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NFL Draft

Year 3 Breakout WR: Is DJ Chark’s Ceiling Capped?

  • The Draft Network
  • June 10, 2020
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The 2018 wide receiver class was known as a thick, but starless group at the time of its drafting. Two years in, it’s definitely thick, but stars are beginning to emerge. All of Calvin Ridley, Courtland Sutton, D.J. Moore, and Michael Gallup have an argument not only as the top dog in the class but as upper-echelon receivers in the league altogether. I made the case for Gallup most recently—as his success seems the most underappreciated to me—but all four are great talents, and they aren’t alone. D.J. Chark, Christian Kirk, and James Washington fill out the top of a thick second tier.

Last week, I dove into Pittsburgh WR James Washington, who I think is in line for a better Year 3 than people are expecting. Jacksonville WR D.J. Chark, who was taken just one pick after Washington in the 2018 NFL Draft, had a much better Year 2 than expected. Let’s take a look at that film and try to figure out what’s in store for Chark in Year 3.

The beginning of Chark’s 2019 season was wicked. He had over 10 yards/reception in seven of his first eight games and was pacing the league in explosive plays as rookie QB Gardner Minshew took over for the injured Nick Foles, and relied on him in jump-ball situations accordingly.

It’s important at this stage to distinguish how Chark was so successful as a deep receiver. He burned a 4.34s 40-yard dash at the 2018 NFL Combine, but doesn’t win with speed on the outside. Chark frequently fails to separate from man coverage outside of the numbers vertically and instead wins with great ball tracking and good physicality to give himself a shot at contested catches

The really good news is how many of those deep balls Chark caught. Plagued by concentration dropsies at LSU, Chark didn’t drop a single deep pass in 2020 and hauled in 50% of his deep targets per PFF—that was tied for 17th-best in the league; comfortably above-average. Chark isn’t an elite contested-catch player, but he tracks well enough and has a huge catch radius. The hope is that Chark can get better at releasing off the line and hitting his top speed quicker when working his vertical routes so he can keep his explosive play rate through the roof. If he can’t, it’s likely that those numbers regress back down.

The good news is that Chark has the desired changeup of an elite vertical receiver, and that’s a mean curl route. Chark can snap off of a vertical stem with quality deceleration, and his length really comes in handy when he needs to adjust to a timing pattern there.

The curl route is critical to Chark’s game because, well, he isn’t great as a short route-runner. Per Matt Harmon’s Reception Perception, Chark was an average player in his success rate on flat and slant routes. It’s a curious phenomenon because Chark isn’t necessarily a bad route-runner—those curls are snappy, and as we’ll see in a bit, he is really impressive at the intermediate level. But Chark is an upright player with loping strides, and he tends to lean his route stems into his cuts on quick routes, which brings off-cover defenders his direction. That leads to unnecessarily difficult contested catches, limited YAC opportunities, and even PBUs.

So Chark was a super explosive receiver in 2019, but he doesn’t necessarily have a great deep separation profile and he’s not a plus YAC player underneath. Where did it all come from? It came from intermediate routes, where Chark is just stupid successful.

Again, the traits are interesting here. Chark doesn’t have elite quickness or footwork to snap routes like Terry McLaurin, or strength and explosiveness to create quick windows like Deebo Samuel, but he’s big, long, physical, and has these delightful little flashes of quality route-running: hand usage, speed cuts, and deceptive stems.

When you watch Chark run a slant, or you watch him run a nine route, you don’t expect him to run digs and flags and deep outs and comebacks like he does. As such, we have a volatile player right now. Chark is two years into a career in which he was a role player at first and exploded into the top tier of deep threats the next season—but he’s never had good quarterbacking and arguably hasn’t gotten any good offensive coordinating, either.

One of those things will hopefully change when Jay Gruden comes to town in 2020 as a pretty successful offensive mind of the last few years. But Chark was used well last year, with a route distribution that played to his strengths, a variety of alignments, and a ton of target volume. What’s really lacking for Chark’s next step is good quarterbacking, and he’s not getting it in 2020—for everything that Minshew was for Chark last year and could be next year, he doesn’t project as anything more than a low-end starter.

When you consider that Chark’s offensive situation isn’t getting much better any time soon, and the fact that his profile is relatively incomplete as a true No. 1 receiver, regression may be coming down the mountain for Chark. It’s very hard to annually be an explosive receiver—efficiency is easier to maintain across the course of multiple years. If Chark loses just a couple more contested catches than he won and drops one or two deep balls, he’ll fall even lower than his league-34th yards/reception and yards/target. 

Chark is a good player who has gotten better off of his college film—that’s great news. But he’s still incomplete as an NFL WR1, plays on a team in which he’s likely to get WR1 attention, without a QB1, and with a new offensive coordinator. His development may be stunted in the short term accordingly, as he continues to make the best of inaccurate deep targets and overwhelming defensive attention.

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