This weekly in-season feature is to provide observations from NFL or college games that will help fantasy owners learn about college prospects or team tendencies that will help you with future lineup decisions.
Certain players just catch your eye when you watch a game. Even when I take a systematic, analytical approach to watching college football games - which is what I do for the Rookie Scouting Portfolio - I still see moments that get me intrigued with a player. These small windows of performance that a player displays are often described with the verb "flash."
When a player flashes, it can be both exciting and misleading, because as I mentioned in this week's Gut Check there is a difference between skill and talent. Most players in the NFL have athletic talent with a precious few (Calvin Johnson, Andre Johnson, and Randy Moss) that have the physical skills to produce even if they lacked the refined skills/techniques that most need to succeed as a pro. But few players enter the NFL with the knowledge or refined techniques to consistently execute the skills required of them at the position to succeed against systems that operate with more complexity and a noticeably faster pace.
This is why the wide receiver position is difficult to evaluate compared to running back. There are a lot of prospects with talent, but skills that lack refinement. Accurately projecting whether an individual with this kind of athleticism has the work ethic, maturity and intelligence to bridge the gap from college player or pro is a difficult task.
Last week's Film Room subject Brandon Lloyd is a great example of a player with athleticism - including some less conventional athletic skills you can't teach - who didn't possess the work ethic or maturity to fulfill expectations early in his career.
Then there's the other side of the coin that compounds the problem. There is a minority of players with more refined skills than their years experience suggest, but there are questions about their athleticism: Davone Bess, Steve Smith (NYG) and Austin Collie are prime examples.
These factors make it easy to overvalue athleticism and undervalue skill. Especially when you consider that certain NFL players are a better fit within a specific offensive system than they would be elsewhere, which you have to try to take into account when watching a receiver in a college offense.
That preface brings me to wide receiver Austin Pettis, the Boise State senior who has flashed some skills, but has some question marks that make him an intriguing prospect.
Pettis is the nephew of former California Angels, Detroit Tigers and Texas Rangers outfielder Gary Pettis, an acrobatic, five-time Gold Glove centerfielder in the 80s. And the Pettis family must have a pretty strong lineage for making athletic adjustments to moving objects because what Austin Pettis flashes to the casual eye is his penchant for highlight reel plays.
My first extensive look at Pettis against the Virginia Tech Hokies on the opening weekend of the 2010 college football season yields more questions than answers, which is why I try to examine multiple games of receivers before arriving at a conclusion.
Overall, Pettis had a really strong game as a football player. He caught 6 passes for 73 yards, scoring 2 touchdowns and blocking a punt. The special teams skills, something that the aforementioned Brandon Lloyd immediately brought to the table as youthful player in San Francisco, should earn Pettis a roster spot. But the real questions surround his potential to become an every-down starter.
One of the first components of a receiver's game I examine is his ability to separate. Early in the contest, Pettis got behind his opponent on a post pattern to the end zone on 1st and 10 with 2:02 in the first quarter, but the QB overthrew the pass. This play didn't make a definitive showcase of Pettis, especially when we observe what happens as the game progresses.
One thing we do learn quickly is that Pettis needs to work at a higher tempo than he's accustomed. On 3rd and 7 with 13:00 in the 3rd quarter, Pettis' release from the line of scrimmage could be best described as lacking urgency. This release gave the cornerback an opportunity to continue looking into the backfield and jump Pettis' out route, breaking up the pass with a near-interception.
If Pettis releases from the line of scrimmage with a greater urgency of tempo, he forces the corner's attention away from the quarterback and onto him. This release and tempo could be best described as "driving" onto the opponent and forcing the defender to turn his hips and account for the possibility of a deeper route. This technique would have granted Pettis more separation on the defender to make the catch and gain more route depth for his break beyond the first down marker. How do I know Pettis lacked urgency? He ran upright. He came off the line slow, his step size varied and he leaned toward his break before he even approached the point to make it.
