It's been roughly 16 months since Kevin White became a top-10 pick in the 2015 NFL draft. White was the seventh-overall pick of the draft, the second receiver taken after Amari Cooper. The Chicago Bears intended to pair him with Alshon Jeffery to give quarterback Jay Cutler two big-bodied receivers on the outside who could beat opponents in different ways. Unfortunately, 16 months later, White still hasn't stepped on an NFL field.
The rookie suffered a shin injury early in the offseason that eventually led to a stress fracture in training camp. He was placed on the P.U.P. list but may as well have landed on I.R. because he never appeared to come close to a return.
As training camps began this week, White quietly went about his business. The 24-year old is fully healthy now and in line to take his place across from Jeffery in Dowell Loggains offense. Cutler spoke on White this week and hit on a number of key elements for guaging how impactful White can be this year, "He's got a lot of things probably he's processing, thinking through. I think for anybody, taking a year off of football then jumping back into it is going to be hard. As a rookie, missing that vital year where you learn so much that first year and then jumping into your second year, it's a big miss for him." Cutler also spoke about White's potential and work rate, but that was the key sentence.
White is essentially a rookie this year and he's being treated as such in fantasy drafts. He has an ADP of 71 in MFL Leagues and is the 37th receiver going off the board in the same format. Football Guys rankers are even lower on White, giving him a consensus ranking of 39th in ppr-redraft leagues and 82nd overall. Only two of 14 rankers even have White inside their top-60 overall players.
Despite the obvious reasons to be concerned about White's production in 2016, he is being disrespected at his current ADP. White could very easily outproduce Alshon Jeffery this year. He was taken in the top 10 of his draft because he is a phenomenal talent. Even without technical refinement, he will be able to put up huge numbers.
Unfortunately, White wore number 11 in college, had black dreads falling out of the back of his helmet and carried a pristine physique. Aesthetically, White looked like a carbon copy of Larry Fitzgerald. That cheapened any comparison that could be made between their skill sets, but despite the appearance issues, White did show off a skill set that is similar to that of the future Hall-of-Fame, Arizona Cardinals receiver. Standing at 6'3" and 215 lbs, White was able to routinely bully defensive backs at the catch point to turn 50-50 balls into 70-30 balls in his favor.
While it's easier to dominate college defensive backs at the catch point than professional defensive backs in the NFL, this isn't a trait that requires great technique to translate. If you have the strength, mentality and ball skills to make these types of plays, you don't need any qualifiers.
In the above play against Alabama, White is confronted by a defensive back at the line of scrimmage who wants to press him. The cornerback has no chance of jamming White so he tries to mirror his movements off the line. White releases quickly and gets in behind him with ease. He has split the coverage as the deep safety attempts to work across the field. With well-timed, well-flighted throw, White could have comfortably caught the ball in that gap. Instead, the pass floats so it is late. White is forced to make a high-pointing reception while falling backwards with two defenders arriving on top of him.
In that same game, White showed off his ability to high-point the ball over a defensive back when he has successfully maintained tight coverage. This is an important trait to gauge because of how NFL teams prioritize wide receivers on fade routes in the endzone. Cutler is one of the best fade-route throwers in the NFL. He has had tall weapons to throw to over recent years, but it's rarely a simple matter of him throwing the ball aimlessly into the air and asking his receiver to go and get it. He typically flights and places the ball perfectly to maximize the receiver's advantage.
This kind of support makes the receiver's job much easier. White will be able to tower over NFL defensive backs in the endzone from the beginning of his first season on the field.
High-pointing the ball can be an overrated skill. A receiver requires more than just the ability to pluck the ball from above his head to dominate defensive backs at the catch point. Fortunately for White, he possesses all the necessary traits. He tracks the balll into his hands well, he fight for positioning with his upper body while maintaining a strong foundation with his lower body and he can consistently catch the ball away from his body at different angles while showing off precision with his feet to stay in bounds.
In the above play, White beats the defensive back down the sideline easily once again. His quarterback asks him to make a relatively difficult adjustment that White makes look simple. By underthrowing the ball, the quarterback takes away the separation that Whtie had created. This brings the defensive back into play at the catch point, or at least it should have. White recognized the flight of the ball very quickly. As he began to slow his route down so he came to what was essentially a complete stop, the receiver was using his hands to subtly battle the cornerback.
White doesn't aggresively push the defender away from him, he relies on his strength to essentially prod the receiver under his outside shoulder. This slight bump is enough to give White a clean window of space to work in.
