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The Film Room: Will Fuller Has Already Made Great Strides With His Technique

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BRB’s Luke Beggs breaks down some film from Will Fuller’s college career and compares it to his first NFL game against the Bears. Given Fuller’s reputation and youth, the results may surprise you.

NFL: Chicago Bears at Houston Texans Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

A few months ago, I wrote about Will Fuller and what he needed to improve on coming out of college. For me, Fuller was a player with the physical gifts to win on most routes purely based on explosive movement skills that allowed him to maintain speed through his cuts and stretch the field with his straight line speed. The issue I raised regarding Fuller’s development and potential was one that we’d heard countless times about Fuller during the pre-draft process—he’s not a natural pass-catcher.

That line of thinking stems from plays like this:

Or this:

Or even this:

Plays like that give credence to the argument that Fuller doesn’t have the best receiving technique, that he’s a "body-catcher," or that he doesn’t have great hands.

What I want to focus on here is not the end result of the play, but how the play got to that point. In each of these plays above, Fuller is trying to create a basket for the ball to land. His elbows are locked tightly into his body, and his arms are there to act as a guide for the ball; once the ball in the basket, it will be trapped against Fuller’s body by his arms. The problem with this technique is that it leaves a lot to chance. First and foremost, by attempting to secure the ball against one’s body, there is a greater chance that either (1) the ball bounces off the player’s chest before he can secure it or (2) the player cannot get a solid grip on the ball when he catches it, leaving him vulnerable to dropping the ball upon getting hit.

There’s also the issue of range in which the receiver can catch the ball when utilizing this technique. By body-catching, the receiver’s arms never stretch out very far, meaning that the QB’s accuracy has to be perfect in order to hit the receiver, and the receiver has to get his body behind the ball in order for it to act as the backboard against which the receiver can secure the ball. Simply put, body-catching limits a receiver’s catch radius, because he’s not really using his arms to his advantage.

In all of those highlighted examples aboe, the ball is coming into Fuller’s body. He’s waiting on the ball to come to him, offering any DB more time to contest the incoming pass. In short, this technique hurts the QB, who has very little margin for error when throwing to the receiver. It hurts the offense in general, as it runs the risk that a DB might cut in front of the pass while the receiver waits for the ball to come to him.

Sometimes it’s hard to measure just how much improvement a player makes because of how subtle the actions which differentiate good from great are. Take the three examples above. Two were touchdown passes. When watching the play in real time and not after the fact, the result is what draws your attention, rather than where Fuller’s hands are in relation to his body. It’s harder to say a player is wrong when the result of the action is a positive one. Fuller’s technique is wrong, but he ends up catching a touchdown. Bear this in mind as we look at Fuller’s work from the Bears game.

This first catch illustrates what i’m talking about in terms of the subtlety of certain actions. It’s a simple quick out route with Brock Osweiler going into a quick three-step drop and firing the ball out to Fuller, who is breaking to the sideline. The ball is placed out towards the sideline, and Fuller adjusts, extends his arms out towards the ball, and makes the catch. The key part about this is that his midriff isn’t behind the ball. He’s extending his arms, increasing his catch radius, creating a more stable catching platform, and reducing the time the ball is in the air by attacking it. All of that comes in a barely discernible set of actions that occur in mere seconds.

This catch was my favourite Fuller catch from the Bears game:

It’s technically sound in so many ways and shows everything which you wanted from Fuller’s development in one motion. Osweiler’s throw comes out with a lot of gas. Fuller is running a post and Osweiler decides to lead Fuller into the ball. The pass comes out a bit high, and Fuller is forced to adjust. With a safety lurking dangerously nearby and a corner closing in, Fuller reaches out and snags it clean out of the air before bringing it in and securing the ball for a first down. When Fuller was at Notre Dame, the strategy for catching balls like that would have been to jump up towards the ball in an attempt to get his body behind it, which would have left him open for the safety to knock the crap out of him. Here, in the NFL, it’s nothing but solid technique.

Those are two examples of positive results from good technique, but let’s take a look at an example of good technique which ends with a negative result. Let’s talk about the notorious drop Fuller had against the Bears.

It’s just before halftime. The Texans have taken the lead thanks to a DeAndre Hopkins touchdown. With a successful drive (that started on Houston’s own 10 yard line) here, a score could put the Texans into a very comfortable position heading into halftime. Osweiler takes the snap out of the shotgun. He goes all Rex Grossman and throws the ball deep. Fuller meanwhile is running a skinny post against Tracy Porter, and he is running straight past him. Fuller burns Porter. The safety knows it too; he’s turned around and is running full pelt towards where the ball will be. The problem is that Will Fuller is already there. If he catches the pass, there is nobody left for him to beat. The play turns into a straight foot race that Fuller will almost certainly win. All Fuller needs to do is bring in the pass...

There went a TD. After that drop, the Texans’ drive stalled. The Bears were given a chance to drive with less than two minutes left on the clock. Chicago promptly drove down the field and retook the lead on an Eddie Royal touchdown catch from Jay Cutler. Fuller’s drop swung the momentum right back towards the Bears, yet Fuller did everything right here. He tracked the ball over his shoulder. He beat his man. He extended his arms out to increase his catch radius. Yet Fuller still dropped it. The result doesn’t reflect the good work that Fuller did on this route.

Should Fuller have caught the ball? Of course. Just because he didn’t doesn’t completely reflect the complete story of the situation. Will Fuller is a rookie playing his first NFL game. At Notre Dame, Fuller didn’t catch the ball like he does now. Comparing Fuller’s clips from Notre Dame to the clips from his game against the Bears reaffirms that Will Fuller is a player who’s already made progress and already taken steps to refine his technique. In the span of a few months, Fuller has gone from doing something that probably felt natural to him to doing something that he had never consistently done before on a football field.

Will Fuller has made some impressive strides over the past few months, and his performance against the Bears game just showed that. There’s still plenty of room for improvement, but the Texans’ 2016 first round pick is off to a good start.

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