As much as I value pre-draft evaluations, the prospect’s landing spot is a pivotal part of the process. Few talents can transcend any scheme and impact their team’s success. In fact, plenty of starters and contributors at the NFL level only fill certain roles and might not be considered a long term starter at that position. It is all about figuring out where a player wins and giving them a chance to succeed in that area. In this series I will take a look at prospects selected on the third day that could offer an immediate impact thanks to their strengths and situations. I will never call myself an expert on the coverages and schemes that are included, but I am working hard to learn, so feel free to (politely) point me in the right direction. With that said, I cannot recommend this defensive write-up by Jene Bramel enough.
Other third day gems: LB DeVonte Holloman, RB Zac Stacy, S Earl Wolff
Despite possessing one of the most talented rosters in the league, and many would argue among the top three in that category, the 49ers are going to miss Michael Crabtree’s presence on the field. That is undeniable. However, thanks to 18 draft picks in the last two years, some nonessential or superfluous grade-based picks (what a concept) could be made.
One of these selections includes receiver Quinton Patton, a fourth-rounder (No. 128) out of Louisiana Tech. Like other third day gems, I was and continue to be a huge fan of Patton’s, listing him at No. 30 in my top 151 pre-draft rankings. After one day of rookie camp, 49ers beat writer Matt Maiocco wrote “I can tell you that Quinton Patton is nowhere close to being ready. (But that can be said for all of the rookies.)” I did not attend this practice, but based on Patton’s collegiate tape I disagree.
Before diving into Patton’s strengths and weaknesses, let’s review the 49ers’ passing attack, specifically their loss of top target Michael Crabtree. I enjoy writing full evaluations, but the foundation of any prospect recommendation or suggestion should be “where he wins.” For a couple of seasons, Crabtree’s future success was in question. However, thanks to his outstanding chemistry with Colin Kaepernick and ability to dominate after the catch, turning short receptions to solid gains, Crabtree put forth a career year in 2012. With his versatility to win from the slot or outside on underneath patterns and intermediate routes, there is a lot to like. Few receivers can win with separation thanks to route running or physical play, along with consistently winning contested situations at the catch point. I consider Crabtree one of them.
Speaking of the chemistry between Crabtree and his quarterback, Evan Silva pointed out this glaring figure:
Per ESPN Stats & Information, Kaepernick completed 68.5 percent of his 2012 pass targets to Crabtree. Kaep completed just 58.4 percent of his throws intended for other receivers.
As you will read, Patton is not a replacement for Crabtree. Simply put, they win in different ways and likely from different alignments. Besides the Senior Bowl, I rarely saw Patton move away from his alignment on the right side of the formation and never noticed him playing in the slot. However, rather than succeeding Crabtree from an alignment perspective, he could earn some of the targets that will be scattered around. Expect Anquan Boldin, Vernon Davis, and perhaps even Vance McDonald to step up from a formation standpoint.
During the 2012 football season, Alen Dumonjic wrote a great evaluation of Patton’s game. I will not repeat his sentiments word for word, but I share many of the same opinions.
Patton is more smooth than fast, but his quick feet are one pivotal piece in creating separation, which is the top trait I look for when evaluating receivers. The LaTech product understands when to use this quickness against different types of coverages. Against a small cushion (1-2 yards), Patton can take up to four steps in a short distance to put his opposition off balance or guessing with open hips. That same result occurs against off coverage (5 yards), when Patton eats up ground, takes a hard jab in one direction forcing a false step, and aggressively cuts in to the opposite shade of the corner. He has a natural response to open hips and rarely hesitates when earning the advantage of his individual matchup.
Referring back to Matt Maiocco’s assessment of Patton’s performance during rookie minicamps, he stressed how Patton tended to tip his routes to opposing corners.
Based on one two-hour practice, the thing that he most needs to improve -- aside from just learning the system -- is his route-running. What makes Michael Crabtree so successful is that every route looks the same at the beginning. Crabtree is able to get deep because, for instance, a slant-and-go looks just like a slant until he turns it upfield. He does not tip anything at the top of a route. Patton looked predictable Friday, and on a couple of deep routes, undrafted rookie cornerback Darryl Morris had no problem keeping up with him.
Again, I did not attend this specific workout, but from his college tape, Patton was well versed in camouflaging his routes. Receivers who struggle with this tend to have corners run their routes for them. Against off-coverage, Patton gets around this by keep his shoulders square to the line of scrimmage on a vertical stem, and not turn them until he has forced the defensive back to open their hips or take a false step. I certainly consider Patton a savvy player.
Now, few receivers can consistently or universally create separation solely with quickness in routes. Therefore, generating that sliver of space at the catch point can be equally as important. Patton achieves this with good balance, timing, and a willingness to extend or lay out for the reception. I mentioned his savviness, but Patton is very good at hiding his push offs or downfield handfighting, timing these subtleties for just the right moment. Alen Dumonjic put it perfectly with this line:
Possessing the body control to adjust to passes is vital in the NFL, especially when dealing with the ever-growing mobile quarterbacks. Mobile quarterbacks naturally throw more on the run due to schematic designs to utilize their strengths, thus throwing the ball from different platforms that make it come from various angles.
Because of these qualities, Patton has earned comparisons to Reggie Wayne, Brandon Lloyd, and Chad Johnson. That is a pretty solid group to be mentioned with.
As previously mentioned, do not expect Patton to replace Crabtree, especially from a formation/alignment perspective. However, a number of targets will be there for the taking. Because of his 4.53 forty time, Patton might not be viewed as a vertical receiver. Don’t let the time fool you, as many of the traits discussed result in winning vertically on the edge. He was the master of the lobbed fade at multiple sections of the field and corner routes in the end zone. He dominated the catch point in college football, and STATS Inc. credited Patton with a drop percentage of 0.9 on 158 targets in 2012, a ridiculous number. He doesn’t have the vertical speed of a young Randy Moss, but even in his old age Moss was seen as a threat in that department. It might not be immediate, but perhaps that is where Patton makes his mark along with the potential to create separation thanks to well-timed breaks in his routes.
With the 49ers running the pistol, including some read option looks, Patton's willingness to block downfield will be praised. The fourth-round pick has some veteran tendencies, but a realist will look at the time it takes rookie receivers to develop in the NFL. Regardless, Patton has the tools to contribute at some point during the early parts of his career.