Scouting the Wide Receiver Position

In my early teenage years, I was convinced that I would hit my growth spurt and become a phenomenal quarterback in both the high school and college levels. I would practice my footwork in the backyard, spinning the ball in my hand to get my fingers on the laces, and find random objects to throw the ball at to practice my accuracy. I wanted to be a mobile quarterback. I wanted to be able to throw on the move. I would roll out left and right and practice throwing from a moving platform.

As I reached the age fifteen and started into sixteen, I slowly realized my growth spurt would not be coming. I was damned to stand 5’6″ for the rest of my life. My younger brothers both grew taller than me, and my friends too, and I was the short guy in the friends group. I didn’t complain, I just knew that I had to change positions.

At sixteen, my sophomore year of high school, my parents allowed me to pursue playing football. I was homeschooled, and the state of Tennessee had recently passed a bill that allowed homeschool students to participate in public school extra-curricular activities, via the direction of the local School Board. Because of my address and the location where I lived, there were four schools in southern Tennessee I was eligible to participate: Lawrence County, Giles County, Loretto, and Richland.

I chose Loretto because of the coach, who at the time was a man named Billy Boyd. He had flipped Loretto from a team that won three-to-four games a year to a competitive team, coming off of a 8-3 season, a playoff run, and featured a senior running back in the upcoming season (his name escapes me now) who had run for over 1000 yards the previous year.

With my limits in size (I was 5’5″ and 140 pounds), I wanted to be a slot receiver and someone who could be used out of the backfield. I was convinced that I could be a valuable piece if I got the opportunity.

Getting my chance

Young John Vogel in a flag football scrimmage.

I arranged a session with coach Boyd, provided that the County School Board granted me my eligibility. I was training hard. We lived on 65 acres of large, steep hills. I would run up the largest one, a twenty-degree grade for a quarter of a mile, to build my explosion and speed. I clocked my forty yard dash at 4.53 seconds, and I knew I was ready to compete.

Unfortunately, I never got my chance. The school board ruled me ineligible due to my cover school, Homelife Academy, claiming that it was not listed on the bill as an eligible cover school.

That’s when I started writing.

Since then, I have made it my mission to learn the game of football. I love this game more than any sport. I think that the complexity of it, the physicality, the excitement, and the raw emotion from the game make it the great sport that it is. Valuable life lessons are taught that most people can’t get easily anywhere else. Players learn to take constructive criticism, hard work, work ethic, and teamwork more than most any other sport.

Those lessons don’t come easy in football either. Football is a sport that requires a lot of work. When people put in the work, it’s easy to see on tape.

Wide receiver is my favorite position because of the unique situation I was placed into. I trained to be a wide receiver. I took to several resources to be the best wide receiver that I could be, and stayed in shape with it (now 5’6″ and 170 pounds) so that if the opportunity ever arose, I could do something with it.

Now that you understand my passion for the position, let’s get into scouting it.

Scouting the Wide Receiver position

There are several types of receivers, and I prefer not to focus on those types. Any receiver can be a true impact player if they can master three things: Release, footwork, and catching.

If you don’t believe me, here’s my proof to you. Wes Welker, Amari Cooper, and Julio Jones are three completely different types of receivers, but all three players mastered three things: release, footwork, and catching. Because of that, they are able to truly impact the game through their different abilities.

Let’s talk about the release

The release is when the wide receiver starts his route with his first steps off of the line of scrimmage. A receiver with a good release can create separation in his route straight from the get-go.

Take Cowboys receiver Amari Cooper for example, someone who has spent countless hours perfecting the crafty release. NFL Game Pass recently did a film session where Cooper just came in an spoke about how he play the position. It was a phenomenal video for anyone wanting to learn or just enjoy a player talking about what he does to get open.

In this specific set, Cooper uses a jump step inside before breaking out. The main purpose of a good release is to flip the defenders hips in the opposite direction of where they need to be. Most coaches tell players not to use the jump step as a way to get defenders to bite on their fake. For players who aren’t athletic enough the jump step can remove them from the play completely as they struggle to recover. However, Cooper isn’t most players, and can use this to dominate.

