Impressions: Young Ascending Skill Position Players

At the encouragement of Nick Korte (the maestro running the show here at the Thin Air Network), this article is an attempt to identify various young players who have not yet reached their NFL potential. Whose talent currently outstrips their role. In many cases this is because they are rookies, and in some cases it’s because they have been buried on depth charts or otherwise put in disadvantageous positions. However, these projections will be taking the long view– many of these players (particularly the rookies) won’t reach their full potential for years. Nevertheless, for fantasy football players looking for long-term investments (for dynasty/ keeper leagues), or for those interested in a somewhat more shallow biomechanical take on various young players, this article may be of use.

Starting with the rookie class, there are two wide receivers who stood out on preseason film (and on reviewing their college tape). These players profile quite similarly (same orientation), and neither one is in a great spot to produce meaningfully right out of the gate. However, both of these players appear likely to be excellent productive players in the long term.

George Pickens and Tyquon Thornton are both tall, thin, speedy lateral posterior oriented players. While Pickens shows a more well rounded overall profile and is probably more likely to morph into a superstar over time, both players already show elite speed and elusiveness. Which in combination with their height and length– as well as high levels of control/ efficiency– appear likely to make them very difficult to defend, particularly near the end zone. Pickens has significant competition for targets and an unsure quarterback situation, while Thornton broke his collarbone and is out for the first few months of the season; neither of these players will likely produce meaningful stats right away (or even necessarily this season). But taking a career-long perspective, these two players are excellent bets to become strongly productive over the next few years. And viewed through value according to current ADP, these two players will likely hugely outproduce their draft stock over the long term.

KJ Osborn is not yet very well known outside of Minnesota. And the two wide receivers ahead of him on the depth chart– Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen– are both excellent players. However Osborn (lateral oriented posterior dominant) would easily start– and excel– for a majority of teams in the NFL. Profiling surprisingly similar to Justin Jefferson– same orientation, similarly tight anterior lumbar areas leading to excellent acceleration, similarly long powerful arms (although not quite to the same degree)– Osborn is not quite as talented as Jefferson and is smaller, but is nevertheless far more talented than his production to date might suggest. Once he starts to receive targets– either due to injury or due to future departures– it seems very likely that Osborn will become highly productive. Not quite to the level of a superstar like Jefferson, but not horribly far off either.

Darnell Mooney (medial centric posterior dominant) has already produced one 1000 yard season (in 2021). And based on preseason footage, he appears to have taken his game to a whole new level. Mooney shows extremely high levels of lumbar efficiency– both anterior and posterior– translating to both superlative quickness and excellent long speed. And unlike most smaller speedier receivers, Mooney also shows excellent thoracic efficiency, with strong reliable hands and long arms. Mooney’s size will always be a detriment– he is both thinner and shorter than most star WRs. However, the combination of elite efficiency/ control with superlative raw speed is looking likely to make Mooney extremely difficult to guard. Probably the only WR on this list to already be playing at a superstar level (at least based on limited preseason tape). The only true worry for his 2022 production is the complete dearth of receiving talent surrounding him– it seems very likely that Mooney will be the focus of every defense he faces. However, again taking the longer view, Mooney’s apparent talent will almost certainly show itself statistically in the future.

Without having studied the following players extensively, here are some relatively shallow impressions and guesses as to the likely future careers of these remaining high profile rookie WRs.

Jahan Dotson (medial centric posterior dominant) looks a bit like a budget version of Darnell Mooney. Not quite as completely developed/ efficient lumbar areas, and not quite as long arms, nor as efficient in thoracic areas. But still quite speedy/ elusive, and with excellent/ powerful hands. Dotson is a precise route runner with good running ability with the ball in his hands– he is likely to be an excellent complement to Terry McLaurin and will likely be highly productive over time. The main impediment to his immediate future is the quarterback situation in Washington. Based on limited preseason tape, Wentz potentially seems to have regressed in his mechanics, showing imprecise timing/ footwork and a tendency to throw inaccurately off his back foot. As a result, Dotson will likely have to wait for improved quarterback play to reach his true statistical potential.

Garrett Wilson (lateral oriented posterior dominant) shows excellent hands and good speed/ body control. In preseason he looks essentially the same as he does on college tape. Which is both a blessing and a curse– like many highly-productive college WRs, Wilson may have already mostly maximized his talents and left little room to improve in the NFL. Which, if true, would make him a very good player, maybe even a star. But probably not a true superstar level talent. To see why highly-productive college WRs often disappoint in the NFL please see the Guide to Biomechanical Borrowing.

