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The Notebook: Can Marqise Lee catch on in the NFL?

Retired NFL defensive end Stephen White turns his focus to the USC wide receiver.

SB Nation 2014 NFL Draft Scouting Reports

The list of wide receivers that are allegedly all in the second tier behind Sammy Watkins and Mike Evans is pretty damn long. I couldn't possibly get to them all before the draft but I wanted to do at least one more just in case. It came down to Odell Beckham Jr. of LSU and Marqise Lee of USC, and I chose Lee because with him playing on the west coast I'm betting a lot fewer people saw Lee play than Beckham. On a personal note I have greatly enjoyed breaking down players that I wasn't very familiar with beforehand, and I am also much more acquainted with what Beckham brings to the table (loved his game before it was trendy) than I was with Lee before I watched him play.

For this breakdown I watched Lee play against Hawaii, Utah State, Arizona State, Stanford and Fresno State in the bowl game. Those represented the first, fourth, fifth, eleventh and fourteenth games of Lee's final season at USC, respectively.

That ain't right

OK, I have a question. Can Marqise Lee catch?

I ask because I only watched him play five games. I want to give Lee the benefit of the doubt that maybe he caught the ball totally differently in the other nine games, but that doesn't seem likely. If you’ve read any of my previous wide receiver breakdowns, you know that not being able to catch is a deal-breaker for me. So this is a pretty big deal.

That's not to say that Lee doesn't have skills. He is fast, running a 4.52 at the Combine. He can jump really high, a 38 inch vertical. At times can be elusive in the open field.

None of that matters if he can't catch. At least most of it won't.

I’ve talked before about how front offices have gotten in trouble over the years drafting physically gifted wide receivers who can't catch a cold butt nekkid at the North Pole, and Lee looks to be the next likely suspect. He had five drops in five games, which isn't the worst I’ve seen so far. Even when he makes catches, I have concerns. He doesn't catch the ball with his hands that often, and that, ladies and gentlemen, is a problem.

From what I saw in these five games, Lee is what I like to call a body catcher. That means he tries to use his chest to help him make most of his catches. The problem is that you never know for sure how a ball will bounce after hitting your shoulder pads. One bad careen and an easy catch ends up on the ground. Physical contact also can exacerbate this. I saw Lee bobble and re-catch a lot of the passes thrown to him. When you don't catch with your hands, it’s hard to secure the catch right off the bat.

There are times when a player wants to use their body to help with securing a catch, generally when in traffic or about to get blasted by a defender. Even then, I would like to see them catch the ball with their hands, then tuck it close to the body for safe keeping. There's just too much that can go wrong when a player relies so heavily on their body to help make catches, as Lee found out against Arizona State.


Not only were the body catches a concern, but Lee also tried to catch quite a few passes underhanded as well. If a pass is low, there’s almost no choice but to catch it underhanded. When a pass is above the waist, there isn't much reason to catch it underhanded. If it just happened once or twice, I would dismiss it, but he did it more frequently than that.

All bullshit aside, I could end this breakdown right here and let you know that there isn't a chance in hell that I would pick Lee in the first round. Unless somebody somewhere can show me additional game film with Lee catching the ball properly, it’s just too much of a risk taking him that high.

That's just me.

However, I'm not going to do that because there are also some positives in his game. And, hey, the draft doesn't end after the first round after all.

Creating daylight

What impressed me the most was Lee's route running ability, which helped him get open on short and intermediate length passes. Lee ran all kinds of crossing routes, quick slants and out routes against all different kinds of coverage. Against man-to-man you could see that he just knows how to get open by doing the little things. Whether it’s stemming (running and leaning) his route in the opposite direction of the way he wants to go to get the cornerback off balance, his quick footwork in and out of his breaks, or a subtle push off to create a little bit of daylight, Lee was really adept at giving his quarterback a window to get the ball to him.

The quick slants caught my eye because those are routes that demand good footwork, recognition of coverage and a lot of trust in your quarterback to not get you killed. I’ll say this much for Lee, in addition to being polished at running routes, he also didn't show any fear in the games that I saw. He knew that he could be running into a brick wall at times and never broke stride. That's another reason he was able to get separation so consistently, because he was never hesitant after the ball was snapped.

He was also a willing, if not all that effective, run blocker. He wasn't afraid to stick his nose in there and try to spring the play open for his running back. Sometimes, you just want to see them having a willingness to do that kind of dirty work, more than watching a guy being a dominant blocker. The thought being that if he actually wants to get the job done you will be able to teach him how to get it done on the next level.

Put it all together and you have a guy who probably wouldn't take long to adjust to playing wide receiver in the NFL and could realistically contribute right away when it comes to understanding the playbook and knowing how to get open on his routes.

But then you are still going to have to deal with the fact that he has hands like feet.

Sorry, but I just can't let it go.

Not real special on specials

I didn't see a lot out of Marqise Lee on special teams or on "special" plays like reverses and screens in these games. Oh, he had opportunities to make plays, but the only smoke screen (wide receiver turns and catches the ball from the QB immediately after the ball is snapped as his teammates pull out in front of him to block) that I saw go over 5 or 6 yards was one he had against Hawaii in the first game of the season.


His punt returns were mostly average in yards gained. He showed some moves on a few of them, but he tended to go laterally rather than north and south. The Trojans broke out the speed sweep to Lee against Fresno State in the bowl game and he looked decent doing it, but it only went for a handful of yards.

Seeing Lee more productive in these kinds of roles would have swayed me into thinking Lee is a first-round pick. OK, so maybe he can't catch, but if he can still take a punt or a kickoff back at any moment or make big plays consistently on short catches, then maybe you can still make it work. Since I didn’t see a lot of that, I can't come close to making a case for him to go that high. I just can't.

Especially when he isn't even 6 feet tall and weighed less than 200 pounds at the Combine. What in the hell is an offensive coordinator supposed to do with that?

Hell, I’ll even throw in the fact that he wasn't much of a deep threat receiver in those games as another reason why I didn't see much special about Lee. I can't say it was all his fault, as I only counted 17 targets his way in five games. Several of those were bad passes or throwaways. Still, to only catch seven of those 17, including at least two that he dropped, I just can't possibly project that you will be a downfield threat no matter how fast you can run or how high you can jump.

Can't do it! *Mike Singletary voice*

I could be wrong but I doubt it

Please understand that I totally get why people fall in love with Marqise Lee when they watch his film. He’s quick, fast, and excitable. He isn't an "act like you been there before" kinda guy, and I'm totally cool with that. I just feel like if I have to teach a wide receiver to catch once he gets to the NFL, then he better be a guy we drafted on the third day of the draft or a rookie free agent.

NFL Mock Draft

I'm not saying that's where Lee should go. Hell, maybe he is a fast learner. If he develops into a better "hands" catcher, with all his other skills, he could certainly be a beast. For right now, and based only on these five games, I just don't see it, and I wouldn't be trying to get myself fired by drafting him too high. Too much of a risk, too much of a headache and too much uncertainty is a recipe for disaster.

I'd much rather let someone else cook that cake. I need better ingredients than that.