The wide receiver woes the Vikings have faced this last season are pretty well-known at this point. Without a big body in the red zone or a receiver that can win contested catches. The most common name coming up in mock drafts, at least by my survey, is Josh Doctson, receiver from TCU.
There's not much question that Doctson has an excellent highlight reel of contested catches, a quality the Vikings sorely lack and need. Teddy Bridgewater didn't throw that many 50/50 balls, but with the success rate the Vikings receivers have shown in that situation over his Minnesota career, it's hard to blame him.
Anecdotal evidence in the Pro Bowl, and actual evidence from his time with Devante Parker in Louisville, shows that he may be more willing to take chances if receivers more willingly repay the faith a 50/50 ball shows.
Does Doctson show the kind of gamechanging ability that could supercharge the offense?
Looking through his individual traits may reveal the answer. In order to compile this scouting report, I looked at five games—Minnesota, Texas, Texas Tech, Kansas State and West Virginia.
Many have made much of the Air Raid offense and how limited Doctson's route tree is. That isn't accurate. Not only does Docston run the nine basic routes in any route tree, but he does them at a frequency that is relatively close to NFL averages, simply running go routes a little more often than the average #1 WR (more on that at the bottom).
There are certainly evaluation issues that come from the Air Raid offense that are worth discussing, but in this offense, it's not appropriate to say that Doctson is raw simply because he comes from the system. Aside from running "NFL routes" regularly—and the whole gamut of them—Doctson did a good job running them well.
Within the confines of the system, Doctson understood not only his route, but the route combination package he was in, and how to adjust his routes to various coverages in order to maximize space without disrupting the overall pattern. While these were sometimes simple rules—running a post or a go based on the cornerback alignment—they were often judgment calls on spacing as he sought open room for quarterback Trevone Boykin to throw to.
Doctson wasn't 100% sound in creating that space in zones (particularly against interior defenders zoning outside into the hook/curl area; he needs to consistently angle up more or he will cause interceptions), but he did a much better job than most draft-eligible receivers finding room for his quarterback to throw.
A common thread throughout Doctson's game is his intuition. He knows where the ball is supposed to go based on the coverage, as well as where to move to maximize his space. The TCU alum also knows what to do in the scramble drill, and fairly immediately. He identifies space and claims it—within sight and throwing ability of the quarterback. He'll consistently adjust to deal with the scramble, but rightly makes sure to keep generating open space.
That feel for the game gives him an added ability to deceive, too. He wouldn't just option into a superior route, but he could also slow-play a defensive back through the route.
Related to that, an underrated quality of Doctson's is his ability to adjust his speed throughout his route in order to manipulate defenders and create favorable leverage for the route he'll ultimately run. That manipulative ability extends to other, more subtle moves he uses to create space.
He has a number of moves he uses to get them to bite on the wrong routes, from shoulder fakes, jab steps, head nods and more. Those sync well with his consistent use of separation at the break and sophisticated footwork at the top of the stem. He sinks his hips through his routes and can quickly break in or back towards the ball.
For the most part, they work, though probably not as well as they should have given his hips and alignment throughout some of the routes. I don't anticipate it working as well at the next level as it did in college—though that sounds like a given, I generally mean that his separation traits at the stem aren't consistent enough that I would project this as a strength of his in the NFL, though it certainly isn't a weakness.
Beyond that, he may be wasting the advantages he creates with his deceptive ability by rounding off his routes and giving defensive backs extra time to react to what he's doing (or to the mistakes they've made). This is particularly true on outbreaking routes, but I've seen it on most of them. He should have the adequate agility to make sharper cuts, especially because he has the technique for crisper routes, just not the consistency. He often got away with it because of all the off coverage he saw.
And that touches on something worth mentioning; his play in the Big 12 in his system makes his route-running difficult to evaluate because of his competition and spacing. The Air Raid system has encouraged Big 12 programs into quarters or Cover-3 looks with defensive backs lined 7-10 yards off the line of scrimmage.
