Problem in NFL: WR (& other positions) not being adequately prepped by spread offenses

Submitted by StephenRKass on January 25th, 2018 at 12:48 PM

There is an interesting article in today's Chicago Tribune looking at the upcoming draft of college football players.

LINK:  College spread offenses aren't preparing NFL-ready wide receivers

I'm not sure whether you'll be able to read the article, as I have a Trib subscription and it may not open for you (I can't tell.) The author's basic point is summed up in the title.

As for the idea colleges and spread offenses are producing more NFL-prepared wide receivers, well, you can forget about that.

The problem is that spread offenses have very limited route trees. If his stats are correct, of the last 13 WR taken in the first round from 2015 - 2017, there isn't a single true number 1 receiver.

In this year's Senior Bowl practice, the best of the bunch, Ok State's James Washington, apparently isn't wowing scouts. He averaged 66 catches 1339 yards and 11 TD's over the last 3 years. But he is limited.

"I have to expand my route tree because that was the thing most scouts talked about coming into this week — I have a limited route tree,” said Washington, the winner of the Biletnikoff Award as the nation’s top receiver this year. “I just want to prove I can do more.” Reality is the 5-foot-10, 210-pound Washington was asked to run about three, maybe four routes at Oklahoma State. Same thing goes for Jaleel Scott, the 6-foot-5, 216-pounder from New Mexico State who has an 81½-inch wingspan that makes you think of Calvin Johnson.

The problem isn't limited to wide receivers.

As one college scouting director said, the problem facing teams as they sort through potential wide receivers is the same one they battle when it comes to identifying quarterbacks. A guy who runs three routes in college could be asked to run dozens with options off of most of them as a pro. His playbook goes from being thin to a stuffed binder and there’s a ton of information that must be assimilated. The spread offense is simple reads for quarterbacks and simple routes for receivers. “We’re getting fundamentally unsound players,” one general manager said Wednesday between the North and South practices.

The article is interesting enough on its own merits. I thought of Michigan, because of the difference between Tariq Black and Donovan Peoples-Jones. What I've read here is that Black was more polished, and that DPJ struggled to learn routes. He just was faster and bigger than DB's in HS, but basically didn't really have to learn route trees, and so wasn't as prepared for Michigan.

If all this stated in the article is true, it gives me even more hope for Harbaugh and Michigan. My rudimentary understanding is that the coaching staff at Michigan is playing more of a pro-style offense, affecting especially the OL, QB, and WR group (also the TE, I suppose.) It is much harder to do, but we could reap benefits down the road.

My hope is that Michigan will eventually master concepts, which allow them to basically have an NFL offense playing against a spread defense. This will do two things. Most importantly, Michigan will be well equipped to win games. But secondarily, this is a huge, huge selling point to kids who want to be prepared for the NFL. If Harbaugh and Drevno and Hamilton are doing their job, they are identifying kids who have the ability to play in the NFL, regardless of ratings for college ball.

I don't know enough of football concepts to be sure, but I for one am willing to be patient, to see this come to pass. In the short term, I'd love to see this bring Anderson and Petite-Frere to Ann Arbor. We shall see.


Killer Khakis

January 25th, 2018 at 12:52 PM ^

I noticed that too with Black. He looked the part and seemed to be as athletic and polished as any freshman I've seen at WR. Harbaugh is helping put these kids in a good place for the enxt level, he's just got to win at the current level and help these kids get there.

Clarence Boddicker

January 25th, 2018 at 12:59 PM ^

The problem is that college football players have only so much time to master and practice a  playbook. Players have classes and class assignments. Practice time is limited by NCAA rules. Last season we saw our offense struggle with Hamilton's route trees and options--a 100 playbook is tough for NFL players who devote 60+ hours week practicing and studying. How does a college student with limited time do that? In college, less is more, which is what a read-open or a spread gives you at the college level.


January 25th, 2018 at 1:07 PM ^

There's a happy midpoint, somewhere. Three - Four routes isn't enough. 100 is too many. I think part of it is having enough receivers coming in every year that they can either redshirt or focus on 3 routes, and expand each year thereafter. If you had 4 new routes to master every year, you'd have seniors who knew 16 - 20 routes (depending on redshirt or not.)

