From Hidden Value To Priority Pieces: Blocking WRs Are En Vogue

Photo: Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

Anybody who evaluated the 2017 NFL Draft class remembers Penn State wide receiver Chris Godwin’s game against USC. A Day 2 wide receiver in a dense class, Godwin had some big fans for his well-rounded game, which was on display in a nine-catch, 187-yard, two-touchdown performance against USC in the Rose Bowl.

He made this catch: great adjustment, extension, and balance through contact.

Also this catch: quality route, good scramble drill, excellent body control against the sideline.

And this catch: good release, good stack, great adjustment, excellent concentration, house call.

You starting to get my point?

Godwin ended up being the 11th wide receiver drafted in an odd 2017 class, landing in Tampa Bay and forcing his way into the starting slot role in the Bruce Arians’ offense. Godwin’s 2019 season—86 catches for 1,333 yards and nine touchdowns on 121 targets—was as dominant of a season as we’ve seen from any wide receiver in that 2017 class; his 2.22 yards/route run from the slot that year were eighth-best in the league.

This season was supposed to be another dominant one for Godwin: his second year in the Arians offense, with a slot receiver’s best friend in Tom Brady now at the helm. But his receiving output dropped. Not for any one reason. The Arians-Byron Leftwich-Brady triumvirate struggled to find their rhythm on offense for much of the regular season, Godwin endured some nagging health issues, and his production settled on solid, but unspectacular.

But Godwin’s 2020 season was spectacular in another way. Not for that efficiency as a receiver; not for those spectacular catches from the Rose Bowl. For this Rose Bowl play.

Godwin was one of the best, most exciting blocking wide receivers to declare in recent memory. He wasn’t just good. He took the job personally, seriously. As a star wide receiver on a top college offense, he liked to hit, he liked to spring big runs for his fellow star at running back (Saquon Barkley, you may have heard of him). That’s plain irregular—and with the growth of spread offenses, RPOs, and pass-heavy attacks, it’s becoming more and more uncommon. 

That blocking acumen seemingly didn’t matter much to Godwin’s stock. He was underdrafted at No. 84 overall, and as his pro career has blossomed, that error becomes more egregious by the day. But Godwin’s blocking didn’t matter as much to the Buccaneers back then, when he was drafted to play outside in a Todd Monken-coordinated offense. Now, under Arians and Leftwich? It’s critical, and even in a season with down production, it was indispensable to the Tampa Bay running game. 

The Buccaneers base their running game out of “Duo,” a concept exploding in popularity as a change-up to the heavy doses of zone runs in the modern NFL. Before the Super Bowl, Arians called “22 DBL”—the Buccaneers’ terminology for their Duo run—the staple of their offense, the first play installed in the summer.

Duo or DBL (short for Double) gets its name from the two double teams that typify the play design. Often mistaken for an inside zone run, which sees offensive linemen execute combo blocks at the first level before climbing to the second level, Duo runs ask offensive linemen to stay on their double teams at the first level, putting the onus on the running back to read the linebackers and “make them wrong” but working to the rushing lane that is unoccupied. In this way, Duo can be an excellent play with which to grind out three yards—just burrow in behind the double teams—and an excellent play to bust into the third level for an explosive gain. It all depends on your back and your execution.

Here, you can see the double teams from the left tackle and left guard, as well as the center and right guard, create clean running lanes for the back. The defense has enough second-level defenders to account for each gap, but with that many options for the back, it’s easy for panic to set in. The playside linebacker commits to a gap, and the running back makes him wrong, ripping an explosive gain.

So how is Godwin integral to the Buccaneers’ Duo running game, when he isn’t… uh… on the screen? In order to have the requisite numbers to block up the first level of the defense with two double teams, Duo is always run with at least one in-line tight end. This gives the offense six down linemen to the defense’s four down linemen; two extra bodies with which to execute two double teams. In that it’s tough for a tight end to block a defensive end one-on-one, Duo is often run with two tight ends, as seen above, to ensure the first level is blocked up cleanly for the back.

But when defenses expect Duo—as they would from Tampa Bay, as it’s the Buccaneers’ primary running concept—they’ll load the box with second-level players like extra linebackers and safeties, rotated from deep, to occupy all of the rushing lanes and muddy the reads for the opposing running back.

The offense needs an answer, and the answer is more bodies. An extra tight end can be added to the end of the line, sure—but then you have three tight ends on the field, stressing your depth chart and tipping your hand to the defense, as most teams don’t pass the ball well out of 13 personnel.

So that extra body becomes a wide receiver. For the Buccaneers, that player is Godwin. Either brought into the formation altogether or asked to crackback a safety from a reduced alignment, Godwin has a critical role in hitting the final block necessary to spring Duo into a big gain.

Running backs read Duo inside-out, working from the interior double teams and scanning to the playside, where the tight ends and wide receivers are executing their blocks. With Godwin blocking the safety, the cornerback responsible for Godwin in man coverage takes on that safety’s run responsibilities. In Duo, he’s left unblocked and must challenge the running back with a one-on-one tackle. Notoriously poor tacklers in the best of circumstances, cornerbacks did not enjoy finding Leonard Fournette in the hole this season, just as safeties did not enjoy thunderous crack blocks from Godwin to spring Fournette to the outside. As Alex Gibbs, the godfather of the wide zone rushing system prophesied, “We don’t block corners, we block safeties. We make corners tackle. They’re as sh***y as tacklers in our league as they are in yours.”

