- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 27, 2019

INDIANAPOLIS — Minnesota Vikings general manager Rick Spielman gave some advice to his son J.D., a wideout at Nebraska. Knowing what it takes for receivers to have success at the professional level, Spielman said he told him it’s not just enough to be able to win matchups on physical talent alone.

Spielman’s message was simple: Learn the technique.

“You have to look at the physical ability, but a lot of times these guys are coming in having played basketball on grass,” Spielman said of evaluating college wide receivers. “They never get in a huddle. … I looked at a lot of receivers that have never really had to sit there and face a top corner that’s going to jam you off the line of scrimmage. That’s all new.”

Year after year, rookie wide receivers struggle to make an impact in the NFL. In 2018, only seven of the 34 wideouts drafted finished with at least 500 yards. Of those seven, just three — Atlanta’s Calvin Ridley, Carolina’s D.J. Moore and Denver’s Courtland Sutton — gained more than 700 yards. None reached 1,000.

This year, the Redskins have a major need at wide receiver. But as they meet with prospects at the scouting combine this week, it will be about trying to find wideouts who can have an impact right away.

Even in this pass-happy generation of the NFL, that’s not easy.

The term “basketball on grass” refers to an idea that modern football relies on fast-paced, one-on-one matchups, like in basketball. That concept has become increasingly true in the NFL, where teams have openly borrowed concepts and tendencies from college.

In doing so, quarterback play has thrived. Twenty-four quarterbacks finished with a passer rating over 90 last season — whereas just nine quarterbacks did the same in 2008. Baker Mayfield, the No. 1 overall pick last year, looked especially comfortable after the Cleveland Browns adapted a college-style attack.

But there still appears to be a steep learning curve for rookie wide receivers.

“The step up in corner play at our level is significant,” Ravens general manager Eric DeCosta said. “Most of these really good corners are all first-round picks or high draft picks, and these are some of the most talented, skilled athletes in all of sports.

NFL offenses, with all the different checks at the line of scrimmage, all the different things we put on those guys … It’s just a really tough position to play.”

Like the Redskins, the Ravens are looking to upgrade at the position. Baltimore needs to develop quarterback Lamar Jackson and they need to surround him with adequate talent. On Monday, the Ravens released Michael Crabtree, a free agent signing from last year that didn’t pan out.

Some teams, like the Atlanta Falcons and the Pittsburgh Steelers, have done a solid job of drafting wideouts who can play right away. In Atlanta, Ridley proved to be a perfect complement opposite Julio Jones — blowing past defenders en route to 821 yards and 10 touchdowns.

Falcons coach Dan Quinn said Atlanta’s environment helped. Ridley got advice from Jones — a premier wideout in the NFL — and quarterback Matt Ryan. Quinn also credited Ridley’s alma mater, Alabama, for having a system that gave him the proper experience.

“I think it stills comes down to how quickly can a player learn the system,” Quinn said. “Generally, the player gets better as the season goes. Especially, the rookies. More time, more reps.”

No team is perfect. Even a franchise like the Vikings — who have two excellent wideouts in Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen — appears to have missed on 2016 first-rounder Laquon Treadwell.

Spielman said wideouts have to learn the proper technique in order to win their matchup in the NFL.

“I think that’s part of the process that he has to have the physical ability,” Spielman said, “but they also have to learn the technical part of the game, which is a big jump for some.”

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