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What Does a Route Tree Mean to Jets Rookie Receivers?

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NCAA Football: Baylor at Texas Erich Schlegel-USA TODAY Sports

Yesterday the Jets claimed wide receiver K.D. Cannon off waivers. Cannon is a rookie out of Baylor who had just recently signed with the 49ers as an undrafted free agent. Pro Football Focus’ NFL Draft guide had an interesting note on what the Baylor offense had Cannon do.

Limited route tree — 81 percent of 2016 targets were on hitches, go routes and screens

Frequently you hear about quarterbacks needing a lot of development because they do not play in pro style offenses in college. It is true of other positions as well, such as wide receiver.

There are numerous ways in which receivers need to adjust to the NFL. One of them is learning how to run all of the routes within an offensive system. Some college offenses prepare receivers better than others.

When you have heard about a route tree in the past, you might have come across a visual that looks like this.

People think of the legendary coach Don Coryell when they see this visual.

As Chris Brown noted in a Grantland (R.I.P.) article many years back, Coryell utilized this route tree to make the terminology of his play calls simple. There was no need to call a play something tough to remember like, “Green Right Strong Slot Spider Y 2 Banana.”

For example, the Troy Aikman–era Dallas Cowboys frequently called a play called “896,” which told one outside receiver to run a square-in route (“6”), the tight end to run a seam straight up the field (“9”), and the split end to run a skinny post (“8”). The idea was that, using the route tree, a coach could effectively call any pass combination and all a receiver had to know was the number associated with his route.

So just think about it. That means a guy like Cannon spent 81% of his time with this as his route tree.

Think about all of the new routes he has to learn how to run. There is a lot that goes into running a route whether we are talking about timing, footwork, technique, how to beat each style of coverage and cornerback, and more. Think about how many routes a college receiver with a limited route tree has to learn.

The thing is the original route tree shown above sells the job short. No team in today’s NFL has an offense so simplistic that the receiver only has to learn ten routes.

An NFL playbook’s route tree in the modern day can look like this.

By the way, those are just outside breaking routes for receivers lined up on the outside on a player. These players also need to learn how to run the inside breaking routes.

And if you are going to play wide receiver in the NFL, you also are going to need to learn the routes from the slot.

That is a lot to learn. This is one reason why you hear about how players coming from pro style offenses have an edge. In this sense, pro style offense means they run a lot of different types of routes.

The guy who comes in knowing how to run 20 types of routes has less of a learning curve than the guy who knows how to run 10. He knows how to run more of these routes on day one so he has less he has to work on. The guy who only knows how to run 3 has a lot of work in front of him.

This isn’t just about Cannon either. Other Jets rookies from ArDarius Stewart to Chad Hansen to Gabe Marks all ran limited route trees in college.

You might like a guy’s long-term potential at wide reciever, but it isn’t hating to expect a limited contribution as a rookie. There is just so much to learn and so much development necessary.