Prodigies, Child Actors, and Wide Receivers: Biomechanical Borrowing During Development (Part 3)

Among football positions, wide receiver benefits uniquely from biomechanical borrowing. The same kind of exaggerated dramatic movements that make an actor communicative on stage, help wide receivers free themselves from defenders– both at the line of scrimmage and when breaking into routes. Dramatic sudden movement helps wide receivers to quickly/ cleanly get off the line of scrimmage, sudden exaggerated movement helps wide receivers break free of coverage on a route, and borrowed movement helps again (in a slightly different manner) when trying to secure the ball. As such, young wide receivers are subject to many of the same pitfalls of youth borrowing as actors and prodigies. And evaluating young wide receivers for their potential as adult professionals is made difficult by the inherent tradeoffs of becoming successful at a position that benefits so strongly from this borrowing.

The main benefit of biomechanical borrowing to wide receivers is that it makes whole swaths of the body move as one– an enormous benefit in all 3 phases of route running. When starting off the line of scrimmage, borrowing from the upper body towards the lumbar areas means that:

a)  the lumbar areas have additional ‘string’, additional pull and power
b)  the rest of the body is rigid, moving suddenly and explosively
c) there are fewer tells for DBs, since the whole body is stiff pre-snap

You can see the difference between efficiency and borrowing when studying pre-snap stances of QBs (favoring efficiency and independence) vs WRs (favoring borrowing and exaggerated sudden movements). QBs look loose, moving slowly, comfortably, and subtly. WRs visibly tense up when they move into their pre-snap stances–a clear indication of biomechanical borrowing.

Once off the line of scrimmage, the next phase of route running benefits even more obviously from borrowing– the moment when the wide receiver breaks on their route. This is the moment when sudden dramatic movement is most visible– when a wide receiver breaks for the middle of the field on a slant, or suddenly stops on a dime and heads back to the QB on a comeback route. At these moments, when battles are won or lost against coverage, you can again see the entire body of a wide receiver tensing, as one foot or another powers the entire body as one, with ‘string’ being borrowed from all areas towards the power generating ones. The body coils like a spring, which then releases in the direction of the break

Finally, when the catch is being made, borrowing again helps wide receivers win battles, but this time with borrowing going towards thoracic areas. When a wide receiver goes up for the catch, all ‘string’ or power is borrowed towards the hands to enable a forceful pluck of the ball, with the result again being that the rest of the body tenses as string is drawn towards the hands. If you closely watch (in slow motion) a wide receiver make a leaping extended catch, you can actually see the fascial slack first shift downward (to jump), then shift upward through the thoracic areas as the arms are extended and the catch secured, before finally shifting downward again for the feet to extend and drag, or to make a post-catch maneuver. When wide receivers drop the ball, it is often (when not caused by taking their eyes off the ball) because they have begun to borrow downward too soon in anticipation of making a post-catch move, thus failing to give their hands enough string to successfully pluck the ball.

The catch 22 of all this borrowing is that the most efficient wide receivers have the most ‘string’– the most biomechanical slack– to be able make consistent dramatic movements without causing injury. Yet borrowing in childhood– which offers major competitive advantages– is a detriment to developing this efficiency. Often, just like with young musicians, childhood borrowing leads to adult inefficiency and tendencies towards muscle injuries.

Although tendinitis (as discussed in part 2) rarely forces football players to miss games, muscle strains are the next step on the overuse ladder (with ligament/ complete muscle tears being the top rung). And many wide receivers who excel in youth suffer consistent problems with muscle injuries as adults, due to overlapped fascial areas.

An interesting snapshot develops if you look at a list of wide receivers who broke 1000 yds as rookies. The list reveals a few expected superstars– Randy Moss, Anquan Boldin, Michael Thomas– as well as a couple outright busts– Michael Clayton and Kelvin Benjamin. But looking at the list as a whole reveals an interesting pattern– excepting those few durable superstars (Moss, Boldin, Thomas, and Evans), the vast majority of these players peaked early, with most suffering from a pattern of muscle injuries throughout their career. Even many of the long term successful ones– Terry Glenn, Joey Galloway, AJ Green, and Odell Beckham Jr.– suffered this pattern of soft muscle injuries. Just like with musical prodigies and child actors, early success in a field based on borrowing more often than not (with a few exceptions for rare superstars) leads to developmental issues and a pattern of muscle injuries as adults.

As such, analyzing college WRs for their NFL potential requires quite a bit more projection than at other positions. Success in college does not necessarily predict success in the NFL- in fact in certain cases it might prevent it.

So how does one project success for a player, whose early success can actually be a detriment to their long term development? Where the position itself demands skills that compromise long-term success?

The answer is to look for players with the most clay yet to be molded, the most biomechanical slack amidst relatively mature development. Not necessarily players who are the most technically advanced as college students, since technical skill at WR is so heavily reliant on borrowing. But players with relatively complete biomechanical development (no/ few stunted areas), and the efficiency/ independence to allow for a basis of future technical growth. And since success at WR is so reliant on learning/ development that has not yet happened by draft time, you need players who can be coached, and are willing to put in the hard work to develop their technical skills post-draft.

Arguably the biggest mistake I’ve made writing for this site was predicting that Coutland Sutton would not be a long-term successful NFL WR. The problem I made was looking at draft-time Sutton as a finished product, noting (accurately at the time) his struggles with running precise routes. But in fact his lacking technical development might have been a boon, since it meant he was borrowing less in college than a more comparatively polished WR.

Something else that I noted in that write-up was that Sutton showed high posterior efficiency (particularly laterally) for an anterior dominant player. Which means that Sutton was fully developed and unusually efficient for someone with his general profile– in other words, a nice lump of clay, with a lot of room to be further molded in the NFL.  This, it turns out, was the relevant info.

So which players in 2020 qualify? Which players might have already maximized their potential and borrowed against their future success? And more importantly, which players have only begun to tap into their long term potential?