Anatomy Of A Route Runner: Inside The Minds Of NFL’s Next Receivers

The beauty of every draft class for me is in the diversity. Various backgrounds, storylines, college tape, schematic usages, levels of competition and more make up an eclectic group of prospects whose success at the next level will be almost as dependent on the situation they end up in as their own skill sets.

One of the talking points of every class are the different types of receivers, both wideouts and tight ends, and the various roles they will be expected to fill in an NFL offense at the next level. This year is no exception, with a host of talented pass catchers at every type of receiver, from big slots to sky-scraping vertical threats to true speedsters to YAC weapons. Asking around the Combine, it’s clear every type has their preferred way to win on the field, something NFL teams will undoubtedly take note of in their pre-draft evaluations.

UC-Davis wide receiver Keelan Doss has a favorite play he likes to run, not because of how dominant his skill set is on it, but because of the freedom it gives him as a player. The uncertainty of what he’ll do on the route before the Aggies break the huddle makes the play for Davis, who loves the freedom to operate how he sees fit on the option route.

Show Play!

“The play is Slick Left Tahoe,” Doss said. “I love it because of the freedom it gives me to run a variety of routes based on how the defense is aligned. I’m the H on the play, which I also like as big slot receiver, and basically I’m trying to find leverage on the defender off the ball or beat press coverage and run to space against press man.”

Doss smiles, undoubtedly thinking of a time of two on tape when he’s done both - back-to-back 115-catch, 1,300-yard seasons didn’t happen without a few of these babies - but he’s brought back to the present by my next question. 

“Walk me through your thought process against press coverage.”

“Vs. press, most of the time I’m going to break the pattern to the sideline in an out because I know that’s where the space to run away from him will be since we almost always run this to the field,” said Doss. “I stem vertically and put the defender on my inside hip, then break away to the sideline with a hard cut.”

While Doss’ approach is more cerebral and technical, other receivers have a strong preference to let their physical and athletic skills do more of the talking, even if that means their favorite route is much simpler to break down.

“My favorite is the fade in the red zone,” N.C. State wideout Kelvin Harmon said. “That’s just the money ball. I know I’m about to score. I got a DB against me one-on-one, Ryan (Finley) gives me a good ball, that’s almost always a touchdown.”

“I’d say the fade route for sure,” Arizona State’s N’Keal Harry said. “With my size, I know I can go up and high-point the ball in that area, it’s a route that works really well for me.”

“I guess a go route is my favorite,” Iowa State’s Hakeem Butler said. “Like a lot of people here y’all gonna sleep on my speed, but once I get up on you I’m gone and it’s too late. If you put the ball anywhere I’m gonna get it.”

Butler had bouts of issues against press coverage on tape, but he doesn’t consider it a mentality issue, and believes that his natural traits will continue to separate him in that regard.

“I get happy against press coverage!” said Butler. “You gotta get happy. Nobody’s built like me, I’m built different. I’m gonna show that, I’m gonna use that.”

Sensing a theme? Butler, well over 6-foot-5 and 227 pounds, has something in common with the rest of the big wide receivers in the class: the desire to use his physical and athletic gifts to dominate opposing defensive backs rather than take a more sophisticated approach. Those guys - Harmon, Harry, Butler and others - take pride in the refinement of their best traits, ball skills and contested catch ability, but that doesn’t mean that simpler routes don’t require important attention to detail and understanding of timing, leverage and necessary adjustments to the ball.

“I love the go-ball in our offense, four verts,” Stanford receiver J.J. Arcega-Whiteside told me. “The first step is beating (the cornerback) off the line of scrimmage. Then after that it’s depending on where his leverage is, where you are on the field. Do you expect it back shoulder, expect it over the shoulder, expect an inside ball if he’s playing outside leverage? All those things go into play, and you’ve gotta make quick decisions to get it right.”

The most fascinating thing about Arcega-Whiteside’s game is that he was a truly dominant contested catch receiver on tape, despite rarely or barely jumping to win at the catch point. You can argue about how translatable that will be to the NFL, but 28 touchdowns in three seasons against Pac-12 competition is hard to argue with, especially when you find out there is a method to Arcega-Whiteside’s madness.

“It all comes down to technique,” said Arcega-Whiteside. “In practice, it’s hard to jump over somebody if you’re putting weight on his legs. That’s what they teach you in basketball, you want to put your hip on his quad, legs, knees because then it’s hard for him to get up over you. You don’t even have to jump, the ball is gonna come to you, just move him out the way.”

“It all comes down to the basketball background that I have. My mom was a post player, so she taught me a couple of her skills, and then it’s just going up and getting the ball.”

Of course, varying sizes and skill sets call for receivers who like to win differently. For the Georgia duo of Terry Godwin and Mecole Hardman, their lack of size has always been perceived as a detriment, but their favorite plays show why they can be successful.

But wait…Godwin doesn’t want to draw up his favorite play, getting shy and smiling broadly when I ask him.

Godwin: “I don’t know man…”

Hardman, grinning, fully reclined in his chair: “Come on T, you ain’t gonna draw it up?”

Godwin: “Naw…”

Hardman, sitting up: “Gimme it, I’ll draw up mine!”

Godwin, skeptically: “Whatchu drawin' up?”

Hardman: “Whatchu mean T? Imma show ‘em my favorite play!”

