This past season, there were quite a few players who produced at a high level without being in the best of situations. In this Pro Football Magazine article, we’ll take a look at three receivers (DJ Moore, Courtland Sutton, and Allen Robinson) who produced at a high level despite being in a non “receiver friendly” offense (whether that be due to poor quarterback play, offensive inefficiency, etc.)
1) DJ Moore, Carolina Panthers
Moore was selected by the Panthers 24th overall (Maryland) in the 2018 draft. After his rookie season, he really broke out in 2019, ranking 15th in receptions, ninth in yards, and seventh in first down receptions.
All of this took place while playing with three different starting quarterbacks; one who was evidently banged up (Cam Newton), another who has only started one game in his NFL career (Kyle Allen), and the other was a rookie third-round pick (Will Grier). With the acquisition of Teddy Bridgewater in free agency, the hope is that there is a bit more consistency at the quarterback position for Carolina in 2020, which can only help DJ Moore’s production.
Moore still managed to jump off the screen quite a bit in 2019, and certainly emerged as a number one wide receiver for Carolina. He had a particularly strong finish to the season, having over 75 receiving yards in seven of his last eight games, eclipsing the 100-yard mark in four of those eight games.
Let’s take a look at what Moore does well, and some of his best plays from the 2019 season.
Separation & YAC
Moore creates a ton of separation here on the slant versus a press cover defender. He executes the “diamond release” to perfection. He sells outside release as if he is trying to win vertically, prior to using a single slam step to break flat to his slant; he gets the defender completely turned around.
The Panthers are running a dagger concept with Moore on the dig route. His ability to threaten with his vertical stem prior to his break is on full display here, and he finishes with a flawless speed cut to his dig. He wastes no movement and gets out of his break efficiently. What really leaps out here is his ability to accelerate after the catch, as he knifes through defenders on his way to score.
Here is Moore once again winning on a dig versus off coverage. However, here he uses what we refer to as a “phantom step” which really just resets your vertical stem to the left or the right with a single step. Once again on display is his ability to rapidly accelerate and separate after the catch.
Moore is a true vertical threat, as a low 4.4 guy, he is dangerous down the field. Part of that is due to his ability to accelerate so well (as we’ve seen after the catch). He has won down the field multiple ways.
Moore does a nice job winning off the line with a speed release, and pairs it with a chop to prevent the defender’s attempt to get hands on. You’ll notice him lean back in slightly in an attempt to stack the defender. However, the ball is late/underthrown, causing him to have to decelerate and make a contested catch.
This time Moore takes an inside release on his fade/vertical route. He is patient off the ball and moves laterally to assess the defensive back’s plan. Since the defender maintains outside leverage, Moore takes the inside release, and most importantly, works back out immediately to stack the defender. Moore’s linear speed is on display here, as he effortlessly separates from his cover defender. The defensive back has no choice but to grab him.
Moore is extremely effective as a ball carrier as well. In 2018, Moore carried the ball 13 times for 172 yards (13.2 yards per carry). While his rushing attempts were diminished in 2019, Carolina did call designed plays to get him in space close to the LOS.
Moore had the breakout season that Panthers’ fans were hoping for out of the former first-rounder. His route running has improved from his rookie season, and his ability to win down the field as well as near the line of scrimmage was displayed over his first two seasons. There is reason for fans to be excited about DJ Moore moving forward, especially if the Panthers return to consistent quarterback play in the near future.
2) Allen Robinson, Chicago Bears
Allen Robinson’s career has been hindered by injuries, and below average quarterback play. Over his career, he has played most of his games with Blake Bortles (in Jacksonville) and Mitch Trubisky (in Chicago), both of whom have had their struggles at the position.
With the Bears acquiring Nick Foles from Jacksonville, it seems there will be a bit of a quarterback competition in camp. Both different players, with different strengths, it will be interesting to see how this plays out come September (if there is an NFL season). Also, don’t be surprised if Chicago drafts a quarterback in the middle rounds to challenge both veterans.
However, similar to Robinson’s 2014 season in Jacksonville (80/1400/14), inefficient quarterback play didn’t stop him from proving himself to be a number one wide receiver.
One part of Robinson’s game which is underrated is his route running. He is known for his ability to attack the ball out of the air and consistently make contested catches. However, he can also separate exceptionally well. His ability to separate, paired with his size and physicality, has made him a nightmare to cover. He has consistently won at the line of scrimmage as well as the top of the route.
Robinson is in a condensed split here and is running a fade. This route is won before he even takes a step on his vertical stem. He works a flawless double jab at the line of scrimmage to separate immediately. He is able to rhythmically move his feet, hips, and shoulders as one to move his cover defender to the inside. He finishes aggressively, snatching the ball out of the air as he has done his whole career.
