In the summer of 2018 I asked fellow Bleeding Green Nation contributor Benjamin Solak for a 2019 prospect to watch. The first name he gave me was JJ Arcega-Whiteside, the wide receiver from Stanford. As it turns out, the Philadelphia Eagles would select him 57th overall in the 2019 NFL Draft. It’s that early exposure to Arcega-Whiteside that led to me being over the moon about the selection.
The first game Ben directed me to was Stanford’s 2017 Alamo Bowl Game against TCU. He was truly dominant when given opportunities to make plays.
The performance instantly put Arcega-Whiteside on my radar. His basketball background was readily apparent and I was pleasantly surprised by his quick footwork. We had a big, strong player on our hands that understood how to maximize his athleticism with technique. This gave him a leg up on other prospects with impressive physical profiles but hadn’t figured out to do with all that size and speed.
Even when he wasn’t thrown the rock, he consistently created stacks in the vertical third and flashed separation ability in the short-to-intermediate areas. Not to mention – and this is a reoccurring theme – the attention he garnered from the safeties. Once they got bit a couple of times, defensive coordinators felt inclined to send as much help to their corners as they could. Despite the attention, Arcega-Whiteside compiled 63 catches, 1,059 yards and 14 touchdowns on his way to being a Biletnikoff Award semifinalist in 2018.
There are areas to improve, like his hand usage throughout his route stem and at the top of his routes, but we’ll get into all that. The major question seems to be, can Arcega-Whiteside create separation?
According to Next Gen Stats, the average 40-yard dash for a top 20 separator in 2018 was 4.46 in the 40-yard dash. Seven of them ran over 4.50, four of them ran sub-4.40. For example, San Francisco 49ers’ rookie Dante Pettis ran a 4.48, but is an excellent technician and came in at 10th on the list. There are other names just below that cluster like Calvin Ridley, Mohamed Sanu, and JuJu Smith-Schuster span from 4.43-4.67 40-yard dash times. The league’s leader in receptions last year, Michael Thomas, ran a 4.57.
Go further down the rabbit hole and you’ll find an interesting average for the top receivers in the league. If you averaged the eighteen receivers with over 1,000 yards last year, they’d measure at 6’1”, 204 pounds and run a 4.48.
Arcega-Whiteside is just as fast, slightly taller and has twenty-one extra pounds of play strength on his frame. Not only did he a run a 4.49 at his pro day, but I’ve been told at least two scouts there had him timed at 4.38 and 4.39 respectively. This can be deceiving though, as his track background lends itself well to these tests. The point is, he’s not slow by any means.
However, straight-line speed isn’t the end-all-be-all in terms of the athleticism required to win in the NFL. Arcega-Whiteside’s 7.23 3-cone reflects the tightness that can show up on certain routes. That’s where his grade suffers. Let’s start with that when analyzing his traits.
One area where Arcega-Whiteside will run into problems is when facing off-man coverage when assigned with hard angle cuts. To help make a distinction between the types of cuts, the picture below is from the Ohio State wide receivers manual when Darrell Hazel was on staff with some extra notes on break point technique.
Arcega-Whiteside does well with his technique on most of these coaching points, but comebacks and curls come with an extra step. Those are the most difficult to master, especially if there’s some natural tightness.
Here’s two clips: one where Arcega-Whiteside gets covered up and another where he doesn’t get the throw but settles into the blindspot nicely to create space.
What isn’t taken into account in this grade is that you can win a comeback or curl route a couple of different ways. If there’s some speed scrubbed out of the break, Arcega-Whiteside’s play strength can be a difference maker. One area in his game he can improve is using his hands better at the top of ropes to keep clean and create space. If he does this more effectively, he’ll have more success escorting defenders upfield and out of his hip pocket. This would help him neutralize any advantage in short area burst the defender may have.
Clean, quick footwork allows Arcega-Whiteside to fare much better with speed and vertical cuts. This helps him produce in the red zone and other areas of the field despite being labeled as a jump ball specialist.
Overall though, he’s not particularly explosive out of his breaks, and thus the adequate grade. Technique and his understanding of leverage help mask this weakness in terms of on-field results.
Separation Quickness Grade: 3 of 7 (Adequate)
This is where Arcega-Whiteside sets up future success in his routes. Winning early allows him to consistently stack defenders, which leaves him in a position to frequently win with the ball in the air. He does this with purposeful and crafty footwork off the line. He’ll get his head involved in his fakes too, taking it hard into the fake before snapping off in the opposite direction.
