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Sterling Shepard - You can’t teach separation

Will Sterling Shepard’s ability to run routes and get separation let him shock the world?

NFL: New York Giants-Minicamp William Hauser-USA TODAY Sports

June and July is an interesting time for me.

This year’s NFL Draft is fading in our rear-view mirrors as our anticipation for seeing the new rookies on the field grows. And apart from some preliminary home-work on the prospects we know, or at least strongly suspect, will be in the 2017 draft. When it comes to the draft, and the wide receiver position in particular, one of the most common chestnuts you ALWAYS hear is “You can’t teach speed.”

Sure you can improve speed from a training perspective. You can improve flexibility, strength, and body composition. You can work on improving stride length and frequency. But ultimately, there’s only so much you can do. You can’t teach a wide receiver how to be an offensive lineman, and we understand that. On a genetic level, some people are just made to be fast, like some people have the frame to be a 300-pound behemoth of an athlete (that last part is important, make no mistake about that).

Somewhere along the line that simple reality morphed into a dogma. A receiver will run a 4.3 second 40-yard dash and draft observers chant “You Can’t Teach Speed” in a Pavlovian response while bumping him up their draft boards. But should they? Usain Bolt is FAST but that doesn’t necessarily mean that he would make a great football player.

I’m sure some out there are probably thinking that it’s more than a bit hypocritical of me to be criticizing the media’s valuation of speed, especially as someone who writes about (and roots for) the New York Giants, who have one of the most dynamic and explosive athletes in the league in Odell Beckham Jr. The Giants also had Sinorice Moss, who was a tremendous athlete in his own right, but he never managed to translate his athletic ability into production on the field.

Looking back at the 2016 draft, the first three receivers selected were Corey Coleman, Will Fuller, and Josh Doctson. Coleman and Fuller are bonafide speed demons, with the ability to get downfield in a hurry, while Doctson’s lower-body explosiveness and short-area quickness mark him as an exceptional athlete. Despite being ranked as the top receiver in the draft, LaQuon Treadwell of Ole Miss was the fourth receiver selected, picked by the Minnesota Vikings 23rd overall.

So why did the tape say that Treadwell was the best receiver in the draft, but Coleman Fuller, and Doctson all got taken before him? Simple: Speed. Fuller and Coleman each had 4.3 second forty yard dashes, while all Treadwell had was size and production.

The Giants’ own Sterling Shepard was the fifth receiver selected, drafted 40th overall, the fifth receiver off the board and the first of the second round. He didn’t have size or speed, so teams (and the media) largely overlooked him despite great production and stellar tape.

In the lead up to the draft, Alex Sinclair and I had a great chat with Reception Perception creator Matt Harmon. Harmon pegged Shepard as a potential pick for the Giants in the second round of the draft, saying:

Taking a closer look at how he scored in the Reception Perception, it’s easy to see what makes Shepard Harmon’s favorite receiver in this draft class. Simply put, Shepard dominated, no, he broke the reception perception. Despite being smaller than average, and running a 4.48 second 40-yard dash, Shepard won on 80.2 percent of his routes against zone coverage, 82.8 percent of his routes against man coverage, 78.6 percent of the time when double teamed — and an amazing 91.1 percent of his routes against press coverage.

By comparison, Corey Coleman, the first receiver drafted, fared well, but not nearly as well as Shepard. Despite being a speedster and the premier deep threat in college football, he won at a lower rate than the Giants’ second-round pick. Against the same Big 12 defenses that Shepard dominated, Coleman won on 75.0 percent of his routes against man coverage, 80.0 percent of routes against zone coverage, only 33.3 percent of his routes against double teams, and won 78.9 percent of the time when faced with press coverage. While that’s hardly anything to scoff at, it should also be noted that Baylor’s take on the Air Raid offense is designed to manufacture separation for receivers.

As a first-round receiver put in position to succeed, Coleman SHOULDN’T NOT be winning.

So why then did the less-athletic second round pick out-perform him against much of the same competition? The answer is something that gets overlooked all too often — Route running. Harmon referred to Shepard as a “master route craftsman,” and hoisted praise on him similar to what Carolina Panthers GM Dave Gettleman did on Beckham coming out of college.

The comparisons between Shepard and Beckham aren’t just in the unrelated complements from evaluators. Giants’ defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo flat-out mistook Sterling Shepard for Odell Beckham Jr. :

Beckham’s unique athleticism was what got him drafted highly, but what has let him dominate the NFL — only Rob Gronkowski is within five receiving touchdowns of Beckham’s total since he first took the field in 2014 — is his route running. And that route running is a trait he shares with Shepard. Beckham has even gone as far as to issue fair warning to the NFL not to sleep on the rookie receiver:

Even former NFL wide receiver Chad Johnson has noticed Shepard’s skills from afar:

There is much more to getting open than speed or even just running a route. There are a whole host of nuances that elevate route running from a skill to an art form. Things like releasing off the line, tempo control, body positioning, and even footwork aren’t often talked about, but can spell the difference between winning or losing a route just as surely as a significant deficiency in size or speed.

Truth be told, they’re all just tools. Speed, size, strength, leaping ability, and route running, are all just tools in the receiver’s toolbox. A receiver can use all of them to get open, but route running is perhaps the most important. Route running, being where the quarterback expects them to be, when they are supposed to be there, is a tremendous advantage for the receiver. Being able to do that and get separation with his route, gives the “initiative,” if you will, and is an ability that will be with him throughout his career. And like size, speed, or strength, coaching can improve route running, but is limited in its ability to instill it in players that just aren’t built for it. Just as some players just aren’t built to have blazing speed or catch radii that threaten low-flying aircraft, some players have a talent for route running. They have the attention to detail to focus on the minutiae of footwork to be on the correct foot at the top of their route to break in a direction as efficiently as possible or hand use at the line of scrimmage to get into their route as easily as possible. They have the work ethic to drill themselves to run the route to perfection, the focus to study their opponents, and themselves, in the film room.

It’s interesting how, in this age of measurables and metrics, height, weight, speed, arm length, jumping ability, and quickness are looked at as invaluable commodities that teams will sacrifice to get them. On the flip side, how players use those tools, how they apply themselves to mastering their craft is disregarded as something coaches can teach. And they can, to a point, just like they can help players get faster or stronger, but the ceiling is still there. It’s the same with a player’s ability to get open and separate. It’s something Odell Beckham has done at will in the NFL and Sterling Shepard did in college, better than anyone else in the draft.

Maybe it’s time to change the saying to “You can’t teach separation.”