Every fan wants what is best for their team. It’s just natural. You want the best so let your biggest rival make the huge Draft mistake. Your team gets better while your team’s enemy get worse. It’s a dream made in heaven.
Yet it never seems to happen that way. There is always an injury. A guy isn’t who you thought he would be. It happens. So if you were a Bears fan you were stoked when they drafted a can’t miss receiver out of West Virginia named Kevin White (He of 1,447 receiving yards and 10 TDs.) 7th overall to be that guy. Things happen, and now you rue the day he was drafted. Same for the Bengals when they drafted John Ross (the fastest man ever at the combine) #9 overall, It didn’t work out.
We have talked about drafting a 1st round receiver. It’s tricky. You are rolling the dice. It’s not just a question of whether he is going to be great. It’s a question of whether he is going to match his Draft status. It’s like drafting a defensive tackle in the top ten. If he isn’t a Pro Bowl player you probably could have done better. The difference between a near Pro Bowl defensive tackle or a player just below that standard two rounds later is usually not significant.
The thing many NFL GM’s don’t understand is that the wide receiver position is probably the most unique position in football because there are so many different types of receivers. You have the rail thin speedster, the little slot guy who is quick as a cat. You have a mid sized receiver who lacks elite speed but is smart and get open. There are like 10 other different types of receivers who could possibly succeed in the NFL.
The key is to watch the players with an artistic type of eye. Figure out what he does and why is it effective. Most people like the guy who can run by everyone with elite speed. Speed is nice, but how many super fast receivers are Hall of Famers? Jerry Rice ran 4.71/40, and Cooper Kupp ran 4.62/40 at the Combine.
Last year I was very high on Amon-Ra St. Brown as a mid round talent. I wrote a glowing article that most panned by most since he was not big (under 6’ + under 200 lbs) and not particularly fast (4.51/40). Yet he always seemed to break open and could get deep on defenders. He could work all areas of the field even though his physical attributes made you wonder. I had him as my 63rd ranked player, but he went in the 4th round to the Lions at #112.
He started the year slow as most rookies do. He had to earn the respect of his QB and the rest of his team. His last 6 games he never had less than 8 receptions in a game. He finished the year with 90 receptions (tied for 15th in the NFL) catching 76% of his targets. Not surprisingly those last 6 games the Lions were 3-3, beating Minnesota and destroying Arizona 30-12. Before that the Lions were 0-10-1. He ended the year (last 6 games) with 51 receptions (76% of his targets) for 560 yards and 5 TDs. That’s not ground breaking stuff, but other teams knew he was a focal point of the offense and they could not stop him.
A player who has caught my eye this year is a bigger receiver who has some unique moves and the ability to get open even though you might think he can’t. He was a driving force in helping his team win every game the last two years except the last one.
They way to find great players who are overlooked is to watch the player and not the stats. Look for traits that will translate to an NFL career. This player has very good speed, a nuanced approach to getting open, quick feet, and very good hands. Plus he has some decent size. This guy will be overlooked; how is beyond me.
Alec Pierce is a 6’ 2 3/4” 208 lbs receiver with very good length (32 5/8”). He has excellent speed and ran his 40 at 4.33. He has quick feet (a great trait), plus a unique sense on where to find open space in a defense. He is a smart kid (the first academic All-American for the University of Cincinnati since 1997) and graduated with a degree in Mechanical Engineering in 3 1⁄2 years. He was named to the Bruce Feldman’s “freak list” as a superior athletic player.
Cincinnati was a team that was touted as a solid offense with a pro style QB in Desmond Ridder. While the team had a pro style offense, the Bearcats averaged less than 62 plays a game because they were a predominantly running team. They had 53% of their offensive plays as running plays and only 47% passing plays. The guy who led the Bearcats in receiving yards, receptions and TDs was Pierce.
Watch this play.I should hold it to later because it’s special, but I wanted you to see some of the nuance abilities that make a player like Alec Pierce unique among his peers. This is poetry to me as a football fan.
This is beautiful. If you can, slow down the video to see every aspect of this route. Pierce is outside with a defender directly over his face. He immediately (at the snap) puts all his weight on his right foot in an effort to make like he is going to go to his right around the defender and into the corner of the end zone. But no, he sticks that right foot into the ground and crosses the face of the defender.
He has the advantage but that is not enough. He cuts inside to gain separation from the defender, but as the defender follows inside, Pierce then cuts back out into the defender. The corner puts his hands on Pierce to try and prevent him from crossing his face again, but Pierce moves the opposite way towards the middle of the field wide open now.
He was nearly connected to the defender, but in an instant he is yards away from him in the clear then collects the pass. Yet that is not all. As Pierce takes the pass the safety is coming over to dislodge the ball with a powerful hit to the sternum. Watch as Pierce anticipates this and puts his foot in the ground (as he is catching the ball), moving away from the end zone, around the safety, and in for the score around two defenders without being touched. This type of overall skill with the ability to see what is going on on your entire side of the field, separate with ease, catch the ball, and avoid the collision easily is something I believe is unique to maybe 5% of receivers. At first glance this play looks so easy and harmless, but upon further inspection...wow.
