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Tyreek Hill’s future: The evidence points to more than a gadget player

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So ... apparently the Chiefs have a vacancy at the primary WR spot.

Now, we can talk all day about X, Y, and Z receivers in Andy Reid’s offense and what it means to be a “true No. 1 wide receiver” and all other kinds of things, but I don’t feel like doing that (partly because some of those things come down to opinion, and partly because it seems like a lot of work).

Instead, let’s talk about Tyreek Hill, the heir apparent to Maclin’s spot as “the guy” at wide receiver in the Chiefs offense.

It’s pretty clear that Andy Reid expects to have Hill’s role in the offense increased substantially based on his comments. Maclin’s release makes that even more clear, as Reid has openly stated Hill is the guy who will get a shot to take his place as the Z receiver. The question, then, becomes whether or not Hill can perform in an increased role as a wide receiver.

One thing that seems prevalent (at least, based Twitter chatter with fans of other teams) is the belief that Tyreek Hill is essentially a gadget player (albeit a very talented one), in a similar mold to to what we’ve seen from Tavon Austin, Cordarrelle Patterson, and approximately a million other guys (including guys like DAT and McCluster with the Chiefs). The thinking goes that Hill is athletic and dynamic with the ball in his hands, but won’t be able to be a full time wide receiver.

I’ve never been able to get anyone to give me concrete reasons for this line of thinking, beyond player comparisons and talks about his size. So, as always, I decided to take a look at the film and see what we can see.

Before we get into this, I want to note something regarding the size argument with Hill. It’s worth noting that he’s listed at 5’10 and 185 pounds. That’s quite a bit bigger than most other gadget players. He is, actually, virtually identical in size to Antonio Brown, who is widely considered one of the best two WR’s on the planet. He’s a bit bigger than T.Y. Hilton and DeSean Jackson. So the whole “he’s too small” thing doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. What matters is what the film says.

So the question becomes: what does one need to be able to do to have success as a full-time wide receiver in the NFL? I would say there are a few things that are essential:

  1. Must get separation against various types of coverages AND/OR be able to win at the catch point (you MUST have one of these two traits to be a viable receiver. Absolutely must).
  2. Must catch the ball consistently, ideally with your hands rather than your body.
  3. Must track the ball in the air.
  4. Must handle physicality.
  5. Must break / avoid tackles and get YAC.

No. 1 and 2 are the gotta have ‘em traits if you want to be a good (or even functional) NFL wide receiver. The rest are additional tools in your tool kit that can add to your arsenal.

So let’s start with No. 1.

Can Tyreek Hill get separation and/or win at the catch point?

Considering that he’s not the biggest guy on earth, I wanted to start of figuring out if he could make a living separating from corners. The important thing to note is that Andy Reid didn’t have Hill running a lot of traditional routes early on in the season. It picked up as the year went by. So I went back and watched a couple hundred snaps from later in the year to see if, on “non-gimmick routes,” Hill is able to separate from defenders.

The results I found are unlikely to surprise Chiefs fans, but should definitely surprise those who view Tyreek as an non-viable option on the outside.

I found very quickly that Hill, time after time, is able to achieve separation going down the field. Defenders are just unable to keep up with him when he accelerates. He’s just THAT much faster than your average NFL cornerback. Even when they leave him with cushion or get their hips turned to run with him, the top gear that he’s able to hit (and hit quickly) is something that other players can’t compete with.

I could, quite literally, show you a few dozen times Hill destroyed corners on routes like this one. But that would be boring, and let’s face it, no one has any doubt as to whether Hill can get behind a defense given his unusual speed. The question most people want to ask regarding separation is whether or not he can achieve it on short and intermediate routes, which are the bread and butter of almost every good receiver in the league (Hilton being perhaps the sole exception).

The sample size is smaller there because, again, Reid didn’t have Hill running a ton of normal WR routes. However, it became common enough later on in the year and DID happen at times in preseason and early regular season, providing us with quite a few snaps to get an idea from.

