Hello. This post is sponsored by XFINITY, which is a space company. They'd like to take you to Mars—
It's a cable company.
Ah, so it is. Good catch. Back in my day we had to watch television on big stone tablets, but if you're an on campus student you can sign up for free(!) streaming of live sports, including BTN, to any of your gadgets. Off campus students can get both TV and internet service for $79.99 a month with no contract. Non-students, also known as "sad adults," can check out what's described by XFINITY as the "immersive X1 system"—are we sure this isn't a space company?
Fine. Can check out the immersive X1 system here.
[NOTE! This section uses the UFR catch chart. Passes are rated on a three point scale for catchability. 3: routine. 2: challenging. 1: crazy. There's also a zero for times when the player was thrown to without any chance of a reception.]
This is a 1. [Bryan Fuller]
|Amara Darboh||Sr.*||Jehu Chesson||Sr.*||Grant Perry||So.||Jabrill Peppers||So.*|
|Moe Ways||So.*||Drake Harris||So.*||Jabrill Peppers||So.*||Chris Evans||Fr.|
|Eddie McDoom||Fr.||Kekoa Crawford||Fr.||Nate Johnson||Fr.||Drake Johnson||Sr.*|
Michigan returns the entirety of a receiving corps that was amongst the best in the country by the end of the year. Last year's preview issued both inside and outside receivers a "2" in one of a few posts that were insufficiently optimistic about Harbaugh player development. That was accurate for a bit what with Chesson's inability to get on the same page with Jake Rudock and Grant Perry's freshman deer-in-the-headlights start; by the end of the year Chesson was putting the Florida secondary to the sword and Perry was juking guys for touchdowns on the goal line.
I have no reason to put this in the post but refuse to delete it [Seth]
Chesson enters this year a player highly anticipated by NFL types, usually named one of the top five wide receivers in the country whenever someone deigns to put a list together. Meanwhile, Harbaugh has spent the last several months swearing up and down that Amara Darboh is the team's best receiver. Per anonymous Big Ten players they're kind of a big deal:
“two receivers that they have, I think they are arguably the best duo in the Big Ten.”
Also Jake Butt exists. Whoever ends up taking snaps at quarterback is going to have a good time.
OUTSIDE RECEIVER: OUT OF AFRICA, INTO ENDZONES
Time is rapidly dwindling for Tom Rinaldi's soft-focus feature on Michigan's all-African-refugee starting WR corps; it says here that by midseason their collective performance will demand one. I wish I could bet on things like this.
Let's start with JEHU CHESSON, whose single-season performance took off like no other Michigan receiver in recent memory. Last year's edition of this preview said it was "anyone's guess" who got receiver snaps other than Darboh and spent a big chunk of its time talking about Chesson's vicious run blocking. This was because Chesson was coming off a 14-catch season during which he was "imprecise" and had a Darryl-Stonum-like ability to turn reasonably well-thrown balls downfield into adventurous incompletions. Drake Harris was given nearly-equal billing based on a torrent of practice hype and a relative silence regarding Chesson.
A couple of games into the season it seemed like nothing much had changed. After the Oregon State game—in which Chesson failed to adjust to a deep ball and picked up a bad offensive pass interference call—I said he was "just not consistent enough."
Here began a parabolic upward curve that ended with The Assassination Of Vernon Hargreaves By The Nice Person Jehu Chesson. Entering this season Chesson is hyped as a potential first round pick by CBS, NFL.com, and Sports on Earth. That is some kind of trajectory.
The breakout came in two stages. Against Maryland he had his first career four-reception game. He brought in a couple quick posts despite getting hit on or actually before the catch and burst open on another couple deep routes. He was overthrown on one and couldn't bring in a tough over the shoulder catch on the second. The latter was on Chesson—he didn't take the fastest path to the ball because he misjudged its flight—but all was forgiven on an eyepopping end-around:
Over the next few weeks Chesson established himself as a regular, productive receiver. From the Maryland game to Rutgers five weeks later Chesson had 16 catches, exceeding his previous season high. The 66-yard touchdown you see above was trumped by a kickoff return touchdown against Northwestern. I started comparing him to Steve Breaston. Chesson had a ton of catch-and-run chunk plays last year thanks to his speed; against Northwestern he impressively got the corner on Anthony Walker, the fastest LB in the Big Ten:
"I really feel like Jehu has everything it takes to be a great player, a great pro player," Harbaugh said ... "The only thing he was missing was tracking the deep ball and making those deep ball catches."
