Tales from the SunnySide: Eddie Royal Faces Next Year

Eddie Royal didn't have the 2009 that he had intended to have. On the other hand, Eddie Royal is a man who is used to difficult experiences.

You could say that his whole life was just such an experience - he was the last child born into a family of seven children. He and his siblings were raised by Pearl Royal, who was a single mother. The family stayed together. They went to church together. Sometimes there wasn't much food, but Pearl was a constant positive role model for Eddie. Eddie saw people in his life making the wrong decisions and it drove him to do better. He realized from an early age just what was and what was not important in life. One of those things was an education. Eddie realized that he could play football pretty early on. His choice of Virginia Tech showed that he was just as concerned with his classroom work as he was with the playing field. He did well at both.

It was rare to see a receiver become a school's career leader in all-purpose yards, but Royal is one of the few -- amassing a total of 4,698 yards. His 1,296 punt returns established a new Atlantic Coast Conference career record. it was, in many respects, just a continuation of his high school achievements. At Westfield High School, Royal earned All-State honors as both a receiver and kick returner. He was named the Mid-Atlantic Offensive Player of the Year by Super Prep and selected the Group AAA Player of the Year by the Associated Press. Eddie had a dream, and he was not going to be denied.

When he arrived at Virginia Tech, Eddie immediately became a fixture on the field and in the training room. He was dedicated, hard working and became very, very strong for his size. He played flanker as a freshman. He missed spring training with a leg compartment syndrome, but came back as a sophomore to start all 13 games. In 2006, Royal earned All-Atlantic Coast Conference second-team and All-American honorable mention. He led the ACC and ranked 12th nationally with a 13.2-yard average on 23 punt returns, adding 431 yards on 19 kickoff returns (22.7-yard average). In 2007 as a junior, Royal was a second-team All-American and first-team All-ACC punt returner, was 10th in the nation with 31 punt returns for 455 yards (14.7-yard average) and two scores. He gained 316 yards on 14 kickoff returns, 496 yards and four scores on 33 receptions (15.0 avg) and 112 yards on eight rushing attempts (14.0 avg). In all, in 51 games at Virginia Tech, Royal started 44 contests. He ranks fourth in school annals with 119 receptions, sixth with 1,778 yards (14.9-yard average) and fifth with 12 touchdown catches. He rushed 24 times for 226 yards (9.4 avg) and a score. His 1,296 punt return yards broke the old ACC all-time record of 1,271 yards by Steve Suter. He gained a lot of interest at the Senior Bowl and was well-regarded prior to the draft. Keep in mind - many of his records at VT were accomplished without a reliable quarterback. Mike Shanahan and the Goodman's knew who they were getting.

However - there comes a time when two things will generally happen with a wide receiver who reaches the NFL. The first is that they are going to have to learn things about their position that college did NOT prepare them for. Everyone is fast. Everyone is as good as the best that you will see in college. Wide receivers commonly have difficulty moving up a step into the NFL ranks. Eddie Royal is going through that time now. Sometimes, there are reasons that you can trace.

In Royal's case, the fact that he had limited time or training at the wide receiver position would become an even greater concern. What we saw in his first year was a very talented young man who had little film to study and whose other receivers - Brandon Stokley and Brandon Marshall - took much of the weight off of him. In 2009, all of that changed. You can go back quite a ways to see why.

Here are some of the things that were written about Eddie pre-draft. As is common, I'll list the positives first and then the negatives. There's a pattern here that is worth considering.

From NFL.com:

Positives:

Has a well-built upper body with a tight abdomen, good muscle thickness in his chest, back, shoulders and arms and valid timed speed to threaten the deep secondary...Best on controlled routes, as he is slippery getting under defenders and finding the soft areas on the field...Does a nice job of working back when the quarterback is pressured...Relies a lot on his quickness in and out of his breaks to gain separation...Will trap the ball at times, but shows soft hands and good vision to look the ball in over his outside shoulder...Despite his explosive speed, he is patient letting blocks develop on returns...Does a good job of moving laterally to avoid tackles and has a short pitter-patter running style to elude in space...Will lose his concentration at times, but is a tough, fearless receiver combating for the ball in a crowd...Likes to get the ball in pressure situations and has a keen knowledge of defensive coverage...Can sneak up on a cornerback to gobble up the cushion and get behind the defender in an instant...Hard worker in the weight room and has a good grasp of the playbook...The staff feels his knowledge and love for the game will make him a coaching candidate one day...Shows good body tilt and lean, along with the burst and acceleration to surprise a lethargic defender, showing good stutter-step moves with above-average balance in attempts to escape after the catch...Has the ability to eat up the cushion with his speed and does a nice job of dropping his pads and exploding out of his cuts (will drift on long patterns)...Can generate power in his running stride, using effective head-and-shoulder fakes while stemming and stabbing to set up the defenders...Has a nice set of gears that he uses to change the pace of his running stride...Makes good body adjustments to get under the ball and is quick to find the soft spot in coverage...Will go vertical and lay out to haul in the ball near the sideline...Adjusts well underneath and can take a shot and hold on to the ball when working in traffic...Makes a good effort to snatch the ball at his shoestrings or extend to reach and pluck at its high point...Has natural hands and while he will trap at times, he shows ease of movement with his arm extension...Has the body control to adjust to off-target tosses and shows good vision and run instincts...Times his leaps well and has the quick burst to separate...Good pester-type blocker in the open, doing a nice job of taking defenders off their feet with cut blocks (needs more bulk to sustain when blocking in-line, though)...Shows a good wiggle and quick feet to get past the initial tackler and when he maintains focus on the ball, he will come up with some spectacular aerial grabs...Has the leaping ability to explode in his jumps to reach the high point...Has the vision to locate defenders, making his an efficient runner on screens and reverses...Has the upper-body strength to break arm tackles