The results, once again, were quite favorable for Hill.

The thing about Hill is that he’s not simply a long speed burner who requires a few steps to get going. He’s got exceptional burst and quick-twitch movement ability and solid balance, which allows him to change directions and accelerate way more quickly than coverage players (including Richard Sherman,the torched victim above whom you may have heard of).

In the GIF above, Hill is able to stutter and move into the slant route so quickly that Sherman can’t adequately get hands on him to press at the line. The split-second head start Hill gets with his stutter also gets Sherman moving his feet, ,which allows Hill to burst inside so fast Sherman’s left grasping at air.

Unfortunately, the throw is later than it should be and is placed on Hill’s back shoulder by Foles, which allows Sherman to get a hand in there and break up the pass. But again, we’re looking for the ability to separate, even against press coverage. Hill does it against arguably the best in the business here. And it’s hardly a fluke.

A couple things ... yes, that’s Hill and not DAT. Trust me, I made sure. There’s mud on his uniform, that’s why it resembles a 13 rather than a 10. And yes, this play ends in a drop (one of two for Hill all year in 83 targets), but again, keep in mind that right now we’re talking about separation. We’ll get to hands.

Watch the route. Once again, Hill is matched up against one of the best cover corners in the league (Chris Harris Jr.). Once again, he uses a very quick stutter to freeze the defender (note that Harris, a very good CB, is smart enough to not let his feet move in tune with the fakes. Doesn’t matter), then explodes into the slant and creates IMMEDIATE separation in the red zone.

Once again, the ball is late in arriving and isn’t particularly well-placed (though it’s better placement than Foles’s throw from before), going into Hill’s body. Because of the timing of the throw, I could see an argument being made that Smith was putting the ball on his body to protect him from the incoming safety. Regardless of that, Hill seems to be thinking about YAC before he gathers the ball in and (as often happens when you do that) the ball bounces off his body and incomplete.

The thing to take away from those two snaps? Tyreek Hill, against two of the absolute best corners in the game, not only beat them but did so quickly and decisively right at the line of scrimmage. Because of his quickness it’s difficult for corners to get their hands on him, and his speed/acceleration is just too much for even the best to handle.

It wouldn’t surprise me if the Chiefs used Hill on a lot of slants this season, because he’s almost impossible to defend on them when corners are pressing. But it’s not like that’s the only route he was successful on against press coverage.

Hill, as I discussed earlier, isn’t a slender guy and is actually built fairly solid. He seems to have good functional strength and, a lot of the time, is able to keep contact from derailing his route on the rare occasions defenders can get their hands on him. He’s got a variety of routes he ran against press coverage (in limited opportunities), and his successes outweighed his failures by a pretty wide margin.

Of course, because of his deep speed corners often play off of Hill to avoid getting burned. And that leads to all kinds of opportunities.

Tyreek had beaten Williams several times deep by this point in the game, and it showed by the way Williams played this route. He was ready to open his hips and run almost immediately. Hill has sufficient balance and quickness to stop nearly on a dime and catch the very easy six yards.

Hill had quite a few catches like that in 2016, where his route took advantage of the fact that corners have to bail out deep as soon as he even hints at a go route. There’s no reason to assume he’ll get worse at it over time, only better.

Hill demonstrated repeatedly, against all kinds of corners (including great ones), the ability to consistently separate from coverage when asked to run more traditional wide receiver routes. Considering it was his rookie season, it’s pretty safe to assume that this is not something he’ll regress in with a larger volume.

In other words, all the available evidence we have points to Hill being able to succeed (and even excel) in a traditional wide receiver role when it comes to getting separation from defenders. There are more than enough snaps where he did so that the idea of claiming he’s a gadget player who can’t succeed on the outside becomes nothing more than a screaming into the wind against all available evidence.

Can Tyreek Hill catch the ball consistently?