The lasting memory of the Utah game was a sure touchdown just evading Chesson's fingertips because he slowed down. While I thought that was the right play since he'd burned his man by yards, the lack of comfort and communication between QB and receiver was costly. There was a drop or two in there as well.
Chesson was the beneficiary of the Indiana defense and Jake Rudock's late season surge. He went off for over 200 yards, 64 of which were on a telepathic Rudock strike between four defenders. But even if you provide an Indiana discount, this was a new level for Chesson. He adjusted to a Rudock punt downfield...
...and on fourth and goal he went up and secured overtime despite getting nailed by two guys. Yes, that was just Indiana, but Chesson added 100-yard days against both Ohio State and Florida to end the year. The Assassination Of Vernon Hargreaves By The Nice Person Jehu Chesson caught eyes nationally, and while yes it's nice that Chesson beat a top 15 NFL draft pick deep twice, for my money that wasn't even the best thing he did in that game. My vote goes to this incompletion:
Chesson also had a spectacular over the shoulder catch while getting interfered with. Reasonable people can disagree on which of the five spectacular things Chesson did against Florida is the best one, and there is your massive improvement in a nutshell.
How much of this was massive improvement and how much was simply being given opportunities Rudock was not affording him earlier in the year is unknown. You have to wonder what his season would have looked like with a locked-in Rudock from the drop. He wasn't any less open early:
Add in a few of those early bombs and expectations this year would be truly out of control.
Or possibly just plain accurate. Chesson has everything you want in an elite receiver. You can heap expectations on Chesson and he'll be fine with it. Chesson's an A+ dude committed to The Team The Team The Team:
Asked if he put in papers to seek information from the NFL draft advisory board this winter, Chesson nearly started laughing.
He says he's more focused on wrapping up his degree in May and finding a graduate program to enter for next year.
"Maybe it was naive, I don't know," Chesson said with a smile. "It's great to have individual success, but that's not where I get my happiness from. If I don't play and I see other guys being successful, that's great. If I feel I can help the team win, anyway I can help I'll do it."
His speed is unquestioned, and occasionally subject to absurd hype.
"People don’t realize just how fast Jehu is, said UM tight end Jake Butt. "He’s easily a 4.3 (40) guy. He might even run in the 4.2s in Indy.”
While that's only possible in the land of handheld stopwatches, Dane Brugler asserts that Chesson's a "loose athlete with galloping speed" and a "a legitimate fifth gear," and he's judging with an eye to playing in the NFL.
He's a terrific blocker. Chesson's proficiency in this department is such that you probably know what gif comes next...
...and there was little to no dropoff even as he emerged into Mario Manningham 2.0. Against Rutgers he wrecked a DE:
Michigan frequently motioned him closer to the tackle box and used him as a blocker against linebackers, generally with success. (They also lined him up as a tight end on occasion, but he almost never actually blocked in those cases.) He had 28.5 positive run points to just 8 negatives, and while a chunk of those positives were for what Chesson did with the ball in his hands every NFL scout goes out of their way to praise his work without the ball. ESPN:
Excellent effort as a blocker. Leaves it all on the field. Takes good angles and busts his tail to get into position. Big and strong enough to sustain blocks once in position. Throws his body around in order to make a block when he can't get into good initial positioning downfield. Love watching this guy play the game.
His hands are solid to good—36/38 on routine catches and 9/14 on challenging ones a year ago. He's 6'3". He's not a technician yet but if he continues on his current path it won't take him long to get there. (Brugler: "prone to body catches and needs to add polish to his route tree.") That's the last box to check.
