Thursday, April 9, 2009

What Dreams May Come 2009 - Darrius Heyward-Bey

In order to prepare for the NFL draft (and survive the unbearably long offseason), we've decided to check in on this year's draft class from time to time and discuss some of the potential future characters of the League that stand out for some reason or another. Today, Maryland WR Darrius Heyward-Bey.

It should come as no surprise that Darrius Heyward-Bey is on our list of exciting draft prospects. After all, I’ve been saying that big receivers are where the fun is at from day one, and Bey’s 6’2” frame combined with his lanky wingspan certainly qualifies him for membership in that category. Watching Heyward-Bey work, however, one notices that there is a unique property to his game that makes his length a skill that is distinct from his size. This is not just a matter of his being tall but not bulky. Instead, Heyward-Bey’s (I’m going with DHB until we get a better nickname) play exists in a state of constant extension, in direct contrast to the typical WR game built on explosion from a state of contraction. It’s like starting at the end of the movie and looping it at the climax, and it could either be the thing that ends his career very early or the thing that makes him a star.

The comparison here is Braylon Edwards, or at least Braylon Edwards at his best. Remember, at his best, Braylon Edwards knew how to extend himself and use his length to bring in passes that other receivers let sail. At his worst, Edwards tries to use his size to force defenders away, relying on average hands in narrow space he is fortunately able to create. DHB lives in extension. Even on screens and reverses, he runs with his full length at his disposal, leaning into his paths at dangerous tilts. It makes for beautiful physics, with his center of gravity seemingly pushed by his incredible speed (his 4.3 was the fastest of the 40 times for receivers) and pulled by a torso leaning ahead at full momentum.

Receivers simply don’t do this. Common sense dictates that extension creates vulnerability, and vulnerability in the places and situations where receivers find themselves on the field leads to drastically shortened careers. This may be the case; however, DHB’s style is dictated by his willingness to live with that danger and use the fullness of forces in motion around his body. In midair, he arrives at the ball faster than anyone around him by virtue of his already being at the peak of his reach, making his height even more apparent than it would be otherwise. On the ground, defenders struggle to gain a solid grasp on a target that, rather than being to small to hit, is instead to vast and twisting to control upon being grabbed. It’s like watching a shark in his natural environment, a killing machine made terrifying because of its combination of agility, size, strength, and speed. DHB may not be the most physically gifted player in the draft, but I’m hard pressed to find a more unique physicality (in terms of both material and execution) in this class.

Of course, as with most sharks, one good spear could turn DHB into another hanging fish on some zealous defender’s dock. As we’ve discussed, that kind of extension is rare for a reason. NFL safeties are notorious for using fear as their greatest tactic for stunting receivers in the air and after the catch; just look at what they did to Santana Moss. If he commits, however, DHB could remind some of the game’s great receivers that there is more than one dimension to size, and that length combined with speed is the most elusive combination on the field. The thought of this man swimming through defenses en route to hitting his obvious second-gear speed is worth his fans cringing at a tackle or two.

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