Route running is a key component of any wide receivers game, but what does it mean when an analyst says a prospect is a “good route runner”? Not all routes are the same, not all wide receivers win the same way. So why is such a blanket term used so frequently to describe one of the more complex aspects of the game?
To highlight different facets of a successful or “good” route, I’ll be using two wide receivers that could be available when the Super Bowl Champion Philadelphia Eagles pick at 32nd overall in the 2018 NFL Draft. With WR Torrey Smith likely on his way out, this largely depends on what is available at that selection and how much trust the coaching staff has in WR Mack Hollins, but that’s a debate for another day. These two wide receivers may also be available when the Dallas Cowboys pick at 19th overall and should be considered heavily with an eye towards upgrading their passing game weapons.
To separate at the NFL level, wide receivers must win the war by transitioning into and out of his breaks with technique and athleticism.
There are three main types of cuts I look for when determining technique and fluidity that translate to separation quickness:
1. HARD ANGLE CUT
Starting with the Hard Angle cut, as it’s the most difficult, this can give receivers the biggest issue as they have to sink their hips and explode out in an entirely opposite direction.
For the sake of context, this next clip is 2016 SMU WR Courtland Sutton. I went back to this tape to verify my initial concerns heading into the season after he began to fly up my board upon viewing his 2017 tape. Then he tested through the roof in the 3-Cone with a 95th percentile 6.57, which suggests an elite ability to change direction and accelerate.
SMU WR Courtland Sutton '16 - Hard Angle Cut:— Michael Kist (@MichaelKistNFL) March 6, 2018
- Eyes up to the breakpoint, through the defender
- Route side foot initiates vg sink
- Reaches for breakpoint, causes hips to lock, posture to pop up
- Extra steps scrub explosion out of pivot, head snaps back early/out of sync pic.twitter.com/58mcdbqMo1
Due to a breakdown in technique, this is the type of rep that can lead to hidden athleticism.
The route starts out great with Sutton’s eyes up to the breakpoint and his route side foot initiating a very good sink for a receiver his size. His arms accelerate into the sink and he keeps them nice and tight to his body.
The issue comes when he reaches for the breakpoint and gets his first step too far outside of his frame. This locks his hips, making it difficult for him to naturally flip and burst out. The extra step causes his body to become out of sync, snapping his head back before the rest of his body is able to turn and causing a hitch. This disjointed pivot phase scrubs explosion out of his break.
Later in the game he would have a better rep.
This is better..— Michael Kist (@MichaelKistNFL) March 6, 2018
VG sink, route side foot stamps hard to decelerate, completes turn on 4th step, steps more compact..
This is a concentration drop, not a technique drop. Not great, but better on the hard angle cut overall. pic.twitter.com/UTdmFPq4W4
Notice the compact steps that lead to Sutton snapping his headgear back in sync with his shoulders and hips for a much smoother transition. There’s no fifth step needed to for the flipping of his hips and he comes clean out of his break. Yes, he drops the football. This is a concentration drop, not a technique drop, as he lost ball late looking to turn upfield. There is an entirely different discussion to be had about concentration vs technique drops but this wasn’t a consistent issue when I watched him.
Another plus athlete is Maryland WR DJ Moore, who put to bed concerns about his size (6’0”, 210lbs) and checked all the athletic boxes necessary at the NFL Combine.
Maryland WR DJ Moore hard angle cut: Stare through the defender to the breakpoint (not eyes down to BP).. misses initially but clears his inside shoulder to create a leverage point for separation, sink hips w/route side foot. +Play Strength pic.twitter.com/Kie2oIpElK— Michael Kist (@MichaelKistNFL) January 29, 2018
Reps like these are what gave me confidence that Moore could win on the outside even before he opened eyes in Indianapolis. Dealing with press on a hard angle cut, Moore misses his chop with his inside arm which leads to the cornerback getting a stab on his inside shoulder. Moore keeps his technique sound, staring through the defender to the breakpoint while separating the defender from his shoulder. This motion clears an area for Moore to strike, stabbing the cornerback in the breastplate/armpit and escorting him past the breakpoint.
Using the defender’s opposing force to his advantage, Moore initiates his sink with his route side foot and completes the transition, from sink to pivot, in an uber-efficient two steps. With the separation created, Moore has space to turn upfield after the catch and nearly breaks off a big gain. This is a great example of Moore beating press and creating separation both with quickness and play strength.
