We usually learn the most about prospects during draft season when a player is polarizing and inspiring strong views in both directions. Clearly one of those players this year will be Pittsburgh WR Tyler Boyd. Boyd was uberproductive at Pitt, so models and minds that rate production heavily will love him. While the basis of his production is clear on tape, questions creep in when we look for how that will translate to the pros. After reviewing his body of work, it’s hard to endorse Boyd as more than a third day prospect with a likely role as a #3/#4 in NFL offenses, despite seeing him projected in the top 5-10 wide receivers off of the board and going on the second day in many rankings and mock drafts.
There are a few positives that Boyd can hang his hat on. In fact, there are cornerstones to his game that are foundational for wide receivers, and moments on tape you can point to and say “that is how it is done”.
Boyd flashes preternatural ball skills. His leap timing, body control, extension and ability to win a ball he has to compete for are almost ideal on his best plays. He instinctively shields his opponent with his body when the ball is in flight, and Boyd is not afraid to put his hands on a defender to jockey for position when the ball is about to arrive. Fluid athleticism and long limbs accentuate this quality of Boyd’s game and it is the centerpiece of what he has to offer.
The slot seemed to be the best place for Boyd. The two-way go showed off his footwork and ability to create a lane that puts him in between the defender and the ball. This is especially important because Boyd is not going to scare defenders with his burst off of the line or ability to eat up cushion in the NFL. He is going to have to create his own space with footwork and savvy.
Boyd runs precise routes and when a defender guesses and guesses wrong, he can be made to look silly, allowing Boyd a wide berth to operate with. He also has terrific awareness of the sidelines and can make NFL quality plays to stay in bounds in tight quarters, and he senses where the dead spots are in the zone and where the windows for his quarterback are in the defense. Boyd also comes back to the ball and attacks it instead of letting it play him.
Boyd gets a ton of manufactured touches and absorbs a lot of punishment. He works the middle of the field without fear. He’s not contact averse and should be able to deal with the increased intensity of collisions in the NFL. Boyd will also consistently engage and show effort as a blocker.
What you don’t see in the positives for such a productive player should be a red flag when taking a holistic view of Boyd as a prospect.
Boyd is a monotone one-speed runner who lacks suddenness, quicks, acceleration and explosion in all aspects of his game. If defenders don’t bite hard on his breaks in his routes, it is very easy for them to mirror him and be in position to make a play on the ball in flight. While he has tremendous ball skills, Boyd isn’t going to get to an unfair place above the rim or otherwise “steal” the ball from a well-placed defender who has made a valid play on the ball. Most of his top notch ball skills plays still require outstanding throw placement or a subpar play on the ball by his opponent.
Pitt did everything they could get the ball in Boyd’s hands his junior year, including numerous jet sweeps and short passes. This is reflected in his deflated yards per catch and career high reception total. Even his big play-studded 2014 featured defensive backs stumbling or misjudging balls in his biggest game of the year against North Carolina. Low degree of difficulty plays where Boyd got what was there and little more shouldn’t be a big plus in his column.
Easy to Tackle
Boyd’s lack of plus athleticism and creativity generally make him easy quarry in the open field. The first tackler usually brings him down, and Boyd lacks a true second gear to chew up yards on the occasions that he does make someone miss or break a tackle. The reality is that he won’t be the best suited receiver on any NFL roster to run the kinds of space plays that Pitt often asked him to run in 2015.
Lack of Separation
And now we get to the closing argument. Yes, Boyd has top notch ball skills to make catches in tight coverage. How do we know that? Except when a defender badly bites on a break in his route or gives him a massive cushion, Boyd can not shake cornerbacks. Corners who just sit back and mirror his moves with a half-beat delay are almost always in position to make a play on the ball in flight. Boyd can get a defender in reactive instead of proactive mode and it still requires him to make perfect plays on the ball to win. When a defender stops respecting him, diagnoses his route, and commits, the results can be disastrous. There is very little evidence on tape that Boyd will be able to separate with any consistency in the pros, in fact, he didn’t do it the majority of the time in college.
Sure, Boyd can make perfect plays on the ball in flight, but the fact that he has to so often in college does not bode well for his future. There’s no doubt that Boyd has “old man” game, with instinctive body positioning, subtle push-offs, and textbook plays on the ball, but he is a young man. And he will be facing young men who can defuse his old man game with young man athleticism and aggressiveness.
Perhaps Boyd's top notch game at the catch point will encourage throws into tight coverage, but the defensive backs he is facing will be much better at making plays on the ball than the ones he saw in college. NFL quarterbacks contending with the breakneck speeds of NFL defenses are more likely to avoid a receiver who is not open in their progressions unless he is a beast at the catch point like Dez Bryant, DeAndre Hopkins or Calvin Johnson. Boyd is going to be a small fish in a big pond.
Boyd could fit as a third or fourth receiver in the slot who can make some nice plays on passing downs and maybe even in the end zone on short and intermediate throws. Throwing deep to him is not advisable unless the quarterback thinks the defensive backs will botch the play on the ball. Calling his number on jet sweeps and short passes to space will result in wasted plays for the offense. He might have been a centerpiece of the offense at Pitt, but he looks like a player who will blend in on Sundays, not stand out. A fourth or fifth round pick on Boyd might not be a reach, but chances are teams already have a player who can do what he does, and one that is probably more athletic. The combine will be big for Boyd, but even if he tests well, that should not trump the pedestrian tools and translation he showed on tape despite numbers that suggest otherwise.