Here Robinson works a similar movement on a slant versus two very good corners in Darius Slay and Marshon Lattimore, both of whom are playing shadow/soft press (matching the receiver’s movement without a jam). He eats up the space between himself and his cover defender, and uses that same hip shift/crossover technique he used on his fade from the last video.
Separating At the Top
Robinson is running a post from the slot versus an off-cover defender, and uses a “rocker step” at the top to create a significant amount of separation. A “rocker step” is simply when a receiver will stick his foot in the direction he’s going first, prior to following it with a second stick (if breaking to the right, right foot sticks, immediately followed by a stick with the left foot). You can see how it freezes the defender just enough for Robinson to separate.
On this route, Robinson is running a double move down in the red zone. This is a difficult route to run due to the condensed field, as well as because of the low cover defender playing over Robinson. He uses a hesitation skip to assess his cover defender before working a jab to win inside. His ability to keep enough composure to slightly burst to the corner prior to returning back to the post is the most impressive part of this route. Often times, after beating the low cover defender, receivers will rush into their route. Robinson displays the patience necessary to win on a double move down near the goal line.
On another double move down near the goal line, Robinson demonstrates enough patience here to get the defender to drive his route. He uses a violent snap down, and drops his weight prior to getting his head turned inside to the quarterback. You’ll notice that peak to the quarterback is what pulls the defender inside just enough to create the separation to win the route. Once he wins on the route, his ability to attack the ball is, once again, on display.
Regardless of situation, Robinson has proven to be a true number one receiver as long as he remains healthy. He is a big, physical receiver who runs routes well enough to win on all three levels of the passing game: short, intermediate, and deep.
3) Courtland Sutton, Denver Broncos
At 6’4″ and nearly 220 pounds, Courtland Sutton is the most physically imposing receiver on this list. He, like Moore, is not as polished as Robinson; however, they’ve both grown from their rookie to sophomore seasons. He was drafted 40th overall in 2018, out of SMU.
There is certainly warranted excitement from the Denver Broncos’ fan base about Sutton. That excitement was demonstrated by the front office when the team traded away Emmanuel Sanders in the middle of the 2019 season. It is fair to believe that had a lot to do with the trust the organization has in Sutton moving forward. We take a look at what Sutton did well this past season, and how he was used.
Before we get into Courtland Sutton as a route runner, let’s take a look at the strongest part of his game: the ability to “go and get it,” regardless of where his cover defender is. Both of these clips are against the opposing team’s top corner (Denzel Ward, CLE & Casey Hayward, LAC). This is something he did often his rookie year, and continued to do his second year in the league.
The Broncos loved running Courtland Sutton on in-breakers this season, particularly posts. Whether it be from a “nasty” or condensed split, from the slot, or from split out wide, he ran a lot of posts this season. His big frame, paired with his linear speed, and smoothness as a route runner made him very difficult to cover. He is fearless over the middle, has enough route awareness to attack leverage, and has enough explosiveness to separate at the top of the route.
After winning on so many posts leading up to Week 11, the Broncos call a deep shot with Sutton running a “Post Go.” On his third step to his post, he sticks his foot in the ground and accelerates vertical. Notice how physical Sutton is throughout this route, constantly hand-fighting with Xavier Rhodes.
Ability to Sink His Hips & Drop His Weight
Along with being able to use his frame, and accelerate well, Sutton does a nice job sinking his hips. This is impressive, especially for a 6’4″ wide receiver. A lot of guys his size struggle getting in and out of tight breaks (curls, comebacks, square ins, square outs).
Sutton has won using various skills based on his cover defender’s alignment, and his ability to pair routes to look the same.
Denzel Ward walks up into shadow press against Sutton here, who uses a speed release to win outside. The reason he is able to win and separate on this route is because of how much he threatens with his vertical stem prior to snapping his slant back flat underneath the defender. Since Sutton takes full strides to his outside release, Ward is forced to open his hip to turn and run with the threat of being beaten vertically. This is a textbook “diamond release.”
Here Sutton is running a stutter and go. Notice how violently/suddenly Sutton drops his weight on the “stutter.” This freezes the defender just enough for Sutton to accelerate and separate. The best route runners have a type of patience and smoothness to their routes, and that is on display here by Sutton.
Courtland Sutton is another young receiver that had a breakout season in 2019, logging his first 1,000-yard season in only his second year. The Broncos have certainly found their number one receiver in the 2018 NFL Draft when they took the 6’4″ rookie out of SMU. His future is bright, and his growth from his rookie to sophomore season is quite encouraging.
All three of these receivers have left a positive impression on their teammates, fan base, and front office heading into the 2020 NFL season. It will be exciting to see how these players continue to grow and produce moving forward. One thing for sure is that it doesn’t matter who is at quarterback for this group, they will create their own opportunities to produce.
Is there a player you thought was worthy of being included in this group? Who do you think produced DESPITE their situation? Share with us, and in the Part II Breakdown, we will include them!
(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)