Me: “Can you draw Terry’s favorite play?”

Hardman: “I dunno what T’s favorite play would be. He’s got so many, he can do everything from the route tree.”

Godwin, peaking over to see what Hardman is drawing: “Oh, I already know what you got.”

Hardman: “You already know! Ain’t no doubt about it!”

Hardman draws furiously, only pausing momentarily to get clarity from ’T’ on where the X receiver’s route breaks to the boundary of the 3x1 set he has scribbled on my notepad.

Hardman: “What was that, at 10 or 15?”

Godwin, with zero hesitation: “12.”

Completed now, Hardman proudly surveys his work.

“Yeah. So this is simple. We call this…I ain’t gonna say the name cuz there’s cameras here they might hear it (laughter).” 


Hardman goes on to describe an inside fade from the slot, “the T-D ball” as he calls it. I ask him how many games he scored on this play that he can recall, knowing one before he says it.

“I think UMASS was one,” said Hardman. “Bama. Alabama in the National Championship Game was another. 80-something yards.”

Me: “What’s your thought process against off coverage?”

Hardman, with certainty: “Attack leverage and get outside.”

Me: “How close to the sideline do you want to be?”

Hardman: “Probably top of the numbers. So I have room between me and the sideline to catch it.”

Me: “And you’re looking for the ball at what point down the field?”

Hardman: “Probably about 20 yards. If the ball ain’t in, dig some more and look again.”

This play is easily memorable to me because Hardman beat 4.35 40 defensive back Tony Brown against ‘Bama for a huge touchdown in the national championship, but it is still awesome to hear him break down his process on the play. Godwin smiles broadly the whole time, until I turn to him at the end.

“What do you think, Terry?” 

“I love it, man. I love it.”

Most tight ends aren’t going to draw up a “T-D ball” or home run shot as their favorite play, but some of these guys probably could. A highly athletic tight end class, Utah State’s Dax Raymond is one of the risers of the weekend after testing well and leading people to his strong collegiate tape.

“So this is called Dirt Right,” Raymond said. “What we have here is a fake bubble screen to the left, and a fake tunnel screen to the right. I’m the ‘Y’ trying to get this ‘backer to bite on the screen. The second he relaxes or steps, I just turn…boom, I get the ball. We hit that so many times. It’s just an acting job. The second he commits to get by me, I just slip in and Jordan (Love, quarterback) just dumps it off.”

Raymond loves the deception of his favorite play, but Kaden Smith relishes the opportunity to show off his ball skills. There are limitations to the Stanford tight end’s game, but one thing he does really well is attack the football in the air. 

“On third down they often sent me down the seams,” Smith said. “The seam route was my go-to. I knew how to get leverage on the deep defender and use my body to shield the catch point. Against 2-deep zones I know where K.J. (Costello, quarterback) will put it so I can high-point it. I’m pretty good at the catch point when I get into those situations.”

Smith isn’t the only receiver who can win at the catch point with box-out ability and strength, but most of his best work is done from an in-line position where he can generate more favorable matchups with a linebacker. On the other hand, San Diego State tight end Kahale Warring offers more versatility and flexibility as a pass catcher, traits that are exhibited in his favorite play: Le Sing Open Y-Stair Deep Shoot.

“‘Le Sing’ tells the receivers it’s a 2x2 alignment,” Warring said. “‘Y-Stair is basically telling the ‘Y’ what to do on this. For zone I like to go under the SAM, over the MIKE. Looking to peter down, find the open windows. Vs. man, I think it’s a guaranteed win. Get inside leverage, push them up vertical, he’s gotta respect you when you go vertical or else he’s gonna get run by. Then snap it off and break away at 18-22 yards.”

And what about Warring’s skill set makes this route work for him?

“I think I have the speed to get by anyone,” said Warring. “I think I have good hands. I have a big frame, catching radius. I had a few first downs on this exact play throughout the season and it worked out really well.”

While Warring wants to use his speed and ball skills, San Jose State’s Josh Oliver is looking to make an impact in a more unconventional way for a tight end: on screens. His favorite play, “Blue Michigan”, is a tight end screen that allows his athleticism to shine in space with the ball in his hands.

“You don’t see many tight end screens on college tape,” Oliver said. “So for me that was always a favorite because I could show my skill set is a little different.”

There are others: Keesean Johnson loves the comeback pattern at Fresno State, selling vertically and breaking hard back to the ball at 14 yards. Ole Miss’ Dawson Knox didn’t get the ball much, but when he did, a 2x2 alignment over route from the slot is where he did his best work. Texas A&M’s Jace Sternberger loves the corner route because it was a big red zone play for the Aggies and “usually when I caught those I was in the end zone”.

These are just a handful of the routes of choice from some of the top prospects in the class, as I was consistently impressed by the depth of several players’ knowledge of their college offense, as well as the wide variety of routes that players prefer in order to best play to their skill sets. 

To me, it drove home the importance of scheme fit and understanding what these players do well as they translate to the next level. It’s not often that I suggest NFL coaches should do exactly what I do, but in this case, I’ll make an exception. 

Whenever your team drafts one of the talented players in this class - offense, defense or special teams - the best thing they can do is to sit down, ask them what they like to run, what they feel most comfortable with, what they do best, and then listen. They might just learn something that could be instrumental in making their draft picks successful at the highest level of football.