Negatives:

Has a strong build, but his frame is at maximum growth potential, leaving no room for needed additional bulk...Has a muscular upper body, but possesses a small bubble and just adequate thickness in his thighs and hamstrings...Has very good timed speed, but is inconsistent getting a sudden burst off the snap...Despite his upper-body strength, he struggles to avoid getting a clean release vs. press coverage, which causes him to get redirected in his routes too often for a player with his power...An inconsistent route-runner who will drift on deep routes and takes soft-angle cuts when going long distances...Is more effective on controlled and short-area routes, but needs to be more consistent when attempting to plant and drive to gain separation...Tough player, but will have some concentration lapses, along with a penchant for trapping the ball, leading to a share of dropped balls...Can make the initial tackler miss when working in space, but is not a very shifty route runner and needs to be more crisp in his turns coming out of his breaks...Scrappy cut blocker with a good concept for taking angles to stalk second level defenders, but because of size issues, he can be walked back into the pocket when trying to block in-line...Has had some minor injury problems, leading to some durability concerns...Must do a better job extending for the ball, as he likes to let it into his body too often (has just adequate hands)...Good competitor, but will get frustrated when he can't escape the jam to get into his route (lets that affect him for several plays, getting take out of his game). Tough player, but will have some concentration lapses, along with a penchant for trapping the ball, leading to a share of dropped balls...Can make the initial tackler miss when working in space, but is not a very shifty route runner and needs to be more crisp in his turns coming out of his breaks... Royal has been compared to Carolina wide receiver Steve Smith. He's incredibly strong for his size and can get behind the defense.

OK, so what's the pattern? Let me start with the good - Eddie Royal is a brilliant athlete, a hard worker, someone who does not come up short in his life and who will put out whatever effort is required to achieve a given objective. This time, the objective is to get him more involved in the Broncos offense. You can expect to find him working out hard, driving himself in the weight room and on the field and being one of those people who tend to ultimately succeed through effort as well as skill. And that's exactly where the problem that he has stands right now.

But there are reasons for his lack of production. Let's revisit some old habits.

Tough player, but will have some concentration lapses, along with a penchant for trapping the ball, leading to a share of dropped balls.

That happened on a few occasions - it's a coaching issue and a repetition issue. He's going to overcome it. I've seen it on film, mostly last year. But it's something to consider. You have to like that even when making a critique, the scouts formed it with a compliment. That says a lot. However, the second part of this makes the problem a little more clear. It adds a couple of things that may well be playing into his time with Denver.

Must do a better job extending for the ball, as he likes to let it into his body too often (has just adequate hands)...Good competitor, but will get frustrated when he can't escape the jam to get into his route (lets that affect him for several plays, getting take out of his game).

This is where I was seeing the most concern. I'm not a pro scout; I'm a guy who watches a lot of game film from the TV perspectives. We all know that the focus on the ball leads to missing some of the more interesting stuff near the sidelines, so I'm not pretending that I'm some grand authority. I do like to keep in touch and I read what I can. Here's what has come out recently on Eddie.

First - this above critique carries a double concern. The first is that Eddie has trouble breaking out of being jammed and getting into his route. He probably needs to work more on that - I know that's no surprise to him. I saw him struggle with getting separation more often than I expected. I saw him watching the ball in, but not reaching out to it enough at times. Again - I doubt that any of this is a surprise to him.

I've also read (and it was in the Denver Post: I do consider the source) that Eddie seems to be struggling with his confidence. Many members have commented on this when talking about his return skills. He just hasn't seemed, at times, to have quick drive off the catch. He looks for too long, tries to go sideways too often. He also broke a couple for TDs, and both in the same game. For some reason, all of the Broncos' squads - offense, defense and special teams - managed to dominate that game. That didn't happen very often this season. But I will say that very few players have ever been excellent returners and excellent wide receivers.

Because of this, the Broncos may be looking at a major decision. Eddie is struggling in his role as a wide receiver. It's not like he's completely fallen apart - that would be far too strong a statement. It is true, though, that very few good returners also are great wide receivers. It happens - it just doesn't happen much. That's going to create the need for a choice.