Pierce is nearly 6’ 3” so he has an advantage over many players in a jump ball situation. Yet that is not what is entirely going on in this clip. QB Desmond Ridder is looking the way of Pierce once he broke the huddle. Pierce is one on one against man coverage; that is too good to pass up.
This is a corner route all the way. The situation called for it with man coverage and no safety help. Pierce is taller than his opponent anyway, but he wants to increase the odds of success. First at the snap he steps outside then takes a half step back inside like he is going across the field. Instead he works back outside and gains superior separation. The ball is late from Ridder (which it many times is), but Pierce has his man beat and in trail mode with his back to the play. Pierce simply keeps his opponent at bay while he goes up for the pass to the outside. Notice how Pierce keeps his man inside him when he knows the ball is going to be thrown to the outside. He also left himself enough room inside the end zone so he wouldn’t have to worry about being pushed out of bounds. It’s another superior play.
This next play is against Houston corner Marcus Jones who (for some reason) is getting some super hype in the upcoming draft. Jones is going to be a slot corner,. Ge is 5’ 8” 184 lbs so this play is a mismatch. I show you this play because Jones who is superiorly quick can stay in the hip pocket of any larger receiver. So how does Pierce adjust or handle making a play with someone right on him?
The play was going to Pierce all the way. Ridder never even looked at another receiver. He just took a couple steps back and threw the ball. This pass is right on the money. It’s a back shoulder throw to the front corner of the end zone. Pierce knows exactly where he needs to go. He wants an outside release which he procures with a nice stutter step at the line. You can see that Pierce doesn’t try to outrun the CB. He wants him near himself to the right side of his body as he runs.
If this were a corner route he would outrun the CB, but this is a back shoulder throw. If he outruns the CB the CB would be right there where the pass is being thrown to. No, he wants the CB inside so he has no shot of defending the play when it’s thrown to the outside. Add to that the jump in the air plus the great hands. It’s an easy TD.
Pierce isn’t a big powerful receiver, but he has some good size with some above average physicality. This next play is a corner route that is thrown quick and a little short of the mark. Problem is the the CB is playing press coverage shaded over to the right side of Pierce’s body. He doesn’t want to allow the outside release. He wants Pierce to go inside where he has help from the safety in a bracket coverage.
Pierce gives the CB a “shimmy” to the inside which opens the hips of the CB inside allowing him that tiny opening to the outside. That CB defending Pierce is Tiawan Mullen, a player I had a late 2nd or early 3rd round grade on, but who is returning to school for his senior year. I will be watching him for a possible match with the Jets next year. Mullen doesn’t want to give up the outside, but Pierce gets an edge on him. Mullen then fights Pierce all the way down the field.
Because Pierce was harassed all the way to the end zone, the ball thrown by Ridder is right on target. Pierce gets both hands up (like he always does) and brings in the ball for a TD. Pierce has strong hands and is a natural hands catcher of the ball. This comes from hours of practice catching the ball with proper technique.
Pierce is a do it all receiver who has a lot of plus attributes. I will try and highlight some of those in these next few clips against Notre Dame this year. Notre Dame ranked 15th out of 130 schools in scoring defense in 2021 so this will be a good test for Pierce.
I mentioned earlier that Pierce was a smart kid who earned his mechanical engineering degree in 3 1⁄2 years, but does that translate to the football field? This clip at first looks like man coverage, but is actually a matchup zone defense.
Pierce is in the slot on the left side of the offense. At the snap he pushes upfield then sees the outside corner dropping back while the man who was over him at the line falls off to the flat to cover the outside receiver. Pierce reads this so instead of running into the next zone he curls inside to a soft spot where he is completely uncovered. Ridder reads this as well and throws the pass (a little behind Pierce) which Pierce catches then heads the way he has momentum. This is late in the half, but this 22 yard gain leads to a late TD and a 17-0 halftime lead for the Bearcats.
Pierce has a lot of Cooper Kupp type skills with nuanced moves, great hands, getting in and out of breaks, and incredibly smart play that he can read and translate very quickly on the field. One trait he doesn’t have is great open field running. Pierce is fast but not all that elusive. He has his moments but you won’t see him as a punt return team ever.
This next clip is of Pierce on the outside against a pure quarters coverage, a zone defense. Notre Dame isn’t even trying to hide this defense as the player over Pierce is far off the line and bailing back before the ball is even snapped. This gives Pierce a great view of what he needs to do to get open but also his QB a window to throw through.
Pierce wants to find the soft spot in front of the deepest defender to his side of the field, inside the linebacker who is racing into the flat, and outside the linebacker in the middle of the field. These defenders are all reading Ridder’s eyes as to see where to go to deflect or even intercept the ball. Pierce pushes upfield then into the clear. He comes back to the ball as to stop any player who correctly read the play from racing up for the interception. Pierce gets the ball on the move then makes his way upfield for a 17 yard gain and a first down on a 3rd and 10 play. It’s a solid chain mover and drive continuer.
