The other day, I noticed a story on my twitter feed that immediately reminded me of the Bills' new 3rd-round WR, T.J. Graham. The story focused on the emergence of much-maligned Raiders WR Darrius Heyward-Bey: link.
One of the main points of the article was that DHB has emerged largely due to his being properly utilized in the offense. Rather than being sent on constant fly-routes to stretch the defense vertically with his speed, he has recently been used to stretch defenses horizontally with his speed.
An unpolished route runner, to put it mildly, out of college, DHB was easy for defenses to shut down when asked to run vertical routes. He lacked the experience and moves to beat press and man-coverage and to force safetys to respect him deep.
Side-by-side with DHB it is easy to see how T.J. could potentially have a similar lack-of-impact in his rookie season. Both have phenomenal straight line speed and quickness but, coming out of college, lacked experience running a full route-tree. Both were widely-questioned as picks at their draft positions, with DHB having the higher pedigree: 7th overall-1st rd vs. 69th overall-3rd rd.
It is no secret that the Bills are in need of outside speed, to keep the safetys deep and out of the box. Graham's 40-time, along with the comments made by Chan and Buddy following the draft, indicates that he was drafted to fill this need. However, I worry that his lack of ideal size and inexperience will make him susceptible to press or off-man coverage and easily taken care of by a single defender at the NFL level. Think Donald Jones last season; often touted before the season as the replacement for Lee Evans, Jones could not consistently separate from the corner and was unable to utilize his above-average athleticism to come down with the ball on all those sideline routes Chan stubbornly kept dialing up for him.
WRs who have speed without precise route-running or press-beating skills are easy to eliminate on vertical routes, NFL defenses are extremely good at it, besides the Bills (but that is a different Fan Post). The linked-article highlighted that DHB has become effective by running more routes across the field, forcing defenders to run with him horizontally, rather than permitting them to cushion him downfield and allow him to run right into their coverage.
This seems very Gailey-esque, fitting the scheme to the player, not the player to the scheme, and emphasizing short timing-routes and horizontal spacing. Graham, especially playing alongside a tactician like Stevie Johnson, could potentially establish a base of confidence and experience against NFL corners and realize his full potential more quickly. He would benefit from the opportunity to use his speed and quicks to find open space in horizontal routes. With his speed, it is not difficult to foresee him exceling at YAC in a horizontal passing attack, perhaps catching a short slant and taking it 98yds to the house a la TO.
This would be more effective than trying to play to the strengths of the defense and sending him over the top against unfamiliar, uber-talented competition. I hope Graham is utilized this way, at least some of the time, or else, he may end up as the speedy James Hardy: drafted to fit a niche, unable to produce on the field, and eventually abandoned to the scrap heap.
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