I remember the first time I played against Odell Beckham Jr. It was Week 10 of the 2014 season, his rookie year, two weeks before he made that one-handed catch that really put him on the map. He had missed the first four games of the season with an injury, so we didn’t have a lot of film to help us truly prepare for him.
In case you missed it, I recently broke down for The Players’ Tribune. One point I emphasized in that piece was that cornerbacks are on the field for every one of their team’s defensive plays. We don’t take plays off. If it’s a 14-play drive, we’re out there for all 14 plays, while the receivers we line up against typically sub in and out.
In that Week 10 game against the Giants, I had been out on the field for a few plays when Odell came in fresh off the bench. He ran a stop-and-go, and I had it covered pretty well. When he made his first cut, I was right in his pocket.
Then he came out of the second part of his break, and he just exploded — like he had been shot out of a cannon — and he caught the ball for a big gain.
I was like, O.K. Now I know.
Speed is probably the most deceptive element for any wide receiver. It’s one of those things that you can’t prepare for by watching film. The only way you can really get a feel for it is to line up against a guy and see what he’s got, and how he uses it.
I’m going to break down some of the toughest wide receivers I’ve ever covered, but with a bit of an asterisk because I’m gonna mention a few more than five. This piece will be as much about the different types of receivers in the NFL and who fits into which category.
You always want to challenge yourself and compete against the best. With that in mind, these are the guys I always look forward to lining up against on Sundays.
I’ll start with Julio Jones because he can basically do everything. He has great hands, great speed, he can leap up and snatch the ball out of the air — he has the all-around game you want in a wide receiver. There are no weaknesses in his game.
But the thing that really puts him over the top is the fact that he’s a blue-collar player. He doesn’t take plays off. He doesn’t jog on decoy routes. He runs every route at max effort, even when there’s a 100% chance he’s not getting the ball. He blocks on run plays as hard as he expects his teammates to block for him on pass plays. And because he’s always going 100 mph, he doesn’t give you any indicators that might help you decipher whether it’s a run or a pass, or if he’s getting the ball or they’re throwing to the other side of the field. Some guys, when the play is away from them, will fire off the line of scrimmage and then let up.
But not Julio. At the cornerback position, where you’re on the field for every play, he’s a guy who can wear you down over the course of a game.
I won’t go into all the physical tools he has, because we’d be here all day. If you want to see them on display, you don’t need to look any further than the 300-yard game he had against the Panthers earlier this year. Here’s one of his biggest plays from that game.
A guy who can do that, and who refuses to take a play off, presents a pretty unique challenge for any cornerback.
When I hear people talk about “physical” receivers, it’s usually because they’ve just seen a guy who is big and strong, or who has the leaping ability to jump up and grab passes above defenders.
But that’s not what I think of when I think of “physical” receivers.
In my piece on playing cornerback, I talked about the hand-fighting game. Inside of a route, whether it’s inside of or beyond five yards, both the receiver’s and the corner’s hands are constantly moving. Each are pushing and pulling within the route to gain position. Hand-fighting is hard to see when you’re watching on TV, but the great receivers are able to get away with it without getting flagged because they make it look like a natural movement.
Mostly, it is the bigger guys who are the best at hand-fighting. Calvin Johnson was pretty good at it. Demaryius Thomas is pretty adept at it as well.
Brandon Marshall is one of the hand-fighting greats. He will use his hands really well to pull or push to gain separation — sometimes pushing guys to the ground because he’s so strong. He’s great at creating separation at the line of scrimmage by using his hands, and he’s just as good with them at the last second, right when the ball arrives, using them to gain an advantage.
Check out this play against the Redskins from last season. Hand fighting usually involves such subtle movements that it’s hard to really see them on film, but on this play, it’s a bit more obvious. The ball is underthrown. Watch how Brandon slows down and gets his hand on Bashaud Breeland’s back.
That little nudge was enough for Brandon to use Breeland’s momentum to push him out of the way and give Brandon the room to slow down and make a really athletic catch.
What you don’t see there is that Brandon also took that catch to the house.
As much praise as he gets, Brandon is still probably one of the most underrated receivers in the game. I mean, he had seven straight seasons with 1,000-plus receiving yards and he’s surpassed 1,000 yards in eight of the last nine seasons — and he did that while playing for four different teams and a handful of different quarterbacks.
You hear a lot about system players — guys who are only good in one team’s system. Put them on another team with different coaches or coordinators, they wouldn’t survive.
Brandon thrives everywhere, no matter the situation, no matter the quarterback. You gotta respect that.