As a result, there are big problems when looking for his play against press coverage (something the Minnesota game did provide), especially his release off the line. For what it's worth, what snaps we saw against the jam seemed good, and he possessed an adequate array of moves to get off the line of scrimmage without disrupting timing.
His ability to consistently win leverage battles at the line of scrimmage or in the route makes for a good impression of his physicality and ability to hold his spot in routes, especially against the sideline.
Unfortunately, that may be an illusion. Most of his snaps were against defensive backs listed below 180 pounds, like Texas' 179-pound Holton Hill or 178-lb Duke Thomas, Texas Tech's 173-lb Justis Nelson or Kansas State's 160-lb
Darreyl Patterson Duke Shelley.
He had a few opportunities against 185-205 pound corners (Minnesota and WVU and a brief moment against K State), but not a ton. In those limited snaps, he didn't fare well against physical play for routes that required he win his position instead of find space. At the next level, this could translate to being pushed to the sideline on deep routes, instead of between the boundary and the numbers—a rarity in his college career.
Beyond that, aside from the WVU and Minnesota corners, none of the players he went up against were really any good.
If one of his biggest assets in college simply can't translate into the NFL, then he doesn't have a trump card. I'm willing to bet that with some work in the weight room (it does not look as if he can't fill out more) that he can reclaim those very qualities that made him so valuable to the Horned Frogs.
One nagging concern to add is the large number of routes he ran as a right-sided wide receiver. He did run some routes in the slot and on the left side, but a quick look at his games makes it seem like 90% of his routes are run on the right side of the field—and very wide at that.
It may be difficult for him pick up the left-sided footwork and agility he will need at the NFL level and I did sense some issues when he was lined up on the left side of the field. The fact that he has issues with out-breaking routes in particular on the right may mean that he could have issues with in-breaking routes on the left (though, it may not... it's an unusual situation to project).
To get one thing out of the way, Doctson may have the best ball tracking in the class. I confidently say that without having scouted anyone else in this class, because I believe he has the best ball tracking of any receiver in the past several drafts. If a team drafts players based on their trump card (and some teams do, notably Seattle and New England), then this is his. It's phenomenal, and after watching Cordarrelle Patterson attempt to do something similar for years, refreshing.
Doctson never seems surprised to see a ball headed his way, regardless of where he is in the progression or how quickly the ball arrives—and whether or not he's turned his head just in time or far sooner.
At first, I was convinced that Doctson had an unusually high drop rate for someone who draft enthusiasts and Vikings fans were lauding for his hands. Admittedly, they aren't perfect (like, Chris Harper's in 2014 for Cal), but the high number of drops I counted in the games scouted came in part because of the sheer number of receptions he had in those games—52 in five games.
His drop rate, by my count, is 8.6 percent. Among college receivers that is neither high nor low, though you'd always want it lower, especially considering the possession role many envision for him. On the other hand, his worst game for drops was also his best game statistically, and it was played in the rain. His propensity for drops may actually be far lower than the statistics imply, but there's cause for concern when looking at his catch technique.
Technique issues for drops are good sign, relative to other reasons—like small hands or focus. While an indication of the work he'll have to do, it's far more fixable than the other two causes. His catch technique when extending away from his body tends to leave his hands apart, and his strong hands allow him to get away with it more often than not. But because his hands do not operate as an integrated unit, drops are bound to occur. Add that to the fact that he prefers to basket-catch if possible, and there's a lot of room for improvement.
This isn't an every-catch phenomenon. In high-leverage situations, like in the red zone, he tends to display more integrated technique. But, for the most part, his hands technique is sloppy and he gets away with it because of his strong hands. I'm a little worried with how it will translate at the next level because while he'll hold on to the ball through contact, the story might change if it's a 210-pound safety or 250-pound linebacker instead of a 160-pound waif hitting him when he catches it.
That said, his hands are not so strong that we should expect the regular one-handed catches we're used to seeing from LSU alums Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry (or for the Vikings faithful—Cris Carter) despite what happened against Minnesota in 2014. That's not seemingly in his repertoire and it reduces his effective catch radius, which is still pretty good (but overblown).