This ability pairs nicely with the RPO slants we’ve seen the Eagles run so often with Alshon Jeffery. Combine that with his play strength and feel for boxing out and you have another big body at 6’2”, 225 pounds to depend on for quick completions in tight areas.
Arcega-Whiteside displays a keen understanding of leverage paired with the technique to displace a cornerback and get them on their heels. Against press or tight coverage, Arcega-Whiteside is often able to release *through* a defender, as opposed to releasing around them. It’s an important distinction.
If you release through a cornerbacks previously occupied space, you’re in control. Arcega-Whiteside is fantastic at doing this against inside, outside, and head-up alignments. Once he goes through a cornerback, he’s able to stack them. Once a cornerback is stacked, he doesn’t stand much of a chance in the air against the power forward.
Releases don’t just happen against press coverage; they’re an integral part of winning against off coverage as well. For instance, you need to get outside against a defender playing off and outside. Arcega-Whiteside shows the ability to attack that leverage and create a window.
Arcega-Whiteside consistently wins clean off the line and as an added bonus it aids him when setting up for contested catches at all levels of the field. It’s one of the best parts of his game should translate nicely to the NFL.
Release Grade: 6 of 7 (Above Average)
Nobody in college football had more contested catch wins (19) than Arcega-Whiteside did in 2018. He also drew 14 penalties. How does he do it? The basketball background helps, especially when paired with his superb tracking skills.
There’s always concern that when a contested catch maven makes the transition, the results won’t translate. I don’t believe that to be the case with Arcega-Whiteside. His excellent process when setting up jump balls shows a nuanced understanding of how to create windows at the catchpoint. Additionally, he isn’t passive when the ball is in the air. He’s a true high-pointer; aggressively attacking with a “my ball” mentality.
Filling out the route tree, Arcega-Whiteside was heavily utilized on back shoulder fades that took advantage of his releases and body control. If he won a clean release, he very frequently geared it down. This is what he was coached to do. It led to come tighter windows in some cases, but it often didn’t matter.
Overall, a lot of Arcega-Whiteside’s “contested catches” weren’t much of a contest. He won them often and you can clearly see why from his film.
Catchpoint/Body Control Grade: 6 of 7 (Above Average)
When going back through Arcega-Whiteside’s tape, I realized my initial grade may be too low. Before we get to why that is, let’s talk about what mental processing means for a wide receiver.
There are several things that fall under this umbrella. Reading coverage, altering routes, recognizing leverage, spatial awareness, finding zone voids, and so on are all factors baked into the the mental processing grade.
In the clips above, not only does Arcega-Whiteside win a clean inside release by attacking and threatening leverage to get the cornerbacks on their heels, but what he does next makes it all click. Recognizing the safeties over top, Arcega-Whiteside alters his routes. Getting “skinny” by flattening vertically or bending outside keeps him away from the safeties and also stacks the cornerbacks.
Arcega-Whiteside checks all the boxes when it comes to football intelligence.
Mental Processing Grade: 6 of 7 (Above Average)
YARDS AFTER CATCH
Arcega-Whiteside didn’t get his stats padded by bubble and tunnel screens; in fact, he didn’t get any catches in that manner. That’s encouraging when you look at his production, but also points to a weakness in his game.
This is where lack of lateral agility really shows up. That said, when he does get extra after the catch, it’s because he’s not easy to bring down. If he embraces his physicality with the ball in his hands like he does in the air, there’s room for improvement. He’s flashed that ability, but it needs to show up more often for him to over-perform his initial grade.
Yards After Catch Grade: 2 of 7 (Marginal)
Other areas where Arcega-Whiteside grade above average include play strength, hands, and competitive toughness. For wide receivers I include blocking in two buckets (play strength and competitive toughness). While great blocking technique is great, I’m also concerned with the willingness and the strength to hold up against bigger defenders. Arcega-Whiteside has excellent technique and gets after it. He never takes a play off.
This will help the offense on bubble screens, outside runs, and even inside runs. Last season we saw the Eagles use a “sniffer” in the run game, which places a wide receiver between the tackle and tight end to create an extra gap. Arcega-Whiteside would be excellent in that role.
Overall, Arcega-Whiteside projects as a starting caliber X receiver by year two that can contribute at all levels of the field in year one. That was my summary of him before the draft, so obviously his situation in Philadelphia may delay production you typically associate with those expectations.
My final evaluation of Arcega-Whiteside resulted in a firm second round grade. For where he was selected, he represented great value. Arcega-Whiteside gives the Eagles a great insurance policy that fits snugly in the offense.