Clarence Boddicker

January 25th, 2018 at 1:37 PM ^

But why should a college program sacrifice a year's playing time for a player who could start in order to prepare that player for NFL route trees? If a spread receiver still gets drafted in the first round, there's no advantage to the player in sitting a year. And no player WANTS to redshirt--they want to play, even if it's just on special teams. From a coach's perspective, OSU, Alabama, WSU, et al, are winning just fine with spread/read option offenses, so there's no advantage to them to do this. The only beneficiary of your plan is the NFL, and, frankly, I don't give a shit about the overall needs of the NFL as an industry. Especially when they could, but refuse to, change the way they do business to accomodate the situation they find themselves in by simplifying their offenses or establishing a developmental league. And if the NFL cared about their workers, they wouldn't have surpressed CTE data, or they'd compensate retirees far better than they do.


January 25th, 2018 at 1:46 PM ^

I agree that a college program shouldn't sacrifice for the needs of the NFL. I agree with meritocracy:  put the best kids on the field, period. Having said that, if a team has better upper-classmen, they should play, and give kids a redshirt. Again, meritocracy.

Regarding spread vs. pro-style, every team and coach needs to do what works best for them and for their situation. And if that is spread, they should do it.

The only thing I'll say is that if Harbaugh wants to do pro-style, and it leads to championships, and attracts blue chip players, that's a great thing. I personally believe that a very well run pro-style offense in college will reap those kinds of benefits. But we're not there yet.

Mr Miggle

January 25th, 2018 at 4:00 PM ^

College coaches who use complex, pro-style offenses do it because they think they can win with them. There's a reason they are popular in the NFL, they're hard to defend against.

Whether they are a good choice for a college team is a separate issue. Being harder to learn is a problem when you have a very young crew of WRs. Better QB and OL play would have mitigated that this season, but you are often going to be relying on young players somewhere.

We've heard a lot of same criticism of John Beilein's offense. It's hard to pick up, especially for freshman PGs. His teams often go through some growing pains. Unlike football, they seem to get fixed during the season.


January 25th, 2018 at 4:50 PM ^

I definitely have thoughts on this debate on NFL pro-style vs. spread style offense.

There certainly is no "one size fits all" offensive scheme. Different things can work, and can work successfully. However, from my perspective, a well put together pro-style offense, with the right pieces, is usually going to beat a spread team. The caveat is that it is very, very difficult to have a well put together pro-style offense.

I think that Stanford and Alabama are some examples, at least some years, of more power football and NFL style teams. You have stability, a solid OL, and the ability to do better than spread teams (like Oregon.) But this isn't a perfect predictive model.

Still, I think that once Harbaugh has the right OL in place, and a stable of WR's who know the route trees, along with solid QB play, Michigan will be very competitive year in and year out.

The achilles heel for everything at Michigan is the OL, and that kills me. When Devery Hamilton flipped to Stanford, it really hurt. When Grant Newsome went down, it hurt more. It also hurt that Logan Tuley-Tillman was kicked off the team (the correct thing to do, but disastrous for depth.)

I know you can point to outliers who have been successful on the OL. However, overall, ever since RichRod brought a different focus to the OL, we decimated our depth, and have never been right.

Personally, I think that Michigan is getting a lot of opposition and a lot of flak because their enemies know that once Michigan is back, with a successful pro-style offense, it will be a monster that will have a long, long run of success. Just my opinion.

Still, I liked this article, even though I don't care about the NFL, mostly because I think this kind of thing is only going to help recruiting. We'll see what happens after this weekend, but I believe that Drevno and Harbaugh have a solid shot at getting a good tackle in grad transfer Calvin Anderson. If he comes, and Newsome actually is healthy, I feel a lot, lot better going forward. That gives the redshirt freshmen OT's another year of seasoning, rather than being thrown into the fire prematurely. And it provides the pass protection needed to make Harbaugh's offense work right.

To tell the truth, if the OL gets turned around and is actually good, I really care a lot less about the QB position. Yes, the QB is very important, but I think that with the three guys we're looking at, one of them is bound to do well, and one of the others is bound to be a solid backup.


January 25th, 2018 at 10:58 PM ^

that spread teams lose to power football teams is pretty biased in nature. The reason teams used to run the spread is because it was an equalizer, and was used by teams that couldn't recruit as well as the teams that predominantly ran pro style. You used Oregon as an example of spread teams that didnt win, but they still made it to two championship games and tortured Harbaugh teams at Stanford. Very rarely do a spread team and a pro style team play each other on an even playing field, hence the record.


