Lee Evans Vs. Dwayne Bowe: Which WR Benefits Most From Offseason Acquisitions?By
As any avid fan will testify, football is absolutely the ultimate team sport. In no other athletic endeavor does one man’s success depend so heavily on the success of 10 others.
You can be the best wide receiver in the league. But if the quarterback/center mess up the exchange, or the offensive line makes a protection error, or if the running back doesn’t pickup the blitz correctly, or the quarterback flat-out sails the ball on you, all the talent in the world will not yield results of any merit whatsoever.
This synergy is what makes football so unique, with either far-reaching success or abject failure, depending on the ability of those 11 players to create an output far greater than the simple sum of their parts.
This synergy would explain why a Cowboys team with 14 Pro Bowlers didn’t make the playoffs, and an Atlanta team with a rookie quarterback and nowhere near the star power out of an equally-competitive division did.
GMs and owners around the league would do well to keep this in mind, because the art of adding and subtracting players has far more extended and complicated consequences than a simple addition or subtraction of that player’s aggregate statistical production.
Every player you add to the offense/defense will affect every other player on that side of the ball, and it is precisely this factor that is so interesting when examining the two biggest marquee player movements in the 2009 NFL offseason.
A Kansas City Chiefs team finally solved its rampant musical chairs problem at the quarterback position by acquiring Matt Cassel from the Patriots.
The Buffalo Bills’ offense went from stagnant to multi-faceted and promising with the addition of talented-but-bellicose WR Terrell Owens.
However, these two teams have something else in common besides the fact that both decided to break out the checkbook for some serious star power.
Both teams are homes to two of the brightest and most promising young wide receivers in the league in Dwayne Bowe and Lee Evans. True, Evans has been in the league a little longer than Dwayne, but Evans’ complete lack of a quarterback and offensive line for the vast majority of his early career would put him on the same level as the third-year receiver from Kansas City.
Both receivers are young with dazzling natural talents. Both receivers have made spectacular plays, posted big games, and caught the attention of fantasy nerds and casual fans alike.
Both receivers have recently received radical upgrades in key positions that look to imbue their respective offenses with flashes of both competency and entertainment that have largely been absent in both franchises for the last few seasons.
However, the question remains: Which marquee acquisition will have the most palpable (and promising) effect on these two young up-and-coming superstars? To understand this effect, one must first examine the relative strengths and weaknesses of each receiver to fully understand the ramifications that these huge acquisitions will have on their overall production.
All concrete data is provided by Scouts, Inc., courtesy of ESPN’s Insider Web site.
Lee Evans is a small yet incredibly athletic wide receiver. At 5-foot-10-inches and 197 lbs., Evans uses his burst off the line and has exceptional quickness to beat coverage off the line. He also uses this speed to effectively stretch deep zone coverage.
Evans also is an excellent route runner who has picked up the nuances of setting up the corners with his body before making his break. That, combined with his excellent quickness, grant him the ability to really create gaps in coverage. Lastly, his ability to track the ball on deep patterns and make the necessary adjustments to catch the ball away from his body make him a phenomenal deep threat.
Even in spite of his ridiculously inconsistent quarterback play, Evans has managed to post an average of 58 catches per year, with an average of 16 YPC. To put that in perspective, 16 YPC in 2008 would have been good for 11th overall in the league.
However, Evans’ slight build sometimes leads to problems blocking in the run game, as well as leaving some room for improvement in his run-after-the-catch ability.
According to Scouts Inc., the two things that are preventing Evans from becoming a “Top 15 WR in the League” are a well-balanced offense and consistent quarterback play for an entire season.
Enter Terrell Owens. It becomes quite apparent from cursory visual inspection that Owens and Evans look to be perfect complements of one another. Evans is the smaller, quicker deep ball receiver that can break ankles on deep routes and really separate from coverage, with reliable hands to boot.
Owens is the huge, physical presence that Evans can never become, able to beat cornerbacks in the run game as well as turn a five-yard slant into three broken tackles and a touchdown.
The fact that teams like to take T.O. out of the game by bracketing him with a corner on the line and a deep safety should leave Evans with plenty of single coverage deep. Evans can then capitalize on his quickness and route running to get loose deep up the sideline before the middle of the field safety can rotate over.