As I stated earlier, Hill was targeted 83 times in 2016 and had two drops. That’s a drop rate of 2.4 percent. While not elite, that’s a very good ratio of drops to targets. Now, some of that is inflated by how many bubble screens were thrown Hill’s way. But at the same time, Hill demonstrated repeatedly the ability to catch the ball even on more difficult throws.

On that play, Hill was running to Smith’s left on an in route. Smith released the football and the pass ended up behind where Hill ended up. Stopping your route and reversing course to dive is one of the more difficult ways to gather in a pass as a receiver. Many receivers fail in that situation. Hill demonstrates solid body control and concentration to make the catch, despite the fact that there is a defender all over him.

Hill’s hands aren’t elite from what I can tell, but they aren’t any type of issue based on the available evidence (that’s a term you’ll hear me use a lot, because it’s important we draw conclusions based on what we can actually observe, rather than random opinions or generalities).

Can Tyreek Hill track the ball in the air?

This is a wildly important and wildly underrated trait for any wide receiver who is going to operate as a deep threat. It doesn’t do you any good to get behind a defender if you can’t locate the ball, zero in on where it’s headed, and adjust your direction accordingly.

This ability is what separates fast guys from legitimate, consistent deep threats and isn’t particularly common. That’s why, despite all the very fast players in the league, there aren’t that many dangerous deep threats. When a quarterback is going deep, the throws are significantly harder to make with accuracy and will invariably require some correction by a receiver. Doing so while running full speed is just TOUGH.

So, can Hill track the ball and come down with it?

Yes, yes he can.

As Marcus (the guy tweeting, who has a great many more Hill GIFs on his timeline if you’re interested, at least one of which I’ll use in a moment) indicates ball skills (tracking the ball in the air) separates Hill from guys like Austin and company. Those guys are able to gather in a deep pass when it hits them in stride or is at least relatively close to where they’re already running. However, when things don’t go well, they aren’t able to track the ball and adjust to make the catch.

The GIF above is a perfect example of a wide receiver saving a terrible deep throw. Foles under throws that by a good 15 yards (or more. But Hill, rather than blindly running down the field, does what he’s supposed to: he keeps an eye on the ball, sees it’s off the mark, figures out where it’s going, and adjusts accordingly, making an exceedingly tough catch.

That’s not a one-time thing with Hill either.

See how Hill tracks the ball over his shoulder while running full speed? That is so, so hard to do. There’s a reason the corner stumbles and falls when he tries to do the same.

But once again, Hill tracks the trajectory of the ball and this time, rather than slowing down, realizes he needs to speed up just a hair to gather it in. If that weren’t impressive enough, the trailing (and now falling) corner manages to interfere with Hill’s right arm, forcing him to catch it one-handed. And his STILL pulls it off.

This is an area where Hill has already demonstrated skills beyond that of many other full time wide receivers in the league, and it bodes well for his ability to be a true consistent deep and intermediate threat.

Can Tyreek Hill handle physicality as well as break / avoid tackles to gain YAC?

I figured we could combine these last two things, given that we’ve already talked a bit about Hill’s ability to handle physicality.

Invariably, the question that comes up when you talk about Hill (or any wide receiver) is “but how will he handle physical coverage at the line of scrimmage?” Again, we don’t have a huge sample size here, but Hill did face that type of coverage more than a few times in 2016. Generally speaking, he handled it well.

As discussed, Hill’s quickness makes it really difficult to get hands on him. He’s generally able to keep moving just out of reach of defenders. Additionally, he’s got enough functional strength to not get completely derailed when someone IS able to apply some pressure (see the second gif of this article for an additional example).

Being fast enough to leave defenders grasping air as well as strong enough to run through some contact is going to be very important for Hill moving forward. Now make no mistake, he’s not a powerhouse. Aqib Talib was able to really slow him down a few times with really well-executed jams. However, it was the exception rather than the rule, and given Talib’s status as perhaps the best physical corner in the league, a few losses here and there don’t worry me.