His trajectory is straight up and he's got the physical and mental ability to scrape his ceiling. He's going to be great as long as someone's throwing it to him. All Big Ten and off the draft board by round two, it says here. The huge numbers required for postseason awards are probably off the table given the diversity of weapons Michigan has.
[After THE JUMP: Peppers! (Was addressed as a running back and is not in this post!)]
AMARA DARBOH will line up opposite Chesson, and if his trajectory is a bit less enticing it's largely because he did this in the BYU game:
Hard to go up from that.
There's a big gap in national offseason hype between Darboh and Chesson, but locally the two guys are reputed to be much closer. With Chesson held out of spring with a PCL injury, Darboh asserted himself. This Harbaugh quote is partially unnecessary motivation for Chesson, but from all reports there's a kernel of truth in it:
"I would say he's our top receiver right now. As we went through the season last year, I thought that was Jehu Chesson. And then Amara surged during spring ball there, and they're in a very good-hearted competition there to be our best receiver."
He got open against everyone including Jourdan Lewis at times. O'Korn found Darboh on a 70 post and would’ve connected the senior pass catcher on another bomb had he not hung a pass down the sideline after Darboh had beaten Stribling by two-steps on a stutter & go. Precision route running got him free on slants and digs all day.
I cocked an eyebrow at Ford Field when Darboh got over the top of Jourdan Lewis on one of two tries. None of these items are attempts to motivate Chesson. Darboh appears to have made a sizeable step forward despite being an older player.
I'm dubious that Darboh is actually Michigan's top receiver mostly because I'm super high on Chesson; Darboh has lived up to expectations as an underneath guy and chain-mover.
Here we should remember that Darboh is a mutant:
“He has an extra muscle on his forearm that makes sure he secures the catch,” Funchess said.
“Yeah, an extra muscle.”
In the middle of last year Darboh caught a series of balls just short of the sticks he was able to muscle into first downs; he was also a frequent target on Michigan's flash screens because he's got a little De'Veon Smith in him when it comes to contact with defensive backs.
Like Chesson, Darboh brings a lot on the ground. He both ran and caught on those screens, and his ability on both ends of that play added up to a +4 day against Penn State on a part of the UFR chart where it's really hard to pick up big numbers. His ability allowed Michigan to avoid the thumping PSU interior line—Smith had just eight carries before garbage time. Over the course of the season Darboh had a ground-game line nearly identical to Chesson's: +28, –9. Both of Michigan's starting receivers are plus players as blockers, a fact that will hopefully become more important as more ballcarriers reach spots on the field where WR blocks are relevant.
Darboh's catch numbers were trending towards top notch until a disappointing OSU game we'll discuss in a second; even so he was 47/51 on routine catches, 9/15 on challenging ones, and an impressive 4/10 on crazy ones. That's not Avant; it's pretty good. He had a tendency to make catches with the opposition draped all over him.
On the one hand, that's good. Contested ball skills are important, especially against top end opposition. On the other hand, those balls are contested because Darboh doesn't put the fear of God into CBs with his speed. Chesson was clearly the top option on long throws the whole season. Darboh's targets were rarely further than about 20 yards downfield.
When Darboh did pop open deep it was usually against the overmatched. He should have had a touchdown against a freshman MSU safety trying to figure out how to spell his own name; Rudock left it short and turned it into 30 yards. He got an Indiana corner to bite on a double move in double OT. He did get behind a Utah corner in the opener; other than that he didn't seem to get much separation downfield against top end DBs. Best I've got is a nice out cut against Eric Murray, mid round draft pick:
Also, while he was good in contested situations he was not in Junior Hemingway's class:
Michigan tried to exploit OSU's press coverage with him twice in the first half; twice Darboh got both hands on the ball only for an incompletion to result:
That's not Junior Hemingway style right there. Apple is in annoying position but is not actively breaking this up; also Darboh got shoved to the point where he's not high-pointing the ball.
These are critiques somewhere between quibbles and major issues. Darboh is a good receiver with some clear flaws, which is why he's not being mentioned by NFL types yet. If Harbaugh and the insiders are correct, he will get there. A few more contested catches and an increased ability to get over the top and Darboh starts to look very attractive indeed.
