What is an elite player?
It sounds like a dumb question — I watch football, I see the best players, those are the elite ones, final answer. But it isn’t that easy. Does an elite player have that one elite trait or skill, making plays that only few humans on the planet could dream of making? Or does he do everything well, have no particular weakness to his game, consistently produce, day in and day out?
As with all things, the answer is somewhere between the two poles. Other evaluators may disagree with me, but in my estimation, it’s closer to the pole of consistency, of well-roundedness — and here’s why:
95 percent of all football plays don’t require an elite trait or an elite skill. 95 percent of passes require a quarterback with good arm strength, good accuracy, and good processing getting the football to a receiver with good hands, good routes, and a good physical profile. That 95 percent of plays can be executed by most players on most teams at the NFL level.
And of course that’s the case! Because you can’t build an offensive ideology on the presumption of an elite trait or skill, because the character of elite traits and skills is that they are infrequent — but not only infrequent, that they are beyond the accepted, standardized levels of said trait or skill. Elite contested catch ability is only identified relative to the standard contested catch ability expected of NFL receivers. Elite traits are inherently those traits that exist outside of the expected and accepted structure. And as such, offenses must be predicated on what they expect will consistently happen, week in and week out — and that’s the 95 percent of plays.
So when I scout, I’m looking for the player who doesn’t necessarily make the best plays, but rather the player who will be best for my offense. He will be able to execute everything that is asked of him. He can make 95 percent of the plays.
N’Keal Harry thrives as a 5 percent player.
5 percent plays are highlight-reel plays, and they sucker us in, as evaluators. We wonder who else could possibly make plays like this — and in Harry’s case, we wonder who could possibly make them so consistently.
We get suckered in because the 95 percent of plays don’t require elite traits/skills, but these 5 percent do. And if a player can make these 5 percent plays, he undoubtedly has the profile to be successful in the 95 percent as well.
But having the profile and putting the product on the field are two distinct things. And as I currently see it, N’Keal Harry struggles to make some of the 95 percent plays asked of him by Arizona State. If those problems follow him to the next level, they will limit his ability to see the field for every snap, make him a one-dimensional and predictable player, and cap his impact for the offense.
Harry’s 5 percent plays come on contested catches. He tracks the ball and wins leverage at an elite level — it’s not only NFL ready, it would be upper echelon in the NFL from Day 1. With a downfield alpha mentality and some grown man strength to him, he regularly wins the catch point before the ball even arrives — and it’s nigh on impossible to affect his catch radius, given his length and hand strength.
So does he release well from the line of scrimmage? With strength and leverage already positively profiled, you’d expect so — but he doesn’t. Harry fails to recruit his hands or incorporate release moves to generate angles down the field, and accordingly allows the corner to push him significantly off his line. Standard plays that a receiver of his physical profile and skill set should make, he neglects and fails to make.
The first rep shows Harry getting bullied on a vertical stem, which is not a regular occurrence — more typically, he fights to at least a stalemate. However, even in those stalemates, Harry allows the throwing window to the boundary to narrow unnecessarily, making the subsequent throw and catch more difficult on his quarterback (and himself). In college ball, you can get away with that — especially with elite traits/skills — but it’s tougher in the big leagues.
On the subsequent reps, Harry runs short routes, and fails to demonstrate an understanding of what he needs to do in these situations. He does not activate his hands at all within five yards or at the break point in any of the three instances, which allows the cornerback to retain advantageous positioning through the route and to the catch point.
To take us back into the big picture: I expect my wide receiver to win these one-on-one routes in space. He has the advantage, and when he’s N’Keal freakin’ Harry, he has the added advantage of an intimidating physical profile in a phone booth. These are 95 percent plays — in every offense, these are expected wins. Yes, the cornerback can play the route well; yes, the cornerback can make big-time plays. But what are we talking about here with Harry? I’ve heard a lot of first-round talk; I don’t see first-round effort or technique on these reps.
