Every draft season I find myself ‘crushing’ on a draft prospect. The 2012 NFL Draft saw my crush fall on Mychal Kendricks, Russell Wilson and Bobby Wagner. The 2011 NFL Draft my man crushes fell to Stefan Wisniewski and J.J. Watt. It’s official, I have my first ‘draft crush’ of the 2013 NFL Draft: Markus Wheaton.
Wheaton checked in at Mobile at 5011, 183 pounds with 8 1/2″ hands. Not exactly elite measurables at the wide receiver position. Far from it. Wheaton is prone to round off a route and isn’t a great high pointer of the football. He will, on an occasion, put the ball on the ground. Those are the downsides with Wheaton’s game, now that those are past us, let’s look at what makes this kid special.
The NFL game is quickly becoming a mirror image of the college game. Speed kills. As we see in the Super Bowl, both teams feature some of the best athletes at their positions, from Torrey Smith and Haloti Ngata to Colin Kaepernick and Aldon Smith, it’s a game won by schemes utilizing their athletic talents. Wheaton has athletic talent in spades. It was Wheaton that outran the “Black Mamba” De’Anthony Thomas of Oregon in the 100 meter Oregon Twilight meet. Clocking a time of 10.58 to Thomas’ 10.65 gives you an idea of Wheaton’s blazing speed.
For the obvious reasons Wheaton’s game has been compared to that of Mike Wallace of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Wheaton and Wallace share similar abilities to stretch the field vertically with world class speed. That’s where the similarities end for me between the two prospects coming out of college. Wheaton is a much more polished receiver than Wallace was coming out of Ole Miss.
We are going to look at three areas that put Wheaton into a category unto himself in this draft and why he should be considered a first round prospect at the end of the day.
EYE TRACKING/SPATIAL AWARENESS
This first screen grab is a two part series. First we will show you the latter portions of the play with Wheaton’s ability to track the ball with his eyes while maintaining his speed and spatial awareness. The second portion of this screenshot will be during the speed section of the film study.
Aaron Hester is a solid corner but he is schooled on this one and in many in this contest against Wheaton. Wheaton beats him off the line on a vertical route. Hester has to play catch up and because he’s trying to track with Wheaton’s speed, he can’t get his head turned. Wheaton is tracking the football with his eyes as he’s full sprint within three yards of the sideline. This play is a great sum of all the parts that make Wheaton so special.
Hester is just now catching up with Wheaton and finally gets his head turned as Wheaton is securing the ball. Speed kills. It was Wheaton’s speed that allowed him to get the early advantage on Hester and his eyes take over from there. All good receivers catch the ball with their eyes and Wheaton follows this one the entire time. One of the big issues with receivers in their growth process is spatial awareness on vertical routes. It’s one of the toughest things to do in football; to run full speed, track the ball with your eyes, adjust to the ball while maintaining distance between you and the sideline.
Wheaton’s foot fire off the line is incredible and stifles the DB on the goal line in this situation. He looks inside as the ball should be delivered to back pylon.
Wheaton snaps his head around quickly as he realizes the ball is tracking towards the front pylon. This is a bad throw which results in an incompletion but 9 times out 10 will be a TD at the next level.
This is a great example of Wheaton’s eyes, maybe the best in the draft. Wheaton sees this ball the entire time and knows he’s going to make an over the shoulder catch. Seeing the ball this early allows him to brace for contact and vie for body position. When you’re 5-foot-11, 183 pounds it’s important that you are crafty as you can’t just physically overwhelm DB’s with size. Wheaton is one of the best at this, something Mike Wallace didn’t do coming out of Ole Miss.
No shot for the corner as Wheaton tracks this one into his hands on a beautifully thrown football. In the vertical passing game, Wheaton is a force with his combination of speed, route savviness, and eye tracking ability.