From there he still had to show off balance and ball skills to pluck the ball out of the air, but it was his hand usage that stood out most on this play. Manipulating defensive backs is very important and using your hands while running routes is a big part of setting yourself up to do that. Hand usage is something that rookie receivers typically have to be taught. Some of them never get it so their athleticism never leads to separation. Cordarrelle Patterson is the best example from recent times. White has no concerns when it comes to working against defensive backs in these situations.
Sensing a theme yet? In the above play White beats his defender with relative ease but his quarterback underthrows the pass. White is forced to adjust again, recognizing the flight of the ball early to stop before using his hand to fend off the defender and pluck the ball out of the air. White's work at the end of this play is impressive but it's allowed to happen because of what he does early in the route.
As he releases from the line he shows off impressive acceleration but also slaps away the defensive back's attempt to get his hands on him. This means that the defender can't slow White down as the receiver surpasses him outside. At this point, White has already got in behind the defender but his fluidity and superior athleticism means he can afford to make one more subtle move. Just as he passes the first down line, White leans in so that the defender has to slow slightly in anticipation of a route break. He leaned in with his upper body but kept his lower body moving downfield. This little action puts the defender behind and inside of him as he angles his route slightly back outside.
Everything about this play is hugely impressive....except for the quarterback of course.
Although he may not run every route a receiver can run, White understands how to set up his vertical routes and manipulate defenders with his movements. His fluidity and acceleration repeatedly stands out. When the ball is thrown on time and accurately, big plays inevitably ensue. In the play above, White uses one step to bait the defensive back before roasting him downfield. Once he reaches that point of the play, you can't expect to catch him. White ran a 4.35 forty at the Combine. While 40 times can be misleading, that one was reflective of his performances in college.
If you try to be aggressive against White early in the play, his strength will overwhem you. If you try to play softer coverage to mirror his movements, his quick feet and explosiveness will expose you.
Early on during his career, Larry Fitzgerald was one of the most-feared deep threats in the NFL because of his ability to bully receivers through his routes and at the catch point. He was pretty quick too. Big plays on deep throws will be a priority for the Bears as they look to take advantage of Cutler's arm talent with Jeffery and White. Offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains was the team's quarterbacks coach last year when Adam Gase was in charge of the offense. Gase took shots downfield but he relied heavily on short throws that were reliant on the receiver's ability to create YAC.
Being a receiver capable of dominating at the catch point didn't make White a top-10 pick. That is the foundation of his skill set, but narrow skill set receivers don't go that high for good reason. White also proved to be a very dangerous receiver on short throws last year.
In the above play, White never has a chance to get up to top speed. He is immediately confronted by a defender once he catches the ball. His power and balance are highlighted as he brushes off that potential tackle before advancing downfield to bounce off of another one. White absorbs hits more than he is impacted by them. Although he showed off an irritating tendency to slow down or move laterally in college, he was still able to brush off defenders with unnatural ease. If the Bears can teach him to run through contact more aggressively and drive his legs, he will be uncontainable for 90+ percent of defensive backs in space.
Tunnel and Bubble screens should be built into the offense for White. The Bears have athletic offensive linemen and question marks over their running game. Safe throws that put playmakers in space should be a priority. In the above play, White catches a bubble screen and this time gets an opportunity to show off his acceleration. He outruns the angle of the defender closing on him, reducing the defender's tackle attempt to an attempted punch to knock him off balance. White again shows off his balance and strength to not only stay upright but continue to accelerate forward for a first down.
If you can make plays on screens and be a consistent deep threat it's less important to be effective on intermediate routes. Intermediate routes are still important to develop so you can attack defenses in every possible way but also because most offenses are built to throw the ball to those areas.
Most of White's work in college was done outside the numbers or close to them, but he did venture infield on occasion. He showed off the comfort to take big hits and focus on the football instead of the defenders around him. More importantly though, White showed off awareness of his surroundings and subtle precision in his feet. The above play doesn't show White working a route over the middle of the field but it does highlight how he sets up the defender with his footwork and it highlights his ability to turn away from a defender quickly.
White watches the ball into his hands. As soon as he catches it White adjusts his inside foot so he can shift his weight and bait the defender inside while turning outside.
Developing a route tree is something White can do relatively quickly. He can still be one of the most productive receivers in the league without being a refined receiver. Returning Cleveland Browns star Josh Gordon had huge success in 2013 when he was still incapable of running precise routes or adjusting to coverages the way the better receivers in the league do. Gordon stockpiled yardage because he was he Browns only legitimate receiving option. The Bears may have more options than the Browns did but Cutler's quality of service and the Bears' game plans should make up for a negatively impacted target share.
The talent that White possesses should make him one of the most valuable picks in fantasy this year.