The verdict on Bruce Ellington? He needs to work on his route-running, but everything else is in place for him to excel as an NFL slot receiver. To see why, let's analyze what Seth Cox, who covers the Arizona Cardinals, had to say about Ellington and how Ellington might fit into Arizona's plans.
First of all, though, if you haven't already taken a look at Matt Carli's post on Ellington, I'd encourage you to do so.
1. "The things Ellington has going for him are the things that are not teachable...Possesses rare hand-eye coordination and body control...Tracks the ball well and uses his hands to catch...Wins jump balls despite his 'short' stature."
These were listed as separate bullet points, but they're related. Ellington certainly has an uncanny ability to use his coordination and soft hands to make difficult catches. Let's look at a few examples. First of all, here's the catch that got the rally in the other Columbia started:
Here, what really stands out is Ellington's success in keeping a foot inbounds as a he makes an off-balance catch in traffic while moving towards the side line. Let's now look at some of Ellington's catches against Wisconsin in the Capital One Bowl, the game in which Ellington made himself a household name and elevated his draft stock enough to justify leaving college early. In this catch, Ellington turns on a dime and reels in an underthrown pass from Shaw:
This play really displays Ellington's ability to adjust to the throw well, something that's also on display in a TD catch that Ellington made earlier in the game. In the next play, watch Ellington's amazing hand-eye coordination at work as he reels in a big fourth-down throw from Shaw:
In what may have been the best catch of his career, Ellington tips the ball to himself and then shows the balance necessary to secure the catch before going out of bounds. Yep, I'd say this is a player with unnaturally good abilities catching the football.
2. "Elite skills as a runner with the ball in his hands."
Ellington's vision, quick burst, and body control indeed make him dangerous after the catch and on sweeps. He was, also, a solid kick returner, a role he may have an opportunity to reprise in the NFL. Unfortunately, his ability to make plays with the ball in his hands was perhaps underutilized during his time at Carolina. He had some nice carries out of the wildcat in 2011 and was occasionally used on sweeps. However, I would have preferred to see more of both as well as more targets on screens given what happens here at the 2:09ish mark was a possibility when he carried the ball:
His early TD against Tennessee in 2012 also stands out as a play that illustrates his ability to make tacklers miss and then run for a long gain.
3. "Ellington has the size, speed and ability to make tacklers miss that fans and coaches love, but there are concerns. His limited route running experience will mean he has to come in and learn the entire route tree. But the poor running of the routes he does know means he has to learn those over as well. Ellington isn't used to playing in a highly structured/timing necessary type offense, where he has to be at a certain spot when a quarterback is ready to throw the ball."
This is both true and not true. As I mentioned when discussing Connor Shaw, it's a misperception that South Carolina doesn't utilize a pro-style route tree. Steve Spurrier's Fun-n-Gun had its origins as a pro-style system. Spurrier has incorporated the read-option as a base running play. Moreover, Ellington has played his entire career catching the ball for mobile quarterbacks, first Stephen Garcia and then Connor Shaw, so Ellington has a lot of experience catching for guys who like to improvise. That said, Spurrier continues to use pro-style routes that rely on timing and precision route-running. Seriously, is there a route we haven't seen Bruce Ellington make a big catch while running? The guy knows the pro-style tree.
That said, the perception that Ellington didn't sufficiently devote himself to mastering his route-running is accurate. As discussed at our SB Nation Detroit Lions affiliate, Ellington at times relies on playground juke tactics to get open instead of running precisely timed routes, forcing the QB to adjust. That won't work in the NFL, where the QB has little time in the pocket and must rely on the receiver to be where he's supposed to be at all times. The good news is that this aspect of Ellington's game can be coached up. He already has the speed and agility to excel in conventional NFL routes.
4. "Doesn't attack defenders in the run game, too often shows a lack of effort/interest."
This is a fair criticism, and it's a shame, because while Ellington isn't a big receiver due to his height, he has a stout, powerful frame. One could easily see him being competent at chipping linebackers and putting licks on safeties. However, he hasn't shown a lot of willingness to mix it up in the blocking game. In his defense, Ellington was always the player with the ball in his hand in high school, so he had little experience being asked to block when he joined the Gamecocks. However, the same could be said for many other stars; Marcus Lattimore was the centerpiece of his high-school offense at Byrnes, and even more so than Ellington, Lattimore continued to get tons of touches as a Gamecock. Yet if the ball wasn't in his hands, Lattimore was always laying his body out to block for his teammates. I remember several nice blocks he laid for Stephen Garcia during the 2010 season. In fact, Lattimore's first knee injury came blocking for Ellington out of the wildcat in 2011. Although he's not exactly a slouch, Ellington hasn't shown the same kind of willingness to block, and he'll need to do so as a slot receiver in the NFL.