One area where we do see some great news about his hands though, is in contested catches. When it comes to fighting for the ball, the hype is real. Doctson didn't tend to lose many contested catches, and won a fair number of them—missing only about 10% of his opportunities in 50/50 situations and consistently winning catches in traffic, like slants and crossers. Mostly this has less to do with his hands and more to do with his great ball tracking, body control and positioning, but he did show good hand strength winning the ball in tricky situations.
Along with his phenomenal ball-tracking, Doctson may be able to lay claim to the one trait that Vikings fans have been craving above all else: winning the damn ball.
He'll put himself in situations to win the ball, too. Perhaps the most frustrating plays from Charles Johnson and Mike Wallace weren't the drops or lost contests in the air on short curls, but pass deflections and even interceptions that occur while the receivers wait patiently for the ball to arrive (or worse, give up on it arriving) instead of taking the ball before anyone else. There are plays here and there when Doctson could have attacked the ball and didn't but they are certainly not the norm.
Doctson is certainly inconsistent here, and sometimes it's interesting to juxtapose those who disliked current Cowboys receiver Terrance Williams against their takes on Josh Doctson. While Doctson is certainly more willing to be physical before and during the catch, his physicality after the catch leaves something to be desired and like Williams will often go down on first contact.
On screen passes, he regularly chooses easy-outs for a few yards instead of running through (lighter) defenders for a few more and after receiving the ball in midfield, he overemphasizes securing the ball at the risk of gaining yardage—often diving or falling to the ground instead of attempting to pick up extra yards.
It may be all for the better, though, as he doesn't have very good instinct or vision when it comes to generating YAC. He'll make incorrect decisions about which way to turn out his body, as if he's suddenly forgotten how the defense has leveraged against him, and run into a wall of defenders instead of space on the other side of him.
Beyond that, his vision as a runner is severely lacking. For all the feel he demonstrates before the ball leaves his quarterback's hands, he has very little feel for how to generate additional yardage. Even when actively trying to avoid contact, Doctson does a terrible job assessing angles or figuring out which side of a block to attack.
That said, he has natural quickness and agility, as well as a high degree of body control, which means that there are moments when he shines in creating YAC, sometimes dazzlingly so. Though he covers for his lack of explosive burst with intuition and smooth agility, he does have good long speed and can pull away from defenders when he sees open field.
The fact that he doesn't have a lot of acceleration (during play, anyway) shows up here, as well. It's a bigger concern for me in the context of his after-catch work then it is for working nine routes and on deep passes because he seems to get behind the defense fairly well despite missing an elite second gear before the catch.
There are a lot of other odds and ends to tie up. Doctson's aversion to physicality in YAC may not extend to his blocking, where he consistently seems willing to stick it. Unfortunately, he's also not very good at it, sometimes having issues with identifying his assignment in the running game or running a path to the blocker that they can easily avoid.
His hand placement when blocking is alright, but his ability to locate opponents is lacking. His aggressiveness as a blocker is extremely variable and though it seemed to improve over time, it's not something I'd count on and it could just be one strong game clouding the evaluation. Mostly all the inconsistency averages out to an average blocker.
I haven't heard much in the way of character for Doctson, which is almost always a good thing. ESPN has given him the highest score in "intangibles" and there aren't a ton of reports elsewhere.
As for durability, there are of course some lingering concerns with his wrist, but many thought it would have been ready by the Senior Bowl. Even though it seems like he wasn't, the fact that it's a relatively short-term injury should wash things away. His build presents bigger problems, and could represent durability issues in the future. He's no Paul Richardson, but it's something to keep an eye on.
Here are a range of outcomes for Doctson at the Combine that I think will provide clues as to whether or not he should move up or down in draft grade:
|Outcomes||Height||Weight||40 Yard Dash||20 Yard Split||10 Yard Split||Bench Press||Vert||Broad Jump||Short Shuttle||Three Cone|
Say what you will about the importance of the combine; my research shows that it matters.
For Doctson's style of play, this is what he'll have to shoot for. Sure, it would be great if he runs a 4.33-second 40 and jumps 40" instead of running 4.43 and jumping 44" ... but given the way he plays, this is the profile I think he may have to shoot for.
