Skip to main content

2022 NFL Draft: Route-Runners on the Rise

David Bell, WR, Purdue Boilermakers, 2022 NFL Draft

Purdue's David Bell is one of the best route-runners in this year's wide receiver class, and it's a skill that NFL teams are paying even more attention to

In his first college football game in 2018, Rondale Moore sprinted into a jet sweep from the Purdue 24-yard-line. The true freshman accelerated toward the home sideline and then planted his left foot as if it was an American flag on the moon. A Northwestern defender swiveled helplessly, doubled over in pursuit, and the crowd roared. "Oooh," marveled a Big Ten Network commentator, and Moore was gone — flying down the field for a score.

"That play," says JaMarcus Shephard, who coached at Purdue then and now at the University of Washington. "The defender looked almost like he was beat by an [Allen Iverson] crossover. The way Rondale was able to change directions at a violent rate — that made me realize he was different."

The NFL Draft is so much about the old familiar measurables: the 40 time, the bench, the vertical. But so much of receiving prowess in the modern NFL is about that single step. University of Texas passing game coordinator Brennan Marion puts it this way: "Guys who have that violence of movement — who can be violent at the top of the cut."

We saw it this NFL season in sharp relief, in the form of Rams star Cooper Kupp. Just about every highlight of Kupp showed him planting his foot as if he was trying to crack the foundation of the stadium. By the playoffs, everyone knew the ball was going to No. 10, and it still got there. He's not the only one, either. Some of the most elite pass-catchers are known as much or more for their routes than for their speed or their leaps: Kupp, Davante Adams, Justin Jefferson, Stefon Diggs and even emerging standouts like Amon-Ra St. Brown.

Athlon Sports 2022 NFL Draft Guide

Athlon Sports' 2022 NFL Draft Guide includes in-depth scouting reports on 230 of the top prospects. At 176 pages, it's the most complete preview of the upcoming draft. Purchase a copy online today, the digital edition for instant access, or look for it on newsstands everywhere.

Most of those guys didn't attract a ton of draft buzz when they came out of school. Indeed, one of the strangest things about the draft is the occasional disconnect between the most productive NFL receivers and their draft stock. In the modern era, only three NFL wideouts have won the triple crown — leading the league in receptions, yards and touchdowns. They are Kupp, Sterling Sharpe and Steve Smith Sr. Two of those three — Kupp and Smith — garnered relatively modest draft buzz, chosen 69th and 74th respectively. Adams (pick 53), St. Brown (pick 112) and Diggs (pick 146) were similar stories. The success seems obvious in retrospect, but receivers like this always seem to slip.

It makes sense on one level: None of these guys is very tall, and teams always want the next talented project rather than the next fully finished product. "The draft is one of those things," says Shephard, "you find yourself always trying to fix things. I gotta fix this, fix that. The draft has an element of that — nitpicking to find tendencies."

But the success of Kupp and others this season might alter some priorities when selection time comes. In an era when linebackers can cover like corners, teams need to value precision as well as pop. So although you'll hear some flashy names early in the draft — Jameson Williams of Alabama, Treylon Burks of Arkansas, Drake London of USC — superiority at the receiver position is as much about route-running as it's ever been. Two of the top prospects, Ohio State's Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave, are already known for their burst and change-of-direction and ability to dart and dodge after the catch. The question is: Will the one-step wonders climb a little higher on the draft board, or will teams whiff again?

Related: Wide Receiver Rankings in the 2022 NFL Draft

One of the most intriguing parallels to Rondale Moore hails from the same campus. Purdue's David Bell certainly doesn't have the same style as the Arizona Cardinals standout, but he does have the same reliability. Despite being an obvious choice for targets all season, he had 1,286 yards and six touchdowns. More tellingly, he forced a missed tackle more than once for every four catches he made.

Shephard remembers one of the first days of a fall camp, when Bell "elevated over the top of one of our corners … he jumped over him and dang near landed on his head."

Shephard sprinted over to scream at Bell for nearly getting hurt. He then noticed the other coaches processing what had just happened: This receiver was going to be a problem for defenses even when the throw wasn't ideal.

"It's one thing to be able to run a route in one-on-one — routes on air," Shephard says. "But to have the savvy to stem the route the right way and depart from the break, regardless of the coverage, that's where he separates himself."

Scroll to Continue

Recommended Articles

Separating himself has a double meaning for a lot of these top pass-catchers. Purdue head coach Jeff Brohm says at least some of that quickness is from other sports where athletes must find space in heavy traffic.

"He was outstanding on the basketball court," Brohm says of Bell. "He has that natural hand-eye coordination, so things are very natural when it comes to catching the football."

This is something Marion has seen as well throughout his career coaching receivers — players who can "jab and separate — same way you can in basketball."

And yet much like so many other sleepers, Bell has doubts circling him like defensive backs. The Pro Football Focus scouting report says: "I'm not sure there's much room for improvement in the areas Bell is lacking. His modest physical tools are what's keeping him from being higher on draft boards."

It's this kind of criticism that can elevate a receiver's game. "The league's not made up of all the five-star guys," says Marrion. "Typically, it's the guy who people said was not good enough, and he was pissed off for greatness."

It is difficult to find a receiver who is both "pissed off for greatness" and still destined for greatness based on talent. That is the holy grail in the draft game, and Marion suggests he may have already coached such a player in Pitt"s Jordan Addison. He is not in this year's draft, but after having won the Biletnikoff Award as a true sophomore, he's a good bet to go in the first round in 2023.

"He was the rare talent who worked like he was a walk-on," Marion says. "That was very rare. He has the ability, the speed, no ankles, and can make any cut."

In a back-and-forth battle against Virginia last season, Marion (Pitt's wide receivers coach in 2021 before moving on to Texas) approached Addison on the sideline and said: "You're going to have to win this game." Addison promptly scored his fourth TD of the night to ice the Cavaliers.

"He literally took the ball off the DB and ran it 70 yards," Marion says. "I thought, 'OK, this dude…'"

It's often the receivers who take over the biggest games who translate best to the next level. That brings us to another possible sleeper in this year's group — Kentucky's Wan'Dale Robinson. If you're wondering how often UK produces elite receiving talent, so did Robinson himself. He originally left his home state to play in Scott Frost's offense at Nebraska. After being used frequently as a rusher in Lincoln, he transferred back to the Bluegrass State and broke out. Robinson ranked eighth in the nation with 13 plays of 30-plus yards, and he took over the Citrus Bowl in eyebrow-raising fashion with 10 catches for 170 yards.

The receiver position can attract nearly as much attention as quarterback, and a lot of those who play that position love that attention. Yet there can be some tedium involved. There can be route after route with no targets. There can be downfield blocking in bad weather. There can be a batch of plays where you're the decoy — the guy whom the passer locks eyes on and then fires away from. It's the film that can reveal who separates best from the pack. If the route is pristine without the ball entering the picture, that's a very good sign.

"You're going to see the consistency in the route-running," Shephard says. "Even at times if you look at film of Rondale and David, it tells you they've been coached the right way and are able to soak up the information and knowledge."

How can you tell which receivers might surprise you in the NFL, regardless of measurables? Watch the single step you see and the countless steps nobody sees.

— By Eric Adelson (@eric_adelson) for the Athlon Sports 2022 NFL Draft Guide.