Darboh should improve at least incrementally with a reasonable shot at more given the hype about him above. Cutting down on drops and adding a little bit more deep ability, whether it's by getting better at contested catches or by running by a few more people, should get Darboh to an All Big Ten team and the middle rounds of the draft.
Ways should start realizing some potential this year [Eric Upchurch]
With the Jones/York/Dukes class now completely washed out Michigan is thin on experience past the starters. Per practice chatter, redshirt sophomore MOE WAYS [recruiting profile] exited spring as Michigan's #3 outside receiver; unfortunately, a foot injury prevented the public from confirming that for themselves at Ford Field and the spring game. The resulting wide receiver depth chart and its utilization may have done that for Ways all the same: Drake Harris, about whom more in a second, was not heavily targeted. The other outside WRs were walk-ons or future slots.
Ways, the 2014 MGo-Sleeper of the Year, came to Michigan with a raw athlete with hands issues and excellent upside; his YMRMFSPA was Braylon Edwards in another one of those comparisons that forces me to state "YMRMFSPA is not a talent projection but a style projection."
Ways started to leave the hands issues behind as a high school senior and this spring his position coach offered up the best single-sentence praise possible for his future:
And Moe Ways has improved a lot. Moe Ways, I’m not sure I can remember a drop in spring. I think Moe Ways leads us with the least amount of drops, so it’s been a good—you know, those guys have all come in and they’ve all done a nice job coming back and kind of letting us pick up where we left off.”
Sam Webb repeatedly referenced him as a riser during his reports from Michigan's time at IMG last spring, saying he looked "seriously ready to compete for a prime rotation spot" after he skied over Jourdan Lewis for a jump-ball touchdown. Per Webb, that Braylon thing might not be completely crazy:
...really good spring. Route running has improved, hands have been consistent, and his basketball ability (i.e. jump balls) has been showing up. More encouraging has been the ability he has shown as a downfield threat.
Ways spent most of last year as a Carr-era blocking WR; when I went back and checked the UFRs I was surprised that his name came up so consistently. I mislabeled him as Chesson on one particularly effective DE wipeout against Oregon State, and he's got similar upside in that department. He's to the top of the screen here, but you can just listen for the thud:
He erased another safety against BYU and was totally frickin' pumped after landing that block:
These are things that will endear him to Harbaugh, and it's unlikely any of the other candidates can match him in this department since he's got 20 pounds on all of 'em.
Ways will end up MIchigan's #3 outside wide receiver. This places him fifth or sixth on the list of guys who will get the ball behind Chesson, Darboh, Butt, Perry, and probably Peppers; it's difficult to see him have a breakout year as a result. The goal is for Ways to catch 15 or 20 balls and look like the heir apparent.
Still relevant [Seth Fisher/Upchurch]
The aforementioned DRAKE HARRIS [recruiting profile] is the other outside receiver with experience, scanty though it may be. Harris lost two and a half years and nearly his career to a marathon hamstring issue that only got better for good—knock on wood—last summer. Merely staying on the practice field for an entire year was a huge step forward for him; in healthy year two the goal is to reclaim some of the hype he came in with.
As a reminder, that hype was considerable after a 2,000 yard junior season. Alabama was the other major contender for Harris after he decided to pursue football full time, and the scouting reports were a little overheated:
…has to be accounted for by opposing defenses every pass play. Harris has the speed and agility to take any pass to the house, with a Randy Moss-like vertical leap on deep balls. Harris can stretch the defense and blow by defensive backs while making it look easy.
Okay, a lot overheated. The embers were still going strong even last year; the 2015 edition of this post quoted insider types deploying words like "spectacular" and "explosive" plus an assertion he'd start the opener—he did not—and Harbaugh saying he'd been "really, really sharp."
Spring wasn't a great start in the quest to regain his status. Most of the hype for the unseen went to Ways. In the spring game Harris was on a team so thin at receiver that Shane Morris played in the slot. He brought in one nice fade down the sideline and didn't factor in much otherwise. With a horde of inside/outside types who've just arrived and a couple of imposing five-star WRs looking likely to show up next fall, Harris is running out of time to establish himself.
