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Friday, July 18, 2014
Updated: August 28, 10:53 AM ET
Finding smaller WRs who can excel

By Christopher Harris
ESPN.com

In advance of NFL training camps, we asked Christopher Harris to write an overview of film-watching. He and Field Yates recorded a Fantasy Underground podcast on the topic, and we think it bears elaboration here. Chris and Field are at the vanguard of advocating film-watching as an essential tool of fantasy evaluation, and in this series of articles, Chris will offer an overview of what he looks for on video.

Part 4 of 5: How to tell whether smaller WRs will be fantasy stars

Here's one thing I can promise: As training camps begin, you'll be regaled with stories about unexpected wideouts looking amazing. Many of these wide receivers will be undersized, but the storyteller will proclaim that coaches' heads have been turned and that the scrappy dude is threatening to fight his way into a team's starting lineup.

Isn't that nice?

Such feel-good sentiments don't help you in fantasy football. It's great that Cole Beasley and Jeremy Kerley have fashioned careers, but owning them in fantasy is fruitless. What we care about is whether such (relatively) small WRs can tickle 1,000 yards receiving or double-digit TDs. Wes Welker, Victor Cruz, Steve Smith ... these are the "small" WRs over whom fantasy owners have drooled in recent years.

Here are things to look for on video to indicate whether an up-and-coming smaller WR has such appeal:

1. He can beat press coverage via quickness: Smaller receivers often become slot receivers out of necessity because they get manhandled by big outside corners. Alas, the slot is not where fantasy glory is typically born. Of the 27 qualified wide receivers who ran more than half their routes from the slot in 2013, only two were top-20 fantasy performers: Jordy Nelson and Julian Edelman. (And Nelson is 6-foot-3 and played in the slot so much because Randall Cobb was hurt.)

Split end or flanker is where big plays come from, but many WRs who stand under 6 feet can't hang on the outside. On occasions when a smaller guy is consistently allowed to split wide, my film watching gets focused.

The poster child for a small wide reciever with frightening off-the-line ability is Antonio Brown. Right away in 2013, it was obvious how infrequently opposing corners could get their mitts on him, and by the end of the year, defenses had stopped playing press against the 5-foot-10, 186-pound Brown. So pay special attention to whether your scouted WR gets a clean break off the line on the outside.

2. He can change directions on a dime: If your smaller WR can't threaten out wide, he'd better be a handful over the middle.

Sometimes whether a player has this quality seems obvious: When he gets the ball in his hands, he weaves through tacklers and causes multiple misses. But digging a bit deeper, I'm interested in his routes. Does he pitter-patter when he cuts, or can he keep his pad level low, dip his hips and use a single step to change his vector while maintaining top speed?

I mentioned this in my discussion of watching film on bigger WRs: I think Cruz is currently the NFL's best at this. Cruz isn't a pure burner, but he consistently leaves defenders behind on his breaks. When replay angles allow it, watch Cruz set up his cut and watch the ludicrous flexibility he shows at the waist. Andrew Hawkins is a less experienced player in whom I see some of these traits.‬

3. He has an innate sense of how to "be" open, especially against zones: This quality alone isn't enough to make a smaller wideout into a fantasy star, but if a small guy who runs from the slot doesn't have it, you can forget him.

What does this look like? Think Cobb, Welker, Edelman, Doug Baldwin and latter-day Santana Moss. These guys are smart enough to pick the right option on an option route, can shake free with short-area quickness and have elite chemistry with an accurate passer.

One reason I have rookie-season doubts about Cooks is that for as quick as he is, he's never had to react to a pro defense. It won't simply be a matter of running 5 yards and turning around. I like Cooks' career prospects, but projecting a fantasy-starter-quality '14 seems ambitious.

4. He's a pure, multifaceted game-breaker: Here's the thing: I don't particularly want to invest in nonestablished small WRs. Yes, in a deeper league, I'll take a chance or two, but there are very few small wideouts I look at on tape and say, "Oh, wow."

That's why someone like Percy Harvin stands out. He's never had a 1,000-yard season or double-digit touchdowns, and he's missed a lot of games. But if you watch his tape with clear eyes, you see a dominator. He's 5-11 and 184 pounds, but he bangs people in the open field like a running back. He's straight-line fast. He's crazy quick. His final year with the Minnesota Vikings, he ran about 60 percent of his routes from the slot, but if he played outside, I know he'd get off the line just fine.

The point is, guys like Harvin are rare. As a film-watcher, if you have to ask yourself whether you're seeing such a player, you're probably not.

Coming next: Warning signs for young quarterbacks