This next clip is a sensational adaptation of a diamond release to the outside that leaves the defender out of position off the snap. Pierce is nearly 6’ 3” but watch the feet. Remember me saying I like receivers with “fast feet?” Well I really love big receivers with “fast feet.”
When Pierce gives the CB the “shimmy” inside the CB opens his hips completely to the inside which leaves him grasping for Pierce as he races by on the outside. After about 15 yards Pierce is about 4 yards ahead of his man with the safety slow to react to the play. This ball is woefully underthrown, and would have been a TD if it was another 5 or 6 yards further downfield.
As it is Pierce has to slow down to wait on the ball which brings the corner and the safety back into the play. This turns a possible easy TD grab and saunter in for the score into a contested catch situation. Pierce makes a fine catch in the air then comes down for a 46 yard reception to start the second half. Pierce is a very good high pointer of the ball. He has those strong hands which makes it difficult (not impossible) to dislodge the ball from those hands. This play kept the momentum going for the Bearcats in this game. Pierce is a great tracker of the ball while it’s in the air. He adjusts his speed, and when going up for a catch he has great body control.
Now you want an easy 7 yard gain on first and ten? Pierce can do that too.
This is a quick read for Pierce as he comes off the line then watches as the linebackers drop back into zone coverage. Once they reach their desired depth, Pierce just settles down right in front of them for the catch. Pierce knows he is going to get smacked, but he gains as much as he can leaving his offense in a great 2nd and 3 situation.
This last Notre Dame clip is another “fast feet” move to an outside release. It’s not as good as the earlier release but just as effective. What is better about this clip is the throw is on target for a change which makes this the biggest play of the game.
This is a huge play because it’s the start of the 4th quarter. The Fighting Irish had just scored to close the gap, and Cincinnati had just been called for a false start which left them in a 1st and 15 situation. Notre Dame had some momentum so the last thing the Bearcats needed was a quick 3 and out to give the ball back to their surging opponents. Fortunately for Notre Dame, their safety read the play better this time so he was able to stop a possible TD.
Here is that same play from a sideline, isolated angle.
Now Pierce didn’t get his opponent to open his hips like the last time, but once he got outside he showed that great explosion with the ability to outrun his opponent down the sideline.
This was a field-flipping 50 yard gain that set the Bearcats up in scoring territory.
The game itself showed a lot of the varied skill set of Pierce. He had catches of 7, 9, 17, 22, 46 and 50 yards.
Pierce can run routes in all three defensive zones with equal ability. This is the skill set that wins in the NFL today. He also showed some good blocking skills during the run game. Blocking skills by a wide receiver are vital to the Jets outside run game. Any big run will need key block by a outside receiver. Pierce has the skills and the effort to be a plus blocker.
This next clip shows a skill set the Jets don’t currently have but desperately need. You are down near the goal line. Do you have a guy who can high point a ball over a defender? If you have Pierce the answer is yes.
When scouting this Draft a few months ago I was thinking you could get Pierce in the mid to late third round. Because of the run first offense and a shaky QB in Ridder at Cincinnati Pierce didn’t have those jaw dropping stats that people love. I was very happy with that.
Now I fear that Pierce has gone to the Combine, run a 4.33 40 and shown a 40.5” vertical. That may make many drafters review his tape once again then realize what they missed earlier. Now we are looking at early second day stuff instead of late day two stuff. The Jets might have to get another early day two selection to get Pierce’s services.
In this clip it’s more of the same; great athleticism by Pierce and an awful throw by Ridder. This ball needs to be behind Pierce, but it’s short and off target. This makes Pierce have to jump then fight through the DB to make the catch. Again strong hands in a contested situation leads to a TD. Pierce has the ability to adjust to off target throws better than any other receiver in this class. His height, length, body control, and hands also give him one of the largest catch radiuses as well.
Controlled is a good way to describe Pierce as everything he does looks like it’s done with forethought and control. On this last clip he varies his speed at the start which makes the CB slow to get out of his backpedal. Pierce does this a lot. He varies his speed on routes which aides him in gaining separation. It is just another tool he uses.
Once he flies by the corner Pierce is in no rush. He sees there is no safety in the middle of the field so he slows up to give his QB the entire end zone to throw into. Nice and easy strides with a solid hands lead to a TD catch. Pierce can also stack a corner on his back when needed. His plus ball tracking make that job easy for him.
Not surprisingly I have a solid high second round grade on Alec Pierce. He is what the NFL is trending towards and has been for a few years. That is a receiver who can run all the routes, with size, speed, hands and intelligence. He is unselfish, a good blocker in the run game which he got lots of practice at in Cincinnati. He plays under control. He is an instinctive player who can decipher defense and make adjustments quickly.
Pierce is hard working, detail oriented player who was listed on Bruce Feldman’s annual athletic “freaks list” because of his exceptional all around athletic abilities. He has been termed a possession receiver because he can be a great one, but he has other facets to his game as well. He had 5 catches of 40 or more yards and 13 of 20+ yards in 2021.
I kind of like this kid.
That’s what I think.
What do you think?