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So you want a big wide receiver: Some items of note and a look back at 2008

Bigger isn’t always better

This year’s NFL Draft shares some similarities to the 2008 NFL Draft for Buffalo Bills fans. Buffalo’s needs this offseason notably echo the needs in that offseason, with wide receiver, pass rusher, and cornerback chief among them. There is a young QB who still engenders hope among the fan base of franchise potential. And although the cornerback and pass rusher needs are recognized, one need stirs the Mafia’s imagination like no other: a shiny new wide receiver.

Not just any wide receiver will do, though. A specific type of outside playmaker is what Bills fans are dreaming about—a big contested-catch monster. A man among boys who can adjust to high or off-target throws and allow for dedicated ESPN segments about “Mossing” defenders. A top weapon is great, yes, but a specific FLAVOR of player is what has the fan base focusing in on a few players.

You may remember how the 2008 draft turned out. The Bills went cornerback, receiver, and pass rusher with their first three picks as they very well may do this year. Leodis McKelvin carved out a solid career in the NFL and apart from a particularly bad primetime fumble that I’d rather not rehash, he was by all accounts a reasonable pick. Chris Ellis was never even close to being a starting-caliber player in the NFL and is but one among the long list of high-pick busts during the playoff drought in the 2000s.

Six-foot, six-inch Indiana University wide receiver and second-round pick (41st overall) James Hardy was the apple of the Mafia’s eye though. He was viewed as the perfect complement to diminutive receivers Lee Evans and Roscoe Parrish, while seventh-round receiver Stevie Johnson was largely viewed as an afterthought. With a first-round talent and two second-round talents at receiver, Bills future franchise quarterback Trent Edwards would have everything he needed to take the next step in his development and escort the playoff-starved franchise to greener pastures.

We know how this played out on the field.

As you pay close attention to the bigger wide receivers in this year’s draft class, I hope to draw your attention to some traits I feel are important when evaluating these players. Having size is a good thing in receivers, but with size come some challenges that are important to mitigate when a player transitions to the NFL:

Can they accelerate?

When a player has longer legs, it’s likely to take them a similar amount steps as a smaller player to reach their top speed, but those steps occur over a longer period of time. You’ll often hear this referred to as “galloping”, but having lower-body strength can help a player like DK Metcalf run a 1.45 10-yard split (a good NFL Combine measurement of acceleration) even while being 6’4”.

Can they sink their hips for horizontal- or LOS-breaking routes?

In order to create separation for in-, out-, or line-of-scrimmage-breaking routes, a player has to be able to sink his hips to generate explosion out of his breaks. Taller receivers can struggle with this and it can allow defenders to recover and close the distance on in, out, stop, and hook routes. If a taller receiver can’t sink his hips, he may be very limited in what routes can generate wins for him at the next level.

This is not to say that vertical-breaking routes (go-routes, posts, corners) cannot be the foundational pieces of a successful wide receiver’s arsenal (see Calvin Johnson, who mastered winning these routes) but being able to do more things makes a receiver more dangerous and a limited route tree negatively impacts the player’s chance to be successful.

Can they beat press?

For some reason, football fans assume that bigger receivers will have an easier time getting off press coverage than their diminutive counterparts, but the truth is often the exact opposite. Larger receivers have more surface area available to defenders to jam and slower feet to generate short-area separation, which lends itself to getting tied up at the line. This was the main problem with James Hardy’s game and one that never got fixed during his time in the NFL.

Bigger might be better, but evaluating bigger receivers comes with a different set of challenges than evaluating smaller receivers. When you’re watching highlights or reading through your favorite draft analyst’s scouting reports, make note of these things and let’s hope for the RIGHT receiver rather than just the BIGGEST.

...and that’s the way the cookie crumbles. I’m Bruce Nolan with Buffalo Rumblings. You can find me on Twitter @BruceExclusive and look for episodes of “The Nick & Nolan Show” every week on the Buffalo Rumblings podcast Network!