Combine that with a solid running game fueled by Marshawn Lynch, and Trent Edwards has a plethora of short-, medium-, and long-range options to really get this offense cracking.
Which player has the best chance at making the Pro Bowl in 2009?
However, let’s quickly re-examine the two things Scouts Inc. dictated were necessary for Evans to realize his potential. T.O. can make enormous positive contributions to both of those areas. However, he could very easily detract from both of those factors as well.
If you haven’t experienced the media maelstrom that occurs every time T.O. has less than four catches and/or 50 yards in a game, pay attention to the first time this happens in Buffalo. The speculation about T.O.’s happiness/rapport with Trent Edwards will start, and who knows if the young rookie will be able to handle the constant questioning and pressure? Hence, consistent quarterback play is thereby endangered.
And who’s to say that, in order to avoid such confrontations and issues, Edwards doesn’t go out of his way to force T.O. the ball in situations where other players are open? Both Tony Romo and Donovan McNabb were accused of zeroing in on T.O. unnecessarily just to keep him happy, and if Edwards does the same, it could seriously endanger the “well-balanced offense” Evans needs to break out.
Therefore, while T.O. seems to be the perfect complement to Lee Evans, and looks to pull more coverage over to his side of the field, thereby allowing Evans to play to his strengths, the possible negative externalities T.O. brings with him to the locker room could do as much to hamper Evans’ development as his wonderfully complementary talent would do to boost it.
Now, let’s examine the natural talent Dwayne Bowe brings to the field, and how/if Matt Cassel’s abilities will boost Bowe’s production and effectiveness.
At 6-foot-2-inches and 221 lbs., Dwayne Bowe is a much different receiver than Lee Evans. Bowe, whose speed is referred to as “deceptive” (an underhanded compliment if I’ve ever heard one), is much larger and stronger, and uses his size and body position to shield smaller defenders from the ball.
However, despite not being as fast as Evans, Bowe is renowned for his phenomenal quickness and agility for his size, especially at the top of the stems of his routes (quick definition: the “stem” of a route is the portion of the route the wide receiver runs straight up the field before he makes his break.) What that means is that he doesn’t need to blow past the corner with his straight line speed to get open.
Keep in mind that no matter how good the cornerback is, he is always in a reactionary mode, and will always be half a second behind the wide receiver, who knows what he is going to do from the get go.
Therefore with Bowe, even if the cornerback is step-for-step with him on the initial stem on the route, Bowe is able to break on the post/corner/out so quickly that by the time the corner realizes he isn’t running a streak, Bowe is already out of his break with enough separation from the corner to give the quarterback enough of the window to get the ball to him.
Also, Bowe is an extremely physical wide receiver, who uses his size to power through press coverage. He has also understands how to leverage his size advantage over smaller corners, and frequently is able to increase this advantage with his ability to catch the ball away from his body.
Combine those factors with his phenomenal sideline awareness and his ability to track the the ball on the fade, and Bowe is the ultimate red zone jump ball target.
According to Scouts, the two main things Bowe needs to improve to take that next step are his ability to convert patterns in disguised coverage and expanding and improving his route-running ability.
In the NFL, wide receivers are frequently given two to three different routes to run on the same play, and decide which route they have to run mid-play by reading the rotation of the defense. An easy example would be the tight end “bender” route in a Cover 2 vs. a Cover 3.
In a Cover 2, the two deep safeties each expand towards the sideline, leaving the middle of the field wide open. In this case, the tight end would bend the route slightly, like a shallow post, to place himself perfectly in the gap between the two deep-and-wide safeties for a reception.
In a Cover 3, the two deep safeties screw down into the middle of the field so one safety is playing 5-10 yards directly behind the other safety. Therefore, if the tight end decided to bend the route into the middle of the field, he would bend right into the coverage zones of the two safeties.
He would then eliminate the bend in the route and continue directly vertical up the seam, gradually expanding away from the middle of the field to hopefully run past the two middle safeties (because only one has deep responsibilities) to get open over the top, an area that wouldn’t be open if the safeties were dropping into a Cover 2 zone.
Now keep in mind it is easy to see where the safeties line up before the play is run and make an initial read of what coverage it looks like they will play, but that’s the thing about the NFL. Almost never do NFL defensive coordinators line up initially in the defense they are actually going to run.