With 6:00 remaining in the game, Pettis didn't show great speed on a wheel route. He had a potential mismatch with the "Wick" LB, a combo LB/DB in the Hokie defense. But the defender, playing with a 7-yard cushion from the line of scrimmage, recognized the route as Pettis began his release and took a great to the sideline. His starting depth and angle cut Pettis off at the sideline and the receiver had to make a diving attempt on a pass.
The question that comes to mind immediately is whether Pettis' teammate Titus Young, a known speedster, would have beaten the Wick LB's angle to the sideline to run under the pass for a big gain? My assertion is that there's a good chance Young had the speed to make this play, but Pettis does not. But the only definitive answer we have about Pettis' separation at this point is that we need to see if a more focused effort at the beginning of routes would showcase Pettis' speed in a better light. This is how a lack of technique can get in the way of evaluating other components of a player's game.
Pettis' routes also need improvement - the most common technique that college wideouts need to develop when they enter the pros. Pettis' first catch touchdown was an 8-yard slant with 9:49 in the first quarter. The safety played Pettis five yards off the line of scrimmage and he bit on quarterback Kellen Moore's play fake, which allowed Pettis run by him to an open area in the back of the end zone. Pettis ran a decent slant route, but the play fake did a lot to sell the route.
On the same 3rd and 7 with 13:00 in the third quarter where I profiled Pettis' lack of urgency, we also saw technique flaws with his route running beyond route depth and a fast release. Pettis didn't sink his hips into his break and with the corner shading the outside before the snap Pettis' only attempt to sell something else was with some exaggerated hand movements. At 6-3, Pettis also had a size advantage against this corner back and he did not position himself well out of the break to box out the defender. We will see soon enough that Pettis has size and grace to win the ball in coverage, but he needs to do more on a technical level to maximize these talents.
Pettis' best route of the game was actually an improvised play. He did a good job of working his way open in the flat against single coverage when his quarterback rolled away from pressure on a 2nd and 4 pass with 1:24 left. Pettis caught the ball in stride with his hands and turned up field to make the first man miss for extra yardage.
Pettis easily makes adjusts to the football that are more difficult, if not impossible for others. His first target was the 8-yard slant for the touchdown from the slot with 9:49 in the first quarter. Pettis had to make a slight turn to catch the ball at his back shoulder and he let the ball get close to his body, but it was an easy, unimpeded pitch and catch. This is a reception than many players drop because it requires a little adjustment and awareness of the end line.
Pettis' second catch was a 3rd and 8 slant as the inside receiver in an empty backfield set with 6:26 in the first quarter. He got a free release from the line of scrimmage, found the opening in the middle of the field and made the catch with his hands - just within a step of running into the safety. The defensive back delivered a shoulder to drop Pettis on his back, but the receiver held onto the ball for the 15-yard gain. The ability to snatch the ball with his arms extended into an oncoming defensive back is a very good sign that Pettis will be able to handle the physicality of the NFL game between the hash marks.
The best catch I saw Pettis make in this game probably trumped by other plays I've seen from him in other games, but it's a great example of what he can do that many NFL players can't. Pettis began the play behind Titus Young in the stack formation split wide right on 1st and 10 with 0:58 in the third quarter. The receiver crossed both hash marks on a crossing route, snaring the ball with a trailing defender in two for a 16-yard catch.
What made this play special is that this was one of the few throws that QB Kellen Moore made all game where he stepped into the delivery and released a pass with high velocity and the pass was thrown behind his receiver Pettis. Managed to snare the ball away from the defender by reaching behind him while still on a dead run.
Pettis nearly made another difficult catch on a wheel route, diving with one arm extended ahead of the linebacker pinning him to the sideline just to get a hand on it. Although his speed might be a question mark, his ability to adjust to the football is not.
He finished the game with an over the shoulder catch at the end line on a post route behind two defenders for the game-winning score. It was a very well thrown ball with anticipation against the zone coverage.
There are certainly other factors to Pettis' game that are worth examination, but just from examining his release, routes, adjustment to the ball and hands, you can see that Pettis has pro talent when the ball arrives but he needs to work on getting himself in position to maximize his ability. What needs to become more apparent, which will spell the difference between him remaining a first-day prospect (that many believe he is) and a guy that falls to the second day is his speed, quickness and effort.
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