Playbook: Studying improved WRs

With the season coming to a close, the crew at “Playbook” has taken to the film to find players who made marked improvements on the field.

Today, we look at wide receivers:

Quarterbacks | Defensive backs | Defensive tackles

Torrey Smith, Ravens

Smith is another one of our rookies that improved so much during the course of the season that we had to include him on our list. He started out with a bang –- catching five passes for 152 yards and 3 TDs in his debut -– but he was far from a complete receiver.

In the first half of the season, he did all of his damage on vertical routes. But his underneath routes were imprecise, he had a number of drops, and he failed to make much happen after the catch.

In Week 11 against Cincinnati, Smith displayed some versatility for the first time. In addition to his vertical routes, he caught a quick screen and broke it for 22 yards, got 15 yards on a deep curl, exploded upfield for 28 yards after catching a slant, and added 13 yards on an out. He finished the day catching six of his seven targets for 165 yards.

Smith continued to improve from that point forward, showing off much more polished underneath routes. He also added a crisp comeback route to his arsenal, which makes him very tough to defend when complimenting his blinding speed on “go” routes.

Victor Cruz, Giants

Cruz had an impressive 2010 preseason, but saw only limited action in three games and was held without a catch before a hamstring injury sidelined him for the rest of the year. He got off to a strong start in 2011 statistically, providing a spark and plenty of big plays for the Giants.

These big plays, however, came as a result of his athletic talent and raw ability, like his acrobatic 68-yard TD reception off of a tipped pass in Week 5 against Seattle. Cruz was also involved in a number of critical mistakes, including his drop on a wide open corner route in Week 10 at San Francisco, his slip out of a break against Seattle that resulted in a backbreaking pick-6, and other miscommunications with Eli Manning.

Cruz remedied these issues in a hurry and became one of the NFL’s most complete receivers. His route running became precise, he cut out his drops (just one in his last nine games, including the playoffs), and both he and Eli got on the same page. His 10-catch, 142-yard effort against San Francisco in the NFC Championship accounted for almost half of Manning’s passing total and was key to the Giants’ return to the Super Bowl.

Antonio Brown, Steelers

After a slow rookie season, in which he recorded just 16 receptions for 167 yards, Brown turned heads this preseason with nine catches for 230 yards and three TDs in just three games. The impressive preseason didn’t translate into regular season right away, but from Week 7 forward, Brown was an explosive weapon for the Steelers’ passing attack, recording 18 receptions of 20 yards or more during the rest of the season, including the playoffs.

Starting in Week 7, Pittsburgh started utilizing Brown more frequently and took advantage of his strengths. While he can be shifty and make some plays in the short and intermediate passing game, his strength is his ability to run deeper routes with precision and use his speed to create separation from defenders.

He ran quality vertical routes from the start, but as the season progressed, his post and dig routes became much more polished. His ability to operate both over the middle and to the outside made him especially dangerous and difficult to defend.  Brown finished with 69 receptions for 1,108 yards, which is especially impressive considering that 48 of those catches (for 948 yards) came over the last 10 games of the season. Look for him to continue this success in 2012.

“Playbook” — the ultimate football Xs and Os show – airs Friday at 6 p.m. ET on NFL Network. Check the NFL Network broadcast schedule for further details. Follow “Playbook” on Twitter @NFLN_Playbook.

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