the scouting game on the media side since 2019, I’ve been able to experience a lot of different aspects, but each year I try to learn a lesson from a prospect that I may have liked but didn’t pan out for various reasons. The best way to grow as a scout is to do a self-assessment of yourself and understand what you may have missed on a prospect.
For example, back in 2016 when scouting from afar, a player that I thought would pan out in the NFL was Laquon Treadwell. A former first-round pick of the Minnesota Vikings, Treadwell was a former 5-star recruit and was labeled as one of the better receivers in the country when coming out of Ole Miss. Recording disastrous testing numbers that included a 4.63 forty and a 33-inch vertical jump, Treadwell’s stock began to take a dip, but ignoring other data points and sticking strictly to what he showed on film, the former Rebels receiver was the first lesson of the "contested-catch wide receiver."
After the recent news of N’Keal Harry requesting a trade from New England, it reminded me of Treadwell—and it's how this article idea came to fruition. Wanting to admit my own faults and what I think is an interesting debate topic amongst draft rooms, what’s the fine line of being able to thrive as this type of receiver?
A debate topic that was brought up in one of our recent scouting meetings by TDN Director of Scouting Kyle Crabbs, what’s been the difference between A.J. Brown and Harry? Both tested similarly during the pre-draft circuit and were labeled as thriving on contested catches and yards after the catch. Primarily a slot-only receiver in Phil Longo’s offense at Ole Miss, Brown was constantly labeled as a bully, but his lack of being a technician as a route-runner was one of his biggest knocks.
Another point that I wanted to bring up though is why have other "possession" types like Allen Robinson, Mike Williams, Courtland Sutton, and Kenny Golladay been able to thrive even though they were labeled as being similar types?
After being stung by Treadwell and having buyers remorse about his NFL career, Harry was a receiver that didn't have much appeal to me when scouting him coming out of Arizona State. Ultimately, the biggest lesson learned is that the trait of winning contested catches is fine as something to include in a receiver's scouting portfolio, but if it’s the characteristic that their entire body of work revolves around, that usually raises red flags.
A great example came during the past draft class with Ja’Marr Chase. A bit different because he tested as an upper-tier athlete, but on the field, an argument was made from some draft media that he doesn’t play quite as explosively as a route-runner. Chase’s calling card on many occasions was his ability to tower over defensive backs and attack the ball at higher levels than their elevators were willing to reach. But his entire game wasn’t predicated upon his aggressiveness at the catch point and winning in that facet. It was his versatility to play in the slot or on the outside, physicality through route stems, and, of course, his strong hands no matter the chaos ensuing or surrounding his body.
In the case of Harry along with Treadwell, not only was their calling card skying over defenders, but they received lots of manufactured touches on quick perimeter screens or underneath routes that allowed them to rack up yards after the catch, which masked a lot of their deficiencies in other essential departments when evaluating receivers of this type.
In my initial thoughts prior to writing this, I thought quarterback play and the amount of risks that they are willing to take when throwing to these types of receivers played a part in receivers' future success, but once again it proved to be a case-by-case basis.
During the early stages of his career, Mike Williams played with Philip Rivers, who is widely known as a huge risk taker and not fearful of the consequences. On the flip side, Allen Robinson has played with a poor deck of throwers throughout his career, including Blake Bortles, Chad Henne, Nick Foles, and Mitchell Trubisky.
The "contested-catch wide receiver" conundrum is an inexact science, but another former early-round receiver that has found troubles with finding his way in the league (Harry) is the latest in a long line of these types of players that have fallen into this category and struggled.
All in all, if the ability to win at contested catches is their calling card or the singular trait that galvanizes a player's game, there’s a slippery slope ahead on the next level. Needing to have other redeeming qualities, there have been some that have been able to find success, but the success rates have various variables attached to them. Regardless, it will be an interesting data point and study at the position moving forward with future draft classes.