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Stephen Hill: King of the Theoretical Hill

Oct 20, 2013; East Rutherford, NJ, USA; New York Jets wide receiver Stephen Hill (84) reacts after his offensive pass interference penalty during the second half at MetLife Stadium. The Jets defeated the Patriots 30-27 in overtime.  Mandatory Credit: Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

I think two numbers stick out when people talk about Stephen Hill. They are 6’4″ and 4.36. These are his height and his 40 yard dash time at the Combine respectively. Primarily because of these two numbers, Hill was a second round pick. These are also why he is considered a major talent.

To be certain these measurables are enticing. For three summers we have dreamed what Hill could become if he figured out how to put things together. It would be perfect. Theoretical Stephen Hill is exactly what the Jets need. He’s the type of gamebreaking deep threat who will force defenses to roll coverages his way and open up passing lanes as Eric Decker works the intermediate routes he runs so well. Theoretical Hill is the big play threat this offense has lacked. He will make life easier for Geno Smith. Geno won’t be forced to put together ten plays to lead a scoring drive. He won’t have to work his tail off reading defenses. When things break down, he can throw it up to Theoretical Hill to make a play. It sounds great.

A big talent like Hill has a great chance to break out, right? A question like this makes me wonder why we qualify Hill as a big talent. Does being fast in a straight line and tall qualify a receiver as a super talent? Matt Jones was even taller and ran an almost identical 40 time. Does anybody think of him as a major talent? Height and speed can certainly help a receiver, but alone they do not make one. The attributes Hill has unfortunately do not translate to success on the NFL level.

Let’s talk about his height first. Being tall can bring a major advantage to the table. Jump with your arms straight up in the air. If you aren’t 6’4″ your arms will be able to reach higher than somebody who is not 6’4″. That means Hill should in theory be able to outleap people. The highest point he can reach is typically higher than the defensive backs he goes against. But this requires a player to time his jump properly and be able to reach the ball at that high point. Hill has experienced major struggles in this area. Here are two examples indicative of his problems.

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is giving six inches to Hill. Duron Harmon is giving four inches to Hill. In a jump ball situation, Hill is going to be able to get higher than either of them. Yet both of them get their hands higher than Hill and break up the passes. Hill doesn’t track the ball well. He doesn’t time his jump well. He doesn’t attack the ball and get it when he is at his highest point.

The first throw was not a great throw. Geno Smith threw late, but the play is still there to be made by a tall receiver. Hill has inside position on Aqib Talib, and it comes down to whether he can get higher than McCourty. This is the kind of play a young quarterback needs from his receiver. Geno isn’t going to be perfect. You can’t ask him to complete passes and sustain drives all game. There have to be some big plays in the passing game that take the place of these sustained drives. A big guy like Hill can provide that. A 6’4″ guy should be a human throwing lane. Separation in this case can be vertical. It doesn’t work for Hill, though.

We can talk about his size until the cows come home, but being 6’4″ isn’t very helpful without understanding how to use that height. When a receiver plays like that, he isn’t 6’4″ functionally. He’s small.

This plays into another problem Hill has shown. He might be physically big, but he too frequently fails to assert himself.

Sometimes basic contact brings him to the ground.

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Sometimes it eliminates him as a target on a short route because he can’t fight through.

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Other times he’ll get knocked off balance on timing routes, which delays him. When Geno is ready to deliver the ball, he isn’t where he needs to be because of the contact.

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Another issue is reading the play in front of him.

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On this play Geno is forced to step up. Hill is in front of him. Looking at the coverage, if he just stops his route, he’s right in front of Geno. Geno can dump him the ball, and he can take it up the field, possibly for a first down. Instead he continues into the coverage. Geno has to scramble for 5 yards.

You may talk about how Hill’s speed should make him a deep threat, but this all plays into each other. A big target like Hill should be an asset in the short passing game. Doing so is also, however, a necessity to become a big time deep threat.

Consider the NFL’s top five leaders in deep catches over 20 yards. Look at how many catches they all made that were caught ten yards or shorter from the line of scrimmage. All numbers via Pro Football Focus.

Player Deep Catches Catches within 10 yds of the line of scrimmage
DeSean Jackson 16 47
Eric Decker 15 56
Josh Gordon 15 48
A.J. Green 15 63
Alshon Jeffery 14 50

Now let me show you the coverage Buffalo ran extensively against Hill during his Week 11 zero catch outing.

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Mike Pettine was Buffalo’s defensive coordinator. He knew Hill better than any opposing defensive coach. Almost all game he would only dedicate one defender with no help. The defender would leave Hill a big cushion. Because of what we discussed above, Hill’s ability to contribute in the short passing game did not require respect. This allowed the Bills to give their guy a ten yard head start and take Hill’s ability to get deep away with one defender. Essentially Hill has had the same effect as putting Darrelle Revis on the other team. It only takes one guy to take him away.

I don’t think Hill’s 40 time translates to his vertical routes. He rarely gets separation deep even when the defender lines up close to the line of scrimmage. Give a defender a ten yard head start, though, and nobody is going to get past him deep. When the defense doesn’t have to respect the fact that you can make plays underneath, that’s the kind of head start they get. At least when a receiver can add something to the short game, the defense loses that head start, and the receiver has a chance to blow past him when going deep in a relatively even starting position.

If you aren’t getting separation, you need to be able to win contested balls in the air to be a viable deep threat, but we’ve already been over that.

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This is not meant to be a hatchet job on Hill. I certainly don’t have the skills to play wide receiver in the NFL. It is a difficult life to have somebody like me pick you apart at your job. What I’m trying to show here is the very difficult road Hill has to make an impact in the NFL. Learning how to do any one of these things better is extremely difficult. Learning them all at once is Herculean.

Again, I think it’s easy to get caught in the allure of Theoretical Hill. You can use generalities to say he needs more time. He’s a great athlete, etc. There are some devastating flaws in his game, though. Of course we hope he breaks out, but it isn’t necessarily a 50/50 proposition considering what he needs to learn. There’s only so much coaching can do. On some level these things need to become innate where a player can knows when to execute these split second actions in a game setting without thinking.

I think sometimes people use the idea that Hill is a project as something of an advantage. In reality it is a disadvantage. He has to improve a lot more than the typical early prospect. Beyond that, the more refined prospect has shown at least on some level the ability to learn and develop that the raw guy like Hill has not. These are really essential areas where Hill has shown little to no growth.

I hope he turns into a beast, but this is a case where said beast will need to learn at a lightning rate where he has shown little ability to learn up to now. It isn’t just a matter of waiting for his elite athleticism to take the NFL by storm.

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