If Stephen Hill makes it big in the NFL, Georgia Tech’s naysayers will have to put to rest the notion that blue-chip wide receivers’ pro prospects are limited because of Tech’s option offense.
While the NFL team that selects Hill must refine his route-running, he likely will be a first-round pick in part because of Tech’s vaunted rushing-based attack.
“Those guys get a little bit of everything,” Tech coach Paul Johnson said of his wide receivers. “Certainly, they have to block, and they are running routes and reading coverages. That’s what we’ve told those guys all along.
“A lot of people want to be negative and say it hurts them and they don’t get developed. But the feedback that I’ve gotten is that they [are ready for the NFL]. The offense kind of turns them into a complete player, and they can see all of that on tape.”
Before going to visit the New York Jets last week, Hill was keeping some pretty good NFL company. To get ready for his individual sessions with NFL teams, he prepared at Tech with Detroit Lions star Calvin Johnson, Denver Broncos wide receiver Demaryius Thomas and Cleveland Browns wide receiver Mohamed Massaquoi. Johnson and Thomas played at Tech and Massaquoi at Georgia.
In addition to the Jets, Hill has visited Tennessee, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Minnesota. He’s projected as a late first-round pick.
“Somebody is going to draft him fairly high,” NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock said. “Then it’s going to be up to the kid to work hard.”
One of the NFL traits that Hill picked up in Tech’s offense is his blocking ability.
“When you come out of an option offense you stalk-block,” Mayock said. “Stalk-blocking means that you’re not cutting, you are going out, standing up and you’re trying to shield linebackers, corners and safeties in the run game. He does that extremely well.”
While Hill dropped some passes and made some spectacular plays for the Yellow Jackets, he has high NFL grades from most scouts based on his Tech film.
“When you evaluate him on tape, he’s probably going to get the highest grade possible as a blocker,” Mayock said. “Then you look at him: height, weight and speed [he’ll have the] highest grade possible. Then you go hands — a little inconsistent at times, but still you can see that he’s a natural hands catcher.”
All that is left for Hill is the route running, and most teams believe they can teach that skill if they have a willing student.
While learning the nuances of route running, Hill can be effective inside the 20-yard line because of his leaping ability and on deep routes outside the numbers because of his speed. He had a 39 1/2-inch vertical jump and ran the 40-yard dash in 4.36 seconds at the scouting combine.
“There is value to this kid,” Mayock said.
Hill has been leaning most heavily on Thomas, who also played in Johnson’s offense. Thomas started to flourish last season for the Broncos after being selected in the first round (22nd overall) of the 2010 draft.
“I talked to him right after I declared and asked him what he went through,” Hill said. “He gave me some positive advice. I know I have the same athletic ability. I feel like I can make a great impact.”
Paul Johnson said there are differences between his two former pupils.
“[Thomas] was a heck of a player,” he said. “He had a really good skill-set: hard working and physically gifted. Stephen is a little different, a little leaner. He might actually be a little faster. They are just kind of different guys, but both are very talented.”
Also, former Falcons standout Terance Mathis (1994-2001) has worked with Hill on his route-running.
“It was a big point of emphasis,” Hill said. “We worked on breaks and cuts every single day. He pushed me to the limit.”
After Oklahoma State’s Justin Blackmon and Notre Dame’s Michael Floyd are selected, Hill is in the next group of receivers that includes Baylor’s Kendall Wright and LSU’s Rueben Randle.
“I just keep going back to, he’s an exciting prospect,” Mayock said. “How hard is he willing to work at it? That will determine how quickly he can get on the field and contribute.”
Detroit general manager Martin Mayhew has been in their front office since 2001. He was promoted to his current position in 2008. During his tenure, the former NFL defensive back has become an expert in evaluating wide receiver prospects.
The Lions whiffed on Charles Rogers (second overall, 2003), Roy Williams (seventh, 2004) and Mike Williams (10th, 2005) before getting it right with Calvin Johnson (second, 2007).
“Well, it’s a different game than the college game, I think with wideouts,” Mayhew said. “Everything has to be so precise in the passing game at the NFL level.”
The biggest hurdle to clear is the physical play of the defensive backs at the line of scrimmage.
“They get challenged more at the line of scrimmage, so it’s a much more demanding position at the NFL level,” Mayhew said. “That’s why, I think you see a lot of guys that really can’t step their game up in those areas when they get here and don’t really make it as players.”
New York Giants general manager Jerry Reese places a premium on speed, but wants some intangibles from his receivers.
“You have to understand what the defense is doing,” Reese said. “You have to understand what your offense is doing. You’ve got to make adjustments. You have to be smart.”
–D. Orlando Ledbetter, The Atlanta Falcons beat blog