Drake London (medial centric anterior dominant) appears to possess the full package on first glance. Tall, with long efficient arms, soft hands, and excellent body control/ acceleration, London is a threat both as a route runner and with the ball in his hands. If judged purely by current efficiency/ body control, London might very well be the pick of the class. However, his under-developed posterior lumbar areas are an important red flag– not just in terms of translating to somewhat underwhelming top speed (although in practice his speed may be sufficient given his excellent route running), but more importantly for continued lower body injuries. In addition to his broken ankle last year, London has already suffered a knee injury in the first preseason game. Trusting him to stay healthy might be difficult. In addition, like many anterior dominant WRs, he may struggle to fight off physical NFL defenders (the increasing tendency towards posterior dominant WRs out-competing anterior dominant ones will be discussed in a future article).

Jameson Williams (medial centric posterior dominant) is an extraordinarily explosive/ fast WR who also shows reliable hands. This is, generally speaking. a rare combination. Williams may be able to succeed on these traits alone. However, like Wilson, Williams does not appear to show a tremendous amount of biomechanical slack for future development. Which means that his skillset may already be somewhat maxed out. And with route running that is generally pretty rounded and non-precise. Again, Williams is so explosive that his route running may not enter much into the equation, depending on how he is used. However, at current he does not appear to be a truly complete receiver, and may not become one in the future

Chris Olave (medial centric posterior dominant) may be the WR from this class where I disagree most with the consensus. Although Olave is a very well rounded and refined athlete, he appears to lack any true standout skills. Any particularly noteworthy areas of efficiency. Good lumbar efficiency but not outstanding– he is neither terribly fast nor particularly quick. Good thoracic efficiency but nothing truly special– he shows good soft hands, but not truly long or forceful arms. And much like Williams and Wilson above, he may have already mostly maximized her physical talents through a grueling college program. Which would leave him as a well rounded receiver but without true explosiveness or ability to generate significant separation. Overall, Olave seems likely to underwhelm (relative to his draft slot) and be more of a quality complementary receiver than a true primary threat.

On the other side of the spectrum is Treylon Burks (medial centric anterior dominant)– a player who is dripping with athletic ability, but lacks any sort of refinement as a WR. Burks shows high levels of efficiency in both lumbar and thoracic areas, particularly medially. However, at present, he is significantly lacking in lateral efficiency, which means that he does not change direction particularly sharply or powerfully. Burks seems likely to be able to make forceful grabs in contested catch situations due to his strong/ soft hands and strong lower body. But at least for now his route running is likely unable to provide him with any meaningful separation. And until his lateral agility improves, he will likely not be a terribly elusive threat with the ball in his hands. Someone who shows the raw athleticism to develop into a quality WR in the future. But at present, is likely still too raw/ unrefined to produce meaningfully.

Alec Pierce (medial centric posterior dominant) shows excellent size, speed, and strength, and well as some biomechanical slack for technical tightening. However, his anterior areas (both lumbar and thoracic) appear somewhat underdeveloped, which may limit his quickness and contribute to some injury issues down the line. Overall an excellent complementary/ downfield target who has not yet hit his ceiling, but may never ascend to primary target status due to under-developed anterior areas.

Turning now towards the RBs, this does not appear to be a stellar class. Although there are a few who show high levels of efficiency, none appear to show any areas of full lumbar efficiency. Full lumbar efficiency is, to my methods, the baseline requirement for a true franchise/ featured runner– the kind of RB who can take on a large workload every week without losing effectiveness or suffering non-contact injuries (although for such a demanding position, some injuries are still to be expected).

Last season there were two such RBs drafted; Najee Harris and Javonte Williams each show full efficiency in their favored areas (medial anterior for Harris, medial posterior for Williams). However, this year, there do not appear to be any such RBs. So while there are some very talented RBs who can play at a high level, none appear to be true franchise backs who can sustain heavy workloads for season upon season.

Breece Hall (medial centric anterior dominant) shows high levels of medial anterior lumbar efficiency and is almost certainly the most talented RB in the class. He also appears to be a nicely well rounded athlete. However, given that he falls short of other recently drafted RBs (no areas of full lumbar efficiency), he may fail to match the high expectations given to the top drafted RB of the class.

Dameon Pierce (medial centric posterior dominant) is similarly well rounded, and also shows a diverse skillset with quality running ability. Additionally he is likely the favorite to start in Houston. Although Pierce does not appear to show full lumbar efficiency in any areas, he is still likely starter-caliber, at least for as long as he is able to stay fully healthy. Taking the longer view, running backs without at least one area of full lumbar efficiency tend to have shorter careers, and it might be hard to count on Pierce as a long term asset. Nevertheless, he is in position to start right away, and will likely provide solid production if he is able to stay healthy and avoid wearing down.