I’ll drop Larry in the “physical” category as well, but he’s another one of those do-it-all guys, like Julio. More than anything, Larry relies on his unique feel for the game. He has a keen understanding of everything that’s happening on the field around him, and he has an incredible feel for timing, and how everything is supposed to line up.
Take his route running, for instance. On paper, his route might look like a straight line. But when he runs it, it looks more like a squiggly line where he sort of meanders off his track. Some people might mistake this for poor route running. But what he’s really doing is getting the timing right.
He understands the timing of the quarterback’s drop, the timing of the route, the timing of the play and the coverage that the defense is in. And at the line of scrimmage, he has a plethora of tricks and moves — head-fakes and stuff like that — that help him get separation. If he gets a lot of separation quickly, he needs to adjust his route a little so as to not throw off the timing of the play. Same for if he gets jammed. Timing is everything.
Now, he’s a more veteran player, and he does a lot of his damage within the route instead of just at the line or out of his breaks. A subtle jab, a chicken-wing kind of push-off — or if he gets caught in a jam, he’s veteran enough to lock the corner’s arm in like an arm bar and just look for a flag.
And if none of that works, and somebody else gets the ball, he’ll just do this:
A.J. Green and Antonio Brown
Here’s the thing about speed: It’s not how much you have. It’s how you use it. If all you needed was speed to get open in the NFL, Bill Belichick would have been on the phone with Usain Bolt a long time ago.
Speed — like size, strength or great hands — is just another tool in a receiver’s arsenal. And in the NFL, just about every receiver has great speed.
But like I said, it’s how you use it that matters.
Antonio Brown is creative with his speed. He’s deceptive. He uses his acceleration and deceleration very uniquely. That’s what allows him to get so open.
Broncos cornerback Chris Harris Jr. on The Players’ Tribune that, like this one, broke down the toughest receivers he has ever faced. And his assessment of Antonio Brown was spot-on. He wrote, “It’s kind of like in basketball when a point guard uses a little hesitation crossover to freeze the defender before exploding to the hoop.”
AB has mastered the subtle moves within running a route that can shake even the best cover guys in the league. Sometimes the deviation is so drastic that it looks like a double move, but it’s really Antonio changing his stride just enough to throw you off his trail.
A.J. Green is another receiver who varies his speed to great effect. But he can also jump out of the gym. Like Julio, his athleticism is off the charts.
The thing about A.J. is that he’s not really a YAC guy. He does most of his damage before the ball gets to him. He’s always a threat deep down the field, and he’s able to elevate and catch the ball at its highest point.
Then you look at a guy like Odell. He is definitely a YAC guy. You don’t see him blowing the top off of defenses too often. But once he has the ball in his hands, he can do some incredible things with it.
A.J., AB and Odell all have ridiculous speed, and they all use it differently to get open in their own unique ways.
This one is kind of a bonus, and it’s not just me pumping my guy up. Doug is my guy — has been since our days at Stanford — but I honestly believe he’s one of the best receivers in the game. And I go up against him every day in practice, so nobody sees him more than I do.
For Doug, it all starts at the line of scrimmage. I think he has some of the most explosive releases in the league. But also, at the top of his route, no matter what the route might be, he’s equally explosive. We can talk about hand fighting and changing speeds and physicality all we want. But when it comes to Doug, it’s all about creativity.
Football has been played for a long time. Just about everything you can try on a football field has been tried before in one form or another. But Doug is guy who continues to push the envelope. Every day, he is looking for a new move, a new release, or a new way to delay the timing of his route. It takes incredible footwork to do that, but also a tremendous amount of discipline and athleticism.
I think about this move he put on the Cardinals’ Jerraud Powers last year:
If you’re thinking, Was that a Euro step? Well, it was. Most receivers would have done what they’d do on any other route and break down into a stutter step and plant their foot in the ground to get a good, crisp cut — the way they’ve been taught since all the way back in Pop Warner.
Not Doug. He went full-on James Harden to get the DB turned around, and by the time he recovered, it was too late.
We play an incredibly fast game. A lot of times, fans are watching at home and see replays in slo-mo, and they think, Why didn’t he do this? Why didn’t he see that? It’s because we’re seeing everything at full speed in real time, and a lot of receivers in this league do a great job of creating deception with their split-second decisions.
Doug is definitely underrated in that department. He’s always pulling something new and unique out of his bag of tricks.
When you get to this level, every wide receiver is immensely talented, otherwise they wouldn’t be here. The guys I’ve listed here are in the upper echelon. But at the end of the day, there’s more than one way to get open. The biggest challenge as a cornerback is understanding who you’re playing against and how they’re going to go about doing it.