Since we’ve returned to the 95/5 dichotomy, we need to discuss then the false positives created when viewing a player for his elite traits. Harry, as a contested catch monster, allows himself to get trapped in plays the require his elite ability only because he didn’t take the necessary steps earlier in the rep — the pedestrian, 95 percent steps — to make the rep a pedestrian, 95 percent play.
Let’s not mince words: Harry got bodied off the line of scrimmage. That CB got a hand on his chest and drove him into the hashmarks. Another 12 inches, and Harry would have stepped out of bounds and been penalized for catching this football.
Because Harry has good strength down the field and locates the ball so impossibly soon, he’s able to make this tough adjustment and even tougher airborne catch while remaining in bounds. This play showed off Harry’s elite, irregular ability — but it’s a hustle, a scam. The great traits on display never should have been displayed in the first place, had Harry done what most receivers would have done under those circumstances: swipe the hands on the release, immediately win outside leverage, and create so much more space for the pitch and catch.
I’m not arguing that Harry’s contested catch ability is actually a bad thing. I’m arguing that he puts himself in far too many contested catch situations to begin with; and that contested catch situations are less advantageous and predictable circumstances for an offense than just, you know, catch situations.
Quick, don’t think: who are the elite receivers in the NFL?
Julio, Brown, Beckham Jr.
We remember them by their three-finger catch at the near pylon; their presumed nail-in-the-coffin sideline snag in Super Bowl 51; the helmet grab against the Titans on Thursday night. Those plays stick in the mind, stand up the hairs on our arms. And we can fool ourselves into believing those plays are what make those players elite — but they aren’t. Because those plays belong to the 5 percent of plays; the aberrations; the unpredictables.
We might even call those plays one in a million — if we did, we’d be wrong. Because David Tyree also had a helmet catch you might remember, and nobody thinks he’s an elite player; Julian Edelman truly had the heroic snag of Super Bowl 51, but he’s not better than Julio; and many a falling, one-handed catch may lack the cinematography and sensationalism of Odell’s, but together they prove that Beckham’s one-handed ability — despite being an elite trait — isn’t what makes him elite in our eyes.
I do not dispute that Julio, Brown, and Beckham Jr. have elite traits and skills. They do, and they use those traits/skills regularly to make elite, 5 percent plays. But to be an elite player, you have to dominate the majority of plays, and that requires a slew of traits and skills: hands, feet, eyes; diving catch, sideline catch, leaping catch; strength, speed, elusiveness. It isn’t enough to ride just one.
N’Keal Harry is so exciting to watch because the mind naturally colors in the gaps. We see the elite skills down the field and say to ourselves “If he can do that, he’ll be able to do everything else.” And if we experience the temptation to presume development, how much more so do onlooking coaches, confident in their personal ability to help players grow?
When a player with elite traits does all of the little, consistent things right, he puts himself in a better position to help his offense, and transitively, help his team win. It may mean he doesn’t showcase his wonderful skill as often as he could, but that doesn’t mean it never shines through:
This release isn’t even that great, but it shows me what I wanted to see: an incorporation of Harry’s burst and strong hands at the line of scrimmage to create a throwing window. After the catch, Harry’s athletic profile and alpha instincts take over, and we get an irregular play — a play 95 percent of wide receivers wouldn’t make.
I want Harry to offer that play, over and over and over again, to NFL teams. But he doesn’t, to this point in his career. He rides his natural ability to a bevy of jaw-dropping plays, and continues to coast on it to a smattering of disappointing, lackadaisical reps. In the upcoming season, Harry simply needs to show that he can do the simple things asked of him. Work release moves, win short-yardage routes against tight coverage, fight for every inch. Give me some — any — development to project, and I’ll get excited about the prospect of coaching you up.
Until then, I have to bank on the aberration; the unpredictable; the 5 percent. I don’t feel great about that bet, and I don’t want to take it at a first-round cost come Draft Day.