The top diva wide receivers in today’s NFL rival the notoriety of some franchise quarterbacks. These receivers’ look-at-me, watch-me-fly, big-play theatrics make defenses pause. They make defenses retreat and often leave them crushed.
But sometimes you find that special wide receiver who is both steak and Spam. Who doesn’t mind traveling by jet or by dump truck. Who matches artistic routes with in-your-face ferocity.
This is the wide receiver who blocks brilliantly in the running game.
The guy who takes pride in it. Who excels at it. Who helps boost his team’s running attack. Who cleverly understands that mastering this element makes him an even more dangerous pass catcher.
It is startling around the league how varied teams are in approaching this task. Some general managers and coaches, when asked about this subject during the preseason, answered, "Huh?" They acted as if they couldn’t care less whether their wide receivers blocked or not in the running game.
"Look, we’re paying the guy a lot of money to catch balls and make big plays and get into the end zone," one general manager said. "That’s the game today. That’s how you win. When I’m scouting a receiver, I must tell you, that is like the 65th thing on the list I’m looking for."
Little wonder his team finished near the bottom of the NFL last season in explosive run plays of 10 or more yards.
There is no question that a successful running game begins with a potent offensive line and skilled running backs. But once that back breaks into the secondary, the difference between him going for a contained gain or for huge yards is often determined by if his wide receivers are willing and effective blockers.
It’s a matter of the receiver giving it up for his teammate.
It’s a question of whether he is willing to be bold in his physicality.
It’s a matter of heart and not size.
"As far as I’m concerned, it’s just as important as having a guy go out there and make the catch — we demand it," said dynamic Arizona Cardinals receivers coach Darryl Drake, who spent 21 years as a college offensive coach before entering the NFL as the Chicago Bears receivers coach in 2004. This season is his fifth in Arizona and 14th straight in the league as a receivers coach.
His experience ranges from tutoring Hines Ward at the University of Georgia to current Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald. Both Ward (Pittsburgh Steelers 1998-2011) and Fitzgerald are two of the best-ever NFL blocking receivers.
"We know what the passing game means to the NFL today, but you still have to be able to run the football and big plays come in that when your receivers block," Drake said. "It’s a matter of attitude. It’s all ‘want to.’"
Drake reminds his receivers that their power is in their legs and not their upper body in both pass catching and run blocking. He said that a receiver can play with a broken finger but not without strong legs. That’s the base that makes for a strong run-blocking receiver.
"I coached Muhsin Muhammad in Chicago and he had the heart, the desire to become a great blocking receiver," Drake said. "Larry Fitzgerald bought into and it has solidified him as a totally complete player. We put him out there in position to block not just cornerbacks but defensive ends, linebackers, safeties. There is not a better receiver than Larry at this craft in the league."
Think about the blocking beauty of Art Monk. Or the blocking tenacity of Cris Carter. Steve Smith was not the biggest receiver, but he was one of the most tenacious blockers.
The first two are already in the Hall of Fame and the third is certainly on his way. Each made plenty of catches and scored plenty of touchdowns.
But they were respected as much by their peers and by coaches for their passionate blocking in the run game.
"I learned in college at Michigan that it was an essential part of being a wide receiver, and I just continued that when I got to the league," Toomer said. "I don’t understand why more receivers don’t really buy into it, because you are helping yourself. The more you have success running the ball, the more defenses have to commit to the run. It opens up more big pass plays for you. More man-to-man coverage. That’s when big plays happen."
Toomer said the teams that emphasize this task are the ones that are more detailed, the ones more fixated on nuggets that are required to win championships.
"I always looked at it as putting money in the bank," Toomer said. "The cornerback always wants you to do something a certain way. You are trying to play off him. But in the blocking element you get to dictate the pace. You get the chance to get him back on his heels and soften him up a little bit. He’s putting his hands on you all day. In the run game, you get to put yours on him. You get to initiate. You start to make him think. And that can lead to another setup, another advantage in step in the passing game.
"You watch this season and I guarantee it — the teams that run the ball best and especially for big running plays have the best blocking wide receivers."
The NFL's Five Best Blocking Receivers
- Mike Evans Buccaneers – Consistently great, occasionally dominating.
- Robert Woods Rams – No fear, good technique.
- Larry Fitzgerald Cardinals – Committed.
- Jarvis Landry Dolphins – Uses his superb quickness to gain solid leverage.
- Brandon Marshall Giants – A force.