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Answer the question: Is Tyreek Hill elite?

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Tyreek Hill’s status as an elite wide recevier is a hot topic this week down in The Lab

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at Los Angeles Chargers Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

Antonio Brown and Julio Jones have been atop everyone’s wide receiver rankings pretty much since Calvin Johnson retired. Odell Beckham Jr. and Mike Evans have made pushes to be included in that group, and likely should, but is there another player legitimately knocking on that door? And is that player a Kansas City Chief?

Tyreek Hill has done just about everything from a production standpoint that one could have ever asked of him with explosive plays and highlight-reel moments.

Hill exploded into the NFL as a premier playmaker as a rookie, and there were questions about the next step and usage for him. As a sophomore, he proved to be a full-time wide receiver (and often a boundary WR) with big play after big play, showcasing growth as a route runner and at the catch point.

Still, there were some questions about Hill’s ability to produce in the intermediate and short areas of the field not reserved for bubbles/flats. There were flashes of a complete WR last year but he was still often going downfield or sticking to the line of scrimmage.

We are only at the beginning of Tyreek Hill’s third year in the NFL and the question already has to be asked: what does Tyreek Hill have to do to fully break into that top tier?

There have been some that have been of the opinion he’s already there, and others thinking he entered the year close (personally this is where I was, listing him as the most dangerous player but a tier below top tier), and there were still others that recognized his talent but still kept him in the top 10-15 range. One week down in this year and it’s already time to sprint down into the Laboratory and start rolling through the film to determine how close Hill is to being called one of the best wideouts in the NFL.

Tyreek Hill: Tale Of The Tape

YAC

Tyreek Hill’s bread and butter upon entering the league has been his ability to land the home run and do so at an astonishing rate. The deep passes as Hill gets behind everyone are clearly the biggest contributing factor to that, but his ability to take the short, underneath stuff to the house can’t be understated. His vision, acceleration, and top-end speed are just unparalleled and it makes any time he touches the ball dangerous for the defense.

It’s easy to attribute this play to Hill’s speed, and it certainly plays a factor, but so much more goes into being a great ball carrier—initially, the balance to stay on his feet while the safety breaks down on him and makes some contact with his legs due to his balance. Also, note Hill’s spatial awareness to flatten his angle just enough to lessen the impact.

Without the more horizontal angle, the safety likely makes more complete contact for the tackle or at least slows him down enough for the play to be saved. Instead, Hill glances off the blow and then hits what makes his particular brand of speed so special—he’s able to get to that top end speed nearly instantaneously.

After the initial broken tackle, there are three Chargers with an angle to catch Hill before the end zone, but within 10 yards of that moment, all of those angles disappear. Odell Beckham Jr. has been considered the “best slant WR” in the NFL for a couple years now, and he still may be the best at running them, but I’m not sure anyone could be more deadly than Hill after he gets the ball.

Hands

Hill has always had good hands, great hands for a running back-to-wide receiver transitional player, but they’ve been a bit inconsistent over the years. He has the ability to reach for a ball and snag it outside his frame or to catch it over his shoulder, but he will allow the ball into his frame a bit too often.

That’s where you end up with games like the Tennessee Titans’ divisional round last year, in which he is looking beyond the catch a little too early. When body catching, there is a negative side effect of dropped passes. That said, drops are not something that haunts Hill’s game nor are they overly abundant. All in all, he has good, reliable hands to the average watching eye.

Something that can be missed that is a benefit to his ability to actually catch the ball is how well he can track a football.

We’ve seen the deep passes that he’s adjusted on to make great catches, but even on shorter, quicker passes like this, there is a major adjustment needed. Hill finishes his break and the ball is already halfway to him or the spot he’s working toward.

Hill has to quickly readjust his base to get to that spot, which leads to him having to catch this ball as it’s going by him. The ability to quickly pick up the ball with his eyes after just turning around, the body control to lunge toward it while turning with the ball, then the coordination and hands to bring the pass is much more impressive than it could appear at first glance.

It’s not always a highlight catch that makes a player’s hands pop out in a good way.

Catch point

Speaking of those highlight-reel catches, we had this play that had everyone in Kansas City holding their breath as Hill landed awkwardly on his head and neck (thankfully he was okay).

This is what is meant about Hill having the ability to attack a ball outside his frame and snag it out of the air, and it’s fantastic.

Even more impressive than the actual catch process here is what Hill does to get into that position, while taking the defenders out of a position to make the play. He has great leverage on the route from the get-go, but the ball is left a little behind and short of where he is going, requiring an adjustment.

He may have been able to just settle down and wait for the ball but with two defenders closing from behind, he makes the decision to go win the football, which is perfect. He slows down without giving away the position of the ball to the defenders and squares up at the last second to elevate above them. While jumping up to meet the ball at it’s highest point, Hill has to make another adjustment mid-air to twist and reach behind him because he was still out ahead of the pass.