Khalil Herbert isn’t a rookie, but might be the most impressive running back on this list. While he is lateral oriented posterior dominant, he is so well rounded across his different biomechanical areas that it was genuinely difficult to determine his orientation (which is a rarity in the modern NFL). More of a speed/ elusiveness threat than a power one (which is somewhat unusual for a posterior dominant RBs) Herbert has not yet been studied in enough depth to determine whether he shows full lumbar efficiency in any areas. But even if he does not, his film from 2021 shows a truly rare level of overall lumbar efficiency. Nearly a sure bet to produce statistically, Herbert is unfortunately (like Mooney) trapped on a team with very little offensive firepower. However, when he gets the proper opportunity, he will almost certainly be producing at a high level statistically

Unlike Khalil Herbert who shares the same orientation but a very different kind of profile, Brian Robinson (lateral oriented posterior dominant) very much favors his preferred lateral posterior lumbar areas. Which gives him some very nice straight ahead power/ burst and good balance/ tackle-breaking. Robinson has not yet been studied in enough detail to offer much beyond these relatively shallow impressions, however once he returns to health (assuming a full recovery) he seems likely to be a very effective early down runner for as long as he can maintain health.

Rhamondre Stevenson (medial centric anterior dominant) (also not a rookie) shows very high levels of medial anterior efficiency, with very fine-grained control of his anterior lumbar areas. He shows truly elite stop start and adjustment abilities, with the skillset to find tight creases and explode through narrow openings and at odd angles. Although he lacks a true top gear, his quick acceleration and ability to evade tacklers gives Stevenson consistent big play ability, and for a back his size, he shows very nimble feet. Stevenson also shows excellent/ soft hands. While Damien Harris is a talented back in his own right, Harris will be a FA after this season and if he departs and leaves Stevenson as the lone starter, Stevenson could become extremely productive.

Dallas Goedert (lateral oriented anterior dominant) may not be the most dominant physical TE on this list, but his very high levels of lumbar efficiency (particularly anterior) give him excellent short area quickness as well as very good top end speed (for a TE). Goedert doesn’t show the highest level of thoracic efficiency, nor the longest arms, but given his excellent ability to get open/ find space in the middle of the field, his ball-plucking is more than sufficient. However, if there is one knock on his ability to produce statistically, it is that these shorter less powerful arms aren’t as good at establishing a wide target in the endzone, nor at physically generating space for catches in such tight areas. Therefore Goedert appears to be more of an open field threat and less of an end zone weapon than other top tier TEs.

Albert Okwuegbunam (medial centric posterior dominant) shows a rare combination of speed, size, and soft hands– with a very wide catch radius. In terms of raw athleticism (via posterior efficiency), Okwuegbunam shows superstar potential. However, his anterior areas still seem quite loose and undeveloped, even as he is now entering his third season. Ever since he was drafted, he has shown biomechanical slack for technical tightening, which should, with the right training, allow him to run crisper routes and block more quickly/ effectively. But to date, these changes have yet to happen. If Albert O can improve his blocking and tighten his route running, the sky is the limit. And even now, finally paired with an accurate deep passing QB, Okwuegbunam may become quite productive. But if he can ever truly refine his skillset, he could become a genuine top tier all-around TE.

Isiah Likely has not yet been studied enough to offer a profile. However, even on first study he appears to show very high levels of thoracic efficiency (excellent/ strong hands, wide catch radius) in combination with unusual speed and run strength from the TE position. Frankly, he appears to be more of a powerfully built WR than a TE, and in preseason was used very often out of the slot. Given his TE eligibility, it seems possible that Likely may grow into a Marques Colston-like cheat code– someone who is a WR, but given TE eligibility. In actual football terms, he may be used somewhat as a hybrid TE/ WR. Hard to project without further study, Likely nevertheless shows such unusual receiving gifts for the TE position that acquiring him for a long term role seems wise.

Desmond Ridder (medial centric anterior dominant) is the only QB from this class studied enough to be able to judge whether he shows full thoracic efficiency in any areas. And despite his third round draft pedigree, Ridder does indeed appear to show one area of full thoracic efficiency. As such, Ridder shows very good accuracy and touch in terms of right to left (and when leading receivers). However, Ridder shows overlap between his posterior cervical/ thoracic junctions, which generally predicts depth related accuracy issues. And indeed when Ridder misses his targets, it is usually either too deep or too shallow. Nevertheless, when Ridder is able to set up with clean footwork, he is usually able to borrow upward from lumbar areas to establish synchronicity in these posterior thoracic/ cervical areas and throw accurately deep.

In addition, Ridder shows excellent lumbar efficiency and sneakily effective running ability. Ridder’s lumbar areas may end up being his true difference maker– when judging by thoracic efficiency alone, his under-developed posterior areas might present too large an obstacle. However, his combination of full medial anterior thoracic efficiency with excellent lumbar efficiency/ mobility means that Ridder will likely be able to play very effectively at the NFL level. And in terms of statistical production, his running ability will add an important extra dimension.