What's sparked the rise of productive late-round wide receivers?
Geronimo Allison's big play in the Green Bay Packers' win over the Bengals last weekend had Aaron Rodgers thinking back to his initial impression of the second-year receiver.
"I remember the first day I watched him at training camp," Rodgers told reporters after that game. "I said, 'How the hell did this guy not get drafted?'"
Some people might be wondering the same about Minnesota Vikings receiver Adam Thielen, who ranks second in the NFL in receiving yards -- sandwiched between Pittsburgh Steelers star Antonio Brown (a sixth-round pick in 2010) and Vikings teammate Stefon Diggs (a fifth in 2015). Of the top 20 receivers in yards so far this season, seven were late-round (5-7) picks or undrafted.
Three or four games is a small sample, of course. One big game and you're on the list. (Allison followed up that 72-yard catch against the Bengals by playing all of 16 snaps Thursday against Chicago; he wasn't targeted.) First- and, to a lesser degree, second-round picks are a majority among the statistical leaders every season. And every position is going to generate hidden gems who end up being more productive than higher picks.
Still, fast starts by the likes of Thielen and Diggs and the ascension of Brown, Seattle's Doug Baldwin (undrafted in 2011) and others into difference-makers echoes the thrust of Rodgers' question: How do some future star receivers slip in the draft, even as NFL teams are spreading out and throwing the ball more than ever in recent years?
I asked a handful of NFL executives and scouts I trust about it this week. And while everything in the draft is case-by-case, the most common answer from a macro perspective was supply and demand.
Proliferation of spread offenses in college football means many schools now have four starting receivers instead of two, so more players are getting development and exposure. It's the position that generates by far the most reports and grades heading into the draft, to the point many teams have an extra column on the board during meetings to handle the spillover. "We go back through that receiver group over and over, trying to get guys off, because there's so many names," one NFL executive said.
Said a general manager: "Guys that used to be corners and safeties that are great athletes now are receivers in college. Back in the day, where there might have been like 15 [legitimate receiver prospects] in the draft, there's like 35 [now] that have draftable grades." The majority of guys who stay on the board end up clumped together in those late rounds, where teams often hone in on specific traits that fit their systems.
The number of receivers drafted has remained relatively static over the past two decades -- between 28 and 37 every year since 1998. So, if the talent pool has expanded even incrementally, the odds are better of hitting on a stud late in the draft or undrafted free agency.
There are some historical trends in the type of receivers that get pushed down (shorter guys, small-school players, etc.), but it's often about specific flags on the player.
Coming out of Central Michigan, Brown was a slender 5-foot-10 and ran a disappointing 4.47 40-yard dash at the NFL scouting combine. "Hard sell when [you] have 80 guys bigger and faster," one scout said.
People at Maryland "killed" Diggs, one former GM recalls, telling scouts his big freshman year went to his head. Or, as Vikings coach Mike Zimmer put it to me this week: "He had a reputation that was not real good."
Baldwin had a bad rap out of Stanford, too. Thielen played at Division II Minnesota State, which isn't exactly an NFL hotbed. San Francisco's Pierre Garcon (sixth round in 2008) played at Division III Mount Union. Kansas City's Tyreek Hill (fifth in 2016) had a disturbing domestic violence issue. Allison was an inconsistent route runner with inconsistent hands at Illinois who seemed tight getting in and out of breaks (in case you're still wondering, Aaron).
Sometimes, it's about being in the right place at the right time. Sometimes, it's about being a type of player one team values more than everyone else. (See: the long line of receivers who have thrived in New England.) Projecting football character is a big piece of the puzzle, too, and that's often the area scouts miss more so than projecting on-field traits. It's a credit to those who, one or way or another, overcome whatever the NFL thought was lacking to produce at the highest level.