Oregon’s Receiver Position Preview
Drew D.J. Davis and Jeff Maehl graduated this past year from the University of Oregon. The duo was targeted 47.4% of the time on passing plays. Jeff Maehl always came off as a fan favorite, the white receiver that could (an exceptional receiver, even before you take in to account there aren’t many white receivers). D.J. Davis was an outstanding blocker who could shed tackles on screen passes and block almost anyone on the outside. Davis’ skills are replaceable in the offense and he was the second receiver meaning that while he was outstanding, his shoes are not as hard to fill. With Maehl having been the clear number one receiver, with over 1000 receiving yards last season, and the overwhelming amount of targets, he will be more difficult to replace.
Jeff Maehl is currently an unsigned free agent, strictly due to the NFL Lockout. He wasn’t drafted even though he had one of the best seasons by an Oregon receiver ever. Setting records in the three-cone drill, with a time of 6.42 seconds, and the sixty-yard shuttle, with a time of 10.87. Maehl’s achilles heel, as most people could pick out by watching him, was his speed, or lack thereof. He posted a below average time for a receiver in the 40 yard dash, 4.62.
However, what Jeff Maehl brought to the table for Oregon was not speed or breaking defenders off, it was how he always managed to get open and catch the ball. Maehl was not a heralded recruit and actually came to Oregon as a member of the defensive secondary. At the end of the 2007 season Maehl was moved to receiver to help provide depth. 2007 was a season where I eventually knew the entire depth chart for the team, not only because I had plenty of time to look at it, but because there were so many injuries, guys at the bottom of the depth chart had a shot at playing.
The first time I remember seeing Jeff Maehl play was when he ran a wheel route in the first quarter against Oregon State. 5th string quarterback Justin Roper hit Maehl on his first pass of the game for a touchdown after Kody Kempt suffered a concussion. When I think back on Maehl’s career as a Duck, and what is the hardest part of his game to replace/quantify/predict, is his big play ability.
As mentioned, he had the touchdown reception against Oregon State in the 2007 Civil War Game
He capped off a game-winning drive in 2008 against Stanford when Maehl caught a tipped Masoli pass with his outstretched arms in the end zone with less than a minute left in the game.
Against Arizona in 2008 he pretty much had the game winning score in the 2nd quarter off a screen pass and split a defender and blocker to go 66 yards for 6.
I remember the two touchdown catches he had against Arizona in 2009; one in overtime in one of the greatest games I’ve seen an Oregon team play.
The 2009 Civil War game featured him beating bump and run coverage and catching a deep ball from Jeremiah Masoli.
The bobble catch against USC did not only lead people breathless, but was also on every college highlight reel for the entire year.
In the BCS championship game he caught a bomb from Darron Thomas and ran all the way in to the Tiger red zone.
Later in the BCS championship game he caught the 2-point conversion with a cornerback draped over him to tie the game.
Maehl was about the big play. There are many other pivotal touchdown catches he made that weren’t mentioned here for the sake of reader sanity. The abbreviated list above also doesn’t mention the 3rd and 17 conversions that Maehl made. Jeff Maehl created opportunities for himself. He is a talented receiver even if his 40-yard dash time is misleading. One team is going to sign Jeff Maehl, and that team is going to get a steal.
Meanwhile, Oregon now has the unenviable task of trying to have someone fill in for Jeff Maehl. A receiver is going to need to assume the number one receiver role, get the majority of Darron Thomas’ targets, and make the big play when needed. Oregon at this point doesn’t have receivers riding the pine who were five star recruits out of high school, playing on the scout team behind other guys who were five star recruits out of high school. Oregon hit it big with Jeff Maehl, and it will be difficult to have a guy fill in for him. However, we can take a lesson from Moneyball.
“The A’s front office realized right away, of course, that they couldn’t replace Jason Giambi with another first baseman just like him. There wasn’t another first baseman just like him and if there were, they couldn’t afford him and in any case that’s not how they thought about the holes they had to fill. ‘The important thing is not to recreate the individual,’ Billy Beane would later say. ‘The important thing is to recreate the aggregate.’ He couldn’t and wouldn’t find another Jason Giambi, but he could find the pieces of Giambi he could least afford to be without…”
Jeff Maehl was really an anomaly, an outlier, in the sense that he was ranked very low by scouting services, had to switch positions, and excelled on a team full of playmakers. There are a lot of his abilities that are tough to replicate such as being clutch time after time after time. I don’t think there was ever a moment when Oregon needed a big play, threw to Jeff Maehl, and he didn’t make the play. I never remember him dropping a crucial pass or allowing himself to get blanketed by double coverage.
If we break down what made Jeff Maehl in to two categories that made Jeff Maehl such an outstanding receiver, we would know what look for in a replacement. Maehl had excellent quickness, as seen by his 60-yard shuttle, pro shuttle, and 3 cone drill times. He lacked top end speed, which makes his achievements even more impressive. He ran very precise routes that allowed him to get open. He had great hands that caught anything in his zip code. He is 6’1” and 190 pounds, give him a height advantage over defensive cornerbacks.