Step one is looking like a college receiver, which Webb says is in process. By late July he'd reached 190 pounds. While that's still pretty dubious for a 6'4" gentleman—Ways was listed at 6'3", 210 a year ago—every little bit helps him get into his routes without disruption. Step two is knocking the rust off. When Harris did get involved his contributions occasionally looked like one of those bipedal robotics competition blooper reels:
He looked a freshman when put into awkward situations because he more or less was one.
Harris's contributions last year were limited to scattered catches and the occasional iffy block. He did have a couple of in routes against Northwestern:
There's been some talk about Harris since the offseason began, but not a ton. He could go either way. If he stays in front of the freshmen there's a two-year starting gig wide open for him in 2017. That starts with a year similar to the one we project for Ways. 50/50 it happens.
McDoom (obviously); Crawford [Ace/247]
Receivers with any modicum of experience cease after Harris. Michigan's talented freshman wide receiver class is already down Brad Hawkins and Ahmir Mitchell, so the gents who might see some playing time on the outside are EDDIE MCDOOM [recruiting profile] and KEKOA CRAWFORD [recruiting profile]. Both guys and classmate Nate Johnson could play inside or out; the former two are a bit bigger and covered here. Take these positional assertions as gentle suggestions only.
While their positions are a bit murky, it is clear that Michigan thinks they pulled off quite a coup on Signing Day with the McDoom/Crawford/Johnson troika. 247 relays that a current player believes Michigan "hit the jackpot," as all three guys are "really talented players who are really serious about becoming great." Webb asserted that both McDoom and Crawford have "shown the kind of explosiveness that has folks inside the program thinking the vets will definitely be pushed."
Crawford and McDoom's recruitments were strangely intertwined: Crawford heavily favored Michigan until Oregon—his proverbial dream school—got involved, but McDoom yoinked his spot before he could pull the trigger. Crawford committed to Michigan at the Army game, and then Michigan got McDoom to come on an official visit. Oregon has a no-visit policy and was flush with wide receivers; they pulled their offer. Michigan was the beneficiary. Per Steve Lorenz the coaching staff back-slapped each other about this over metaphorical Cuban cigars. (Probably metaphorical. I bet Harbaugh knows a guy.)
Anyway. MCDOOM is lower-rated but has been more hyped on the Michigan internets both here and places like Scout and 247. Yrs truly on McDoom:
His movements are abrupt; he times those movements excellently, breaking to his true destination after the defensive back commits his hips elsewhere. ... He gets on top of defensive backs in a hurry and then one false step, or even a moment of hesitation, and McDoom is gone. He's not an insane burner, but he's plenty fast enough to make his route chops count.
Webb just reported that McDoom is "the name I hear most consistently" amongst the young WRs thanks to his "vaunted speed." I compared him to Mario Manningham since he's about six-foot and not the fastest guy in the world but will still annihilate you with his precision. Freddy Canteen is another, less happy comparison point. I bring the latter up because I want to repurpose the "route artisan" accolade first offered to Canteen. That's McDoom: route artisan.
CRAWFORD is no slouch himself. He's a bit bigger than the other two guys at 6'2" and comes in the most highly touted by recruiting services, who all had him in a narrow range just outside the top 100. The player 247 talked to thinks he's the most likely to play early, and he does bring a lot of polish:
…very good speed and flashes some extra burst at times that a lot of other players don’t have. … plays really hard. … good hands and shows good body control on sideline catches. I would like to see him be more of a player that attacks the ball at its highest point … very good potential as a route runner and does a good job of selling double moves.
Crawford's SPARQ score was top ten at The Opening, featuring a 4.45 40 and 37" vertical leap at 6'2"; his high school tape features some Chesson-esque blocking. He'll shoot to be Chesson 2.0, but playing time will be tough to find this fall.
Perry's bowl game was his season [Eric Upchurch]
GRANT PERRY [recruiting profile] stepped onto the field against Utah and found his introduction to college football a bit cruel. On the other side of the ball, a who-dat two-star slot receiver was giving Jabrill Peppers the business. Perry was mostly responsible for two interceptions. The first was an out route he inexplicably cut short, the second a double move on which he didn't actually run the first move. Afterwards Jim Harbaugh said he was "making up routes."