SPEED TO BURN/FOOT FIRE
Let’s face it, the best part of Wheaton’s game is his elite speed. He may not blaze a 4.3 40 at the Combine as he’s much better at the last 50 meters than the first 50 meters. While he’s explosive off the line, it’s because of his ability to bait the DB into getting caught up with his feet (I call it foot fire). He’s patient in his release is incredible as most speedsters are looking to get up and go, not Wheaton. Wheaton hesitates, let’s his feet go to work and then explodes into the top of his route. This first screenshot is the first part of the first screen grab in eye tracking.
Hester should raise the white flag at this point. Hester gets caught up with Wheaton’s patience and foot fire at the line of scrimmage. He buys what Wheaton was selling (inside slant) and it’s over him. A good rule of thumb for corners is that if they are even, they are leaving. There’s a three yard halo that means that if a receiver enters that halo, you have to get your hips turned and run with the receiver. Hester is lined up in press man but gets no jam on Wheaton. It’s over from this point. If you’re going to press Wheaton, you better be physical and get your hands into his chest. Wheaton soaks up the cushion in one step and Hester is burnt from the word go.
Wheaton is at the point of even and Hester hasn’t fully turned his hips to run with him and doesn’t get hands on him. This is a recipe for disaster if you are going to cover him. We saw the result in the first screenshot.
A great route runner, Wheaton is not. He is better than he’s given credit for which I’ll show in a minute. Here is pure speed. Wheaton is going to give a quick jab step to the outside, enough to cause the corner to hesitate and then it’s over from there.
All is takes is a little hesitation and Wheaton is by you. This one little step, selling the out route completely turns around the corner and leaves nothing but green for Wheaton.
The safety is locked onto the crosser that is open in the middle of field, leaving the corner on an island. As you see, Wheaton’s jab step has the corner turned around and it’s over from here.
The result of this should go without saying. The ball is underthrown and Wheaton makes a great grab with good concentration as the corner is able to catch up as Wheaton is forced to slow down to track the ball.
I’m not going to pretend that Wheaton is a NFL ready route runner, as he has a tendency to round off sharp in/out breaking routes. When he doesn’t, he’s hard to cover. This is something that can be taught/perfected at the next level. Here’s a look at what a sharp breaking out route looks like. Here’s a hint, it makes it near impossible to cover and the DB looking silly.
Ten yards cushion on Wheaton in man coverage. With Wheaton’s ability to stretch the field vertically he makes you respect his speed. A lot of fast receivers are forced to really throttle down into and out of their break. Wheaton has the unique ability to maintain full speed into his break and explodes out of it. This is a great example.
The corner is backpedaling on the snap for fear of getting beat deep. Wheaton snaps off his route at 10 yards, leaving him with 6 yards of cushion and giving the Beavers a gimme first down.
Wheaton is able to get two feet in which has become routine for him already. Again, look at his head/eyes – on the ball. He is one of the better eyes catchers in the draft and a major reason why I think he could challenge for an earlier than expected spot in April.
Markus Wheaton is beginning to build some buzz after a solid week in Mobile. Many are talking about Wheaton as a solid second rounder but point to his size and route running as detriments to his ability to sneak into the first round.
Here’s my question. Mike Wallace was 84th pick in the 2009 NFL Draft. If we were to re-do the draft, where does Mike Wallace go? The answer is in the first 15 picks of that draft without even looking at the names. I don’t know of anyone that would say Mike Wallace was as polished a receiver coming out in the draft as Markus Wheaton is in 2013 as he enter the draft. Given those facts why is Wheaton not being talked about as a challenger for the top receiver spot in the draft. I have made my thoughts on this receiver class clear. It starts with Cordarrelle Patterson and from there your guess is as good as mine. Patterson is a major projection on my part, with Wheaton I know what I’m getting. Bottom line is this guy is a first round pick and my bet is some team will agree with that come April 25th.
If questions remain about Wheaton’s speed, feel free to check out the video of him blazing the 100 with De’Anthony Thomas running right beside him.