2. VERTICAL CUT
If you’re going to be a deep threat at the next level, you must be able to execute posts and corners while creating deception and maintaining speed or you have to be a monster on 50/50 balls. For a 6’3 3/8”, 218-pound target like Sutton, you’d likely expect him to mainly be a jump ball, contested catch receiver in the mold of Dallas Cowboys WR Dez Bryant. The difference between them lies in their hips.
SMU WR Courtland Sutton— Michael Kist (@MichaelKistNFL) March 6, 2018
Find me another 6'3" WR in this draft with smooth vertical cuts like this...
Flashes eyes outside, numbers over knees, steps compact, fluid hips, safety has zero chance.
He sinks and bursts so easily. pic.twitter.com/IVe8F7ToZi
This is the fluidity that showed up in Sutton’s testing on full display.
Forget the safety, who gets lost in the sauce, and focus on the technique and athleticism. Releasing inside, stemming outside and flashing his eyes outside at the breakpoint all contribute to the safety getting put in the blender. When manipulating leverage of a defender on a vertical cut, the jab step at the breakpoint should come within at most 3 yards and at least 1 yard of the cover man. Sutton executes this while displaying fantastic pad level and compact steps that lead to some serious juice coming out of the break.
You’re not always going to get a one-on-one with safety down the field, so you have to be able to not only create separation with route running but also with play strength at the catch-point. DJ Moore excels in this area.
Maryland WR DJ Moore on a vertical cut: Numbers over knees at the breakpoint, step points to the defender to widen him, accelerate out of cut, turn your chin not your shoulders back to the QB, good timing to clear for the jump, strong hands. pic.twitter.com/vvT46mP8TD— Michael Kist (@MichaelKistNFL) January 29, 2018
With the cornerback playing off coverage, Moore attacks his outside leverage by stepping at him at the breakpoint. This causes the cornerback to widen slightly and provides Moore with space to operate. This doesn’t happen without sound technique. Moore gets his jersey number over his knee at the breakpoint, accelerates out of the cut and snaps his chin (not his shoulders) back to the quarterback to begin locating.
From there he’s able to utilize his off arm to create a window, a window which he exploits with excellent tracking, timing, body control and strong hands.
3. SPEED CUT
The least difficult of the three, the Speed Cut still requires solid technique and fluidity at the breakpoint.
In this case, it’s a dig route by Sutton. Again, remember this is a big bodied WR with rare movement skills for his size.
SMU WR Courtland Sutton on a Dig (speed cut):— Michael Kist (@MichaelKistNFL) March 4, 2018
- Drop route side shoulder & accelerates arms into transition/sink
- Flashes eyes outside
- Pad level stays low, arms tight to body through breakpoint
- Stems upfield past sticks pic.twitter.com/0hCteA8Abw
At the top of his stem, Sutton has to drop his route side shoulder and accelerate his arms as he sinks his hips while flashing his eyes outside. He pulls this off well, but the real magic happens as his smoothly flips his hips inside. Keeping his pad level low, a tall task for a tall man, and his arms tight to his body, Sutton snaps his eyes back to the quarterback as he exits the break. While most speed cuts require a parallel angle, this is situational 3rd down football from Sutton, who bends his route upfield and past the sticks before securing a catch.
Notice the separation he creates from his man. It’s the result of sound technique and a high level of athleticism.
Maryland WR DJ Moore's hips are as smooth as the back of a spoon. Nice UOH to keep clean. + In the air. pic.twitter.com/GORAAbPizB— Michael Kist (@MichaelKistNFL) January 29, 2018
Moore possesses the balance and fluidity to chain multiple cuts throughout his routes. On this out-and-up, Moore displays hips as smooth as the back of a spoon, easily getting in and out of his breaks. The other key factor to this route is his inside arm/hand, which he uses to keep the defender from affecting his hip, allowing for separation.
From there, it’s just a matter of using his strong hands to haul in a touchdown with a defender desperately trying to play catch up.
As we approach the 2018 NFL Draft and talk starts to heat up about these wide receivers prospects, be wary of the “good route runner” label. Routes and route runners are unique snowflakes and no two are the same. Wide receiver is not a one-size-fits-all position, and the goal must be to find one with traits befitting of your scheme who can execute the specific types of route concepts they will be asked to run.