The jump step creates the feeling that Cooper is about to explode inside on a slant, and the defender for a split second bites. He tangles his feet up under him and Cooper has created an extra step. He cuts back to the outside, and he’s already won the route.

This release is the same concept to start, it’s a little bit more complicated. Cooper fakes his cut inside and then appears to be headed upfield on a go-route. As soon as the defender commits to the outside route and flips his hips, Cooper cuts back inside and makes the defender look silly. This isn’t a random defender, either, this is Malcolm Butler, the Super Bowl hero who clinched Patriots win over the Seahawks.

The point of the release is to create separation from the start of the play, the moment the ball is snapped. The job of the receiver in this moment is to make the defender look silly, and there are a lot of creative ways to do that.

One of the biggest factors to a good release is the flexibility that a receiver has with his own hips. If he can control his hips well, he can control his direction better. It’s a hard thing to learn and it takes a lot of work to perfect, but you see it in all of the best receivers who take to the field.

How footwork can lead receivers to dominate

While the release is a combination of footwork and body language, the footwork that I want to discuss in this section is footwork through the route and up to the point of the catch.

Let’s bring up a legendary receiver, possibly the best receiver of all time.

Jerry Rice was one of the most naturally gifted receivers in NFL history. Back when he was growing up, his brothers used to throw bricks at him and Jerry would catch them. It was more than his hands, though, that made him a truly unique receiver. Look at the footwork in this practice tape that was recently posted on Twitter from years ago.

Look at the absolute control Jerry has in all of his routes. The number one reason? Footwork. His foot placement is absolutely out of this world. He has everything right, and he dominates these defensive backs as a result of it.

Here is a clearer example of great footwork, coming from Rams rookie receiver Van Jefferson, the son of former NFL receiver Shawn Jefferson. You can see Van get low with his body to better control his leverage, takes three steps to make his cut, and flawlessly squeezes past the defender.

Good footwork allows you to win your route if you don’t win in the release. If you do win your release, you can dominate further with good footwork through your route and potentially score a touchdown.

Catching the football

This is kind of a “duh” point, but it’s important to talk about securing the catch. It’s easy to get caught up in all of the technique and fundamental’s of getting open and not actually going through with making the catch.

A great example of someone who can do everything right and not catch the ball is former Philadelphia Eagles receiver Nelson Agholor.

Agholor has a great release on this play and absolutely turns around the defender and has a full two steps on him. As he gets down the field, he doesn’t make the play. He drops it.

There are many factors to why players potentially drop footballs. It could be overthinking the technique they used to get open. It could be thinking about the safety coming down to light them up with contact. It could just be trying too hard to catch it and not letting the ball come to them. However, if the receiver struggles to catch the football, it’s hard to justify anything else that they do.

Other tidbits that help wide receivers

As a receiver, I had to embrace a mentality when I went up against someone. I didn’t want to think of cornerbacks as defenders, I wanted to think of them as shaky, and I was going to shake them off in my route. The same to safeties, I thought that was a term that gave them too much respect. I knew that if I got one-on-one with a safety, he was toast. So I referred to safeties as toast. Linebackers were my ultimate goal to get one-on-one with, and that was a feast for me. I called them pot-roast.

There are mental tricks that receivers have to apply to their every day routine in order to truly dominate on the field. As a receiver, you have to be mentally stronger than the defender you are going up against. If you are not, you’re going to struggle to win. This is why I made nicknames for the postional groups on the field. It’s part of creating that mental strength over your opponent.

I like to ask receivers when I talk with them what they think their biggest strength and what their biggest weakness is. If they can tell me what their biggest weakness is, I know I can trust them in practice to work extra hard to make that weakness a strength. I like prospects who are going to be real with themselves and see that they need to put in the work.

It’s easy to get focused in athleticism, speed, and other things when scouting a wide receiver. Just don’t lose sight of the bigger picture, because there is a whole lot more to the receiver position than athleticism and speed.