By adding Godwin to the blocking scheme, the Buccaneers just eliminated a safety and exposed a cornerback—a significant win for the offense, even if the number advantage on the chalkboard remains the same as they would on a Duo run without a wide receiver blocking.

This is the fundamental advantage of a quality blocking wide receiver, as legitimate of a threat to spring a big run as he is to make a big catch. And on every team in which Duo has taken hold, the Godwin role is present and crucial. In Green Bay, 2018 UDFA Allen Lazard (6-foot-5, 227 pounds) has cemented himself as the WR2 not only for his contested catch ability and toughness, but for his tight end-like blocking when attached to the formation. With Lazard on the field in 2020, the Packers were third in rushing EPA/play and second in success rate—when he missed time with injury, they were 26th in both categories.

In Tennessee, the same advantage of Fournette against a cornerback that the Buccaneers enjoyed becomes all the more towering with Derrick Henry in the backfield. The Titans used Corey Davis—not known as a prospect for his blocking like Godwin was, but a tough, do-it-all player in his own right—in the Godwin role. Duo became a critical change-up in the Titans’ zone rushing attack this past season, as The Athletic’s Ted Nguyen detailed during the season. Watch as Tannehill brings Davis into the formation to account for the safety, and how his block buys time for Henry to find a new avenue.

You can even find the Sean McVay Rams, who ask their wide receivers to run block more than perhaps any other team in the league, running Duo as a necessary extension of their wide zone rushing attack. With tough and willing players like Cooper Kupp and Robert Woods, the Rams use their wide receivers as lead blockers on split zone, zone windback, and of course, on Duo.

A master of series football, McVay has long used these blocking wide receivers to sell hard play-action fakes in which the wideout releases late into a route that often goes uncovered. Play-action is already a nasty wrinkle for defenses to handle, but when true wideouts are involved in the run-action as blockers, it’s nigh on impossible to remain sound against the pass while still respecting the immediate run threat. That’s where good blocking wide receivers suddenly become even more dangerous—they add to the veracity of play-action fakes, springing wide-open, downfield passing looks either for themselves or their teammates.

Watch the reaction of the second-level defenders and cornerbacks, as they see the attached wide receivers take initial stems toward Duo blocks. Once the wide receivers release and climb vertical or break into their routes, the reads are easy for well-protected quarterbacks. This is as free as money gets at the NFL level.

The NFL has never wanted bad blocking receivers or overlooked the trait altogether, but for some systems, it was of negotiable value—especially if you were an elite receiver. The Buccaneers don’t need their X receiver—Mike Evans, certainly big enough to be a solid blocker—to actually be a solid blocker. They don’t need to prioritize that trait at that particular role.

But their Z receiver? If he can’t block on Duo, they lose the best running play in their limited quiver. It’s a non-negotiable.

This is one of Arthur Smith’s many challenges in Atlanta, as the head coach of a talented wide receiver room featuring Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley: two talented outside receivers, neither of whom has been asked to block much, or block well, in their careers. Nick Sirianni, who used quality blocking wide receivers in Zach Pascal and Michael Pittman to run more inside zone and trap than Duo when coordinating the offense in Indianapolis, has a nearly empty wide receiver room in Philadelphia. He will prioritize quality blocking—perhaps not with the sixth overall pick, but eventually, as he rounds out the depth chart.

This role matters, in that it offers an exploitable edge. When used correctly, quality blocking wide receivers create easier play-action looks, force cornerbacks to tackle running backs, and offer new angles and matchups for the offense to exploit. Tight end evaluation has changed drastically over the last several years, as “move tight ends” and “flex Y” players have blurred the divide between tight end and wide receiver, forcing defenses to make tough decisions in the personnel they use to match athletes who can realistically line up in-line and out wide. Why can’t the flow of evolution also come from the wide receiver position, as the Chris Godwins and Cooper Kupps, and Allen Lazards of the world put opposing coordinators in similar binds?

In this upcoming class, Oklahoma State’s Tylan Wallace gets unleashed on crackback blocks and decleats opponents with regularity. North Carolina’s Dyami Brown, a true speedster, rarely gets close to the formation like Duo blockers do, but has quality toughness and takes blocking personally. Wake Forest’s Sage Surratt, who hasn’t seen the field since 2019, has drawn Lazard comparisons for his playstyle and is also a functional blocker. First-round wide receiver Rashod Bateman from Minnesota, who can play inside and out, brings 210 pounds of toughness to RPO routes over the middle. 

These prospects won’t see their stock significantly boosted in draft media and the national eye for their blocking ability—but for the teams that need those roles filled, quietly in the war room, they will be prioritized. Like Godwin and Kupp, they may be found on Day 2—maybe even after the draft altogether, like Lazard—and while their names won’t get the burn of early-drafted stars, their efforts will matter to their offense. 

Wide receiver blocking is back, baby. And while it may not be as sexy as downfield jump balls and contested catches, it sure matters when push comes to shove.