Note: Big thanks to Draft Breakdown for all the cut-ups. A must bookmark for anyone interested in watching college players.
Jordan Matthews’ production in the SEC opened eyes, and his combine performance drew even more attention to Jerry Rice’s second cousin. Statistical models love Matthews numbers and level of competition, and his measureables make him look like a candidate to be a #1 receiver in the NFL. Any examination of his games will reveal that is not the caliber of talent at wide receiver to be a the primary threat in an NFL passing attack.
I don’t want to be accused of not acknowledging what Matthews does well, and it’s not a short list.
Playing vs Zone Coverage: Matthews is a supreme zone beater. He knows how to throttle down to sit in a dead spot. He is fast enough at speed to burn safeties or corners who are late in picking up their responsibility. Matthews has a natural understanding of where the windows in the defense will be for his quarterback, and how to occupy them on time. He’ll also take a hit to make a catch over the middle, which is important for utilizing this ability.
Hands and Ball Skills: Matthews gets his head around early in the play and he can adjust to poorly thrown balls behind him with good body control. He’s a good natural hands catcher, and he’ll make catches at extension and by climbing the ladder. He has a very good catch radius. Matthews has made more than one catch with one hand while he’s being interfered with downfield. He can track the ball over his shoulder with ease. Getting his head around early in his routes creates quick, natural reactions on short and intermediate passes that are usually successful. It is important to point out at the Matthews is not immune from drops. High balls will sometimes glance off of his hands with disastrous results:
Speed: Matthews has good enough speed to keep defenders from catching him when he gets to the open field. He can also sustain separation if a defender bites on his patented hitch-and-go double move. His speed is “build up” speed, not explosive out of his stance or possessing a fifth gear, but it is good enough to translate, as confirmed by his 4.46 at the Combine.
Intelligence: In addition to beating zone coverage, Matthews does a lot of smart things on the field. He patiently follows and sets up his blocks on screens and end arounds to create big plays. He comes back to the quarterback when the play is extended. He uses his footwork to get inside or outside leverage during the stem in his route.
Balance/Coordination: Matthews is not an explosive or sudden athlete, but he is very coordinated and balanced moving in his routes and running after the catch. He can veer towards space and smoothly find a lane after a reception. He can stay in stride after catching the ball behind him on slants and crossing patterns. His athleticism won’t win beauty contests, but it makes him a very steady performer.
THAT’S GOOD, RIGHT?
Between all of his positives, Matthews projects as an adequate 2nd or (more likely) 3rd/4th receiver in an offense driven by a prolific pocket passer. He might do a decent job replacing Eric Decker in Denver. He’ll be where his quarterback expects him to be and do a good job making the catch. He can be a productive pro, there’s no doubt about it. My hesitation in taking him on the first or second day of the draft is that the positives in his game pretty much end there, leaving big holes when it comes to creating separation against man coverage by running the full route tree and winning balls he has to compete for - which will be magnified in importance if he can’t create a lot of separation.
Screen Passes: Matthews is used on screen passes as often as any wide receiver in the 2014 draft class. The problem is that he is not elusive or dynamic enough to create on this type of play in the pros. His build-up speed does make him a threat to go the distance on perfectly-blocked screens (and Vanderbilt did this multiple times during his career):
But he is pedestrian when the play is defended competently:
You can see the same contrast on end arounds/reverses.
Physical Play: Matthews can be re-routed too easily in man coverage. He doesn’t fight for his lane in his route and the defender dictates where he can run. Watch this red zone play get thwarted by a hand on the shoulder:
This problem also pops up repeatedly when Matthews has to compete for a ball in flight. Matthews fades away from the ball and his body goes slack. He waits for the ball to come to him and does not bang in the air or attempt to high point the ball. Sometimes you’ll see contact or grabbing that could be called interference when Matthews is defended on a downfield pass, but no flag because Matthews does not make a strong enough bid on the ball to draw the call. Watch these plays for examples of Matthews deficiency making a strong play on a ball in flight when he has to compete for it:
Creating Separation vs Man Coverage: Obviously, Matthews was not creating separation on those plays above. Matthews does not usually get open with sharp routes against man coverage. He isn’t sudden enough at the top of his routes to create a lot of separation in the pros. Matthews did have one go-to move to get open deep, a hitch-and-go double move:
But watch how it easy it is to defend him when a corner sniffs it out:
Which outcome do you think will happen more often in the pros?
Counterfeit Big Plays: That hitch-and-go leads to the last point - most of Matthews big plays are not going to translate to the pros. With the exception of a few nice one-handed catches when he gets a step on the corner early in a downfield route, Matthews’ big plays tend to fall into one of these categories:
- Well-Blocked Screen
- One-on-one with a Safety
- Defensive Lapses
How hard is it to find guys that can beat zone coverage in the NFL? I know that most rosters will have a better deep threat on double moves and they’ll certainly have a more dynamic receiver for screen passes. Don’t get me wrong, Matthews combination of size and speed is an asset, but he’s not really that different than Jerricho Cotchery or Justin McCariens in that respect. If he can’t create big separation, his inability to win balls he has to compete for will limit the impact of his build-up speed.
His outstanding Senior Bowl week can be attributed more to the weakness of the senior wide receivers than dominance on his part, and our own Matt Waldman reported that separation was an issue for him there, too. GMs will be choosing between him and the talented underclassmen at the position on the second day, not between him and other seniors. His production in the SEC can be attributed mostly to screens and passes against soft zone coverage, which dilute the value of the level of competition. There isn’t as much tape of him beating future NFL corners as you would think there is based on his numbers.
Matthews can contribute in the NFL, he belongs, but he won’t be a number one in any scenario, and he wouldn’t be one of the best two receivers on a lot of teams. With so many receivers that offer a higher ceiling in the 2014 NFL Draft, I would have trouble taking him in the top 100 picks.