They will line up their safeties over each other Cover 3-style, but on the snap of the ball both safeties will bolt towards the sidelines because they are actually playing Cover 2.
If a lazy tight end was running the “bender” route, and just assumed the safeties were playing Cover 2 based on his pre-snap read, he would naturally try to bend the route into a post at the top of his stem when he should have kept straight, thereby sending him out of the open area of the field and right into the coverage zone of the two safeties in the middle of the field.
It is a very difficult thing to for a young wide receiver. Not only is a receiver trying to remember what route he has while running the route, he is supposed to be avoiding bumps in the coverage, running a route full speed, and on top of all that trying to read the rotations of the safeties to determine which of the three assigned routes he needs to run based on how the defense rotates.
Keep in mind the window a receiver has to make this determination, considering on routes like curls, comebacks, and deep outs, the quarterback needs to throw the ball before the receiver even makes his break.
Therefore, if a wide receiver runs a streak when in actuality if he read the coverage correctly he was supposed to run a comeback, the quarterback has already got rid of the ball before he realizes the receiver didn’t make the correct in-play read of the defense and ran the wrong route.
Those are the interceptions you see where it looks like the quarterback is literally throwing the ball directly to the cornerback while the wide receiver cruises up the sidelines, completely oblivious that the ball has been thrown.
This is precisely what Dwayne Bowe struggles with when they say he needs to improve his route-running ability against disguised coverage, and this is precisely where Matt Cassel’s experience and knowledge of the game can really be useful.
Cassel spent four years on the bench at Tom Brady/Bill Belichick University (a term I have gladly borrowed from one of my favorite sports writers, Bill Simmons). While his actual game time experience was minimal, his knowledge of the game and ability to read defense should be unsurpassed when learning from the offensive juggernauts that have led the Pats to three Super Bowls this decade.
That is knowledge Cassel can pass on to Bowe directly, giving him little tips and tricks he has learned along the way to help Bowe recognize coverage mid-route more quickly and accurately.
Cassel also displayed his accuracy as a quarterback last year (even if you disagree with that, I don’t think numbers go high enough to express how many times more accurate Cassel is than Tyler Thigpen).
If Bowe needs to improve his route running, that means that he is initially creating separation from the cornerback with his quickness, but isn’t getting out of his breaks as cleanly as he could be, giving the cornerback a larger time frame to react, realizing what route he is running, and using his make-up speed to close the distance and break up the pass.
Also, this implies that even if Bowe does have a step on the corner, there is a very small and limited window for the quarterback to fit the ball in, as an inaccurate throw will either be way out in front of the receiver, or behind the receiver, allowing the trailing defender to either pick the ball off or at least get a hand on it.
By bringing his dramatically-improved accuracy to this team, Cassel has the natural tools to really mitigate that weakness of Bowe’s as well. He has the accuracy that Thigpen lacked to fit the ball into a tight spot, which should lead to more completions over the middle for Bowe.
And until Bowe improves his route running a bit more, the windows over the middle will continue to be tight, and pairing a young Dwayne Bowe with a supremely accurate quarterback will do wonders to boost his productivity and effectiveness this year.
So, who comes out on top? Which of these young wide receivers look to break out and take the league by storm?
To recap, while Owens provides a perfect complement to Evans, the baggage he brings could cause problems for Edwards. Cassel brings experience and accuracy that will directly augment Bowe’s production by mollifying and hopefully improving the two glaring weakness in Bowe’s game, but he could turn out to be a one-year wonder without the accuracy or power displayed in New England.
However, for the purposes of this article, I will assume he will bring similar production from New England to Kansas City, and, if that is the case, Cassel brings tons of tools to help Bowe, with none to hold him back. Unfortunately, that can’t be said for their contemporaries up in Buffalo.
Look for Bowe to have an outstanding year and make his first Pro Bowl. I can also predict great things for Lee Evans in Buffalo. But, at least for this year, it remains to be seen whether the T.O. Show will help or hurt this brilliant developing young talent.
I believe I have covered everything I wanted to cover in this analysis, brought up every relevant argument and refutation that I could muster. However, after the copious amounts of research, typing, and analysis I poured into this article, no matter how hard I try, there remains one smoldering ember of a question that I can’t seem to extinguish.
Is it September yet?
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