As he reached up over his head to bring the ball in, before hitting the ground, he also tucks the football to help with that stingy catch rule in the NFL. All around, this was played fantastically by Hill and despite not being the tallest or biggest wideout on the field, you’d be hard pressed to find many contested catch opportunities in which a player looks better prepared than Hill to come down with it.

Route running

One of the two areas of biggest concern for Hill entering his third year as it pertains to him being a top-notch wide receiver was his route running.

With Hill’s athleticism, there is a ton of leeway for what can and what can’t work as a route runner. When you can threaten a defensive back within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage to get beat deep, it doesn’t require quite as much work to set up leverage on underneath routes, comebacks, posts, etc.

Hill has a natural advantage entering every route in that players in coverage on him have to stay over the top because there is no hanging even or in trail technique. The game against the Chargers was mostly zone coverage, and therefore there wasn’t a ton of opportunities for Hill to showcase all potential improvement in this single game. Going forward, when the field is shortened or when teams decide to fully bracket him with a split safety, his route running is something to be monitored.

Questions: Does he attack leverage and establish a two-way go? Does he have multiple releases off the line? does he understand how to stack/lean on a defender while setting up his stem? How does he approach the breakpoints based on all the prior details?

There is still a lot of unknown in his abilities to run routes, but there has been a ton of improvement in his short career.

It’s not exactly attacking man coverage, which is definitely more difficult, but the same general principles still apply. Hill is still attacking the defensive back that is going to be responsible for stopping him and Hill is still trying to win leverage, just doing so in space rather than next to the defender.

Hill’s speed backs up the safety, who does a good job staying square to defend a two-way go for as long as possible, forcing Hill to go into the back end of his stem needing to gain leverage. Hill uses a pressure step, a step to the side he wants to gain leverage on while leaning away from that side, combined with a subtle head fake to the inside to get the safety to open his hips.

As soon as the safety opens his gait, Hill has won outside leverage and the only thing stopping him from a big play is the ball getting to him on time. Mahomes is on the move throwing across his body, and that’s the only thing that stops this play for a measly 30-something yard gain. It is flashes like this that lend to the idea that Hill can win outside of just his speed and threat of his speed but by technical ability and attention to detail.

There is still much left to see from Hill as it pertains to his ability as a route runner, and in the coming weeks, he will see a slew of different defenses that will challenge him in more ways than LA did, but as for the first test, he showed some improvement in an area that he knew needed improvement.

Release

Sometimes considered part of route running (which is fair) is a wide receiver’s release off the line of scrimmage.

Separating the two can also be useful, as some players can run good routes as long as they get off the line while others can get off the line but can’t separate downfield. A player can be a good wideout if they excel at either one, but elite wideouts succeed in both regards.

Similar to the downfield route running, Hill wasn’t challenged at on at the line of scrimmage vs. LA, but we did get a few examples of what he can do.

The Chiefs did a great job of getting Hill free releases all game long using him in the slot and as the “Z Receiver,” or flanker (off of the line of scrimmage rather than on it). Beyond that, when attacking soft press (like seen in this play), Hill is able to eat up that cushion fast and maintain his balance going into the two-way go without slowing down too much.

He forces a defensive back to open his hips unusually fast by simply pressing into the defensive back’s chest with an outside lean. The defensive back, at this point, has to make an adjustment or risk being torched.

Hill gets a free and clear inside release on his vertical route. Again, more needs to be shown with a higher degree of challenge in the coming weeks, but mentally Hill understands how to attack these leverages which is a step forward.

The question: So is Hill a top-tier WR?

The formula almost has to be altered for Hill based on his unique game-breaking ability.

As of this moment, he hasn’t shown the consistent ability to be a complete wide receiver in all aspects like the Beckhams, Jones(es) or Browns, but at the same time, he shows a higher consistent ability to break a game wide open when they couldn’t.

At what point does that play-making ability overshadow the ability to do everything? Have we reached it? Are we close to reaching it? It’s nearly impossible to tell.

Forcing me into this decision, I would put Hill in Tier 1B with Julio Jones, Mike Evans and DeAndre Hopkins.

Antonio Brown and Odell Beckham still separate themselves, for me, from the rest because of their ability to do everything, including those explosive plays and also winning when everyone knows it’s going to them when it matters.

Now, here is where things get fun.

I think Hill has a better chance to enter that clear top end group than any other wide receiver based purely on that explosive-play upside and the promise he’s shown to improve.

Beckham and Brown have shown they can, consistently, win in areas of the field that Hill hasn’t yet—the red zone. This isn’t to say Hill has been poor in that area, but rather that his route running has still been a work in progress. When his speed is less of a threat, there is less consistency.

Hill’s ability to be so dynamic from anywhere else on the field certainly puts him in this conversation, but at the end of the day, there are a few too many scenarios that you could mock up in fantasy land (third-and-5, third-and-goal from the 10, etc.) that Hill would be further down the list of go-to guys based on what has been seen.

Hill’s potential is through the roof, and if the flashes in the Chargers game are any signs of things to come, he’s ready to make that final push into the elite category. If those flashes are turned into consistency, he should be considered a lock in that elite tier of wide receiver.