This was a harsh reminder that even the best freshman wide receivers aspire to mediocrity. Perry caught an insane number of passes (105, an all-class, all-time state record) as Alex Malzone's main man at Brother Rice and arrived in Ann Arbor with a reputation as a high-floor, low-upside chain mover who'd be ready to go from the drop. Practice reports were agog...
Perry has been having an awesome camp so far. … Perry has been taking his slot reps exclusively with the first team. It's appearing more and more that the Brother Rice product is going to see the field early and often inside.
...and then: splat.
In the aftermath, Perry's role in the offense waned. After three catches in the opener he managed just six for the rest of the regular season. There were a couple of bad drops on 12 routine opportunities; the six catches were mostly screens, with only one longer than eight yards. His positive contributions consisted of some blocking on those screens. It was rough. Michigan twitter tended to complain whenever he entered the frame.
As it did for many Michigan players, the bowl realigned popular perception. Perry broke out with five catches, one of them a very Drew Dileo touchdown:
Winning inside when your opponent lines up to deny it is A+ slot work. Afterwards I said Perry "ceased seeming like a deer staring down a road full of headlights":
This was the guy who caught a zillion passes in high school: not overly physical, where he's supposed to be all the time, good hands. It's not exactly a surprise that he got there by the end of year one, but it is another example of the offense-wide improvement.
Perry built on that bowl performance in spring practice. After Ford Field this space said he "looked like the dude who caught a number of balls against Florida. This is good." At the Spring Game he drew notice from both Ace and myself; he was clearly Wilton Speight's top target:
With Harris kind of iffy it was Grant Perry who made the best impression, making three catches on balls from Speight on which the precision of his routes got him separation.
Fall chatter has been notably light on talk about Perry, which isn't a huge surprise. He's not big and not that fast and he's not going to do much in practice that makes observers sit up and take notice. He's just a reliable guy underneath. In year two he should establish himself in the 20-30 catch range; he'll be a third-and-medium and redzone asset.
Beyond Perry it's the crew of freshmen again. NATE JOHNSON [recruiting profile] is the most slot-like of the inside/outside trio; while he'll train at multiple positions his most frequent utilization early will be as a slot. Johnson's recruiting story is a lot like Perry's: ridiculous production, not much college interest until late. Johnson was a Purdue commit until schools started firing offers at him in November, no doubt because his 87-catch, 1700-yard senior season raised eyebrows.
Johnson appears to have more upside than Perry. One of the recruiting sites (247) became a strong advocate and his offer suite took off after about November. Whereas Perry's only other major offer was Northwestern, Johnson could have gone to Tennessee, Penn State, VT, Miami, and maybe Notre Dame—he was actually expected to decommit in favor of the Irish for a few weeks late in the recruiting cycle before a visit to South Bend was mutually disagreeable.
Johnson is quick as hell, has great testing numbers, and gets praised for his routes:
…one of the best route-runners in the country, has great hands, fantastic body control and he has a much bigger catch radius than his 5-11 size would suggest. … reminds me some of Christian Kirk down at Texas A&M.
Webb says that after Chris Evans, Johnson is the player "whose open field ability I've heard about the most."
His first year probably won't wow for the same reasons Perry's didn't; ideally he becomes a slot guy who safeties cannot cover deep. He's a cover-four beater.
CHRIS EVANS was covered in the spread H section; as a hybrid RB/WR he'll absorb some slot snaps sooner or later. Ditto JABRILL PEPPERS. Both McDoom and Crawford can also perform in the slot, and don't be surprised if you see Jehu Chesson deployed as a safety-wrecker. Finally, JOURDAN LEWIS has rumbled about playing some offense this fall. While I'm violently opposed to this, Harbaugh will probably throw him a bone at some point. That is likely to be in the slot. Webb also mentioned that DRAKE HARRIS was getting some run in the slot, which makes sense if Michigan wants to attack deep from that spot.