As far as physicality with the ball in his hands, this is another area that Hill is separated from a lot of “gadget” players.

Again, Hill isn’t a powerhouse. However, he’s built very stout and isn’t even close to guys like DAT or McCluster, who weigh at least 10 pounds less than Hill. While Hill generally tries to get around contact with his speed/agility, he isn’t afraid of it and isn’t a guy who just gets chucked any time he gets grabbed by a linebacker or safety. He’s able to even initiate contact and get a yard or two under the right circumstances. That ability to handle physicality places him closer to Percy Harvin than Patterson or Austin, both of whom avoid contact to a much greater extent.

That Hill can deal with contact aids his YAC ability, which is really something else.

Once Hill has the ball in his hands, all bets are off. He possesses really solid field vision and seems very instinctive with regards to finding open areas of the field. And his absolutely unmatched acceleration makes him a threat that most defenses just aren’t prepared to deal with.

The above GIF is a good example. The safety closes a bit too aggressively, given that there’s no way he can prevent the pass from being completed. This results in a gap in the secondary. However, very few players in the league would be able to make the acceleration to take advantage of that gap, as the safety isn’t THAT far out of position. Hill is one of them, though, and turns a short gainer into 20-plus yards and a play just a yard or two from a touchdown. The margin of error for a defense when he’s on the field is incredibly tiny.

Hill was often able to make initial defenders miss in 2016 due to his combination of speed, agility and balance (along with better-than-you’d-think strength).

This is one of those quick curl routes that Hill should, in theory, have available to him multiple times a game due to his deep speed. It’s an easy 5-6 yards, but when you combine it with Hill’s ability to make defenders miss it also becomes a big-play threat.

Here, Smith uses a spin move to shake the initial tackler and turns on the afterburners, gaining another 20 yards before the rest of the defense can close in.

Yet again, Hill is far above average in this area, making him incredibly dangerous and something defenses absolutely have to account for.

So, can Hill be a No. 1 wide receiver?

We started off almost 3,000 words ago asking whether or not Hill has the goods to be a good wide receiver in a full time role. Let’s revisit the most important traits for a wide receiver.

  1. Be able to get separation against various types of coverages AND/OR be able to win at the catch point (you MUST have one of these two traits to be a viable receiver. Absolutely must). (Yes, Hill consistently gets separation and has shown the ability to win at the catch point)
  2. Be able to catch the ball consistently, ideally with your hands rather than your body. (Yes, Hill demonstrated decent hands in the available tape)
  3. Be able to track the ball in the air. (Yes, Hill demonstrated skills beyond what most other WR’s show in this area)
  4. Be able to handle physicality. (Yes)
  5. Be able to break/avoid tackles and get YAC. (Yes, Hill appears elite in this area)

In sum, Hill demonstrated not just some of the traits needed to thrive as a full-time receiver, but he flashed all of them fairly consistently and at a much higher-than-average level.

Does this mean Hill is guaranteed to be a star at receiver? Of course not. There are no guarantees in the NFL. What this does mean is that, based on the evidence actually available to us (his film in traditional WR routes) and nothing else, there is no reason to believe Hill won’t thrive as a primary receiver and plenty of reasons to believe he will.

Of course, some of this will depend on Hill’s willingness to work and learn, as defenses are undoubtedly going to key more on him in 2017. However, the existence of Travis Kelce (a human mismatch) means defenses can’t focus too much on Hill for fear of leaving the middle of the field vulnerable. So it becomes a question of whether Hill is willing to put in the time to refine his route running and learn the offense to the point that he knows it as well as the quarterbacks.

We’ll see how that develops. As things currently stand, even if he does not improve at all from year one to year two, the samples of tape we have available point to a good to very good wide receiver. If he works on the finer points of the game? There is virtually no ceiling on what he could be.