A year after three wide receivers went in the first 10 picks of the 2017 NFL Draft, two were picked in the first round this year — and it took 75 percent of the draft to be competed for D.J. Moore (No. 24, Carolina Panthers) and Calvin Ridley (No. 26, Atlanta Falcons) to go off the board.
Perhaps the top end of this year’s receiver class was “weak,” in a sense. But while the NFL is firmly a passing league, it’s becoming harder for teams to find plug-and-play receivers through the draft who have a baseline knowledge of route concepts.
Anthony Miller was the sixth receiver taken in the 2018 draft, and brings to the Bears an important trait: He’s well-regarded as a route runner despite playing in what's, on the surface, a typical college spread offense at Memphis.
“You want to be able to see throughout their pro days, the combine, what they put on tape — any time you can see a route that relates to what you do as an offense, you kind of tag that and say, ‘OK. Hey, there it is. I found one,’” Bears coach Matt Nagy said.
The Bears identified plenty of those tags with Miller, but one in particular stands out: His ability to set the angle with his quarterback.
And that’s not something to take for granted. Sports Illustrated’s Conor Orr wrote about this earlier in April:
Take one of the most basic components of the NFL route tree: the curl. For years, the receiver was taught to run 12 yards, plant hard and work back to the quarterback at a 45-degree angle. This allows the quarterback to throw a split-second early—like when the receiver digs his heel in to turn.
Now, receivers are coming out of school running the curl as a continuous semicircle, which creates myriad problems at the next level.
“When you’re running a semicircle, you’re keeping your arms moving and chopping, some coaches think its great because you’re playing fast, you’re not stopping,” Proehl says. “But a guy running a semicircle, if I’m running it and a guy like Kelvin Benjamin is running it, our circles are going to be different. The quarterback has to wait for you to come out and square your shoulders. That takes more time.”
That extra time means defensive backs have a window to undercut the route.
“When you come to him, plant your foot in the ground and come back at an angle, you’re boxing him out. He’s behind you. You create and maintain separation with your angle coming back to the QB.”
That setting-the-angle skill far too many college receivers lack is something the Bears quickly identified as a part of Miller’s game.
“And so with Anthony, you see a guy that at the top of his route, he likes to stick the top of the route and it’s sharp, so what that does is it sets the angle for the quarterback,” Nagy said. “And you don’t see that from every wide receiver. There’s a violent move for him to be able to set angles, whether it’s a slant route, a post route, an out route, et cetera, he’s aggressive with it and I think that fits his style of play.”
And here’s what Miller’s college wide receivers coach, David Johnson, had to say about his ability to set the angle:
“He understands angles, he understands — and I think one of the biggest things people don’t recognize, his first three steps, everything is at full speed, whether he’s blocking, he’s running a route, the first three steps are important,” Johnson said. “He’s coming off the ball and making everything look vertical. He’s always in attack mode, and that helped him with route-running, putting the defensive back always on the defensive and thinking he doesn’t want to get ran by. He plays fast, he plays a lot faster than his 40 is, especially when he gets the ball in his hands.”
This may seem like a minor detail, but for Miller’s ability to quickly find success in the NFL, it’s important. Reliably setting an angle for Mitch Trubisky should help Miller and his new quarterback build some chemistry throughout the offseason program and training camp.
And, more immediately, it’s one fewer thing wide receivers coach Mike Furrey will have to begin to teach him this weekend during rookie minicamp. And that means the limited practice time Furrey will have with his second-round pupil can be spent on, perhaps, topics less basic to a wide receiver than setting the angle on a curl route.