Coming into the season many were sky high on Stephen Hill. The man is an impressive physical specimen, with blazing speed, great size and strength; on paper, the prototypical NFL wide receiver. He looked pretty good in preseason, and many were predicting great things. It was often said he was a lock for 6-8 TDs based solely on winning jump balls in the end zone. Predictions were for legitimate WR2 production: 700-900 yds, 6-8 TDs were numbers often bandied about. The first game came, and expectations ratcheted up even more, after a spectacular 5 for 89, 2 TD debut. It looked like maybe he was alot more NFL ready than advertised. Maybe he wasn't so raw after all. Some even wondered whether we had our own budding Megatron on our hands. Then came the next 2 weeks. 0 catches, 0 yards, 0 TDs, numerous drops and mistakes.
Such is the life of an NFL rookie. Sometimes they look great. Other times they disappear. After reviewing the tapes of the first 3 games, I believe we can expect more of the latter than the former from Hill. Here are the problems I see with him:
1. Hill has suspect hands. He drops way too many balls. One led to an INT in preseason. Several have negated big gains and/or TDs in the regular season.
2. Hill has suspect concentration. This is closely related to 1 above. While he sometimes drops wide open balls, he nearly ALWAYS fails to come down with balls in traffic. Virtually every play he has been asked to catch a ball that is contested with tight coverage, he has failed to come down with the ball, despite often getting both hands on it. He has made big plays on wide open looks, but if a defender can get in his face, so far Hill is incapable of coming up with the ball. I'm not talking about plays where the defender knocks the ball away - most times there's nothing a WR can do about that. I'm talking about the plays that are tightly contested, but the defender doesn't touch the ball and Hill does. A substantial majority of those type of plays should result in completions; instead, with Hill they nearly always end in incompletions that bounce off his hands. This is a telltale sign of problems with focus and concentration - Hill appears to be much too affected by traffic, and loses focus on the ball.
3. Hill struggles mightily with press coverage. This is not unusual for rookies, but it is a problem if he is going to be our WR2. College WRs rarely see much press coverage, so they struggle to adjust when they are pressed in the pros. In Game 1 Buffalo showed alot of deference to Hill's speed and allowed him to run free off the line of scrimmage, resulting in several big plays for Hill. In games 2 and 3 Pitt and Miami played him much more physically, and Hill struggled to get any kind of separation. The result - back to back shutouts. This is the blueprint for shutting down Hill going forward, and until he learns to deal with press coverage, we can expect to continue to see him disappear.
4. Hill struggles to get open quickly. In game 1 Buffalo had no pass rush. Mark's jersey never hit the turf the entire game, and he often had all day to throw. In this environment Hill thrived, as few DBs can keep up with his speed over 4 or 5 seconds. But against Pitt and Miami, Mark had much less time to throw, and Hill was unable to get open during the 2-3 second windows more typical of the NFL.
5. Hill struggles to use his body effectively and fails to protect the ball in the red zone. The notion that Hill can duplicate Plax's red zone production from last year can be safely put to rest. Plax was brilliant in the red zone, if not anywhere else. He routinely used his height to maximum advantage, meeting the ball at the apex of his leap, making it difficult for DBs 6-8 inches shorter to defend. Plax also used his body effectively, boxing out like a power forward and knowing just how much push off he could get away with without drawing a flag. Plax also had great awareness, always getting his head turned, and if necessary, making sure an underthrown ball was not intercepted by becoming a defender on the play. Hill, at this point in his career, is nowhere near Plax's ability in any of those categories. Yesterday's interception in the endzone highlighted Hill's limitations here. The ball was underthrown by Mark, and Cumberland drifted too far over in his route, drawing a 2nd defender underneath into the area. Both Sanchez and Cumberland deserve their share of the blame here. But that ball should have never been intercepted if Hill was doing his job. Despite Mark's and Cumberland's blunders, Stephen Hill had the last, best chance to avoid the interception, and should have done so. On that play, Hill showcased how ill prepared he is to win jump balls in the endzone on any kind of consistent basis. He failed to get his head turned around on time. As a result, he had no idea where the ball was. He failed to seal off his man. In this case his man was not crucial, as the underneath DB picked the ball off, but had the ball been better thrown, this would have made the difference between a TD and an incompletion. Finally, and most damagingly, Hill failed to recognize the situation. On that play, in that situation, the Jets could afford an incompletion. They could even afford an offensive pass interference penalty. Either one would still have resulted in Jets points, as they were already in easy FG range. The one thing they could not afford was the INT. Hill absolutely MUST recognize the throw is in danger of being picked off, and either try to knock it away, if possible, or if not possible, then simply tackle the DB before the ball comes down. Out comes the flag, offensive pass interference, but we still put 3 points on the board. Instead, Hill waits for the ball to come to him, makes no move back for the ball or the man, and it is an easy INT. That was a very costly lesson in why Hill is not yet ready to assume the Plax role in the red zone.
Most of the problems listed above are correctable, and simply part of the growing pains of a raw rookie receiver. With some good coaching and any luck, Hill will work through those problems and realize his potential as an NFL WR1. However, right here, right now, those problems, taken as a whole, make Hill not really ready to be a starting NFL WR, particularly when we have a competent WR ready to take his place. Late in the game Hill came off the field with a minor injury and Chaz Schilens took his place. In only a quarter or so of play, Schilens showed why he should be starting and Hill should be on the bench until he can iron out some of his problems. Schilen's line wasn't spectacular - 2 catches, 16 yards. But those were two catches against press coverage in short patterns. He beat the press, created separation, got open quickly, and caught the damn ball, all things Hill has struggled mightily with. In addition, he showed an ability to get open deep, missing a sure TD on a fly pattern only because Sanchez overthrew him. In one short quarter Schilens showcased why he is capable of providing everything Hill currently is not. Schilens is not a superstar, and probably will never be one. His upside is probably lower than Hill's, maybe substantially so. But he is a competent NFL caliber WR2 who provides size speed and strength similar to Hill's and a skill set and savvy that is currently superior to Hill's. If we want to win now, I believe Schilens, not Hill, provides us with the best opportunity to do so. By all means bring Hill in for deep shots down the field. Use him in select spots as both a deep threat and as a decoy. But Schilens should be the guy getting the majority of the playing time at WR2. Right now, Hill should be learning his craft, and letting Schilens give us the best chance to win.