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NFL Draft

Need For Speed: Louisville’s Tutu Atwell Embodies New WR Wave

  • The Draft Network
  • June 2, 2020
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It’s a phrase that seemingly always needs repeating: speed kills. Whether it be on the football field or the track, speed and acceleration are key factors that benefit any athlete. Enter Chatarius “Tutu” Atwell.

Atwell, one of the fastest players in all of college football, is just the latest in an ever-growing line of undersized, electric wide receivers. He’s a playmaker through and through. While he may have not had an NFL shot 30 years ago, in today’s day and age, he represents the new prototype.

Recent Trends

Gone are the days of 6-foot-5, 230-pound monsters on the outside. Sure, the odd Calvin Johnson or Julio Jones may still arise from the college ranks, but in recent drafts, the NFL has put a priority on smaller, faster athletes at the position. This isn’t just guesswork either; it’s statistically accurate.

When you look at drafts dating back to 2013, the average size of the first receiver selected was 6-foot-0, 194 pounds. If you go back 10 more years and those averages rise to 6-foot-2, 212 pounds. It’s no coincidence to see that as the league has become more pass heavy and space oriented, it’s perimeter players have tended to shrink down as a result. Since 2013 at least one receiver under 190 pounds has been selected in the first round each year, including Marquise Brown, who, weighing all but 166 pounds, was the first receiver taken in 2019. It’s this priority on pure athletes that allowed players like John Ross and Will Fuller to be taken extremely highly on draft day, not to mention Henry Ruggs III ending up as the 12th pick just a few short months ago.

With all of this in mind, Atwell’s name instantly arises as a player who could fit the same mold. Sure, he’s not the same size as some of those names mentioned, but the general traits are there. As a track athlete with plus versatility, excellent vision and explosive playmaking ability, he fits everything that this new age is all about. He may not win in many, if any, high-point situations, but NFL teams aren’t looking for the next Brandon Marshall. They’re looking for the next Tyreek Hill.

Early Experience

Part of what makes Atwell so intriguing is his overall lack of experience at the position. Tutu suited up as a dual-threat quarterback during his high school days and was a dominant player at the signal-caller position, despite weighing just 141 pounds at the time. Atwell was awarded Player of the Year, by his county, in his senior season and has used his experience at QB to good use despite no longer playing the position. Now showcasing his passing knowledge from the slot, Tutu’s communication skills and mismatch awareness are both superb, even if they largely go unrecognized.

Atwell comes from a strong family bloodline, and his ability to learn from his father is also something that has allowed him to transition to a receiver in a near-flawless fashion. Charadrius Atwell Sr., a former Minnesota receiver in the mid-1990s, inspired Tutu’s move to pass-catcher, which has no doubt benefited both his career at Louisville and his potential NFL future.

Size Struggles

Let’s address the elephant in the room. Atwell is currently 5-foot-9 and a shade over 150 pounds — at least according to ESPN. His weight could fluctuate drastically, depending on the source, but we are unlikely to get full confirmation on that until the NFL Scouting Combine in February. Regardless, it’s a pretty big issue.

As fast and dynamic as he is, Tutu will never be a physical player given his physique, even with his scrappy and aggressive mentality. Fortunately able to line up against off-man coverage in the slot for most of his Louisville career, Atwell’s ability against press coverage is a big question mark as is his catch-point prowess.

Despite most of the speedsters mentioned earlier occupying some of those same issues coming out of college, none of them were even as close to as small as Atwell. But that doesn’t mean there aren't recent examples, like Brown, that doesn’t fit into that lower weight category. The most recent draft busts that fit this new wave were extremely light, but it’s important to note they didn’t bust because of their pint sizes. It was a correlation, not causation.

Prospects like Tavon Austin and De’Anthony Thomas weren’t able to find success not because of weight, but rather because of the fact they weren’t nuanced enough at the position. Fortunately, Atwell doesn’t have those same issues after recently taking up the position.

Going Vertical

As many assuredly know by now, just because you’re fast doesn’t mean that you’re a quality deep threat. Speed helps, but much more is needed. Thankfully, despite his sub 4.35 wheels, Atwell also understands this simple concept.

Atwell’s success boils down to his innate understanding of leverage and angles; he ranked first amongst all collegiate receivers last year with an insane average of 4.17 yards per route run. Atwell shows the ability to win on post and corner routes in a multitude of fashions, whether it be with double moves, stutter steps or pure speed. He attacks with steep cuts to close cushion quickly and effortlessly. Pressing early on to get defensive backs to open up, he is nearly unguardable in off-man situations from the slot, where he lined up nearly 90% of the time.

Atwell was able to be a strong yards-after-catch contributor as well, finishing fourth in the nation in yards-after-catch per reception, averaging roughly 12 yards after each catch. Elite at making defenders miss on crossers and drags, Atwell goes from north to south in a split second and constantly has corners and linebackers mismanaging their tackling angles on shorter routes.

Yes, he’s still learning the position so he isn’t yet flawless in his vertical approach, but Atwell understands more now than many ever do. It’s his quick studying in this regard — along with the new trends at the position — that makes me feel extremely hopeful for his future, even if size still stands as a large hurdle for most.

The league has changed and it’s time our perception of the receiver position does too.

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