January 25th, 2018 at 3:05 PM ^

Thats where the patience comes in. Once this offence is no longer saddled with a high percentage of freshman, experience comes into play. Fortunately football isnt a one and done sport like basketball and these kids will have more time to grow into what Harbaugh is trying to do without the pressure of being asked to carry the load.

Ahh patience. The world no longer knows the meaning of the word.


January 25th, 2018 at 3:05 PM ^

Thats where the patience comes in. Once this offence is no longer saddled with a high percentage of freshman, experience comes into play. Fortunately football isnt a one and done sport like basketball and these kids will have more time to grow into what Harbaugh is trying to do without the pressure of being asked to carry the load.

Ahh patience. The world no longer knows the meaning of the word.


January 25th, 2018 at 12:57 PM ^

And yet the league is turning more and more into a passing, offensive league. These sorts of things seem silly to me, because the NFL will always just adapt to what college is giving them.

I'm not complaining though. Things like this in the media are a great recruiting tool for Michigan.


January 25th, 2018 at 1:08 PM ^

Apologies if I'm misreading what you're saying. I don't think the NFL increase in passing and spread Os necessarily changes the demands on QBs and WRs. I don't think the NFL will adapt to "what college is giving them" by becoming more simple on O for WRs and QBs. That would lead to NFL Ds making QBs and WRs look worse than the bottom third of the league already does. The gap from OkSt O to Patriots spread passing attack is still huge.

EDIT: Isnt this also why Meyer's WRs take so long to impact an NFL squad?


January 25th, 2018 at 1:32 PM ^

Maybe, but how does that compare to pro-style receivers? There are a lot of busts in the NFL, and they're not limited to spread receivers. Mario Manningham was a great pro-style receiver at Michigan, and he was never a superstar in the NFL. Neither was David Terrell, who was a 1st round pick.


January 25th, 2018 at 1:52 PM ^

Are you arguing that Meyer's WRs are NFL successes because of Thomas' breakout or are you arguing that WR's from pro style passing programs don't produce any better prepared WRs than college spread programs?

The Jet's reaction to Devin Smith and the dirth of impactful Meyer coached WRs indicates to me that his system doesn't prepare guys to succeed at that position in the NFL at the rate of talent he recruits, or success in CFB he has. They seem a decent case study for the question the NFL seems to be posing.


January 25th, 2018 at 3:55 PM ^

It's not just about "busts" and the argument starts with NFL scouting observations about WRs and QBs in the OP (and in the Jet's observations about Devin Smith). These observations seem logical.

Meyer is the 2nd most successful CFB coach in his generation. He recruits NFL talent as well as anyone but Saban. His best NFL WRs are Thomas, Harvin, Louis Murphy and Braxton Miller. Given the level of talent he recruits and the success his teams have, it would seem there would be a more impressive list of Meyer-developed NFL WRs.

Over the course of the same time, UM produced Braylon, Mario, Breaston, and Avant (in a short window)...and had too many dumpster fire recruiting cycles and seasons since. 


January 25th, 2018 at 4:13 PM ^

Devin Smith has torn his ACL twice and punctured his lung since being drafted in 2015. That's why he's out of football, not the route tree he ran in college. 

Curtis Samuel was a rookie this year, who also unfortunately got hurt. He's also learning how to play WR considering he was a RB at OSU up until his last season when he became a half-RB/half-WR hybrid back. He had 100 rushing attempts at OSU his last year. He wasn't a full-time WR until right now in Carolina.

Posey left OSU in 2011 and never played for Meyer.

If you're going to project Meyer's WRs in the NFL, next year is the year to do it, as his entire 2014 WR class with Samuel, Noah Brown, Johnnie Dixon, Parris Campbell and Terry McLaurin will all be in the NFL at that point.


January 25th, 2018 at 1:53 PM ^

playing in a pass happy offense with a great QB.  he has twice as many targets as the next wr on the team. He's good, but his stats are a result of the system...and the Saints..for years have been as close to a passing spread offense as anyone except the Patriots. 