First, we have to continue to look for a new returner. That's probably not news, but since few returners are good receivers and Eddie is an unusually good receiver, I think that the Broncos should consider looking at this situation from the perspective of his 'best usage'. They have recently, with Correll Buckhalter and Kenny McKinley, for example. I love what Buckhalter brought this season, liked his returns and congratulate him on all that he did. I hope that McKinley heals quickly and well - what I saw from him certainly let me understand why Steve Spurrier claimed that he was the best receiver he's ever had. We may find the Broncos in a similar situation in a couple of years, but we'll cross that bridge when it arrives. But for right now, Royal needs to concentrate on his receiving skills.

Second - I don't worry much about Eddie not overcoming the issues that he's had as a receiver this year. There are a few good reasons for that. First - Eddie is a person who has learned how to overcome problems in his life. He's lived in poverty and he's worked hard to be a good student athlete, went to a good school and has truly made something of his life. While he didn't have to, he competed iin all phases of the Combine. Here's a quote from nfl-draft-site.com...

Wide receivers at the NFL Combine:  Royal was the strongest and had a 4.39 time in the 40

Virginia Tech's Eddie Royal was very impressive at the Combine. I give Kudos to Royal for doing a complete workout; his 40 time of 4.39 was outstanding. Royal has decent size at 5' 10" 184 pounds and is very strong; he bench pressed 225 pounds 24 times and recorded a 36 inch vertical jump.

Those are great numbers, and what Eddie did in 2008 shows what can come of some of his potential. But if all of this is true, where do we go now?

Well, what do we know?

We know that this is a young man who is far more mature than the usual NFL sophomore. Do you remember the utter calm, centering and grace that he exhibited when he first came on the scene following the draft? That continued during his bright first season - he was one of the reasons that Broncos fans got their hopes up. We know that he's overcome hardship his whole life.

What did Mike Shanahan say about him in profootball.scout.com?

"What we didn't know was how sharp he was," Shanahan said. "The game is not too big for him. He has handled himself unbelievably for a rookie relative to his intelligence, the way he goes about his preparation and the way he handles himself on the field. We just hope he keeps on getting better and better."

What happened when Eddie had the first game of his career? He had nine receptions for 146 yards and a TD, the most impressive wide receiver debut in Broncos history. And when he called his mother afterward, he wanted to know not how glad she was for him, but what she felt that he'd done wrong. In his mind, nothing is quite enough. That says a lot about him.

To me, that's also why he's going to overcome this problem. Last year, he was a very talented, incredibly hard-working and mature rookie. But that's not really the same thing as being a top WR. There is a lot that you have to go through - like when other teams notice your tendencies and you have to relearn your skill set and how to overcome those weaknesses. Even if you're trying to become a better returner and blocker at the same time.

What Eddie needs is simply some time. He will need to work on getting better separation. He has to improve his technique. He wasn't taught the right way coming up through high school and college - or, to be more accurate, he learned some bad habits and some that are good. He's got to solve the bad habits. I'm betting on the young man.

This is a guy who has been nothing but class since the first time I saw him. He's survived harsh conditions growing up, put out tremendous effort, succeeded and done so with a maturity and presence that few young athletes have managed. I'm putting my money on him working with the coaches, getting whatever coaching and tips on technique that he needs and him working on these new attributes until they are second nature. It's just how he's handled every other thing in his life - every obstacle, every blockade.

What did McDaniels say about the way that Royal was used this year?

On if he expects certain Broncos to be more productive next year after playing a season in this offense:

"Absolutely, I know that I'm frustrated and disappointed that we couldn't do more in terms of using (WR) Eddie Royal. I've been asked that question a bunch. I know Eddie is frustrated with it, too. I'm not happy with that, and I don't want that to be the case. That's not stereotypical of Eddie this year. We're going to work hard to try to fix that and get that to change dramatically going into next season."

Eddie had a sophomore slump that came with a vengeance. He had troubles getting off the line and McDaniels played the game right up until the end - never criticizing in public, claiming that they will be looking at why Eddie didn't get the ball more. But methinks that they already know - they're just going to work with him and how to defeat those problems. Royal is a very fine receiver who will get lots of coaching. Expect him back and producing.

Josh McDaniels wants to look carefully at anything that obstructed the Broncos' use of Eddie Royal this season and find more ways to get him the ball. Just that statement will have a powerful effect on Eddie. He's a young man who, despite his obvious maturity and, for lack of a better term, his innate decency, also needs to be supported. He pushes himself hard. He needs to get some outside help, some extra time and effort, and he needs to hear that the team wants him, supports him and will put in whatever it takes to solve those issues and to make him an even more productive player. He couldn't be in a better environment, since McDaniels is giving him exactly that. there will be more struggles to come, but I'm behind the young man who really knows what it's like to be hungry.

There's no possible question - the Broncos fell short this year. There were a lot of reasons. Getting more production from this talented young wide receiver would be a huge step forward in achieving far superior offensive production.

What he's shown at each turn in the past is that he's going to do whatever it takes to achieve that.

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