When I look back at the snaps that Maehl took in the past few years I see two major components to his game that separates him from the others.
His route running and catching ability.
There are two receivers returning who saw significant time last fall. Josh Huff and Lavasier
Tuinei. Josh Huff mostly served as a TZR back when Kenjon Barner went down, and did it incredibly well. However, now that Kenjon is full speed, Lache Seastrunk has burned his redshirt, and there’s this kid who’s supposedly really good named DeAnthony Thomas, Huff can safely be moved to the outside receiver position. Phil Steele event thinks that Huff will be the third receiver on the depth chart, behind Rahsaan Vaughn.
Rahsaan Vaughn is a new receiver for Oregon out of the College of San Mateo. He was rated as a four star receiver by both Scout and Rivals, and was also named the best junior college wide receiver by JCGridiron.com. Junior College players are much better prepared to play immediately on FBS teams. His highlight video, which can be found by searching his name on YouTube, looks like a high school stars video. He looks much bigger than everyone else, even though he’s measured at 6’1” 190 pounds. He looks much faster than everyone else, as a testament to his 4.37 reported 40-yard dash. He outmuscles the other defensive backs, sheds a lot of tackles, and seemingly jumps higher than anyone else. I wouldn’t say though that is a likely replacement for Maehl’s role. We also haven’t seen what he can do at the highest level of football.
There’s a lot of great freshman recruits coming in that are incredibly talented and could help right away. Tacoi Sumler, although incredibly small for a college receiver, ran an electronically time 4.24 40, which is as fast as Chris Johnson’s at the 2008 NFL Combine. His size is a problem when he’ goes up against 230 pound linebackers and 195 pound safeties when Sumler weighs somewhere between 155-165.
Devon Blackman is another great receiver who could play right away. He was an Under Armour All-American, along with Tacoi Sumler, and ranked by ESPN as the 39th best high school player in the country last year. He played quarterback, receiver, and running back last year but will be a receiver. Blackmon is a playmaker, but is not ready to be the guy at receiver.
When I think of a receiver who gets open and has hands, I think of Lavasier Tuinei. He was the second leading receiver in the BCS Championship game, behind none other than Jeff Maehl. He does have a case of the drops every few targets, but on the whole he catches almost everything thrown to him. He’s made big catches, like the bobble in the BCS Championship game. And he can fight off cornerbacks, like when he wrestled the ball way from a Tennessee defensive back for a touchdown last year.
More importantly, he’s being used like Maehl was in the spring game. He got targeted a clear majority of the time. He got looks on wide receiver screens, he worked the outside of the field, and he caught balls across the middle. We could overanalyze the spring game and see he dropped a couple balls and blew a route that resulted in an interception, or we could take in to account that the spring game is a glorified practice with only fourteen practices leading up to it.
If Lavasier Tuinei assumes Jeff Maehl’s role of the guy who always finds a way to get open and catch the ball, he doesn’t necessarily need to stretch the field. Guys like Josh Huff and Tacoi Sumler can spread the field, where if the safeties don’t respect their speed, they’re going get burned deep. The younger players can master a few routes or skills, and develop an aggregate, and be used successfully as a part of Oregon’s offense.
It may even be better that the offense loses it’s clear go to guy. If players are able to fill unique roles then there’s no reason to try to lock off a single receiver. The best part about the receivers filling holes on offense is that they are fast, so fast that not all of them can be jammed or tied up by defensive backs, essentially ruining the cover 0 that Cal employed last year.
One of the receiver statistics Football Outsiders and Football Study Hall uses is number of targets per top two and three receivers. Teams that used their top 3 receivers more than 65% of the time had the lowest passing S&P+ rankings. Teams that targeted their top two receivers more than 48.% of the time tend to have the same pattern. But rarely targeting the top two or three receivers also results in a poor S&P+. Oregon had a high number of targets towards its top two and three receivers, but not enough to where they got predictable. Locking on to targets, being predictable with passes, and leaning on certain receivers is a trademark of young quarterbacks that Darron Thomas was able to avoid. With Thomas having a full year of experience he’s going to be able to help the receivers out by placing the ball, finding the best option in his passing progression, and spreading the ball around.
When someone is looking to fill in for a player ahead of them, it’s not about copying them and replacing, it’s about taking the abilities, aggregates, that they had that cannot be done without. Ultimately, the job of filling Maehl’s role as the big play maker could be done by Lavasier Tuinei, he has the tools and Maehl’s most important skills. However, unlike the Athletics, Oregon has a lot more talent, and players that other schools wanted. The key is to maximize the skills that the players have, whether it’s Tuinei’s routes and hands, Sumler’s speed, Vaughn’s physicality, or Huff’s ability to break the big play.
Oh, and there’s David Paulson who has the best hands in the receiving corps and only catches first down passes and touchdowns.