January 25th, 2018 at 12:58 PM ^

And it still hasn’t stopped kids from going to OSU and Zach Smith from excelling at recruiting there. NFL teams still need #1 receivers and they will still draft them high. I mean look at what happens with QBs in the draft. People go on runs for a position of need. Until you see kids from a spread system plummet in the draft, nothing will change.

kevin holt

January 25th, 2018 at 1:02 PM ^

And they'll just point to Michael Thomas as a success story, representative or not, and it will work. I feel like kids who want to play for a school where the system dosen't fit them will always find a way to talk themselves into going there anyway. You can surely think of several such names that I don't even need to mention.


January 25th, 2018 at 1:44 PM ^

College coaches can put on film of a player they've coached and say this is how we'll use you. They can say...this would've worked, if this player had your skillset...or they can say our offense is limited because we don't have your talent at this position.  Can't assume that kids are short-sighted in that regard.


January 25th, 2018 at 1:30 PM ^

DeAndre Hopkins might be the best WR in the NFL right now, and he played in a spread system at Clemson. Antonio Brown might be the best WR in the NFL right now, and he played in a spread system at Central Michigan. Sammy Watkins was a spread receiver at Clemson and has had a couple good years in the NFL, but he's had a foot injury that has bothered him for the past couple years. Is that the spread system's fault? Do pro-style receivers not get injured?

Julio Jones, A.J. Green, and others are guys from pro-style college offenses, but there are plenty of examples going the other way.

I find a lot of this stuff to be exaggerated.

kevin holt

January 25th, 2018 at 1:47 PM ^

I sort-of agree, sort-of not. I was referring just to OSU, btw, but you're right that there are a lot of success stories for spread WRs. Most top WRs are freak athletes and smart enough to learn the playbook in a couple years, not necessarily guys who were ready from day one. I do think college system is relevant, but it has very minimal impact on receivers after their first couple seasons; it's more relevant if you're trying to draft a guy who is ready ASAP. But that kind of thing should impact draft position a bit, right? Also, c'mon, Zach Smith?


January 25th, 2018 at 2:35 PM ^

In Antonio Brown's case, he had 1,108 yards on 16+ yards per catch by year two. Hopkins had 802 yards on 15.4 yards per catch as a rookie.

If you're saying it took a year to catch on in the NFL (in Brown's case), then...ummm...okay? At what other position(s) would you expect a rookie to be an elite NFL player immediately?


January 25th, 2018 at 4:02 PM ^

800 yards as a rookie at 15.4 per clip is "elite"? You're cherry picking the point..I'm saying they are elite, regardless of system and became BETTER as they transitioned from spread receivers to pro style receivers. Their athletic talent alone allowed them to still be productive as rookies. (Brown had 16 catches for 167 as a rookie by the case you didn't find that stat)

Not every receiver can do it, many can't. No it doesn't say anything about pro style receivers but if someone who has been in a pro style system for years can't pick it up, then isn't it reasonable to think that someone who is seeing it for the first time, would have to learn how to be a pro receiver like every other rookie receiver AS WELL AS how to play in a different system?  It's just another thing to learn and sometimes it takes more than a season. 

Also, LB & Safety have an instant impact rate of over 40%. 

TE 37%

DL 36%  

That's better than 1 in 3. I'm sure the college system they played weighs into that as well as athletic ability. 






January 25th, 2018 at 4:39 PM ^

No, I'm not saying that's "elite." I'm saying that if you catch passes at 15.4 yards/clip and for 800+ yards as a rookie, then I'm not convinced that being in a spread system created a problematic transition. Those are pretty good numbers. You could have a very, very good (a.k.a. lucrative) career if you could maintain those numbers.

And by year two, he was even better.


January 25th, 2018 at 3:32 PM ^

Agreed it seems exaggerated.  There are so few data points that you can't really make any conclusions based on the WRs selected in the1st round of the past few years draft classes.  It was only a couple years ago when people were wondering if the days of drafting RBs in the first round were over, then the next 2 years you have Fournette, McCaffrey, and Elliott taken in the top 8 picks.

And the NFL teams are scared of change and new things like the old people who own the teams.  We've heard for years that the spread doesn't work in the NFL and that the players in college aren't as ready as they used to be.  But we keep seeing rookies and young players contributing more than ever and teams that use spread concepts having better offenses on average.


January 25th, 2018 at 1:00 PM ^

The NFL should create a minor league, rather than whining that college football coaches aren't behaving the way it wants them to behave.  Until they do that, I will feel free to ignore their complaints.