Contested-catch receivers running in the low 4.5's isn't uncommon and they can still be big play guys at that speed; Dez ran a 4.52, as did Brandon Marshall. Alshon ran a 4.48 and Allen Robinson ran a 4.57—their playing styles allowed a lower speed, but a big difference is that they were all over 215 pounds (in fact, all of them but Alshon were 220 pounds or more), and 220 pounds running a 4.50 40-yard dash is pretty good.
The issue for Doctson is if he runs slow and he happens to be light. The 4.52 speed listed above isn't bad in a vacuum, but it's pretty bad for a taller player weighing 193 and jumping 39".
The gradations in results represent universal upgrades, so it's possible his weight is in the "best" range, while his speed is in the "bad" range and he could still have a good combine. For example, a 6'3", 205-pound Josh Doctson running a 4.56 would have had a better combine performance than the "good" range I put up there if he also jumps 43", benches 20 reps, broad jumps 10'9" and runs a 4.25 short shuttle with a 6.97 three-cone.
Even if he bombs the agility drills (4.3 seconds and 7.1 seconds) and the 40-yard dash (4.56 seconds) but hits good explosion scores at a good weight, he'll have a good combine worth pushing his grade up. Everything is relative to playing style and body density.
And, just because I think the combine matters, doesn't mean I think it's the end-all, be-all of receiver evaluation. Some of the worst combines I have on record are for Kelvin Benjamin and Jarvis Landry. On average, however, good combine performances from players tend to outperform their draft position.
As for college production, there's good evidence that, used intelligently, they can provide clues into performance. There's even evidence that college production provides predictive power above and beyond the pick a player is drafted, and the two pieces of information together are pretty powerful.
One of the keys to determining if college production has clues into NFL success is to look into age-adjusted production, and define production more by the "market share" of yards produced by the receiver as a function of the total number of receiving yards. In cases like Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham at LSU, that analysis won't be useful because they steal yards from each other, but overall it's better than total yards, total touchdowns and so forth.
Neither Josh Doctson's market share nor his age are big issues. They never are in isolation. Together, however, they can be illuminating (if Kelvin Benjamin had production commensurate to other successful "old" WRs coming out of college, it wouldn't be a red flag—not to me, anyway).
If Doctson was coming out of the draft at age 20 and produced the yards he did, his age-adjusted production would be great. Instead, he will likely be the oldest receiver drafted in the first three rounds.
If he had produced greater yardage this year, his age-adjusted production would be great. But producing only 35% of his offense's yards at age 23 is a small red flag; typically first-round prospects who succeed at a college age of 23 produce 42% of their offense's passing yards.
Something that does buffer the metric case in his favor, however, is the fact that his market share of touchdowns (also predictive, but not as much as yards) was very high: 44%. Because of that, I think the overall case of his age and college production is somewhat moot and has a small, but relevant, impact on my final grade.
This doesn't tell us a whole lot, but I've been able to create Similarity Scores using Matt Harmon's research. He has logged over 200 routes for 30 NFL receivers and currently 10 draft-eligible wide receivers (more NFL and college receivers to come) and while I may be able to later on create "proposed usage/role" scores for college receivers with more data, I can tell you which NFL receivers each college prospect most closely mirrors in terms of usage.
This isn't part of the grade, but it does let us know how college coaches used their prospect and whose game they hoped to mirror. SimScores range from 0-100, and the 90+ scores are the most interesting. Some college WRs have no NFL players whose SimScore is over 90+ and some with a great many. Doctson is one of those, with 12 matching WRs. Josh Doctson most closely resembled the 2015 usage of the following receivers:
This largely implies that TCU wanted to use him like a primary receiver who works at all three levels of the field while working as a big-play threat.
There are enough warts on Josh Doctson's evaluation for me to wait until the second round, but I wouldn't mind trading up in the second to get him around pick 45. His intuition, ball-tracking and ability to win in contested catch situations intrigue me, but not enough to overlook his build, technical receiving and route issues as well as concerns about physical play.