Identifying Receiver Traits: KeeSean Johnson's Natural Hands

Photo: Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

Throughout my evaluation of the 2019 wide receiver class, a few under the radar names have stuck out to me. The star among them has been Fresno State's KeeSean Johnson, as I've been infatuated with his strong hands since the outset of his scouting (to the point where I started the movement of #KeeSeanCatchesEverything on Twitter).

While scouting Johnson, it eventually became clear that he suffered from few drops. However, what impressed me almost immediately was just how natural his hands were. Having "natural hands" obviously includes consistently catching the ball, but there is much more to it than just that.

There are a number of things I look for when identifying if a receiver has natural hands:

  • Full extensions away from the body, no matter the ball placement
  • Positioning and adjusting their frame where capable of maximum extension to the catch point
  • Holding on through contact or while having the ball swiped by defender
  • Late "stabs" with their hands
  • Flipping them from "active" to "passive" when necessary
  • Transitions into a ball carrier

Throughout scouting KeeSean Johnson, he's shown an innate feel for all of this, which is the source of why I have yet to see him drop a pass despite working through half of his senior year films to this point.

In Fresno State's game against Toledo this season, Johnson had three plays that exemplified his natural hands:

On the first play, you can see how easily Johnson adjusts to the pass thrown behind him and transitions into a ball carrier with fluidity, wasting minimal motion.

On the following plays, Johnson does a masterful job of turning and adjusting his upper body in order to allow for near maximum extension towards the catch point and holding on despite contact.

With all of these passes coming above his waist, Johnson is using what is known as "active" hand placement. This means that his thumbs are together and hands are in the shape of a diamond. On the following play, Johnson flips to "passive" hand placement, meaning his pinkies are together as the ball is coming over his shoulder:

Passive hands should be used when catching the ball over the shoulder at full speed is the best option, or when the ball placement comes below the waist. When receivers attempt to catch passes against their chest with passive hands, it either shows a distrust in their hands or is the result of a tracking issue.

Notice how late in the process Johnson extends his hands in order to catch that ball over his shoulder. This allows him to maintain maximum speed while tracking the ball, while also giving defensive backs minimal time to react and swat the ball out of his hands.

During the East-West Shrine Game practices, Johnson continued to show how consistently he will extend away from his body to beat defensive back's hands to the catch point. On this rep, he's contacted early but never breaks concentration and fully extends for the reception:

Wide receivers with steady, consistent hands at the next level will quickly earn reliability from coaches and quarterbacks, and be the more trusted targets in pressure moments. Johnson projects as a possession receiver with a well-rounded game in the NFL because of how dependable he is catching the rock. We'll find out more about Johnson's ceiling during the upcoming NFL Scouting Combine, but his "floor" as a prospect is obvious because how natural and strong his hands are.